Tag Archives: Jhoulys Chacin

For the Rockies, same as it ever was

Nick Groke posted a tweet thread Sunday that reminded me of the Rockies’ bad old days, when their suckage seemed like a permanent state, interrupted occasionally and wistfully by brief confluences of good luck.

In the 16 years from 2001 to 2016, the Rocks had three winning seasons. Back then, some annoyed journalist, blogger or radio talk-show host, sometimes all three, would lash out after another losing season and urge a popular uprising against ownership or management.

A lot of years, it was merited. During its interminable rebuilds, the franchise enjoyed above-average attendance and below-average payrolls, leading to the logical conclusion that ownership cared more about profits than winning.

Groke does a nice job covering the Rockies for The Athletic. He maintains a distance and wit over the long season that offers readers the truth with a little bite, which is not always, or even often, the case with Rockies beat writers.

But this tweet felt more what-have-you-done-for-us-lately than similar calls to action in the past. And it started up an old motor on an old cause, which isn’t really his fault.

So feel free to complain your ass off about the Rockies, if you care. Complaining might help…
— Nick Groke (@nickgroke)

I’m just a fan now, but aside from hindsight, always 20-20, I don’t know what the complaint aimed at ownership or management would be this year. The Rocks were coming off two straight playoff appearances following seasons of 87 and 91 wins. They had the most promising young pitching staff in their history. The payroll was above the league average.

True, the payroll rank is lower than the attendance rank, but it’s higher than the TV market rank, which has at least as much to do with total revenues.

Several pitchers broke down in one way or another and it got ugly. To blame this on ownership or management, you would have to argue they should have anticipated this dramatic decline from roughly the same pitching staff and overhauled a 91-win team going in. I didn’t hear anyone making that case last spring.

Situational hitting varies from year to year, but the offense was about the same from a production standpoint. Last year’s 91-win team scored 4.79 runs per game. This year’s team, currently 65-85, in last place, is averaging 5.19 with 12 games to play.

Scoring is up league-wide this year — from an average of 4.45 runs per team per game last year to 4.85 so far this year — so both the Rocks and the league average are up 0.4 runs per game. They ranked seventh in scoring among all big league clubs last year; this year, they rank ninth.

The pitching was nowhere near the same. The Rocks allowed 4.57 runs per game last year, lower than 10 teams, which is quite an accomplishment when you play half your games at Coors Field. They had a team earned-run average of 4.33.

They’re allowing 5.95 runs a game this year, with an ERA of 5.63, worst in the big leagues in both categories except for the tanking Orioles.

They had 84 quality starts last year. This year they have 44.

Four starters had better-than-average park-adjusted ERAs in 2018. Two do this year.

What happened, from the perspective of an old-timer who’s been watching since Opening Day in 1993, is the same thing that always happens. In their 27-year history, the Rocks have never been able to sustain good pitching. To understand why, you have to acknowledge the fact that pitching a mile high is different, very different, from pitching anywhere else in the major leagues.

This is not a myth, it’s not an excuse, it’s freaking science.

And it’s an enormous structural disadvantage for the Rockies. For most of its history, club officials have done their best to avoid discussing this publicly because they believe acknowledging it gives players a built-in excuse for failure. But the result is a public posture of ignoring or denying science, which is unlikely to be a successful strategy in the long run.

A lot of longtime Rockies fans, and most of the reporters who cover the team, are sick and tired of hearing about this. They would rather blame the players or management architects in each case. Over time, this has created a lengthening list of individual, idiosyncratic self-destructions in the public mind. That doesn’t change the science either.

Robert Adair, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of physics at Yale University, now 95, explained it all in The Physics of Baseball, which he updated to include some discussion of the effects of altitude for the third edition in 2002.

Batted balls travel farther and faster due to less air resistance a mile high, which accounts for the sprawling Coors Field outfield, designed to cut down on home runs but carrying unintended consequences of its own. Adair observed:

The use of a less lively, “high-altitude” ball would reduce the altitude effect, just as special less lively, “high-altitude” balls are used in tennis, though for somewhat different reasons.

As a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News beginning in 2000, I advocated development of a high-altitude ball to bring scoring at Coors Field closer to baseball’s normal parameters. Various officials of the Rockies and other teams told me this would never happen. There was too much suspicion of doctored balls as it was.

