Few would disagree that the 2009 Colorado Rockies are somewhat of an enigma.
Under Clint Hurdle they imitated the depressing 2008 team that finished third in a weak NL West by compiling a 20-28 record. With Jim Tracy at the helm they have flourished much like the 2007 Rockies, posting a 20-7 record.
The first question that comes to mind is “which team are they?”
Are they the team that had a line of .249 BA/.323 OBP/.426 SLG under Clint Hurdle or are they the group of sluggers who have hit .279 BA/.477 OBP/.464 SLG under Jim Tracy?
What exactly caused the Rockies lineup to explode with Jim Tracy as manager?
This outburst of hitting began around the time when Ian Stewart was inserted into the everyday lineup over the struggling Garrett Atkins. He has provided power in the sixth spot with a team leading 13 home runs.
Todd Helton has been entrenched in the third spot in the order all season long and is showing no signs of relinquishing that post. He has had a marvelous comeback season batting .317 with a .397 on base percentage and a .510 slugging percentage.
Brad Hawpe has surprisingly been one of the better cleanup hitters in baseball this year. He has done his best to make Rockies fans forget about Matt Holliday, authoring a Larry Walker-esque line of .332 BA/.404 OBP/.595 SLG. Barring a major collapse, Hawpe will be in St. Louis to participate in the All-Star Game this year.
Stewart’s presence seemed to spark Troy Tulowitzki as he has been the best shortstop in baseball during the month of June; batting .355 BA/.447 OBP/.758 SLG with seven home runs. If the Rockies are to contend for a playoff spot, they will surely need the trio of Helton, Hawpe, and Tulowitzki to carry the load for the rest of the offense.
Every season since their inception the same question has plagued the Rockies; “can they pitch well enough to win on a consistent basis?”
Their pitching has always seemed to let them down and the beginning of 2009 was no different. Under Clint Hurdle the Rockies staff was bludgeoned for a 4.97 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP. They were giving up around ten hits per nine innings. The bullpen was in shambles; the closer’s job was wide open because every day either Huston Street or Manny Corpas gave Clint Hurdle good reasons why they did not deserve to be closing games.
Once Jim Tracy took over, the entire pitching staff settled down. Tracy let the starters work deeper into games which seemed to give them more confidence and gave the bullpen more rest. Pitching Coach Bob Apodaca suggested that Huston Street pitch from the right side of the rubber instead of the left and that has resulted in Street becoming one of the better closers in the National League.
In the month of June, Street has converted 9 of 10 save opportunities with a 2.53 ERA. Street combined with Corpas to provide the Rockies with one of the more effective 8th and 9th inning combinations in baseball.
Before Corpas landed on the Disabled List with bone chips in his elbow, he was supplying the Rockies with a valuable bridge to Street under Jim Tracy. During the month of June, Corpas compiled a 3.00 ERA with 11 strikeouts in nine innings. In Corpas’ absence, Tracy has used Joel Peralta in the 8th inning. He has been fantastic, not allowing a single earned run as Street’s set up man. The continued success of these three pitchers is vital to the Rockies' playoff hopes.
While the Rockies have improved tremendously under Jim Tracy, they still exhibit some weaknesses that could turn into fatal flaws down the stretch. The biggest concern for the Rockies has to be the performance of their enigmatic fifth starter Jorge De La Rosa. He walks far too many batters and tends to get rattled easily. He cannot be considered a dependable starter for the rest of the season.
Luckily for the Rockies, they do have options. Franklin Morales has No. 1 starter talent and if he begins to realize his potential, he could take De La Rosa’s spot in the rotation. However, if Morales continues to struggle in AAA the Rockies will need to look externally for a replacement. They have a potentially substantial trading chip in Garrett Atkins, but he will have to begin to show signs of a comeback before teams will give up a major league starter for him.
Another weakness that could cost them is the lack of bullpen depth. Joel Peralta has never been a main piece of a bullpen in his entire career, Alan Embree is well past his prime and inconsistent at best, and Matt Daley has been a career minor leaguer. There is very little evidence that proves these three can continue to combine to form a competent bullpen with Corpas and Street.
Ultimately, the Rockies season will rest on whether or not they can continue to pitch at this rate. Their lineup is one of the best in the NL and it should only get better as the season continues. If Jason Hammel and Jason Marquis can continue their career years and the bullpen can continue to pitch effective innings, the Rockies have as good a chance as anyone to win the Wild Card.