Tracy thinks core can compete for years

Tracy thinks core can compete for years

DENVER -- Being the surprise story of 2009 worked for the Rockies and manager Jim Tracy. The club overcame a moribund start to make the playoffs and Tracy received National League Manager of the Year honors.

Now Tracy wants to eliminate the element of surprise.

The Rockies will enter 2010 with a solid lineup and rotation, both of which are young, and a solid back of the bullpen. In Tracy's eyes, last year, when the Phillies advanced to the National League Division Series was the early stage of a team that should be a consistent contender, not a feel-good story that will go away.

"You identify yourself as an organization when you put together a plan, you follow through with it and then you build on it," Tracy said Wednesday at the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis. "And building on it is not taking steps backward. And I'm not telling you something I didn't tell these players after Game 4 of the Division Series. The idea is not to disappear."

The Rockies raised hopes by making an unexpected World Series trip in 2007, but a 74-88 mark in '08 and last year's 18-28 start cost Clint Hurdle -- the right man in '07 -- his job as manager. That's why Tracy's task is to keep the Rockies from being crushed by their own high hopes again.

"Keep that vision and keep that taste in their mouth real fresh," Tracy said. "And you don't do that by disappearing for three years, and in the process of doing so, the complexion of your ballclub changes, so you're re-teaching the whole dynamic. We're too good, and we're too young.

"We should be thinking along the lines of becoming the type of organizations that I've looked at over the years that I've always held in very high regard. You can't throw enough negative at them and get them to crumble. They're going to figure something out. This injury, that injury, we're not going to allow that to deter us. We're going to figure things out."

In his question-and-answer session with local and national media, Tracy covered several topics that will be important to his team's quest to continue as a postseason participant.

Here are areas he addressed:

• Left-hander Jeff Francis, who won 17 games in 2007 but struggled in '08 and missed last season following shoulder surgery, will be monitored carefully in the beginning of '09.

"My experience in the past is that early on, you may experience a little bit of this [up-and-down performance]," Tracy said. "And with shoulder surgery you keep an eye on that."

That could mean going to one of a trio of righty prospects Jhoulys Chacin, Esmil Rogers or Samuel Deduno to fill in if Francis struggles out of the gate. Or the Rockies could bring in veteran help. But Tracy sees the team making a major jump once Francis regains his 2007 form.

"He's a 17-game winner from a couple years ago, and our ballclub wins 92 this past year, and he didn't throw a pitch," Tracy said.

• Francis and right-hander Aaron Cook have been No. 1 starters on the staff and are still around, but Tracy is looking for talented right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to establish himself as staff ace. Jimenez went 15-12 with a 3.47 ERA and went 219 innings last year -- but still has room to improve, Tracy said.

"I'd like him to be [an ace]," Tracy said. "Is he ready? Yes. Is he going to take that step in 2010 early on? That remains to be seen. But are the capabilities there? It's all there.

"But he could make it easier on himself, and quite frankly maybe ensure himself the opportunity of finishing his own game. That's what I want to encourage to him. But you can't do it when you're teetering on 105, 108 pitches after 5 1/3 or 5 2/3."

Tracy said he has discussed better beginnings with Jimenez, and the team will emphasize fastball control in 2010.

Tracy said he envisions a rotation of Jimenez, Francis, Cook, left-hander Jorge De La Rosa and right-hander Jason Hammel.

• Right fielder Brad Hawpe made the All-Star Game, but slumped in the second half and was out of the lineup for much of the NLDS. However, Tracy said he remains confident in Hawpe.

"If we had to play a game tomorrow, he'd be hitting fifth," Tracy said. "You don't make All-Star teams and you don't do the things that Brad Hawpe has done over the course of his career by being in a slump your entire career."

• The lineup will be versatile. Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler will lead it off, followed by Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki and Hawpe. But on days Hawpe is being rested, he'd like to test Gonzalez -- who hit .320 in the second half to go from prospect to bright young star -- in the middle of the order.

• Tracy likes the idea of competition for jobs. That means if the team re-signs Yorvit Torrealba, he will push Chris Iannetta for playing time. Also, left-handed hitting outfielder Seth Smith, based on his 2009 performance in starting and bench roles (.293, 15 homers, 55 RBIs in 335 at-bats) should be able to hit his way onto the field.

• Right-handed setup man Rafael Betancourt has Tracy feeling better about his bullpen. Closer Huston Street, Betancourt, Manuel Corpas (who is coming off an elbow injury) and lefty Franklin Morales all have earned saves in important games.

"The neat thing about Betancourt was he's now on that board, and everything else [in the bullpen] seems to make a lot of sense as a result of it," Tracy said.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.