Just putting standard balls in a humidified room to keep them from drying out and making a bad situation worse caused some controversy at the time. Would the home team substitute non-humidor balls for humidor balls when it came to bat? Given baseball’s documented history of attempts to get an edge, it seemed like a reasonable question.

Restricted-flight balls are an entirely different matter, with distinctive markings in the sports that use them, so the humidor analogy doesn’t apply. By the time I raised this point, every baseball official I talked to had already waved off the idea as impossible.

In tennis, of course, they have no choice. You can’t play the game a mile above sea level  with regular tennis balls. They bounce into moonshots. Basketballs are inflated to a different pressure at high elevation to achieve the same behavior you get at sea level.

Baseballs are solid, so the necessary adjustments are different, but it’s certainly doable. Softball and golf both have restricted-flight balls. Somehow, both games figured out how to give them distinctive, identifying markings.

As it turns out, the increased speed and distance of batted balls at altitude is not even the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the effect on pitching. Orel Hershiser, the longtime Dodgers star who is now part of their television broadcast team, riffed on it during a visit to Denver in June.

The proximate cause was just another 12-8 Coors Field game featuring 33 hits, including 13 in 5 2/3 innings against Dodgers starter Walker Buehler, who hasn’t surrendered more than nine in any other start this year.

“This is one place that even pitchers are confident they can get a hit,” Hershiser said after Buehler collected his second of the season. “And it’s not a good feeling, cuz you’re like, ‘If I feel like I can get a hit here, I gotta go get nine guys out on the other side.’

“I don’t care how long they put the balls in the humidor and they try and balance that part of it so the ball won’t carry, because of where we are, and the lack of humidity and thin air, the ball won’t break as much. So there’s more solid contact. The popup at sea level is a long fly ball, possible home run, here because the hitter can square up more baseballs because it’s harder to make the ball move as a pitcher.

“The other thing you have to do as a pitcher that helps the offense here is you have to make the ball start breaking sooner. So, as far as late movement? Late movement is harder here. Because the way to get movement here is to help the ball on the pattern it’s going to go on, compared to thinking, ‘I can throw it out flat and it’ll break late.’ So it’s definitely an offensive park no matter what they do to help the flight of the ball be cut down.”

Play-by-play man Joe Davis piped up: “And so you almost have to be two different pitchers depending on what your set of stuff is, two different pitchers when you’re pitching home games versus going on road trips.”

Hershisher: “I really believe that, yeah. I used to come in here, if I was pitching in game one, I would actually go out early during batting practice and play catch three, four hours before the game, just to get an idea of what I’m going to have to aim for when I actually warm up. I didn’t want to just figure it out in the bullpen and come in. I wanted to get a couple different reps and get used to the air.”

Davis: “Did it take a hard lesson to learn to do that?”

Hershiser: “It did. You come in here and you think you can overpower it, like we have most of our life if you make it to the big leagues, but you can’t overpower this environment.”

Davis: “You thought you could have the leg up on Mother Nature, huh?”

Hershisher: “Well, look, you know, you just kinda come through and build an ego of, ‘Oh, I can spin it fast enough to make it break. I can do it.’ Even if you make adjustments, you might tell the media, ‘Nah, it’s no big deal.’”

That last part is important. Pitchers routinely downplay or deny the effects of the elevation in comments to reporters, so as not to be seen as making excuses, and a lot of reporters adopt that view, even though it’s not true.

“This is a place that if you’re a pitcher you can gain a lot of equity and a good reputation in the locker room,” Hershiser said. “If you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t come in here and whine about the environment, doesn’t talk about it, if you have a rough outing you don’t worry about it. You take your beating, if you have to, to save the staff and your teammates. So this is a place that can expose some character.”

Showing character is what they call denying reality in baseball because, from a player’s point of view, there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s similar to complaining about the weather. Both teams have to deal with it, right?

Right, except the Rocks deal with it 81 times a year, in 50 percent of their games, and no other team deals with it more than 10, or 6 percent of their games.

