Category Archives: Rockies/MLB

My Baseball Hall of Fame ballot

I should start by admitting that I am the worst kind of voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame, at least according to the modern reformers. I am an “honorary” member of the Baseball Writers Association of America rather than an “active” one.

In fact, I’m still as active as ever, although that’s not a particularly high standard. My BBWAA category changed because my employer changed. I’m still in the media and I still cover baseball, so this is mostly a reflection of the ambiguities of a modern media landscape in transition.

Here’s how it happened: I was an active member while covering baseball as a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post. When I moved to KOA radio two years ago, I told the BBWAA I would still be attending Rockies games on a media credential from time to time and writing about baseball in my new blog. As many bloggers will tell you without prompting, that is not enough to make you an active member. I remain an honorary member only because I had the requisite ten years or more as an active member.

The reason that many who advocate reform of the voting process object to honorary BBWAA members voting for the Hall is the category includes retired writers who may or may not keep up with the game. Of course, Hall of Fame voting is all about the past — a player must have been retired for five years to be considered and can remain on the ballot for fifteen years after that — so retired voters are often passing judgment on players they watched or covered at one time. But I’m not retired yet so I’ll let those folks carry their own water.

The Hall of Fame ballot, as you are probably aware, has become more contentious than ever. There were always disputes, of course; fans have passionately argued their differences of opinion for as long as I can remember. I still engage in the Roger Maris argument every now and then. Whether the Hall was essentially a lifetime achievement award or a recognition of true brilliance, even if short-lived, was the most common area of disagreement. Sandy Koufax made it, but generally speaking, the lifetime achievement award won out. Career statistics, including volume statistics that rewarded longevity more than brilliance, became the standard measuring stick.

Then came sabermetrics and a new divide. Older baseball writers were slow to adopt the Bill James template of advanced metrics; a younger generation embraced it. Older writers tended to think the false precision of new metrics allowed those who had never covered the game or talked to players or managers to believe they had a better understanding of it than those who had. Younger analysts often thought those who rejected or ignored the new metrics were allowing anecdotal recollections and inferior statistical measures to stand in for better, more modern rulers.

Jack Morris is the personification of this divide. Many of us considered him the dominant pitcher of the 1980s and remember his signature moment in the 1991 World Series – a 10-inning, 1-0 victory in Game 7 – as the very definition of greatness, of rising to the biggest occasion. Many sabermetricians look at his career numbers and say he’s not even close to Hall-of-Fame worthy.

Then came steroids and a divide that allowed an unbecoming sanctimony to emerge on both sides. Let’s call it a divide between the moralists and the moral relativists, to use allegations that both sides like when they’re about the other side and neither side likes when they’re about them.

I’m not that fond of either characterization. I look at the emotionalism in our politics, at people whose minds are closed by ideological bias and go to name-calling as a first resort, and I admire those in the middle taking arrows from both sides while trying to solve complex problems that don’t lend themselves to the solutions of sloganeering. That’s sort of where I am — in the muddy middle — with respect to the Hall.

In my opinion, there is no question that the game was changed more dramatically by the illegal use of steroids and human growth hormone than any form of cheating that came before. For those who claim these drugs are really no different from greenies, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated points to the rather large difference in baseball’s penalties for a first offense between the two categories of drugs (“mandatory evaluation” and follow-up testing for amphetamines; 50-game suspension for steroids and HGH) as a measure of their relative impact on the game. The top six single-season home run totals in baseball history all happened in a four-year span, from 1998-2001, at the height of baseball’s steroid era. For a game that’s been played for more than a century, that’s quite a coincidence.

It is true, as the critics of “moralist” voters suggest, that baseball’s ambivalence on the subject of steroids is a complicating factor. Coming out of the 1994-95 strike, commissioner Bud Selig was only too happy to see the home run race of 1998 bring fans back to the game. Many of the BBWAA’s critics wonder why writers are trying to enforce a Hall of Fame penalty for activities baseball didn’t even prohibit through collective bargaining until the 21st century. Selig, who now condemns PEDs with the zeal of a religious convert, claims the failure to prohibit their use before that was all the union’s fault. It is true that union chief Donald Fehr might have succeeded in blocking an all-out push for reform by Selig, but Selig never made one, whatever he says, so we’ll never know.

In any case, having or using steroids without a prescription has been a federal crime since the early 1990s, so PED users were on the wrong side of the law even if the commissioner remained oblivious, as he claims. The involved and complex ways they went about keeping their use a secret make it clear they knew on some level what they were doing was wrong, or at least prohibited.

Just as important to some of us who followed the game for many years was the distorting effect PED use had on the game’s historical record. Baseball’s blind eye allowed players to obliterate records established without the use of PEDs and to be rewarded and glorified for it. Consider the difference between what happened to Lance Armstrong, the disgraced cyclist subject to the enforcement mechanisms of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and Roger Clemens, subject to the non-existent enforcement mechanisms of major league baseball. Armstrong has been stripped of his titles and is now subject to a variety of civil lawsuits based on taking money under false pretenses. Exclusion from the Hall of Fame is the only penalty Clemens may face, and even that is not certain.

