At the far end of the Rockies’ clubhouse, where a cacophony of laughter and allegation roll around a wall and out of the showers, sits a familiar figure. Yorvit Torrealba is back.
And, in the very early going, the Rocks are winning again.
Torrealba’s previous four-year stint in Colorado encompassed the two best seasons in franchise history — the 90-win campaign in 2007 that catapulted the Rocks to the World Series and the 92-win season in 2009 that took them to another promising postseason berth, this one aborted by Huston Street’s allergy to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Chris Iannetta, the catcher of the future at the time, was supposed to be the starting catcher both years. In ’07, Iannetta hit .218 and Torrealba ultimately took over, playing in 113 games to Iannetta’s 67 and starting all four games in the World Series loss to Boston.
In ’09, Iannetta nominally kept the starting job, appearing in 93 games to Torrealba’s 64, but Torrealba out-hit him by 63 points (.291 to .228).
His emergence in ’07 earned him his biggest contract to that point, a two-year, $6.75 million deal. But when he sought a similar deal following the ’09 season, the Rocks thought that was too much for a backup — Iannetta was still the nominal starter, although he would lose the job again, this time to Miguel Olivo, in 2010.
The negotiations lasted so long that when the Rocks finally abandoned them and signed Olivo to a one-year, $2 million deal to replace him, Torrealba was left scrambling for a job. Ultimately, he signed a one-year, $750,000 offer from the lowly San Diego Padres. Expected to do little, the Padres surprisingly won 90 games, earning Torrealba the contract he had sought a year before from the Rocks — a two-year, $6.25 million deal from the Texas Rangers.
In his first year there, he matched his career-high for games played with 113 and the Rangers went to the World Series. Last year, Torrealba’s batting average slumped from .273 in 2011 to .236. Mike Napoli, who had split time between catching, first base and designated hitter in ’11, took over as the main catcher and Torrealba was released in August. He was picked up briefly by the Blue Jays, then traded to the Brewers, but didn’t play much for either. At the end of last season, he was again a free agent.
In the meantime, the Rockies had finally lost patience with the Iannetta waiting game, trading him to the Angels for pitcher Tyler Chatwood following the 2011 season. They were also less than enamored with Olivo and let him walk following a single season.
Ramon Hernandez was their next veteran signal-caller, signed along with two other veterans — Michael Cuddyer and Marco Scutaro — in the misguided belief Colorado would contend in 2012. A starter for years, Hernandez required the kind of money the Rocks had refused to pay Torrealba. They gave him a two-year, $6.4 million contract.
But at least two things became clear as the Rocks’ 2012 season imploded:
— Despite being young, raw and defensively awful as a rookie, Wilin Rosario was an offensive force and the Rocks’ latest catcher of the future if he could only learn to catch and call a game.
— At 35, Hernandez was injury-prone, in rapid decline and didn’t seem all that interested in mentoring Rosario.
Re-enter Torrealba, whom the Rocks signed to a one-year contract that would pay him $1 million if he could make the team out of spring training. Management hoped Torrealba’s extroverted personality would make him a better mentor. They also remembered the effect that personality had in the clubhouse, and realized it had been missing since he left.
At the end of spring training, Torrealba made the team and Hernandez was designated for assignment. Hoping not to have to eat all of Hernandez’s $3.2 million salary for 2013, the Rocks tried to find a trade.
Today, they finally did, shipping Hernandez to the Dodgers, who could use some insurance for A.J. Ellis, in exchange for pitcher Aaron Harang “and cash considerations.” If this saves money for the Rocks — which would be the only reason to make the deal since they immediately designated Harang for assignment as well — the Dodgers must be eating most of Harang’s contract, which called for a $7 million salary this year. After all, he’s already included in their record $216 million payroll. The Rocks are now looking for a trade for him, too.
In any case, Torrealba is back, Rosario has looked better behind the plate in this season’s small sample so far, and the Rocks have won three of their first four games.
“So far, so good,” Torrealba told me following Friday’s home opener, a 5-2 win over the Padres. “It’s been awesome. I’m very happy to be back here. A lot of good memories in here. The best years of my career so far has been with this team. It’s a great feeling.