It affects the hitters, too, a fact that has escaped most national baseball analysts for 27 years. Each new season, some intrepid investigative reporter discovers that Rockies hitters have ginormous home/road splits. Charlie Blackmon’s .388/.256 batting-average split this season as of this writing is not unusual. Such splits are often used to argue that Rockies hitters are overrated because the road number is real baseball, the home number high-altitude arenaball. Home/road splits have been used against Larry Walker’s case for the Hall of Fame.

It’s true, of course, that the home numbers are inflated by the conditions Hershiser described. But the road numbers are depressed by the same phenomenon.

“These hard hit balls that you’re seeing more often than not is just the pitcher having difficulty getting the movement on the baseball,” Hershiser said. “The movement’s about half as much as you’d normally get it to move. That’s why the Rockie hitters, when they leave here, have such a problem getting hits on the road because they get that same spin and all of a sudden the ball is breaking twice as much.”

Again, this is old news. Dante Bichette famously brought what former general manager Bob Gebhard called a “curveball machine” on the road with him in the Rockies’ early days in an effort to adjust to sharper breaking balls before he got into the batter’s box.

The Rocks make that transition 11 times this season. No other team makes it more than three.

But hope springs eternal and the Rockies, the reporters who cover them, and many of their fans continue to believe the considerable difference between the physics of baseball at elevation and the physics of baseball at sea level can be overcome by mental toughness or something.

The data set over 27 years is growing large enough to suggest the devolutionary pattern of Rockies pitchers is more likely a product of the environment than the talent selection. Plenty of young pitchers have had auspicious starts, only to break down, mentally or physically.

Imported pitchers, accustomed to the luxury of their pitch selection and movement at sea level, have had some spectacular implosions in Colorado, most colorfully Mike Hampton and Jeremy Guthrie. The big contracts given to Hampton and Denny Neagle in 2000 set the Rockies back years. Hampton lasted two years and Neagle three, both putting up the worst numbers of their careers.

Given that history, free-agent pitchers require ridiculous premiums to pitch in Colorado, which leads to outcomes like three years, $52 million for closer Wade Davis, who has the worst earned-run average on this year’s team at 7.87, by far the highest of his career.

So the Rocks emphasize growing their own and have enjoyed some good short-term results: Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jhoulys Chacin, Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez (not homegrown, but acquired at 21, before he had appeared in the major leagues).

They are also one of only three franchises never to have a pitcher win 100 games in their uniform. The other two, Miami and Tampa Bay, are in this club because they’re cheap. They develop top-flight pitchers, they just don’t keep them when it’s time to pay them. The best pitchers developed by the Rocks have been unable to sustain their success.

Within the game, the physical breakdowns are often attributed to trying too hard to make the ball move, putting extra strain on the biomechanics of pitching to “overpower” the physics of baseball at altitude.

The mental breakdowns are harder to diagnose because of the macho, no-excuses culture, but the way Hampton and Guthrie struggled to contain their anger and frustration offered a clue about the emotional or psychological issues that may be less obvious in others.

Hershiser is by no means the only pitcher to acknowledge the physical reality. I tried to develop the beginnings of an oral history on this subject when I was still covering the team by discussing it with Matt Belisle, Alex White, John Smoltz, and R.A. Dickey.

Not being on the scene anymore, I don’t know how Rockies GM Jeff Bridich privately diagnoses Freeland’s precipitous fall from 17-7, 2.85 last year, at 25, when he finished fourth in Cy Young voting, to 3-11, 6.98 this year, at 26. As a Denver native, Freeland is pretty much the ideal case for mind over matter. He grew up in these conditions.

In the media, it was all typical stuff. Trying to do too much, poor mechanics, missing his spots, losing his confidence, etc. One media member covering the Rockies said it couldn’t be the altitude because one of Freeland’s worst outings came in Philadelphia. If you’ve talked to pitchers about this challenge, or read the accounts linked above, you know changing release points is a key adjustment, and disruptions to a repeatable delivery from such changes can show up anywhere.

Freeland’s cliff dive is not unique to him. Hampton was 9-2, 2.98 midway through his first season. He finished 14-13, 5.41, then went 7-15, 6.15 in 2002. Mercifully for everyone involved, the Rockies traded him after that season to Florida, which moved him on to Atlanta, where he became a good pitcher again for a couple of years.

