Starting Pitching Key For Rockies

Ryan SchmitzContributor IFebruary 21, 2010

DENVER - MAY 24:  Starting pitcher Jeff Francis #26 of the Colorado Rockies delivers against the New York Mets in the first inning at Coors Field on May 24, 2008 in Denver, Colorado. Francis collected the loss as the Mets defeated the Rockies 9-2.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The 2009 season ended with promise for the Colorado Rockies. Although the Rox lost their Division Series in four games to the eventual National League champion Philadelphia Phillies, they won two-thirds of their games (18 of 27) in September to secure their fourth consecutive winning month.

During Jim Tracy’s first full season as manager in 2010, the prospects of postseason baseball in the Mile-High City will hinge on the health of the starting rotation, most notably 2007 ace Jeff Francis, who missed all of last season due to shoulder surgery.

Assuming Francis stays off the disabled list, the starting staff should look as follows on Opening Day: Ubaldo Jimenez, Francis, Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel. If Francis replicates his 2007 performance and the other four starters pitch at their highest levels throughout the year, the Rockies should be able to count on at least 75 wins from the rotation.

Colorado may not have a hyped 1-2 tandem of aces like NL West rivals San Francisco (Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum) or Arizona (Brandon Webb and Dan Haren), but the Rockies have a solid complement of starters who can put them in position to win games. Along with a formidable bullpen featuring closer Huston Street, Colorado’s pitching staff should enable the team to contend for the division crown. 

On offense, the Rockies will again be anchored by right fielder Brad Hawpe and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who combined for 55 home runs and 178 RBI last season. Additional power should come from second baseman Clint Barmes and third baseman Ian Stewart, although both would do well to hit more for contact. In 2009, it always seemed as though Stewart's most common results at the plate were home runs and strikeouts, and the K’s often negated scoring chances. This season, Stewart (who hit .228 and struck out 138 times in 2009) and Barmes (who finished with a .245 batting average and a .294 on-base percentage) should try to reach base more often, and let Hawpe and Tulowitzki drive in the runs.

The club’s biggest question marks come at catcher and first base. Starting backstop Chris Ianetta plays solid defense, but his .228 batting average last season was a liability on offense. Ianetta should be the first option behind the plate when the season begins, but Miguel Olivo (who hit 23 homers in 2009 with Kansas City) could provide competition during spring training.

At first base, veteran leader Todd Helton rebounded from a sub-par 2008 with a .325 average and 86 RBI last season, while backup Jason Giambi provided a valuable spark late in the year. The Rockies must receive similar production Helton this season, while Giambi’s experience should prove important once again for younger players like Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez.

The Rockies did not make any substantial moves during the offseason, and the loss of 15-game winner Jason Marquis means that the team will count on Francis and the rest of the starting rotation to cover the lost production.

Meanwhile, their division rivals made significant upgrades, as Arizona added pitching with Edwin Jackson and the return of Webb to complement Haren, while the Dodgers and Giants will welcome back the key pieces of their formidable pitching staffs.

The Rockies successes in 2007 and 2009 have raised fans’ expectations, and the team's fortunes on the mound will tell whether or not it can fulfill preseason projections of a third October berth in four years.