There is a feeling among many older voters who covered great players before the steroid era that somebody has to stand up for them and the records they established. If you want to know how some of these existing Hall of Fame members feel about steroid users being enshrined, just ask them.

So I don’t vote for otherwise worthy candidates for whom it seems to me there is more than adequate evidence of PED use on the public record. Game of Shadows, the excellent investigative book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, provides this evidence in the case of Barry Bonds. The public record of Clemens’ trial on perjury charges, including the detailed testimony of trainer Brian McNamee, provides it for Clemens. I understand he was acquitted. Given the standard of proof in a criminal proceeding – beyond a reasonable doubt – I understand how the attack on McNamee’s credibility by Clemens’ able legal team produced that result. To quantify “beyond a reasonable doubt,” I think of a standard of 85 percent or 90 percent certainty. The standard required to convince me of any given proposition is more like the civil standard of “preponderance of the evidence” – something greater than 50 percent. In the case of Clemens, the government’s case and McNamee’s testimony get me past that threshold easily. The performance of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa before Congress – one wouldn’t answer questions about PED use, the other temporarily forgot how to speak English — and Rafael Palmeiro’s failed test do the same.

On the other hand, I do vote for otherwise worthy candidates about whom it seems to me there is little more than unsubstantiated allegation and innuendo with respect to PED use. It’s an imperfect, subjective standard, I admit. But given the history, and baseball’s abject failure to police itself during this period, it is the best I can do. I have little sympathy for the argument that since we don’t have perfect knowledge, we should give up and let ‘em all in. As someone who made a living as a journalist for most of my career, I know I never had perfect knowledge. You acquire as much as you can and make judgments on that basis. It’s the best you can do. I’m also not comfortable with a formulation that says we don’t have perfect knowledge, therefore keep anybody out who was ever accused of using steroids by anyone. Adopting standards for the credibility of information is at the very heart of what journalists are supposed to do.

Critics of the BBWAA and its recent voting results tend to make fun of the Hall’s rules for election, especially this one:

5. Voting – Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

These are not my rules, but if I agree to be a voter, I agree to abide by them. It seems to me obvious that people who cheated and lied about it in ways that glorified themselves, disadvantaged competitors who didn’t indulge and distorted the game itself were not exemplifying integrity, sportsmanship or (good) character and are therefore missing three of the six stated criteria for election. It is not the voter bringing morality into the conversation, it is the Hall and the rules it asks voters to respect. I understand there are people already enshrined who may not have met these criteria. I do not agree that this justifies ignoring the criteria now. If the Hall wishes to eliminate these considerations, it can do so at any time. Until then, I’m including them in my deliberations, as I’m instructed to do.

This year, there is an additional, rare complication, which is that there are too many worthy candidates to fit under the limit of ten votes each voter is permitted to cast. Had I been able, I would have voted for more than ten this year. But since I couldn’t, I allowed a very practical consideration — time on the ballot — to influence me. There are first-time nominees I didn’t vote for that I expect to vote for in the future. But, for example, I was not going to abandon Morris in his final year of eligibility in favor of a first-year nominee who would have won a head-to-head competition in my head. I realize that might make some people’s heads explode, but since I have already admitted to being an honorary voter, I’m guessing this will come as no great surprise.

So, anyway, here’s my ballot. Happy new year.

  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Craig Biggio
  • Tom Glavine
  • Greg Maddux
  • Edgar Martinez
  • Jack Morris
  • Mike Piazza
  • Tim Raines
  • Frank Thomas
  • Alan Trammell

Rockies will listen to offers for Dexter Fowler

Dan O’Dowd and I had lunch at Zi South by the ballpark today. We had the place almost to ourselves, which gave us a chance to talk a lot of baseball.

Perhaps the biggest news out of our conversation was his acknowledgement that the Rockies will listen to offers for center fielder Dexter Fowler, who regressed last season from a productive 2012 and appeared in only 119 games. That may not come as a surprise, but in light of owner Dick Monfort taking Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez off the market before it opened, at least it indicates the Rocks aren’t disconnecting the phones.

Whether Fowler spends the 2014 season in Colorado or elsewhere, O’Dowd said it will be an important one for his reputation in the industry. He also said the Rocks won’t trade him without getting appropriate value back.

O’Dowd acknowledged pursuing catchers Carlos Ruiz and Brian McCann in free agency and being outbid for both. Ruiz signed a three-year, $26 million deal with the Phillies, which works out to more than $8.5 million a year for a catcher who will be 35 when spring training opens. McCann reportedly got $85 million over five years from the Yankees, an average of $17 million per.

The Rockies made a substantial offer to McCann not merely for the obvious reasons — he’s a seven-time All-Star with power — but because the team could use a double dose of his attitude and competitiveness. But what’s reasonable financially for the Yankees is unreasonable for most other teams, and this again was the case.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Q: What was your game plan going into this off-season?

A: I think as an organization we feel like we’ve got a window of competitiveness with two of our best players and we were trying to figure out a way to impact those guys within our means as much as we possibly could in the positions where we felt like we could impact them.