Jimenez was 19-9, 2.88 in 2010, finishing third in Cy Young voting. A year later, he was 6-9, 4.46 when he was traded to Cleveland. He never regained the form he showed in Colorado, although he scattered a couple of good years among a bunch of mediocre ones in Cleveland and Baltimore.

This year wasn’t that dramatic a comedown for anyone but Freeland. Marquez devolved a little, but he was still pretty good. Gray quietly put up the best ERA of his career. Antonio Senzatela’s ERA ballooned from 4.38 last year to 6.87 this year, a deterioration that seemed familiar.

Can one or more of these guys avoid the traditional fate of Rockies starters and make a run at Jorge De La Rosa’s career mark of 86 wins in a Colorado uniform? They certainly have the physical ability. At 27, Gray has 43. At 24, Marquez has 38.

Of course, Jimenez, Jennings and Francis all had more than 50 by age 27.

If you feel like blaming ownership or management for this year’s collapse, consider that the solution to the Rocks’ long-term pitching issues, if there is one, is as much a mystery to them as it is to you. Their staff directory does not include a team physicist.

Francis, who started Game 1 of the 2007 World Series, the only time the Rocks have made it that far, actually majored in physics. In 2006, the American Physical Society asked him if that helped.

“As much as it might seem contradictory,” Francis said, “physics knowledge does not help much on the field. So much of playing baseball is ‘feel’ that explaining to someone what makes a ball curve would be almost meaningless. I get asked that a lot, and sometimes I say: ‘I never met him, but I bet Einstein couldn’t throw a curveball.’ ”

Not at altitude, anyway.

The most practical possible solution, the only practical possible solution I know of this side of a climate-controlled geodesic dome, is a restricted-flight ball with raised laces that increase air resistance and help pitchers command movement.

It would take some experimentation to get it right, to make the high-altitude ball behave a mile high the way a standard ball behaves at sea level. But I suspect it would not be the most miraculous technological innovation of our age.

If the alternative is denying science, pretending that will can overcome physics, it still seems, after all these years, like it’s worth a shot.

 


Treading water

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

It was one of those Colorado days Sunday at the ballyard. Bright blue sky, big crowd, lots of hits, lots of runs, no discernible sign of professional pitching.

This was in marked contrast to the Rockies’ three previous games — the finale of the last road trip in San Diego and the first two home games against the Phillies — in which they got shockingly good pitching, putting together their first three-game winning streak of the season by scores of 3-1, 12-1 and 3-1.

This is really the only question that matters about the 2014 edition of the Rocks. If they pitch like that even half the time, they will be pretty good. If they don’t, they won’t.

“Yeah, the game tends to fall into place when you get starting pitching,” manager Walt Weiss said before Sunday’s game when I asked him about that three-game stretch.

“That’s the key to this game. I don’t care what level you’re playing at. You get good starting pitching, you’re usually in good shape. We’ve had some guys step up. We’re talking about missing three of the top guys in our rotation to start the season. I think if you did that to any rotation in baseball, it’d be a challenge. So the fact that we’ve had guys step up and respond to the call has been really encouraging to me. And one of those guys is the guy that threw (Saturday) night, Jordan Lyles. He’s really been giving us a shot in the arm.”

Through 20 games, or 13 percent of the season, the Rocks are 10-10, and their team stats are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. At home, in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball, they’re a sensational offensive team, batting .354. Their OPS of .978 is 160 points higher than the next best home team.

On the road, they’re a mediocre to poor offense, their team OPS of .662 ranking 20th among the 30 big league clubs.

Troy Tulowitzki is batting .667 at home with two homers and 10 runs batted in. He’s batting .229 on the road with no homers and two RBI.

Carlos Gonzalez is batting .375 at home, .205 on the road. Charlie Blackmon’s splits are .486 and .313; Michael Cuddyer’s .417 and .250.

As anyone who has followed the Rockies for any appreciable amount of time knows, numbers such as these are an occupational hazard of playing here. The home numbers are inflated by the Coors Field factor and the road numbers are depressed by the increased movement of pitches at or near sea level and the constant adjustment Rockies hitters must make as they switch elevations throughout the season.

