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MLB Team Report - Colorado Rockies - INSIDE PITCH
By Jack Etkin
The Colorado Rockies are trying to rise from historic depths, having finished last in consecutive seasons for the first time in their 21-year existence.
They improved 10 games to 74 wins in 2013, but endured a third straight losing season, something that last happened during their franchise-record run of six consecutive losing seasons from 2001-06.
The Rockies needed to address their rotation and bullpen and find a replacement for first baseman Todd Helton, all of which they did so during an offseason that was unusually busy and likely provided some much-needed depth.
First baseman Helton retired at the age of 40, having spent his entire 17-year career with the Rockies. Center fielder Dexter Fowler was also traded to the Houston Astros.
First baseman Justin Morneau will replace Helton, having signed a two-year, $12.5 million contract as a free agent. Morneau's power numbers have declined since the first of two concussions in 2010, but output that includes 20 home runs and a slew of doubles seems reasonable with home games at Coors Field.
In return for Fowler, the Rockies received right-handed pitcher Jordan Lyles, a fly ball pitcher -- not ideal for Coors Field -- who will contend for the fifth spot in the rotation but could open the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs after being rushed to the majors by the Astros. The Rockies also received Brandon Barnes, a reserve outfielder in the deal. That seems like a minimal return for Fowler, but the trade had financial implications. Fowler will make $7.35 million this season, and the Rockies were able to put that money toward other needs and fill center field with Carlos Gonzalez, who has played the position well.
The Rockies ranked last in the National League in ERA for both their starters (4.57) and relievers (4.23) and took steps to upgrade both the rotation and bullpen.
Left-hander Brett Anderson was acquired from the Oakland A's, and if he is healthy -- and that has been an issue in recent seasons -- should give the Rockies a fourth decent starter to go along with right-hander Jhoulys Chacin, left-hander Jorge De La Rosa and righty Tyler Chatwood.
In addition to Lyles, righty Juan Nicasio and left-handers Franklin Morales and Christian Friedrich will vie to become the fifth starter. However, Morales, who was acquired from Boston but began his career with the Rockies, could remain in the bullpen where he pitched for the Red Sox. Friedrich is finally healthy after being hampered by a stress fracture in his lower back each of the past two seasons. Barring an extraordinary spring, Friedrich, who has one option remaining, is likely to open the season at Colorado Springs where he can get back to the routine of starting and log innings in a less stress-free environment.
Other players to watch in spring training include right-hander LaTroy Hawkins, 41, who pitched for the Rockies in 2007 when they made their only World Series appearance, and signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract. He comes to camp as the closer, a role performed well for the New York Mets in the final two months of 2013.
Spring training will determine whether the Rockies have a spot in the bullpen -- maybe two if they decide to open the season with eight relievers -- for right-handers Chad Bettis, Nick Masset, who last pitched in the big leagues in 2011 and signed a minor league contract, righty Tommy Kahnle, taken in the Rule 5 draft from the New York Yankees, and right-hander Manuel Corpas, signed to a minor league contract.
Other players to watch in spring training are catchers Jordan Pacheco and Mike McKendry, who began his career with the Rockies and returns on a minor league contract. They are competing to back up Wilin Rosario.
Drew Stubbs, acquired in the offseason from the Cleveland Indians, Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon will compete in spring training for the left field job. A platoon is possible, since the right-handed hitting Stubbs is far more effective against left-handed pitchers, and both Blackmon and Dickerson bat left-handed.
MLB Team Report - Colorado Rockies - NOTES, QUOTES
--SS Troy Tulowitzki played 126 games last year and has played as many as 140 in a season three times -- a career-high 155 games as a rookie in 2007, 151 games in 2009 and 143 in 2011. His health over the long haul is paramount to the Rockies avoiding a fourth consecutive losing season.
--LF Carlos Gonzalez, one of the better players in the game, needs to avoid injury and play 140 games for the Rockies to realistically contend this season. Gonzalez, who played 110 games last year, reached the 140-game plateau just once -- 145 games in 2010.
--RHP Juan Nicasio, bidding for the final spot in the rotation, is finally coming off a normal offseason rather than one consumed with rehabbing. He wore down toward the end of 2013 when he finished with a career-high 157 2/3 innings after throwing a combined 129 2/3 in his rookie 2011 season and 2012, both seasons that were shortened by serious injuries.
--RHP Tommy Kahnle will be trying to become just the second player taken by the Rockies in the Rule 5 draft to make the Opening Day roster. The Rockies selected Kahnle from the New York Yankees organization after he went 1-3 with 15 saves and a 2.85 ERA in 46 games for Double-A Trenton with 45 walks, 74 strikeouts and 38 hits allowed in 60 innings. INF Luis Gonzalez, selected from the Cleveland Indians in the 2003 Rule 5 draft, played for the Rockies in 2004-06. Last year, the Rockies sent LHP Danny Rosenbaum back to the Washington Nationals during spring training after taking him in the 2012 Rule 5 draft.
--RF Michael Cuddyer, the reigning National League batting champion, will be a long shot to repeat and, perhaps, even contend this year for the batting title. He hit .331 last year, far above his previous career-high of .284 in both 2006 and 2011 with the Minnesota Twins. Cuddyer and his batting title will be commemorated with a bobblehead gnome, given to the first 15,000 fans April 6. That will also be the allotment of bobblehead gnomes for LF Carlos Gonzalez on May 18, SS Troy Tulowitzki on June 22, 3B Nolan Arenado on July 13 and C Wilin Rosario on Sept. 13.