The free agent market was not flush with impact players. We earmarked a few and up ’til now haven’t been able to get any of those done, but I think that was our overall game plan, was to try to create some versatility in our lineup but also try to create a window here to take another step.

Q: It’s been widely reported you pursued Carlos Ruiz and Brian McCann. What does that say about your view of Wilin Rosario as a catcher?

A: I think that had as much to do with what we thought his gifts were, rather than his liabilities. An average catcher here since we’ve been in existence has caught somewhere between 100 and 110 games. And this kid’s bat is pretty special, and the power is pretty special. I think he caught 102 last year — he started 102. Then you’ve got to factor in how many of those 102 did he feel really good physically hitting because of the wear and tear?

I think you’ve got to catch an average of 130 pitches here a night, and that’s not just physically but mentally, calling 130 pitches. So I think it was just a function of we could make one move and affect two different positions on the field. And notwithstanding, maybe get a defensive catcher that would be a little bit further along in his career, because it takes a long time to get good in that particular role. So we thought we might be able to help our pitching staff in that way, too, but I think it was more a function of giving him an opportunity to get more at-bats.

Q: Where else could Wilin play?

A: We think Wilin’s a really good athlete. We felt pretty comfortable that giving him enough time he could play right field. He’s got a plus arm, he’s a good enough athlete, he runs pretty well. Sure, it would have been a risk, but we’re going to have to take some risks at times to get where we want to go, and that was one risk I think everybody was willing to take if we could find the right guy.

Q: The Cardinals are reportedly signing Jhonny Peralta to play shortstop. There’s been a lot of speculation since the World Series that they would make a run at Tulo . . . 

A: There was never . . . no, I mean, Bill (Geivett) and I are always listening to clubs. That’s what we’re responsible for. The Cardinals have a pretty good model in place right now.

Q: They were not interested or they did not make a pitch?

A: How could there not be interest in that type of player? But I think their model right now is their interest is only to the extent that they could make a deal based upon their parameters to make a deal, which weren’t even close to anything that we would ever entertain to trade that type of player.

Q: So let’s talk about the starting rotation. What are you looking to do there?

A: As we sit here today, we have four starters, knock on wood health, which are (Jhoulys) Chacin, (Jorge) De La Rosa, (Tyler) Chatwood and (Juan) Nicasio. We still would love to add more depth to that.

Q: You still see Nicasio as a starter?

A: We do. He hadn’t pitched for two years. Got physically tired the second half of the year, especially his knee that he had surgery on. Didn’t get a chance to train much last winter because of the knee surgery. He throws a lot of innings for us. No doubt he has to get better, but going out on the market, we’re understanding the value of what he brings to our club.

Some of these are hope things, but (Christian) Friedrich is having a great winter. Two years ago, we were really encouraged about him being a part of our rotation for last year, and then he had an injury-riddled season. We’re really pleased by his progress physically right now.

Q: His back is OK?

A: You know, he’s totally redone his delivery, which is what we helped him with. But until he gets into the live competition with a hitter in front of him and the adrenaline flowing, if he can maintain what he’s doing within the course of the game, he’s going to be OK.

And we still haven’t given up on (Drew) Pomeranz, although I know he showed really well out of the ‘pen when we put him in there. I think we’ll keep an open mind on that.

Q: What’s your diagnosis there?

A: Well, one, he’s got to get over the hump at the major league level. He’s got to show some more toughness and competitiveness and some better secondary pitches. He started to flash that out of the ‘pen when we used him for that last three weeks of the season. It was pretty special stuff in that role. Whether he translates that into the starting rotation . . .

I think it’s another example of a kid getting rushed, never really getting the time to fully develop at the minor league level and making sure that he had stuff to go to at the big league level when things didn’t go right. That’s where we want to make sure with (Eddie) Butler and (Jonathan) Gray. We know we have two big leaguers here. We just want to make sure that they get enough minor league innings to be able to react appropriately when things don’t go right at the big league level, which is inevitable.

Q: How many is that?

A: I think they’ll determine that. Butler is obviously closer, not necessarily ability-wise, but because he’s had a full year pitching in the minor leagues. If Eddie can pick up where he left off at Double-A last year [six starts, 27.2 innings pitched, 13 hits, two earned runs, six walks, 25 strikeouts, 0.65 ERA], he should come pretty quickly, but we’ll have to see if he picks up where he left off last year. A lot of that will be dependent upon the amount of work we challenged him to do this winter and what he does with it.

Q: And where does Gray start?

A: Probably in Tulsa, too. He dominated the Cal League. [5 starts for Modesto, 24 innings pitched, 10 hits, two earned runs, six walks, 36 strikeouts, 0.75 ERA] If we didn’t shut him down, they probably would have won the Cal League there. He was unhittable. No reason to send him back to the Cal League. So he’ll be in Tulsa, too, to start the year.

Q: In retrospect, what’s your self-evaluation of the Ubaldo deal?

A: I think under the conditions we were in, knowing all the players that were involved, I don’t think Ubaldo would have pitched any better here under the circumstances, so I think we did the best that we could. Doing an autopsy on it, I think we know a little bit more about what we got that didn’t work, but I think we were being offered very similar players from every other club that was involved in the process as you look at those names unfold now throughout their careers.