You might expect the reverse effect on their pitching numbers, and over large sample sizes and multiple years, you get it. But so far this year, they’re actually pitching better at Coors Field than on the road with a home earned-run average of 3.78 and road ERA of 4.55. For individual pitchers, of course, the sample size so far is ridiculously small.

The most encouraging single development, by far, has been the work of Lyles, as Weiss noted. He would not even be in the rotation if it weren’t for a sore hamstring that kept Tyler Chatwood from making his first couple of starts. Unaffected by Coors Field and its reputation for driving pitchers insane, Lyles has thrown his power sinker and big breaking curve ball at elevation with considerable early success, giving up one earned run in 13 2/3 innings for a home ERA of 0.66. He and Chatwood have been the Rockies’ only reliable starters so far.

As Weiss noted, the pitching staff remains a work in progress due to injury. Jhoulys Chacin, a 14-game winner last year, has yet to make his first start as he works his way back from shoulder stiffness in the spring. Brett Anderson, acquired from Oakland during the offseason along with a history of being prone to injury, broke a finger hitting a ground ball and is out at least a month after making just three starts. De La Rosa, a 16-game winner a year ago, has yet to find his groove, although his most recent start, his fourth of the season, was his best. Juan Nicasio and Franklin Morales have been predictably unpredictable.

The bullpen has been very good for stretches and very bad for stretches. Sunday, with a chance to sweep a series for the first time this season, it gave up five runs to the Phillies in four innings of work. Matt Belisle took the loss, but Boone Logan had the worst day, surrendering three runs, two earned, and retiring just one batter, as the Rocks fell 10-9.

Despite what looks like a sensational defensive team on paper, they are in the middle of the pack with 12 errors in 20 games, three of them at the catcher position, and that doesn’t include two run-scoring passed balls by backup Jordan Pacheco in just five games wearing the gear. It’s nice to have guys who can hit behind the plate, but so far the poor defense has more than made up for the offensive contributions of Pacheco and Wilin Rosario.

The much-maligned Dexter Fowler trade is working out pretty well so far. It produced their best starter to date in Lyles, and it freed up the money to sign free agent Justin Morneau, who looks like a classic Coors Field reclamation project in the tradition of Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette. Morneau is batting .364 and leads the club in RBI with 15 in the early going. He’s also avoided the dramatic splits, batting .367 at Coors and .324 elsewhere.

The fragility of their star players was a big factor in last season’s long, slow-motion collapse, and it’s already been an issue this year. Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Cuddyer have already missed time with leg issues, a troublesome sign. It might be time to bring in a yoga instructor.

It’s early, of course. April numbers are overly examined because they’re the only numbers we have when everybody is still excited about the possibilities. Last year the Rocks went 16-11 in April and finished 74-88.

When I asked Weiss if he liked where his team is through 20 games, this is what he said:

“I like our club. I like the mentality of our club. I think our guys will fight through the tough stuff and I think that’s the X factor in this league. And I think we have that. So, yeah, I like where we’re at.”

So far, the Rocks are who we thought they were — a big-time offense at home, a small-time offense on the road and mediocre on the mound pretty much everywhere, except for that promising stretch of three games at the end of last week. If Chacin returns soon, De La Rosa finds his form and Lyles and Chatwood continue what they’ve started, the pitching could be better than mediocre. If the hitting stars can stay on the field and learn to play more situational ball on the road, the offense could be more consistently productive.

That’s a lot of ifs. The promise is there, but that’s still all it is.


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’ pitching staff in disarray

Actually, disarray may be too mild a word for the state of the Rockies’ pitching staff after it blew early leads of 5-0 and 6-0 on consecutive nights against the Braves, scoring seventeen runs in two games and losing them both.

“That’s the worst game of the year for us,” manager Jim Tracy said after the second, Saturday night’s 13-9 throwback to the early days of baseball at altitude.

By the time it was over, the Rocks’ team earned-run average had ballooned to 5.06, worst in the National League. Esmil Rogers, who allowed five earned runs in an inning and a third, saw his ERA soar to 8.36. Edgmer Escalona is at 8.53.

