Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who hit his first home run of the spring today and drove in three runs, likes the feel of Rockies camp so far this year for at least two reasons:
First, last year’s many walking wounded are back on the field.
Second, three of those returnees profile as the team’s top starting pitchers, giving the Rocks a chance to have what they lacked last year — a stopper.
“Every team needs an ace,” CarGo said this week on the Dave Logan Show. “Obviously, Jeremy (Guthrie) was that guy last year that we all were expecting and things didn’t work out well for him. That’s why he got traded.
“But as a team you always want to have that one guy that whenever you’re going to struggle, you know that guy is going to stop everything. He’s going to bring his No. 1 game. Obviously, that was not the case for us so that’s why we had the worst year in franchise history. When you’re losing, you want to have that guy who always breaks the streak and starts a new one of winning.”
So who does Gonzalez see stepping into that role this season?
“We have three really good guys, and hopefully they can all bring the A game,” he said. “That’s (Jorge) De La Rosa, who has more experience, and (Juan) Nicasio and (Jhoulys) Chacin. They have pretty good stuff, but it’s difficult when you don’t have those guys, when they’re hurt. That’s why we all feel pretty good, because we have those guys back and we all feel confident this year.”
De La Rosa, who led the Rockies in wins with 16 the last time they made the playoffs, was expected back from Tommy John surgery in June last season. Instead, he didn’t make it back until the end of September, when he made three meaningless starts long after the season was lost.
Chacin, an 11-game winner in 2011, managed only 14 starts in 2012, going 3-5, before he was sidelined by a nerve problem in his shoulder.
And Nicasio, who made a miraculous recovery from a broken neck in 2011, got in just 11 starts in 2012 before a knee injury ended his season.
Another returning mainstay is shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who appeared in only 47 games last season before a groin injury took him out of the lineup for the rest of the year. Without Tulo to protect him in the batting order, CarGo’s offensive production slipped noticeably in the second half of the season.
“For me, he’s the most important player on our team,” Gonzalez said. “He’s the leader. Not having him in the lineup hurts a lot. As the third hitter, I always want to see that guy hitting behind me because he’s really good offensively. And defensively he’s in the middle of the field; he’s the one who takes care of the whole infield. It’s a huge change when he’s in the lineup.”
Acquired by the Rockies in a trade with Oakland on Nov. 10, 2008, CarGo is already on his third Colorado manager. Clint Hurdle, the skipper when he arrived, was replaced early in the 2009 season by Jim Tracy. Tracy resigned at the end of last season and was replaced by first-time manager Walt Weiss. He’s joined by first-year hitting coach Dante Bichette, who replaced Carney Lansford.
“They played for the Rockies before,” Gonzalez said. “They know what it takes to be in a World Series and to be in the playoffs. They were great players and they’re helping a lot of young guys. Obviously, we have a lot of young guys on our team and we feel pretty comfortable where we are right now.”
Even CarGo was limited to 135 games last year by a nagging hamstring injury, so you’ll forgive him if he’s convinced that staying on the field is the key to a turnaround season in 2013.
“The No. 1 thing for me this year is just to try to stay healthy,” Gonzalez said. “My best year was in 2010 when I got almost 600 at-bats. I was in the lineup every day. That’s a huge difference. Being hurt at the end of (last) year cost me a little bit. It changed the lineup. So that’s the No. 1 thing for me.
“And then I always focus on getting better on every single aspect. This year I worked really hard on my speed, just try to get on base and just try to get that extra base every time to get more opportunities for my guys hitting behind me, especially having Tulowitzki and (Michael) Cuddyer and (Todd) Helton back. That will create more runs and that will help the team to win some more games.”
There’s been a lot of discussion since last season around the Rockies’ front office and its various unorthodox initiatives, among them installing executive Bill Geivett in the clubhouse and mandating that Tracy operate a four-man pitching rotation with limited pitch counts. Some players didn’t think much of these innovations, but Gonzalez wasn’t one of them.
“You know what, when you have a bad year and when things go wrong, you have to try a lot of different things, and that’s what the Rockies are doing,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with that. What they’re doing right now is just to help the ball club. Hopefully this year is a better year, we get to the postseason and you’re going to see a lot of different things.”
It’s early, of course, but spring is the time for optimism. Healthy for now, the Rocks are feeling better about themselves.
“The team looks great,” CarGo said. “We have a lot of good, important players back. It’s a good thing to see those guys healthy and ready to compete.”