Monthly Archives: February 2013

Rockies still believe in Nolan Arenado

A funny thing happened on Nolan Arenado’s express trip to the big leagues. The train suddenly turned into a local.

A second-round draft pick out of California’s El Toro High School in 2009 and the Rockies’ much-hyped third baseman-to-be, Arenado watched as Double-A Tulsa teammate Josh Rutledge, a third-round pick out of the University of Alabama a year later, roared past him.

Arenado finished 2012 with a respectable .285 batting average, but his 12 home runs and 56 runs batted in were a serious comedown from his 20 and 122 in the same number of games at high Class A Modesto the year before.

Rutledge was hitting .306 with 13 homers and 35 RBI from the shortstop position when the Rocks called him up to fill in for the injured Troy Tulowitzki. Rutledge hit .274 with 8 homers and 37 RBI for the parent club. Even with Tulo healthy again, Rutledge is expected to make the Rockies again, this time as a second baseman.

Arenado will also be in big league camp by the time position players are required to report on Saturday. Of Baseball America’s top 10 Rockies prospects, four are non-roster invitees to the major league camp — Arenado, outfielder Kyle Parker and pitchers Tyler Anderson and Chad Bettis.

“I personally still think he definitely is that candidate,” Jeff Bridich, the Rockies’ senior director of player development, said on KOA when I asked him about Arenado.

“I think he’s talented enough and deep-down inside confident enough, athletic enough and skilled enough, to be our everyday third baseman in the future. He holds that decision inside of him, and I think that’s a lesson that he learned (last) year. That Double-A level is tough. It’s where the cream starts to separate itself. I think he was expecting big things out of himself — I know he was — and when faced with some adversity, just was unsure and didn’t know how to handle it.

“The crime would be if he doesn’t learn from that and apply it this year. Really, I think he’s just got to get back to being himself on that baseball diamond, being himself every day in terms of how he prepares and playing the game for the love of the game, which is really how he came into this organization out of high school. He was a very energetic, excitable, talented young man. He put a lot of pressure and stress on himself last year, and I’m very, very confident that he learned from that experience and will apply it well this year.”

The decision to invite Arenado to big league camp despite his disappointing 2012 season indicates the Rocks believe he might be ready to join the parent club sometime this season. For such players, the organization tries to get the “wow factor” of being around big leaguers out of the way in the spring.

“You usually make the decisions guy to guy,” Bridich said. “There’s a method to the madness. I would say that when certain players have done certain things that make you think that they could impact the big league club at some point during the season, you want to get them acclimated to not only the other big league players that might factor into that team that year, but the coaching staff as well. Kind of get that wow factor of being around the big league environment, get that kind of over and done with in spring training as best you can.”

This is also the case with Bettis, a second-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2010 who was expected to be on a fast track to the majors last season after an impressive 2011 campaign at Modesto, when he went 12-5 with a 3.34 earned-run average. But Bettis suffered a shoulder injury last spring and ended up sitting out the season.

“We were hopeful that Chad would be pitching for us, at least starting for us last year in Tulsa, and where he ended up, who knows, but he was beset by injury at the end of the spring training,” Bridich said.

“So his situation is really health first. I think he’s past it. He pitched for us in instructional league the first, second week in October, towards the end of our camp. I know he feels like he’s past the injury and is feeling strong. So first things first with him — getting back on the mound, getting his arm strength and body strength and muscle memory and all that kind of stuff back, and we’ll see what happens.”

The big league invite to Anderson, the Rockies’ first-round pick in 2011 out of the University of Oregon, suggests the Rocks think the left-hander could rise through the ranks rapidly.

“Tyler Anderson is obviously a talented kid who has also battled some injury stuff. Fortunately for him, it hasn’t been his arm. But (we’re) looking forward for him to put in a good full season of professional baseball. When I talked about that wow factor and kind of getting that out of the way, I think Tyler definitely fits into that type of category with this spring training invite.”

After last season’s disastrous decision to bring in veteran Jeremy Guthrie, who freaked out trying to pitch at Coors Field, Rockies management has been reminded that it requires a certain mindset to pitch here. So I asked Bridich how the organization goes about diagnosing that intangible quality in pitchers.

“It’s no surprise to anybody that there are challenges here, pitching at altitude,” he said. “I think that we have seen in the past that a variety of different types of pitchers can pitch well here. It’s not just one specific mold. But what really is telling is what’s inside of the guy — that fearlessness and the confidence that he can pitch anywhere, it really doesn’t matter, and that if he’s pitching in Colorado, it’s no different in his mind than pitching in Dodger Stadium or out east at sea level. It’s one of the toughest things to scout, because you can’t see what’s inside that player. But oftentimes, it’s the most important.”

Another top prospect to get a non-roster invite to big league camp this year is Kyle Parker, the former Clemson quarterback. The Rocks have gone one for two on football/baseball players lately. They also drafted Russell Wilson, who went back to football after a couple of unremarkable seasons in the minor leagues and became a rookie star with the Seattle Seahawks. Parker made the opposite call.

