What To Watch for: Colorado Rockies

Bob LockeContributor IApril 5, 2009

The 2009 Colorado Rockies won't look anything like the 2008 version. Gone are regular contributors Matt Holliday, Brian Fuentes, and Willy Taveras (through trade and free agency) as well as Jeff Francis (lost to injury) and a number of role players such as Scott Podsednik, Cory Sullivan, Kip Wells, Livan Hernandez, Matt Herges, and Luis Vizcaino.

Without breaking it down too far, the bullpen (once Buchholz returns) looks to be a strength this year. Another lefty would have been nice to complement Embree, but Speier looks really good and Grilli and Rusch are real gamers.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Juan Morillo, who is out of options, and whether or not they pull of the proposed deal for Jason Hammel. Suffice it to say that they should win almost every game in which they have the lead after six innings; they are that deep and that talented down there.

There will be two new everyday starters in Ryan Spilborghs (CF) and Seth Smith (LF). The other six positions will see returning starters: Helton (1B), Barmes (2B), Tulowitzki (SS) Atkins (3B), Hawpe (RF), and Iannetta (C).

The terms "regular" or "everyday" will be thrown out the window this year at a number of positions as manager Clint Hurdle will be pressed to find routine at-bats for Ian Stewart and Dexter Fowler as well as Jeff Baker.

Expect Hawpe, Atkins, and Tulowitzki to slightly exceed 550 at-bats, with several other players in the vicinity of 400-450 AB's.

Hurdle has flexibility with this lineup like he has never had. For the most part, there are patient hitters up and down the order with solid OBP's (.370 or better for most), and he can get favorable left-right matchups with the players he has available.

That should lead to elevated pitch counts for opposing starters and the ability to get into the bullpen of the other team fairly early IF they maintain that discipline. The fine line will be getting everyone enough AB's to stay sharp, but that should lead to players staying fresh and productive all season. It's a nice problem to have.

There is less speed overall (even when Fowler plays), but greater power as a whole. This team should finish in the top five in the NL in home runs, even with Holliday gone. Of the players who should see regular duty, only Fowler and Barmes lack 15-20 (or more) HR power, given 550 AB's.

So instead of concentrating on getting one or two players out as is the case with most teams, the Rockies will have dangerous hitters 1-8 on most days.

Add it all up, and you have a team that should lead the NL West in runs scored.

The flip side of the coin: they may lead the NL West in runs allowed.

Aaron Cook has followed up a very solid 2008 with a nice Spring (27.2 IP, 3.25 ERA, 20 K's, 6 BB's). If he continues that into the regular season, he could easily win 16-18 games with the run support he is likely to receive.

Ubaldo Jimenez was phenomenal in the WBC, then tailed off quite a bit once rejoining the Rockies. He should still be good for 200 IP with an ERA of 3.75, give or take a bit, and has the ability to go lower than that with 200 K's as well.

In other words, he's the one guy currently on the staff who possesses "true ace" ability. If he pitches like it, he could also win 16-18 games.

Then the fun begins.

Jorge De la Rosa, coming off a superb second half of 2008, has not fared very well this Spring (6.86 ERA in 19.2 IP). Some of his peripherals look good (23 K's to 7 BB's), but he's given up a .325 batting average (27 hits).

The bright spot is that only one of those hits cleared the wall. The numbers suggest that he's getting hit frequently but not very hard. It's hard to know what to make of that: more balls in play could start finding fielders, more could start flying over the wall, or both.

Jason Marquis, brought in as a stabilizer, has looked like nothing of the sort. His first four outings were ugly. There's no other way to put it. However, his last two outings (11 IP, 13 H, 6 ER, 11 K, 1 BB, 76% strikes thrown) look much better, with the exception of allowing 3 HR.

He has been pretty consistent four of the last five years, and maybe these last two starts point to him finally locating that form. One thing to note about his Spring: he has recorded 33 groundball outs to 20 flyball outs.

Franklin Morales has had a very good Spring. His ERA sits at 4.50, but most of that is courtesy of one start (5 ER in 3 IP on 3/2). If you remove that start (which was only his second of the Spring) and look at his other six efforts, you see 9 ER in 25 IP (3.24 ERA).

His walk and strikeout rates are fine (6 BB's and 13 K's in 28 IP), but two things point to a possible bit of trouble: five HR allowed and 20 GB to 44 FB outs.

One of these three, preferably two, must truly sort it out in back of Cook and Jimenez. Marquis has the track record, and the other two have the raw ability. Someone needs to step forward. So, that's where they find themselves on the eve of the first game: Hoping that a consistent No. 3 starter emerges from among those three candidates.

That's the thing to watch for in the first month or six weeks: If one guy stands up, they can play pretty close to .500 ball. If two of them get on track, the Rockies have a legitimate chance to win the NL West in 2009.