“Our pitching, as I mentioned last night, it’s got to be better than what we’re seeing right now,” Tracy said in the understatement of the soggy evening at Coors Field. “It’s unacceptable. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

Generally inclined to defend his players to a fault, Tracy was critical of Rogers and Rex Brothers for lack of consistency out of the bullpen, just as he had torched Jhoulys Chacin and Guillermo Moscoso recently for short, ineffective starts.

And it’s not as though all this trouble is in the rear view. Before Saturday night’s debacle, the club was forced to abandon plans to bring Jeremy Guthrie off the disabled list for Tuesday’s game in San Diego, meaning Tracy had to tell reporters he didn’t know who would start either Tuesday’s or Wednesday’s game there. At the moment, he has three healthy starters, one of whom is 49 years old and couldn’t hold leads of 6-0 and 8-3 on Saturday.

That, of course, would be Jamie Moyer, who became the oldest player to get a hit in a big league game Saturday since 50-year-old Minnie Minoso got one for the White Sox in 1976. Heartwarming as this tale is, Moyer is trying to get batters out at Coors Field with a “fastball” clocked at 77 miles per hour, which is slower than most major league changeups. Saturday, he managed to do it for four innings before everything unraveled.

“The wheels fell off,” he said afterward. “Solo home runs usually don’t beat you, but they just chipped away, chipped away. I couldn’t get an out in the sixth. I don’t have an answer for you right now.”

After giving up two solo homers and a single to open the sixth, Moyer departed with an 8-5 lead and one runner aboard. By the time Rogers was finished pouring kerosene on the brush fire, the score was tied and the bases were loaded. By the time Brothers departed two outs later, the Braves led 12-8.

The fact that the Rocks are counting on Moyer at all is evidence of the implosion of their plans for this year’s pitching staff. Coming off Tommy John surgery and old enough to be most of his teammates’ father, Moyer was a non-roster invitee to spring training, the longest of long shots. The Rockies had nine starters ahead of him when pitchers and catchers reported in February.

After trading Ubaldo Jimenez for three pitchers from Cleveland, Seth Smith for two pitchers from Oakland and Chris Iannetta for a pitcher from the L.A. Angels, it looked as though they’d have enough starters to staff both the big league club and the Triple-A affiliate in Colorado Springs. Instead, it’s as if they all caught some awful, contagious disease.

Josh Outman, one of the pitchers from Oakland, got hurt. Guillermo Moscoso, the other pitcher from Oakland, was ineffective. So were Tyler Chatwood, the pitcher from the Angels, and Alex White, one of the pitchers from Cleveland. Only one of these four had to pitch well enough to bump Moyer from consideration. None of them did.

Jhoulys Chacin, the Rockies’ winningest pitcher last year, showed up out of shape and pitched to an ERA of 7.30 before being shipped out. Guthrie, the fitness freak obtained from Baltimore who rides a bicycle to the ballpark, had some sort of chain problem that crashed his bike, leaving him with a shoulder injury and a trip to the disabled list.

So here they are, with two healthy starters under the age of forty-nine — Juan Nicasio and rookie Drew Pomeranz — and just nine quality starts in twenty-six games, fewest in the National League. The bullpen, which started well, has been called upon way too much and is already fried. There are no quick fixes, either. If there were, you can bet the Yankees and Red Sox would have bought them up already.

The good news is Nicasio and Pomeranz pitch the next two. Each went at least six innings in his last start, which makes them marathon men in comparison to the rest of the Rockies’ staff.

The bad news is nobody is quite sure what happens after that. Christian Friedrich, the Rocks’ first-round draft pick in 2008, last pitched at Triple-A on Friday, which would make the timing right for Wednesday’s start in San Diego. He wasn’t exactly lights out, giving up five runs, three earned, in five and two-thirds innings, but the Rocks don’t have a lot of options. His overall ERA of 3.00 in thirty innings isn’t bad, particularly for the Pacific Coast League.

White last pitched for the Sky Sox on Tuesday, managing just four and two-thirds innings. Outman is on his way back from an oblique injury and a long way from being ready to go deep into a game as a starter. Chacin and Moscoso were just recently banished to Colorado Springs because they pitched so poorly.

So while Tracy declined to speculate, the options include Carlos Torres, recently called up from Triple-A to be a long relief man, and Friedrich. But stay tuned. Television analyst George Frazier and his son, Parker, now at Double-A Tulsa, might be options by the time the team arrives in San Diego.