But I don’t think it would have changed the fact that Ubaldo had to be moved from our situation simply because of where it had gotten to. I feel bad that it had gotten to that point. I’m not sure why, to this day, that it did. But that’s a choice he made.

Q: Alex White, what happened there, before he got hurt last year?

A: I think one of the things that we’re really beginning to bear down and understand is that a quality major league starter has tremendous balance, rhythm and timing in their delivery. I think in Alex’s case, he never really had that. He did a lot of things on effort and competitiveness, but it was very difficult for him to duplicate his delivery. I think he would have ended up being a bullpen guy for us, probably a halfway-decent one, too, depending upon how he adapted to the role. But I think in that case as a kid that came with a lot of accolades, that was rushed to the big leagues, that never really figured out his delivery and how to pitch, I think he got overwhelmed at the big league level and then, predictably with that kind of delivery, he blew out.

Q: I know you admired his competitiveness when you first got to know him. As much as the game has turned to statistical analytics, how much do intangibles like his matter?

A: It’s called the human analytics. I think human analytics are just as important as statistical analytics. Hard to measure it because there’s no statistical formula for that, but really understanding what’s inside a guy is actually more important than what comes out of a guy because that’s the only way you know if you’ve got a winning player on your hands.

Like Michael Cuddyer’s case. He’s a perfect example of a guy that gets every little bit out of whatever ability he has and does it solely related to winning that game that night. It’s problematic in the whole industry right now, trying to find those kind of guys because it starts at a very early age with the entitlement factor. So when kids get put into the game based upon what the game owes them rather than the understanding of how appreciative they are of the opportunity, it creates an uphill battle right away. So I think it’s really important in our development system that we address a lot of the issues that we are now addressing as it relates to creating that tougher player that understands how to play for his team rather than play for himself.

Q: And how do you do that?

A: It’s a grind every single night.

Q: Would you agree with my characterization that your team is, overall, certain exceptions notwithstanding, soft? Mentally soft?

A: I would agree with you that our team could be a lot tougher.

Q: So how do you go about doing that?

A: Trying to create as much as you can within the mix of players you bring in as many guys as you possibly can who emulate that, who show up every single day with that being their mindset. That’s part of the reason for bringing (LaTroy) Hawkins back here.

Q: Do you not think that your stars have to, at least one of them, have to reflect that?

A: I think these are better questions for Walt (Weiss) and Bill rather than me, but I saw, personally, tremendous growth from Tulo in that area last year. I thought he started taking on that persona a little bit more. But there’s no doubt our best players have to be the best players in every way, shape or form, both in their production and how they make other players better.

Q: Let me ask you about Dexter Fowler. What’s his status?

A: Well, I think Dexter right now has got a big year in front of him. Whether that’s with us or whether that’s with somebody else at this point in time is too hard to say. I think it’s fair to say we are more willing to listen to calls about Dexter than we might have been in the past. He has a lot to prove this year within the industry. He’s got to show up and he’s got to do that.

Q: What are the considerations in your mind as to whether he will be here?

A: Like everything else we look at with our players, is there value out there that makes us a better team in the aggregate? So the same process that would go with any player would go with Dexter.

Q: You moved CarGo to left field in part because you didn’t want the stress and space of center field affecting his offense. If Dexter were gone, would you be comfortable moving CarGo back or would you go look for another center fielder?

A: Center fielders are really hard to find. I don’t think we’d find anybody that’s got better than CarGo’s skill set anywhere. Everything comes with risks, so I think you have to measure what you’re getting back against that risk that you just mentioned before you actually did anything. As far as CarGo’s skill set, he can play any position in the outfield, and he’s had trouble staying healthy in left, too.

Q: Has anything about Dexter disappointed you?

A: Dexter’s a great kid and he knows that we all feel that way about him. But I think he’s got to get tougher. No doubt. He’s got to show up and play with an edge every day, not just when he thinks he has to. It’s got to be that edge that he brings every day. He’s got to be a passionate competitor in the game. He has to love the game. He’s got to compete because he loves the game and he loves his teammates and he wants to win. It can’t be for anything the game provides. It’s got to be for those reasons.

Q: You’ve had three disappointing seasons in a row. What would you like to say to fans that are not hurling things at you?

A: I don’t think anybody in this organization is more disappointed in the way we’ve performed than me. I’m as big a competitor as anybody. But I think there are reasons why the years happened the way that they did. I think windows open and close. It took us really a long time in ’03, ’04, ’05 and ’06 to create a window for ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10, with ’08 being a bad year in there, but the other three being good years. And we’re working real hard to create that window again right now and hopefully have it stay open a little bit longer than the last one. There are windows in market sizes across all sports — specifically baseball more than anything, but I think hockey is a little bit similar — that open and close. I think we could have been a lot better last year if Tulo didn’t go down for that long a stretch of time, but I don’t think we still would have been good enough to win.

I think we sit here today with a team that has the chance to win more games than we lose, but I think we’ve still got a ways to go before we can say we’re going to win a World Series. A lot of things would have to go right for us, in our development of certain players and the maturation and improvement of players that we currently have at the big league level.

