The Rockies open their season Friday in Houston and their roster is shaping up to be better than many of the experts are predicting.
Yes, I know. I’m always optimistic about the Rocks. Still, there are lots of good signs as spring training winds down. A few not-so-good signs, too, it’s true. So let’s break it down:
Wilin Rosario. Wow. The 23-year-old Dominican catcher with 56 big league at-bats has been the breakout story of the spring, collecting 18 hits in 39 at-bats through Thursday’s games, including a club-leading three home runs. He hit one rocket blast against San Francisco that one veteran talent scout called “freakish, absolutely freakish.”
He’s batting .462 with an OPS of 1.271. Sure, it’s a small sample, but the question going into camp was whether he was ready for the bigs or needed a year of seasoning at Triple-A, having played at Double-A last season. Barring a last-minute injury, not only will he make the big league club, if he keeps hitting like this he’ll end up sharing the catching duties with veteran Ramon Hernandez.
Juan Nicasio. The feel-good story of the spring, Nicasio has bounced back from the broken C1 vertebra he suffered last Aug. 5 after being hit in the right temple by a line drive off the bat of Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. In 23.1 innings pitched this spring, he has struck out 21 and walked 5, pitching to an earned-run average of 3.09.
As a power pitcher and a strike-thrower, he will cap a wonderful comeback story by coming north as a member of the starting rotation, probably pitching the final game of the opening three-game series in Houston. His fastball makes him good as he is. If he develops a change-up and breaking ball to go with it, he could be dominant. And because he isn’t afraid to throw strikes, the Rocks believe he’ll pitch deep into games, giving their bullpen a break.
Jorge De La Rosa. Nobody’s talking about him because he won’t be ready for the start of the season, but De La Rosa’s comeback from Tommy John surgery is right on track. The training staff, being conservative, projects a July return, but privately the Rocks believe he could be back by early June.
That changes the dynamic around the fifth starter question that has dominated camp. Whoever it is, that fifth starter might need to make only nine or ten starts before De La Rosa is ready to take his place. He would give the Rocks two power lefties, something very few big league clubs can boast.
Drew Pomeranz. Don’t be alarmed if the prize from the Ubaldo Jimenez trade gets skipped the first time around the Rockies rotation. After pitching just 101 innings last season, all but 11 of them in the minors, the 23-year-old, 6-foot-5 power lefty will be brought along carefully. The Rocks don’t want too dramatic a rise in his innings count for fear of the long-term effects. Because of the off day following their April 9 home opener, the Rocks can go with four starters until April 15, a Sunday afternoon home game against the Diamondbacks. If everything goes as planned — and that’s never a sure thing a week away from the opener — get your tickets to that one. This guy is going to be fun to watch develop.
Pomeranz has shown a nasty side this spring that augurs well for his chances to become a dominant big league starter. One snapshot: The other day, against the Angels, Brandon Wood was struggling at second base and allowed two base runners to reach that probably should have been outs (spring training being spring training, both were ruled hits). Pomeranz responded by striking out Howard Kendrick, shattering Albert Pujols’ bat on a ground out to third, popping up Torii Hunter on a 2-2 pitch and staring him down as he walked off the mound. When was the last time the Rocks had a pitcher like that? In 11 spring training innings, his ERA is 0.82.
Jamie Moyer. Who doesn’t love this story? A 49-year-old coming off elbow surgery is now very likely to make the Rockies’ starting rotation coming out of camp, barring the physical setbacks that a 49-year-old can always suffer. In part, this is because the other candidates — Guillermo Moscoso and Tyler Chatwood — have been underwhelming. But it’s also because Moyer has been good — a 2.77 ERA and 11 hits surrendered in 13 innings.
It’s also because, sandwiched between the power arms of Nicasio and Jeremy Guthrie, Moyer can provide an interesting change of pace. He tops out at 80 miles per hour these days, with his breaking and off-speed stuff sometimes not reaching 70. And because of De La Rosa’s expected return, the Rocks wouldn’t be looking at him for 30 starts; more like half that many. Moyer’s soft stuff at Coors Field does make you wince a little in anticipation — he’s been rocked in two of his three starts there — but the Rocks have other options if he blows up. And if he can get credit for a win somewhere along the way, he’ll be the oldest man to do it.
Tyler Colvin. The former first-round draft pick by the Cubs became part of an exchange of disappointments over the winter when the Rocks acquired him in exchange for Ian Stewart. Trying to show off power he doesn’t have, he batted .150 a year ago. As soon as the Rocks acquired him, they went to work overhauling his swing. The results so far: a .365 batting average and .948 OPS with 12 RBIs in 52 at-bats. With Charlie Blackmon out with turf toe, Colvin has locked up the fourth outfielder job and provides an insurance policy in center field.