“Kyle is a very good athlete, a very powerful athlete, and I think last year he dealt with some unfortunate and unlucky injury circumstances,” Bridich said, referring to Parker’s 2012 season in Modesto. “He got hit with a pitch first game of the season and he broke his wrist and then towards the end of the season he kind of repeated history there, so he lost some time in the playoffs. In between all of that, he put together a very impressive offensive season and defensive season as well.

“He improved in many, many phases of his game last year. He used to have kind of a split personality between football and baseball, growing up and all the way through college. Now he doesn’t have that. He’s dedicated himself fully to baseball. He is a hard worker to begin with. He’s got work ethic; that is not a question at all.

“Really, it’s about paying attention now to some of the finer points of playing baseball and having some of that baseball experience under his belt that he didn’t have previously because he was spending a lot of time on the football field.”

Of the four, only Arenado has a full season at the Double-A level, which would seem to make him the most likely to wear a Rockies uniform sometime this season. But the invites suggest the organization thinks that any of the four could surprise and earn a promotion earlier than expected.

Take their GM’s word: Nuggets not a contender

Check in anywhere they’re talking NBA and you’re likely to find the same tiresome question: Can the Nuggets contend for a championship with their current roster? For that matter, can any team contend without at least one all-star?

The latest national examination was full of numbers, which is the flavor of our time. We just can’t get enough numbers. Unfortunately, despite a plethora of advanced statistics, the verdict at the end is predictable: Not sure, but probably not.

The mystery is why no one pays any attention to what the team’s architect has to say on the subject. Masai Ujiri might be the only high-level executive of a playoff team in any sport — this would eliminate the Cubs’ Theo Epstein, who has been similarly candid — willing to answer the question in the negative.

“We’re not a contending team,” Ujiri told me recently on KOA. “We know (we’re) the third-youngest team in the NBA, so we have to give it room for growth. And you can’t continue making changes until you kind of know where you are.”

So, no, the Nuggets are not looking to acquire a veteran star at the trading deadline to improve their chances of playing for a championship this year. Rumors were plentiful as teams such as the Lakers and Celtics, loaded with such veterans, struggled early in the season. Was it time for them to rebuild? Would the Nuggets be interested in someone who could draw a double-team, a Pau Gasol or Paul Pierce perhaps?

Even then, the answer was no, but Gasol’s foot injury and the Celtics’ resurrection since Rajon Rondo went down have taken those particular options off the table anyway.

Over the past two years, Ujiri has overhauled much of the roster. There was the blockbuster trade of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Knicks two years ago, the exchange of Nene for JaVale McGee a year later, and the four-team deal that brought Andre Iguodala to Denver last summer.

All these moves left the Nuggets with two veterans — Iguodala and Andre Miller — surrounded by a cast of young, developing players characterized by length and athleticism.

After struggling through an early schedule that saw them play 17 of their first 23 games on the road, they were rewarded with a favorable home/road split in January and responded by winning 12 of 15, putting them in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

“I don’t see any of our players getting worse; I can only see them getting better,” Ujiri said. “None of them are players that I think will lose value. So our goal here is to keep growing. We understood the schedule, we understood what it would do to make us mentally tougher. We’re still going to have some bumps. That’s just the way the NBA season is.

“But we’re happy with the growth of Ty Lawson, Gallo, Kosta (Koufos), JaVale. Iguodala is fitting in, Kenneth Faried in his second year, Wilson Chandler coming back and Corey Brewer is having a great year. The younger guys are doing well when they play and the times they’ve been in the D-league. Andre Miller is Andre Miller. He’s always going to be solid and we know who he is.

“Coach Karl has done a great job, I think. With all the changes we’ve made, I think it’s time for us to be patient a little bit. But we will listen, there’s no doubt about that.”

That, of course, is the caveat. The Nuggets have inserted themselves into multi-team swaps at the last minute under Ujiri, including the Iguodala deal, in which Dwight Howard to the Lakers was the headline. The deal was happening with or without the Nuggets, but when Ujiri saw a chance to add a premier perimeter defender to a roster that was defensively challenged, he hitched a ride.

This year, third-string center Timofey Mozgov is a hot topic around the league. Playing behind Koufos and McGee, Mozgov generally doesn’t get to play unless one of them is hurt. Ujiri isn’t looking to move him, but he will keep his phone turned on in case someone wants to make an offer he can’t refuse.

“We’re not afraid to ride it out till the end,” Ujiri said. “You never know what comes up at the draft. You never know what we could be able to do. Yes, we know there’s a logjam there a little bit because all of them are getting better and all of them want to play. But we love Timofey. We’re still looking at it like he’s on our team. McGee was hurt for a couple games and he stepped right in. He’s (a) restricted (free agent-to-be) and it’s not something we’re afraid of.

“When the trade deadline comes close, a lot of things start to fall into play and a lot of things come up. You never know where stuff will go, but he’s definitely the guy I think everybody’s looking at. Should he be playing? Yes. Is he good enough? Yes. Has he improved? Yes. I would say the majority of the calls are coming for Mozgov.”