All of this is having the depressing effect you might expect on the rest of the clubhouse. The Rocks are tied for second in the National League in runs, but when you score eight and nine in consecutive games and lose them both, that’s not much consolation.

“It’s hard when you go down like this after scoring six runs early in the game and feeling excited when things are going well early in the game,” said Carlos Gonzalez, who had four hits Saturday to raise his team-leading batting average to .323.

“Everything just blew up in the middle of the game. We just have to hold the other team and continue to score runs if we need to. It’s difficult. It’s a tough loss and I’m really tired of saying the same things over and over. We need to figure it out and just try to get that ‘W’.”

Rockies management might be forgiven if this were an isolated run of bad luck. After all, Moscoso made twenty-one starts for Oakland last season and pitched to an ERA of 3.38. Outman made nine more. Chatwood made twenty-five for the Angels. The Rockies have gotten two forgettable starts from Moscoso and none from the others.

But this organization has been struggling to assemble a competent pitching staff for years, and it has made some whopper mistakes with pitchers early in the the draft, most notably selecting Greg Reynolds with the second overall pick in 2006, in the process passing on Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum, now the aces of two of their rivals in the National League West. At some point, you have to ask whether the existing management is capable of judging pitching talent, whether in the draft or the trade and free agent markets. Pitching at altitude poses unique difficulties, but you can’t do worse than last in the league.

Of course, those organizational questions are not Tracy’s concern at the moment. He just needs to find somebody — anybody — who can get people out. Preferably this week.


A little early to panic: Thoughts on the Rockies’ first series

On Twitter, the modern version of Morse code, RIGHT NOW is all that really matters. Thus, from the first weekend of baseball’s new season, we get:

* Trading Jason Hammel was a huge mistake by the Rockies because he had the best start of his career in his Orioles debut, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning.

* The Red Sox stink again, just like last fall when they blew a sure playoff berth. Shows what the experts know.

* The Mets are awesome.

* The Rockies’ roster is a joke, what was Dan O’Dowd thinking, and Jim Tracy still overmanages.

Slight exaggerations, granted, but I did receive these tweets, verbatim, after the Rocks lost two out of three in Houston:

“Offense overrated.”

“So far, Rockies are who critics thought they were.”

After three games. Out of 162. So let’s take a step back and remember a few things. Last year, the Rocks came out of the gate 11-2 and finished April at 17-8. They were under .500 by the end of May (25-29) on their way to a desultory 73-win season.

This is where the level-headed writer is supposed to urge fans to wait for a statistically significant sample size, but in two of the past five seasons, there has been no such thing for the Rockies.

In 2010, they had a .554 winning percentage, on pace for 90 wins, through 148 games, which seems like a pretty good sample size. Then they lost 13 of their last 14 to finish 83-79 (.512). So a team that looked good for much of the season turned out to be mediocre.

In 2007, as you may recall, exactly the opposite happened. The Rocks had a .514 winning percentage through 148 games, barely above average, then won 13 out of 14 (14 out of 15 if you count the one-game playoff with San Diego; 21 out of 22 if you could the NLDS and NLCS), to finish the regular season 89-73. So a team that looked mediocre for much of the season turned out to be pretty good.

All of which is to say sometimes you can’t tell with the Rockies even when you’ve watched them all summer. So one weekend in April is probably not enough basis for any significant conclusions. But let’s knock down a few misconceptions anyway:

* Jamie Moyer is not the No. 2 starter, even though he pitched the second game. You might think this wouldn’t need to be explained to anyone paying even casual attention, but apparently it does. Moyer, who throws nothing but junk because he’s . . . well, because he’s 49 years old . . .  was inserted in the rotation between hard throwers Jeremy Guthrie and Juan Nicasio in hopes he would serve as a change of pace. It may have worked, although not for him. After hitting against him Saturday, the Astros were largely lost against Nicasio’s heat Sunday. Starting Moyer in Houston also gives him one less start at altitude, where one winces at the prospects.