--1B Todd Helton will have his No. 17 retired in a pre-game ceremony Aug. 17 and become the first Rockies player to receive that honor. Helton spent his entire 17-year career with the Rockies, making his major league debut in August 1998 and playing through the 2013 season. He is the franchise leader in games played (2,247), at-bats (7,962), runs scored (1,401), hits (2,519), doubles (592), home runs (369), RBIs (1,406), extra-base hits (998), walks (1,335) and strikeouts (1,175).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think getting him was absolutely a critical move for us. We need him to make his starts, and there's no reason to believe that he won't. Adding this type of left-hander who's had success can be huge for us."--Rockies manager Walt Weiss, on pitcher Brett Anderson, who was acquired in a December trade with the Oakland A's.
MLB Team Report - Colorado Rockies - ROSTER REPORT
LHP Jorge De La Rosa
RHP Jhoulys Chacin
LHP Brett Anderson
RHP Tyler Chatwood
RHP Juan Nicasio or LHP Franklin Morales or LHP Christian Friedrich or RHP Jordan Lyles
The Rockies went 49-32 when De La Rosa, Chacin or Chatwood started and 25-56 otherwise. Hence, the importance of Anderson, who was the Opening Day starter for the A's last year but has pitched just 163 innings the past three seasons as he dealt with Tommy John surgery, an oblique injury and last year, a stress fracture in his right foot. Anderson enters camp fully healthy. The Rockies see growth -- and maybe sizable growth -- for Nicasio, who spent the offseason following the 2011 and 2012 seasons rehabbing from a broken neck and microfracture knee surgery, respectively, but had a normal offseason that included five starts in winter ball. Morales made nine starts for the Boston Red Sox in 2012 and one last year but primarily has relieved since 2009. He'll get a chance to return to the rotation, but keeping him in relief gives Weiss a third left-hander in the bullpen, always a desirable option.
RHP LaTroy Hawkins (closer)
LHP Rex Brothers
RHP Matt Belisle
LHP Boone Logan
RHP Adam Ottavino
RHP Wilton Lopez
LHP Franklin Morales
RHP Tommy Kahnle or RHP Nick Masset or RHP Chad Bettis or RHP Manuel Corpas
Hawkins will enter spring training as the closer, but Brothers can be used in that role if Hawkins has pitched a couple nights in a row or the opposing lineup in the ninth is stacked with left-handed hitters.
Assuming Morales doesn't end up in the rotation, one bullpen spot appears open. Belisle and Lopez struggled last year but can be used in lower-leveraged situations because Ottavino went from a multi-inning reliever to a seventh-inning type in the second half of last year and the back end of the bullpen has been fortified by the additions of Hawkins and Logan. Masset, who had thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in August, could start the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, but he can opt out of his contract June 30 if not on the big league roster. Kahnle, who pitched at Double-A Trenton last year, has a power arm and could be a weapon in middle relief provided his command is more consistent.
1. LF Drew Stubbs or Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson
2. RF Michael Cuddyer
3. CF Carlos Gonzalez
4. SS Troy Tulowitzki
5. C Wilin Rosario
6. 1B Justin Morneau
7. 3B Nolan Arenado
8. 2B DJ LeMahieu
Weiss said he plans to bat reigning National League batting champion Cuddyer second rather than LeMahieu, who will drop to eighth. It is possible Weiss will flip-flop Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, hitting the former fourth and moving later to third. In the absence Fowler, who was traded to Houston, Gonzalez is scheduled to shift to center field from left field. However, if Blackmon or Stubbs emerge in the three-way battle for left field, either can play center field and Weiss might platoon them there and keep Gonzalez in left. One certainty is that Gonzalez will not move back and forth between left field and center, but will play one outfield position. Against tough left-handed pitchers, Morneau, a left-handed hitter, will likely be replaced at first base by either Cuddyer or Rosario, both right-handed hitters. Josh Rutledge, Charlie Culberson and Paul Janish will vie for two utility spots.
TOP ROOKIES: RHP Jonathan Gray, the third player taken in the 2013 amateur draft, and RHP Eddie Butler are expected to open the season at Double-A Tulsa, but both could be in the Rockies rotation by mid-season. Both are hard throwers with plus command, who project to be front-of-the-rotation starters. Gray went 4-0 with a 1.95 ERA in nine combined starts last year for Rookie Grand Junction and high Class A Modesto, allowing 25 hits in 37 innings with eight walks and 51 strikeouts. Butler pitched at low Class A Asheville, Modesto and Tulsa last year and went a combined 9-5 with a 1.80 ERA in 149 2/3 innings, allowing 96 hits and 52 walks with 143 strikeouts.
--RHP Rafael Betancourt (Tommy John surgery on Sept. 17, 2013) did not have his option renewed. He will rehab this entire season and hopes to re-sign with the Rockies for 2015.
--CF Carlos Gonzalez underwent an emergency appendectomy and had a small hernia near his navel removed Jan. 10. He was cleared for physical activity two weeks later and came to spring training with no limitations. Gonzalez was bothered in the second half of last season by a sprained right middle finger and last batted in a game Aug. 4. He opted not to have surgery, and the finger has responded to rest and is no longer an issue.