DENVER -- In the days before the All-Star break, third baseman Nolan Arenado, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and lefty pitcher Brett Anderson came back from major injuries. Their returns were hoped to be part of a resurgence for a club that was at one point leading the National League West before injuries took hold.
Alas, the Rockies went 4-5 after Arenado returned from missing 37 games with a broken left middle finger. Gonzalez returned for the final series before All-Star the break after missing 35 games with a left index finger injury, but Colorado dropped two in a three-game set at home against the Twins. Anderson returned for the final game and gave up five first-inning runs, but he settled and left with the Rockies trailing, 6-5, after six innings, only to see a bullpen implosion lead to a 13-5 loss.
Colorado hopes that with more guys becoming healthy, a turnaround is possible. But it's tough to depend on players returning -- righty Jhoulys Chacin (right shoulder strain) is gone for the year, and righties Jordan Lyles (broken left hand) and Tyler Chatwood (strained right flexor tendon) have had setbacks, for example -- and the Rockies have to clean up significant problems that could undermine the efforts of returning players. Here's is a look at key situations that must be corrected if the Rockies are to come from their current status -- 40-55, fourth place in the NL West, 13 games out of first place and 12 games back in the NL Wild Card:
Five key developments so far:
1. Starting pitching
Only lefty Jorge De La Rosa (10-6, 4.56 ERA in 19 starts), Lyles (5-1, 3.52 in 12 starts before his May injury) and Chatwood (1-0, 4.50 in four starts before his April injury) are above .500. Their next two best pitchers are lefty Franklin Morales (5-4, 5.26 in 13 starts), who seems more swingman than regular starter, and righty Juan Nicasio (5-5, 5.92 in 14 starts), whose maddening inefficiency led to his demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs. The other eight guys who have made at least one start are a combined 2-23 with a 6.26 ERA.
2. Relief pitching
The final game best illustrated a vexing problem -- formerly dependable relievers imploding. Lefty Rex Brothers (3-4, 4.38 ERA), who had a 1.74 ERA and 19 saves last year, gave up two runs (one earned) after Anderson had pitched well enough to turn over a one-run deficit. Then righty Adam Ottavino (0-3, 3.95), dominant in April and May, gave up another run, and by the end it was mopup city. LaTroy Hawkins, a 41-year-old righty who was signed to eventually turn over the closer role to Brothers, has been the best reliever (2-2, 2.45, 17 saves in 18 attempts), but Colorado only sporadically gets him leads.
|MVP: SS Troy Tulowitzki
He has stayed healthy and left no doubt about who is the sport's best two-way shortstop.
|Top starter: LHP Jorge De La Rosa
He went 10-6, including 6-2 with a 3.49 ERA at home -- he likes pitching at Coors Field.
|Top rookie: LHP Tyler Matzek
There have been growing pains for the 2009 No. 1 Draft pick, but he has won hearts and minds by not being intimidated by his park or the big stage.
|Top reliever: RHP LaTroy Hawkins
Despite sporadic opportunity, he has been dependable in the ninth-inning role.
Add to this mix lefty Boone Logan, who spent time on the disabled list because his elbow hadn't fully healed from offseason surgery, and an expected strength has been a major problem. The inability to keep games close is illustrated by a startling stat -- a 3-43 record when trailing after six innings.
The Rockies have been patient as Wilin Rosario, who is known for his power bat but also infamous for plays not made because of poor anticipation. Wild pitches and passed balls happen because he doesn't have a knack for reading the pitch when the ball leaves the pitcher's hand oddly. On a couple of occasions, runs scored after Rosario didn't make the right decision on the move. An early illness and some nagging injuries -- a hand issue early, and various bruises -- have robbed Rosario of some of the offensive production that made him special (.246 average, .424 slugging percentage), which means he can't make up for the defensive issues.
The issues with the pitching depth are well-documented, but the Rockies also came up dry when having to reach into their system for reinforcements. Of the non-starting players heading into the season, the only one from the system who has made himself hard to keep off the field is lefty-hitting outfielder Corey Dickerson. Trade additions Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes have contributed and will continue to be counted on in spots with Michael Cuddyer (left shoulder fracture) out until at least late August, but when a team is hit as hard as the Rockies have been, the farm system needs to provide players to keep the big club competitive.
Look at the final two games before the break, both losses to the Twins. In one of them, All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon went 5-for-5 and the Rockies outhit the Twins, 13-12; the following day, when the bullpen imploded, the Rockies had 13 hits. Days like that are often enough to win, but not with the Rockies springing leaks in the rotation, which led to a tired bullpen.
Five storylines to watch in the second half:
1. Young starters growing up
Whether its righty prospect Eddie Butler, who suffered a rotator cuff strain in his June 6 debut loss to the Dodgers; lefty Tyler Matzek, who was more competitive than not while going 1-4 and 4.97 in seven starts; or someone else, the Rockies have to find more pitchers who are competent consistently.
2. Relief rebound
The struggles of Ottavino and Brothers have been so startling that folks don't notice how much better they pitched in the days leading to the break. In his last 17 games, Brothers had a 2.13 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings. Ottavino had a 1.08 ERA in his last seven appearances, with nine strikeouts. If they can avoid walks (nine for Brothers in the last 12 2/3, four for Ottavino in his last 8 1/3) and the mistake pitch that often comes after the walks, they can be difference-makers. They'll need Belisle and Logan to gain their footing, as well.
Players to watch in second half
|SS Troy Tulowitzki
A turnaround needs to happen quick, since he has made it clear he would rather be traded than see the remainder of this career slip away on a non-contending team.
|OF Carlos Gonzalez
We need to know once and for all if having Gonzalez and Tulowitzki together can turn a losing team into a winning one.
|C Wilin Rosario
Injuries and illness slowed his first half, but he showed recent signs of finding his stroke; but defensively, the key mistake at the wrong times cost the team games, and his consistency in that area must improve.
3. Breakout performers
If there is some kind of miracle comeback, Butler, Matzek and most likely 2013 first-round pick Jon Gray (six innings with one unearned run in his last pre-break start at Tulsa) are going to have to deliver beyond their experience level. It also would help for first baseman/outfielder Kyle Parker, another first-rounder, to produce if and when he gets a chance. Even if these younger prospects don't lift the Rockies into contention, competitive performances from all could give the organization and fans much-needed belief that the system isn't bereft of Major League talent.
4. What happens if the Rockies stay as healthy as possible?
No team stays healthy all year, but the first-half Rockies' injuries went beyond expectations. But All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and first baseman Justin Morneau, health questions coming into the season, produced at a winning level. What happens if Arenado and Gonzalez arrive for the second half with their timing?
5. What happens if the season continues as it has gone?
Would the Rockies be forced to trade De La Rosa and others simply to build the farm system? Will Tulowitzki lose faith in the team's ability to put together a sustainable winner push for an offseason trade? Will public pressure on Rockies ownership to make changes lead to, well, changes in the decision makers?
Those are questions the Rockies would rather not address. The Rockies come out of the break with a road series against the NL Central-contending Pirates and are home against the NL East-leading Nationals and the Pirates before playing the final four games leading to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline on the road against the Cubs. It's a tough schedule, but anything can happen with the Rockies' offense.