Q: Any sense of how active you’ll be over the next several months?

A: Well, we’ve tried to be active. We’ve been aggressive on a ton of different fronts. It’s really hard to make trades and, in this market, it’s really hard to sign free agents. So we’re going to continue to be aggressive and we’ll try to build the team in aggregate, not just necessarily add individual stars. We’re trying to add the right kind of players into the mix.


Rockies review, Part 1: Should they trade one (or more) of the big three?

So I went down to Coors Field for the Rockies’ last Saturday night game of the season because it’s usually a good time, a little wistful, a little nostalgic, mostly for summer, but sometimes for the boys who played through it, depending on how they did and what they showed you.

Of course, those aren’t the guys the Rockies are trotting out there. The sentiment and nostalgia around Todd Helton’s final homestand is covering for the absence of all the Rocks’ current stars. Saturday night, there was no Troy Tulowitzki, no Carlos Gonzalez, no Michael Cuddyer and no Dexter Fowler except for a sad pinch-hitting appearance in which he looked like a player twice his age. They’re all injured or sore or tired, to one extent or another.

Before the game, nobody even bothered to ask manager Walt Weiss why Tulowitzki wasn’t in the lineup. He hit his first home run in a month on Thursday, then another, No. 24, on Friday. He’s finally getting hot. Maybe he could help the Rocks get out of last place. It’s a modest goal, but it’s what’s left.

After Saturday night’s lay-down, in which the Rocks fielded a minor-league team playing behind a pitcher with an earned-run average of 8.59, the club has six games remaining, with two days off among them. Yet Tulo apparently needed a day off.

CarGo has not homered since July 20. He has not batted since Aug. 4. He has a finger problem.

Dex had 10 home runs on June 2. Today he has 12.

If you’ve followed this team, you are already painfully aware of all this. With the exception of Cuddyer, the Rockies’ big stars were all big starters and small finishers this season. Every one of them got hurt again. This is really the worst kind of team to be — a tease that looks good early, when everybody is strong and fresh, and then surrenders to the grind faster than anybody.

In the first half of the season, Fowler hit 10 home runs and batted .284, with an on-base percentage of .381. He stole 13 bases and was thrown out stealing three times.

In the second half, Fowler hit two home runs and batted .223, with an on-base percentage of .349. He stole six bases and was thrown out six times.

CarGo hit 25 home runs and drove in 64 runs before the All-Star break, leading the National League in the former category and putting up an OPS of .980. He stole 16 bases and was caught stealing one time.

In the second half, he hit one home run and drove in six runs. His OPS dropped to .747. He stole five bases and was caught twice.

Tulo hit 16 homers and drove in 52 runs before the All-Star break. He’s hit eight and driven in 28 since.

Tulo’s splits are actually the most remarkable because Fowler’s and CarGo’s are explained mostly by the vast difference in games played. Fowler played in 74 games before the break, 44 after. For CarGo, those numbers are 91 and 19. For Tulo, the games played are closer because his absence due to a broken rib came in the middle of the season. He played 64 before the break and 56 after, yet his power numbers have been cut in half.

So I got to thinking about a simple stat: How many games is a gamer likely to play these days? Who’s the leader in games played for each team in the Rockies’ division this season, and how many did he play? Keep in mind the season isn’t over (except, of course, for the Rockies), so these numbers are still changing daily. As of this moment (9:53 p.m. mountain on Saturday), here are the answers, according to ESPN:

  1. 155 (Hunter Pence, Giants)
  2. 152 (Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks)
  3. 150 (Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers)
  4. 145 (Will Venable, Padres)
  5. 127 (Nolan Arenado, Rockies)

If you are tempted to blame the elevation, consider this: Arenado wasn’t even on the big league roster when the Rockies came north back in April. He was called up in time to play in their 25th game. So Arenado has appeared in 127 of a possible 132 games. If he’d been with the Rocks all year, his total would likely be up there with the leaders of the other NL West teams.

So here’s the question, and I don’t know a delicate way to phrase it: Are the Rockies’ stars wimpier than their rivals’ stars?

Tulo hasn’t played in 150 games since 2009, the last time the Rocks made the playoffs. He’s played as many as 140 once in the four intervening seasons. And he’s in his prime, weeks from his 29th birthday. One would have to assume he gets more fragile, not less, from here.

CarGo has never played 150 games in a season. He played 145 once and 135 once in a six-year career. In five big-league seasons, Fowler’s high is 143.

You evaluate this team on paper as if it had all these guys on the field and it looks good. Then you join 36,005 other hopeful souls on the final Saturday night of the season at the ballpark and the outfield is Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson and Charlie Culberson. The infield is D.J. LeMahieu, Jonathan Herrera, Josh Rutledge and Helton. The catcher is Jordan Pacheco.

I know, I know. It doesn’t matter anymore. They’re playing out the string. But you know what? They’re still charging for tickets and beer and parking as if they were fielding a major league product.

Can the Rockies build a contender around Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Fowler? Or do they need one of them to be more like Hunter Pence — someone who crashes into walls, shakes it off and stays in the game . . . and plays the next day . . . and the next . . . and the next. Are the last few years too small a sample size upon which to judge the Rockies’ core, or do they have too many high-strung thoroughbreds and not enough plow horses?