In any case, Moyer is the fifth starter, and a temporary one at that. The first four starters are Guthrie, Nicasio, Drew Pomeranz and Jhoulys Chacin. When Jorge De La Rosa is ready to return from Tommy John surgery — early June, the Rocks hope — he’ll take the fifth spot and Moyer’s grand Reminiscence Tour will be over.

Moyer made the club only because four younger candidates for the temporary fifth starter role — Guillermo Moscoso, Tyler Chatwood, Josh Outman and Alex White — failed to win the job in the spring. That’s disappointing, but if any of them starts pitching well, either in the minor leagues or from the bullpen, he can take Moyer’s spot any time.

* The fact that Pomeranz is not yet on the 25-man roster does not prove Rockies management is demented. Pomeranz, the fifth pick of the 2010 draft and the central prize of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, pitched 101 innings in the minors last year and 18.1 in the majors. That’s . . . give me a minute to warm up the calculator — 119.1 innings pitched. Crunching the numbers on young pitchers who have run into arm trouble, the Rocks conclude that one red flag is a big jump in innings pitched from one year to the next.

If Pomeranz is as good as he looks — his minor league ERA last year was 1.78 — he would pitch 200 innings or more as a regular member of the rotation. The Rocks don’t want that. In fact, they don’t want him to pitch many more than 150. How to do that?

Well, treat him like a fifth starter, even though he’ll probably be their ace in short order. Skip him the first time around, since a day off allows them to go with four starters twice through the rotation. His scheduled start at Double A Tulsa is to keep him on schedule, but it should be a short one. I’m still suggesting you get tickets for Sunday, April 15, his first scheduled start of the season at Coors Field.

* The reason Jonathan Herrera is on the roster is not that he’s friends with Carlos Gonzalez. He, Chris Nelson and Eric Young Jr. may seem like way too many of the same sort of ineffectual player, but there’s one big difference: Rockies management doesn’t want to see either Nelson or Young playing shortstop or second base if it’s not an emergency. That means Herrera is the only defensive replacement for Troy Tulowitzki or Marco Scutaro that doesn’t make the brass cringe. Rockies fans love to hate Herrera because he doesn’t hit much, but inasmuch as the Rocks have committed four errors in three games, all by infielders and one costing them Sunday’s game, they probably want more defense, not less.

* Yes, admittedly, third base is still a black hole. While studly prospect Nolan Arenado begins the season at Tulsa (batting .533 through four games with an OPS of 1.344) the Rocks hope that either Nelson or Jordan Pacheco proves capable of being a placeholder. Each made a costly throwing error in Houston, Pacheco’s arguably costing them Sunday’s game, and they were a combined 1-for-11 at the plate.

If it makes you feel any better, Ian Stewart committed one of those sleepy Ian Stewart errors — dropping a ball as he transferred it from his glove to his hand — for the Cubs, although he is 2-for-8 with a run scored and an RBI through three games in Chicago.

But, hey, that ship has sailed. Stewart hit .156 last season and after eight years in the organization, the Rocks moved on, exchanging him for outfielder Tyler Colvin, another former first-round pick in need of a fresh start. One of three things is going to happen at the hot corner:

1. Nelson or Pacheco takes hold of the position, hits enough to stay in the lineup and learns how to throw to first.

2. Neither takes hold of the position and the Rocks, desperate, call up Brandon Wood from Triple A Colorado Springs, who is 4-for-14 through four games (.286) and hasn’t made an error yet.

3. Neither takes hold of the position and the Rocks, desperate, notice Arenado is batting over .500, figure he’ll be old enough to drink legally any day (his 21st birthday is a week from today), throw caution to the wind and call him up.

Even while losing the series in Houston, the Rocks saw some encouraging signs. Guthrie and Nicasio both gave them quality starts, pitching seven innings apiece. Rookie catcher Wilin Rosario hit a towering home run in his first start, confirming the power he demonstrated in spring training. The bats haven’t heated up yet, but newcomer Michael Cuddyer had five hits in his first series in purple and black.

But the main point I want to make is it’s only three games. The Yankees are 0-3. So are the Red Sox. The Orioles are 3-0, which is the biggest tell of all. So do what the Rocks did last night. Put the Houston series in the rearview and enjoy today’s home Opening Day.


The good, the bad and the ugly of Rockies camp

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:

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

The Ugly

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.

The Roster

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.