“I didn’t even want to leave in the beginning and when I got a chance to come back like I did this year, I didn’t hesitate to sign a contract and come back, try to make the team out of spring training, and I did, so I’m happy to be here.”
I asked him about his new role as a mentor to a younger player.
“They tell me flat out,” he said. “I mean, I know what my role is since I signed here. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be playing much, that just means I’m going to try to help as much as I can, and so far, so good. I mean, he’s a young, talented guy. Not only offensively, but I’m seeing defensively he’s getting way better. He showed the last couple games. I’m just in the dugout watching everything he does and then I try to help him. So far, so good on blocking balls, calling games. It’s good to see the guy already progress like you would want him to.”
When you ask him about Rosario, Torrealba sounds as much like a coach as a fellow player.
“He showed last year he can hit at this level. I’m seeing every year for him he’s going to feel more comfortable at the plate. But behind the plate I don’t think he was feeling too comfortable. I watched some tapes of him last year and then a lot of stuff I hear from the different guys, different coaches. That’s what we’ve been working on — blocking balls, especially. I guess that was a big issue for him last year. Like I said, this year, so far, so good.
“And at the same time I’m pushing him to talk to the pitcher, get to know the pitcher, where they can be on the same page. Instead of just trying to call the game, he can just actually talk to the pitcher and figure out what they want to do together as a team, as a battery. So far, so good, like I said. It’s not only winning the couple games that we won, I think overall he look really good behind the plate.”
It doesn’t seem that long since Torrealba was here last, but in modern media time, it’s been forever. If you believe most of the national analysts, the Rocks are who they were last year — terrible. One ESPN analyst predicted they would lose more than 100 games.
“I see a talented ball club, but to me last year they put so much pressure on themselves when Tulo went down, when CarGo was out for a little bit, when Ramon Hernandez was catching and went down, they started putting pressure on themselves,” Torrealba said.
“To me, and this is something they said from the first day of spring training, it’s all about having fun. That’s one of the things a lot of guys watch me already in the dugout talking stuff, talking crap to the guys, just keeping it loose. I think with the talent that we have in here, if we can all play loose and play comfortable, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
I asked him if he thought his personality was part of why the Rocks wanted him back.
“Probably,” he said. “Probably, yes. I think the best three years they have as an organization, I was part of it.”
A lot has changed in the Rockies clubhouse since 2009, of course. The starting lineup that year included Iannetta, Clint Barmes, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith and Brad Hawpe. Only Troy Tulowitzki, Dexter Fowler and Todd Helton remain, although Carlos Gonzalez, at 23, was in his first year with the club.
The ’09 pitching rotation included Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook. Only Jorge De La Rosa remains. In the bullpen, the only holdovers are Matt Belisle and Rafael Betancourt.
So I asked Torrealba if all those new faces create a different clubhouse atmosphere.
“It’s about the same to me,” he said. “A lot of new faces, but they’re all nice guys. I remember 2007 and 2009, all the guys we have, they nice guys. Even in hard times, it’s easy for me to go up there and have fun and play around and joke around and keep everybody loose. And the same with this team this year. Even if there is a lot of young guys, still, it feels like there is the same thing in 2009, same thing in 2007, when it comes to attitude.”
I mentioned the national predictions of a last-place finish, losing more than 100 games. I asked Torrealba how good he thought the 2013 Rocks could be.
“I tell you what — we’re definitely better than losing 100 games in a year,” he said with a smile. “I like the fact that a lot of people think that way because through my career, personally, I love to prove people wrong. I think I did it all my life almost, all my career. Talking about myself, in 2007 I wasn’t even a starting catcher and ended up playing every day. 2009, same way. 2010, when I was with the Padres, they said we were going to be in last place and we were one game short of making it to the playoffs.
“So they can say whatever they want to say. I mean, I really see my teammates and myself as a good ball club, talented ball club. If we just keep playing the way we’re playing, a lot of people are going to be surprised.”