The starting position players around the big three have improved and solidified this year. Wilin Rosario is the best offensive catcher the Rocks have ever had. Arenado looks like the third baseman for the next decade or more. LeMahieu has earned the first shot at the second-base job next year. Add them to Cuddyer and a healthy big three and you have a heck of an offensive team. But only for half a season, which is a really soul-sucking way to do it.

Pitching is another subject, which we’ll get to, but there’s no disputing that the rotation took a step forward this year, from zero effective starters last year to two, and sometimes three. Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa were two of the best starters in the league. Combined with the promise of the lineup, this team should not be in last place again.

Much as I like the big three as players when they’re healthy, I’m coming around to the idea that the Rocks need to get tougher, and that one of the big three may have to go to make it happen.


Todd Helton and the hidden ball trick


Helton milestone delayed by former teammate

One day after he turned back the clock, driving in six runs for the first time in 10 years, Todd Helton looked all of 40 years old Saturday night, striking out three times and putting off career hit No. 2,500 for another day.

“That’s this game,” he said after going 0-for-4 in the Reds’ 8-3 victory over the Rockies.

“I mean, the last two games is this game summed up. You can be great one day and have a hat trick the next. That’s just the way it goes. That’s why it’s so important to keep your emotions in check and show up the next day ready to play.”

The oddest part of it was the guy who handcuffed him and his teammates for eight innings.

Greg Reynolds is the biggest draft bust in Rockies history. The second overall pick in 2006, the 6-foot-7-inch Reynolds suffered a shoulder injury before getting to the big leagues and never was the power pitcher the Rocks thought they were getting when they passed on Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum to take him.

In two big league stints with the Rocks, Reynolds went 5-8 with a 7.47 earned-run average. Now 28, he pitched eight innings in his third start for the Reds, surrendering three runs and seven hits and earning his first big league win in more than two years. If it hadn’t been for a two-run homer by Rockies outfielder Corey Dickerson in the eighth, his numbers would have been even better.

“He threw the ball well,” Helton said. “He threw about like I remember, he just didn’t make any mistakes and he didn’t have the cutter that he has now. That proved to be his best pitch tonight, at least to me, that cutter.”

Helton’s two three-run homers Friday night gave him 2,499 career hits. For his final at-bat Friday and each of his four plate appearances Saturday, the crowd at Coors Field gave him a standing ovation in anticipation of No. 2,500.

“I definitely feel it, but I like it,” Helton said. “I put so much pressure on myself to get a hit every time, it’s no different than the pressure I put on myself, but it proved to be a little tough tonight. That’s the beautiful thing about this game and the tragic thing about this game is one night you can be great and the next night you can do what I did. But that’s why you don’t get too high when things go good, and vice versa.”

In fact, 37,616 fans showed up Saturday for the opportunity to see a little history.

Helton got good wood on a Reynolds fastball in the second inning, driving it deep to left-center field, but he put enough air under it to allow Cincinnati center fielder Shin-Soo Choo time to range over and catch it.

Helton struck out in each of his final three at-bats, the first two against Reynolds and the third against reliever Sam LeCure in the ninth.

“He threw mostly fastballs, really,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said of Reynolds. “He two-seamed it and he cut it and he commanded it. But he did it almost exclusively with a couple different fastballs.”

Normally, Weiss rests Helton in day games following night games, which is the situation Sunday. But with Kershaw, arguably the best lefty in the game, scheduled to start at Coors for the Dodgers on Labor Day, there’s a pretty good chance Helton will start Sunday in the series finale against the Reds.

“Kershaw going Monday, so, yeah, exactly, that’s the coversation I’m going to have with him,” Weiss said Saturday night.

“I’m going to try,” Helton said. “I’m going to hopefully go home and get some rest and wake up and see how I feel. But, yeah, the plan is to play tomorrow.”

“If he’s good to go, sure, we’ll run him out there,” Weiss added, “but I’ll check with him, see how he’s doing.”


Michael Cuddyer and the drama of the hitting streak

He came up in the first inning with runners on first and third, one out and a chance to give the Rockies an early lead against the Giants. He struck out.

“I was upset with myself in that first at-bat because the job was to get that guy in from third with less than two outs, and I didn’t,” Michael Cuddyer said afterward. “That was bigger than the streak to me, and I didn’t come through.”

The streak would be in jeopardy by the time Cuddyer came to bat in the eighth. He’d gone 0-for-3 against Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, never getting the ball out of the infield.

“It had everything to do with Bumgarner,” he said. “He was on his game today, there’s no question about that. He had a good cutter. Threw his curveball a lot, which you don’t see from him as often as he did today, and it was good.”

The crowd of 41,845 at Coors Field was well aware what was at stake when he dug into the box in the eighth against Giants reliever Sandy Rosario with two out, nobody on and the Rocks down 5-1. Barring a miraculous comeback, it would be his last chance to extend the longest hitting streak in the big leagues this season. I asked him if he was thinking about that as he stepped in.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I mean, it’s hard not to. Yeah, definitely. But at the same time, what helped me from being anxious is the fact that we needed base runners in that situation. So I was taking, which helped me see the first slider, and then I saw his fastball second pitch. So I felt good after those two pitches, and then squeaked one up the middle.”