Michael Cuddyer. The veteran outfielder obtained from the Twins to provide run production and maturity has shown up so far as everything the Rocks were looking for, and a bit more. Two recent snapshots: Against the Giants, Mike Fontenot failed to clear the second base bag turning a double play and Cuddyer blew him up sliding in. Against the Angels, he hit a routine three-hop ground ball to short and turned it into a bang-bang play at first by busting it down the line.
In fact, he and Colvin have impressed enough that the Rocks now believe they can keep 38-year-old Todd Helton fresh at first by sprinkling in a liberal dose of lineups with Cuddyer at first and Colvin in right.
Dexter Fowler. Remember the guy from the first half of last year? He’s back. Fowler was batting .118 in 51 at-bats through Thursday’s games, including sixteen strikeouts, two walks and one stolen base. Not exactly leadoff man numbers. So 36-year-old Marco Scutaro — batting all of .176 himself this spring — is probably the club’s leadoff man coming north.
This is a make-or-break year for Fowler with the Rockies. If he can hit his career average of .262, his defensive excellence in center field makes him worth running out there every day. But his long swing seems to make him susceptible to these long offensive funks. If his spring at the plate spills over into the regular season, the Rocks won’t hesitate to deploy Colvin in center.
Jhoulys Chacin. The numbers aren’t terrible, but the Rocks were looking for the 24-year-old Venezuelan right-hander to take another step forward this year and they haven’t seen it yet. He arrived at camp with biceps soreness and swiftly developed a blister on the index finger of his pitching hand. Rockies fans remember a couple of other pitchers who arrived at camp last year with what seemed like minor issues — Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook — and although the initial problems went away, they were a sign of things to come.
Chacin’s main problem is not throwing enough strikes, and that hasn’t improved so far this spring. Still, he has a lot of talent and the Rocks aren’t relying on him to anchor the starting staff, as they did last year after the Jimenez trade. For now, he’s penciled in to throw the home opener, four games in.
Rafael Betancourt. The 36-year-old closer — he’ll turn 37 at the end of April — hasn’t been effective this spring, but it’s a very small sample size and nobody seems concerned. With Matt Belisle and Rex Brothers poised to set up, the Rocks believe they’ll be OK in any event, but they are counting on Betancourt to return to form.
Casey Blake. It was sad to see the widely-admired veteran reach an age (38) that prevented him from ever really competing for the third base job, but it’s not as if it was unexpected. The Rocks signed him to a non-guaranteed contract for just that reason. He couldn’t get on the field for a while, and when he did he showed virtually no range at third. So he was released, leaving Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco to share the third base duties until Nolan Arenado, who turns 21 in April and will start at Double-A Tulsa, is ready.
Eric Young Jr. As usual, Young has been a disruptive dynamo offensively, batting .310 with six steals. “He’s like an automatic double,” says one observer. Unfortunately, the Rocks can’t find a place to play him in the field where his defense isn’t cringe-worthy. In the outfield, where he’s gotten most of his time, he still takes bad routes to balls that turn outs into hits. The Rocks love his energy and work ethic, but they can’t figure out what to do with him. He’s out of options and unless the club wants to come north with a short pitching staff, it will have to look for a deal or try to get him through waivers.
To the extent anything can be said to be a lock a week before the regular season begins, the locks for the bullpen look to be Betancourt, Belisle, Brothers, Esmil Rogers and Josh Outman. If we assume the Opening Day starting staff consists of Guthrie, Nicasio, Chacin, Pomeranz and Moyer (with Moyer probably pitching the second game of the season to slot him between the hard-throwing Guthrie and Nicasio), that leaves six guys competing for two remaining spots: Moscoso, Chatwood, Alex White, Edgmer Escalona, Matt Reynolds and Josh Roenicke. All have options except for Roenicke.
Rockies brass is split on whether White is best suited to start or relieve in the long run, so they might bring him north as a member of the bullpen to check him out in that role. In that case, Moscoso and Chatwood would probably be sent down to Triple A Colorado Springs to continue starting and the last bullpen spot would likely go to Escalona or Reynolds.
The infielders seem likely to be a platoon of Nelson and Pacheco at third, Troy Tulowitzki at short, Scutaro at second and Todd Helton and Jason Giambi at first. Jonathan Herrera has had an excellent spring and seems likely to make it as a utility man. He and Nelson might seem redundant, but the Rocks are not high on Nelson’s defense anywhere but third, so Herrera would be the primary backup for both Scutaro and Tulowitzki.
The outfield is set with Carlos Gonzalez, Fowler, Colvin and Cuddyer.
The catchers are Hernandez, Rosario and Pacheco in a pinch.
That’s 12 pitchers, six infielders, four outfielders, two catchers and one infielder/catcher for a total of 25. Things could change in the next week, of course, but from here, that looks like a roster that could surprise, particularly if the young members of the starting staff look as good when the games begin to count as they have in spring training. This team should hit, and it should play pretty good defense. As usual, the Rocks’ fortunes should rise or fall with the pitching.
Almost time to play ball.