In the never-ending debate over whether the Nuggets need a “go-to” scorer or can develop one from within, Danilo Gallinari remains the most promising candidate. In his fifth NBA season but still only 24 years old, Gallinari is averaging just more than 17 points a game, highest of his career so far. His shooting percentage remains an anemic .424, but his three-point percentage is up to .372, a key number on a team that ranks 28th in the league in three-ball accuracy. He’s also hitting just over 81 percent of his free throws, another crucial characteristic in a player who’s going to have the ball at the end of games.

“He’s stepping up,” Ujiri said. “He had a great month of January. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. I think he’s getting more comfortable. We’ve changed so much. He used to play with Nene and then we made the trade and we got JaVale. Faried did not play for the first 20 games of last season. We bring in Iguodala. Ty started the year slowly. All those things, I think that’s where we as a team, as an organization, we have to be a little bit patient, and I think it’s helped Gallo.

“The same way we are raving about him now, there were people screaming, ‘Man, what’s he doing?’ in December. That’s just the NBA. But in terms of overall growth, I think we can say since Gallinari came to the Denver Nuggets when we got him in the trade, he has gotten better and is getting better.

“He’s getting more comfortable. I think he’s becoming a more all-around player. He’s a very underrated defender. He’s doing everything for us and it’s molding him into that kind of a player. We knew that he’s young and it will take time, but he did have the potential and he does have the fire and he’s not afraid to take the big shot.

“It’s the same Gallo that shot an air ball against Miami and it’s the same Gallo that missed a layup against the Lakers last year. He could have lost confidence or been discouraged, but he’s stepped up. We’re really encouraged by all these guys and we have to be patient and let them grow.”

Maybe the biggest question mark about the Nuggets is the role of Wilson Chandler, who was obtained along with Gallinari, Mozgov and Raymond Felton in the Melo deal. Chandler is an accomplished three-point shooter, a rare trait among the Nuggets. He’s a solid free-throw shooter on a team that is still dead last in the association in that category. And he’s an above average defender and rebounder for a wing player.

Still, he’s been limited by injuries and by playing behind Iguodala and Gallinari at the swing spots. So I asked Ujiri if there’s room for Chandler to play a larger role, assuming he can stay healthy.

“There is, and I think the larger role will come as he gets to complete fitness,” the Nuggets GM said. “He’s already won us two games. I think he was the best player in Houston when we beat them over there (Jan. 23), and then we saw him against Portland, he came in and hit a couple big shots when we played them here. He helps in so many ways.

“It’s one way we want to build. We have to have those big athletic players that can play different positions because you never know. He’s fit right in. We sat him out for quite a while just because we wanted him to be completely right, to play with confidence

“People think, oh, we have Wilson Chandler because we’re holding him to trade him. We could have traded him at the draft. We could have traded him in the summer. Many times, we could have. No, that’s not what we’re looking at. We want to see him be productive and be a big part of this basketball team. He can play multiple positions — the two, the three, he could play a shooting four. He really rebounds well and he can score. I think you will see his time increase as he gets back into game shape.”

There’s plenty to like about the Nuggets’ development this year, but let’s get a timeout on the interminable debate about whether this cast can contend for a championship. When a team’s GM says it is not yet a contender, you might just want to believe him.

Broncos early favorites

According to the oddsmaker Bovada, the Broncos are the early favorites to win next year’s Super Bowl in New Jersey. Would you take 7-1 odds right now to bet the Broncos will go all the way in Peyton Manning’s second season in Denver?

Super Bowl XLVIII Odds (2014)
Odds to win the 2014 Super Bowl XLVIII  
Denver Broncos                                     7/1
New England Patriots                           15/2
San Francisco 49ers                              15/2
Green Bay Packers                               10/1
Baltimore Ravens                                 12/1
Seattle Seahawks                                  12/1
Houston Texans                                    14/1
Atlanta Falcons                                     18/1
New Orleans Saints                               18/1
Pittsburgh Steelers                                 18/1
Chicago Bears                                       20/1
New York Giants                                  20/1
Dallas Cowboys                                    25/1
Washington Redskins                            30/1
Indianapolis Colts                                   33/1
Cincinnati Bengals                                 35/1
Detroit Lions                                          35/1
Minnesota Vikings                                 35/1
Philadelphia Eagles                                35/1
San Diego Chargers                               35/1
New York Jets                                       40/1
Carolina Panthers                                   50/1
Kansas City Chiefs                                50/1
Miami Dolphins                                     50/1
St. Louis Rams                                       50/1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers                          50/1
Arizona Cardinals                                   66/1
Cleveland Browns                                  66/1
Tennessee Titans                                    66/1
Buffalo Bills                                          100/1
Oakland Raiders                                    100/1
Jacksonville Jaguars                              150/1

My Super Bowl bet with George Karl

So we were wrapping up an interview the other day with Nuggets coach George Karl, who was named Western Conference coach of the month for January today, and he suddenly offered me a Super Bowl bet. You can listen to the exchange here.

Three questions:

1. Who do you think will win the bet?

2. Do you think the loser will actually pay up?

3. Where should we go for our lunch of Mexican food?