Cuddyer slapped Rosario’s second slider back toward the mound. Rosario reached out with his bare right hand to knock it down.

“He hit it, actually,” Cuddyer said. “I think he got his hand on it.”

I wondered if he had a fleeting thought that Rosario was going to come up with it.

“No, it happened too quick,” he said. “And if he would have caught it, he would have caught it. That’s the way the game goes.”

Instead, the ball skipped off Rosario’s hand and continued its journey back up the middle, hit too sharply for either middle infielder to cut it off. As Cuddyer rounded first base, the crowd rose to give him an ovation. An umpire collected the ball and flipped it to the home dugout. Moments later, Cuddyer scored the Rocks’ second and final run on a Wilin Rosario double to right.

Cuddyer now has at least one hit in 27 consecutive games, the longest hitting streak in the majors this season and the longest in Rockies history, eclipsing the previous record of 23 set by Dante Bichette, now the club’s hitting coach, in 1995.

If you add walks and being hit by a pitch, Cuddyer has now reached base safely in 46 consecutive games. That, too, is a Rockies franchise record — and the longest such streak in the big leagues since 2007.

A career .275 hitter, the 34-year-old Cuddyer is now batting .344, one point behind the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina for the National League lead. His OPS of .983 is 178 points higher than his career mark.

“Hitting is tough, you know?” said Carlos Gonzalez, who hit his league-leading 22nd home run batting in front of Cuddyer in the sixth.

“He’s been doing something really amazing this year. Everybody was really excited for him to continue that streak and let’s see how far he goes. That’s one of the difficult things to do. I mean, that record seems almost impossible. I think the farthest I got was like 16, and it feels like he’s been hitting for a month. It’s good for him and hopefully he can continue to do that. He’s giving us a lot of opportunities to win games.”

About the only concession Cuddyer made to superstitition was to quit shaving early in the streak. He’s kept the beard.

“Now I kind of like the way I look,” he said with a grin. “My wife might disagree, but it is what it is.”

Other than that, he has not indulged any of the less hygenic ballplayer superstitions — wearing the same socks day after day, for instance.

“No, I mean, I wear the same uniform every day,” he said, laughing. “I’m not really a superstitious type of guy. You’re going to go out and play. I wish we all had that much power where we could determine the outcome just by the clothes that we wear.”

If the streak is wearing him down mentally, there’s no sign of it. He is as friendly and ready to laugh as usual.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. I mean I’ve never been through anything like this before, I think it’s pretty obvious. So you just enjoy the ride and have as good at-bats as you can.

“There’s no question that it’s pretty awesome, pretty cool to go out and do. But when you get in the box, you can’t focus on it. Obviously, it’s in your head and in your mind, but there’s a job at hand.”

Cuddyer’s streak is not the only feel-good story in the Rocks’ clubhouse. There’s also the fact that they’re still in contention for the National League West title at the season’s midway point after losing 98 games a year ago.

“We had our backs a little bit against the wall going into this series and we were able to win this series, two out of three against a good Giants team,” Cuddyer said.

“We’ve got the Dodgers coming in. That’s the thing about the way that the schedules are nowadays. You’ve got chances to win the division. You have to win inside the division. And this streak that we have going on right now, in the middle of (16) in a row of playing division opponents, is a testament to that. And hopefully we can go out there and take care of business.”

Which has been Cuddyer’s motto all year.

“I think the thing that I’ve done well this whole season is focus on that at-bat,” he said. “Focus on the pitches that are going on in the particular at-bat that I’m in. Not two at-bats from now or three at-bats from now. And I think that’s helped a lot.”

Somebody mentioned that he is now almost halfway to Joe DiMaggio’s major league record 56-game hitting streak, a record some people believe will never be broken.

“I’m right there with those ‘some people,'” Cuddyer said. “It’s incredible. It’s unfathomable. It’s one of those records right up there with Cal Ripken and those types of records.”

In every long hitting streak, there are games like Sunday’s, when it comes down to a final at-bat, and maybe a matter of inches, from ending. Cuddyer made it through the close call. Now he gets a day off before seeing how much longer he can carry it.


Rockies learning how to take a punch

There are baseball games that appear to tell a larger story than a 1/162nd slice of a languorous season, and last Thursday’s looked like one of those for the Rockies.

They were facing a Giants team that swept them early in the season and had beaten them nine straight times dating to last year. Seven of their next 10 were going to be against San Francisco, sort of a lie detector test for a Rockies team that had roared out of the gate. If the Giants did what they did last year, winning 14 of 18, or the year before that, winning 13 of 18, the Rocks’ early-season pretensions to contention would do what they did in 2011 — crash and burn in May.

So they rocked Matt Cain for three home runs in the first three innings, including back-to-back jacks from the past and the future — 39-year-old first baseman Todd Helton and 22-year-old third baseman Nolan Arenado — handing Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin a 6-0 lead.

Chacin promptly gave it all back, surrendering five runs in the fourth and leaving in the sixth with the score tied and the eventual winning runs on base. Following its early explosion, the Rockies’ offense shut down, collecting one hit after the third inning against Cain, Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo.

It was the most discouraging loss of the year. Not only had the Rocks seemed to prove they couldn’t beat the Giants on a bet, they had confirmed the worst suspicions about their character as a team — frontrunners who fold when the going gets sticky. After winning 13 of their first 17 games and spending 16 days in first place, the 8-6 defeat dropped them to 21-20 and third place.

So how did they respond to this soul-sapping loss? They swept the next three from the Giants, battering Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito for 20 runs and getting a six-inning shutout of their own from Juan Nicasio, who, prior to that start, had been flirting with re-education camp.

“I think our team showed who they were early on,” said first-year manager Walt Weiss. “Had some opportunities to overcome some things and they did that. That’s why I don’t get too down when we struggle, because I know that that’s part of the deal up here. You’re going to get beat up a little bit in this league, but I have confidence that our guys will do what they did in the last three days. When it looks like they start to slide, they turn it around. They’ve done it a handful of times already this year. That’s a great trait to have.”

Many fans still base their expectations on the larger sample size of the past two seasons, but the Rocks’ weekend bounce-back against their nemesis over that span was the best sign so far that things actually might be different this year.

“I really think this bunch is extremely competitive and we’re sick of losing,” said reliever Matt Belisle, part of the four-man shutout in Sunday’s 5-0 series finale. “And these Giants have beat up on us quite a bit and we want to turn the tables.”

With the additions of Arenado and catcher Wilin Rosario to the core of Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Michael Cuddyer and Helton, the middle of the Rocks’ order has grown truly prodigious. They lead the National League in runs (221 in 44 games, an average of five per game), home runs (58), batting average (.272) and slugging percentage (.445).

Individually, Tulowitzki leads the league in runs batted in (37) and ranks third in batting average (.336). Gonzalez is tied for fourth in home runs (10) and is fifteenth in batting (.308). Rosario has nine homers, Fowler and Tulo have eight apiece and the disabled Cuddyer has seven.

So, yeah, they can rake. But the big story so far is on the mound, where the Rocks have cut more than a run off their worst-in-baseball staff earned-run average of a year ago. After posting a 5.22 staff ERA and earning laughingstock honors with rotation and pitch count experiments in 2012, the Rocks rank in the middle of the pack so far this year with a staff ERA of 3.85. That includes a 3.04 mark out of the bullpen, fifth-best in the NL.

Any team that plays half its games at Coors Field is going to be challenged to be competitive nationally in pitching statistics, and the Rocks have never finished a season with a staff ERA lower than 4.00 in their 20-year history. Still, injuries were a big part of the story last year. Chacin, Nicasio and Jorge De La Rosa were all out most of last season, and their return has made a huge difference, as has replacing Jeremy Guthrie with Jon Garland as the veteran free agent. A team that had 27 quality starts all last year has 18 less than two months into the season.

It also presents them with exactly the opposite of last year’s problem. They have too many starters. Tyler Chatwood, called up for a third spot start when Jeff Francis suffered a pulled groin, deserves to be in the rotation. Not only is he 2-0 with a 2.55 ERA, he’s done damage with the bat (he’s a former shortstop) and demonstrated a competitive grittiness that shows up well among the Rockies’ many nice guys.

But whose spot does he take? A week ago you might have said either Francis or Nicasio, who were struggling. But Francis gave up one run in six innings in his last start before going on the DL and Nicasio gave up none in six Sunday against the Giants.

Of the five starters, only De La Rosa has an ERA below 4.00, so the rotation is not exactly impenetrable. And Drew Pomeranz, the prize of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, will be knocking on the door soon enough. He’s 6-0 with a 3.22 ERA for Triple-A Colorado Springs.

Nicasio remains the most enigmatic of the existing starters. There are those who think he’s better suited to the bullpen considering he’s basically a one-pitch pitcher. But when Nicasio’s fastball is electric and down, he doesn’t need much variety. Lately, he had been building up vast pitch counts early in games trying to be too fine. So Weiss paired him Sunday with veteran catcher Yorvit Torrealba.

“I just say, ‘Whatever I put down, you throw it,'” Torrealba explained when asked about his pre-game instructions for Nicasio.

“I mean, I don’t try to take any credit or anything, but I told him I just want him to go out there and have fun. I don’t want him to think at all. Just go ahead and throw it and execute down. And then, whatever happens, happens. If you get killed, blame it on me, I don’t care. I just want him to throw strikes and see what happens. And he did.”

Considering what they went through last year, deploying starters who clearly weren’t ready because everybody else was hurt, it’s a nice problem to have.

Things can change in a heartbeat, of course. The Rocks conclude the current homestand with three against the Diamondbacks, who are now in first place, leading both the Rocks and Giants by a game, and then travel to San Francisco for three more with the Giants. Those first couple of days at sea level after a homestand are still a challenge for them. The last time they hit the road, the Cardinals threw consecutive complete-game shutouts at them.

Still, the weekend demonstrated something about this year’s Rocks that wasn’t all that clear before: They can take a punch.