Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are certainly in the fold for the long haul, so the Colorado Rockies have cost certainty and an impressive pair of position player anchors. Ubaldo Jimenez leads a pitching staff that could be very good and particularly deep this season.
Strangely, though, the Rockies have a certain lack of punch at the plate with the regular season on the horizon. Their offense seemingly consists of Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and a whole lot of question marks. Defensively and on the mound, they are stronger than they have ever been before. This team could easily contend for the NL West title and make a run in the playoffs. Here are 10 things that need to go right along the way.
This is the ninth in a series of pieces listing 10 things that would have to go right for each MLB team to win a pennant this season. To find out when your favorite team's article comes out, follow me on the twitter @MattTrueblood, or sign up for your team's Bleacher Report newsletter.
Tulowitzki means everything to this team. It's about more than whether or not he can approach 40 home runs. It's about more than his leadership, though he'd be the soul of the team. With Tulowitzki, the greatest wild card is his defense, which is elite at the most important defensive position on the diamond. For all the work that has been done to codify individual defensive contribution, fielding remains a team exercise. When healthy, Tulowitzki holds this defense together.
We all know the numbers that insist Gonzalez got lucky on batted balls last season and that his ballpark was a huge factor in his success. Still, don't overlook Gonzalez's scouting history: This breakout was far more surprising for stat-heads than for scouts. Coors Field is not the park it once was, but it's still a hitter's haven, and Gonzalez will thrive there again this year.
Don't expect a repeat of that 2010 split, or of his 2010 numbers, but CarGo should mature a bit and still have a great season at the plate. The Rockies depend so much on he and Tulowitzki that they really need Gonzalez to come through.
Position battles in baseball are frequently misunderstood. For whatever reason, people believe that a position battle can have one and only one winner. One guys gets the job; he wins. Everyone else loses.
Most often, though, the real winners of position battles are...no one. Usually, players end up in those battles because they have serious deficiencies in their game, and part-time duty hardly ever brings out the best in those players or any others. Teams eventually name a starter or settle for a platoon, but a lot of position battles end in bitter draws.
In Colorado, the fight for the right to play second base every day needs to resolve itself more positively. Ty Wigginton and Jose Lopez were cheap pickups this winter with a lot more in the way of potential reward than in risk investment. Still, one or the other must take the job and run with it, and the sooner, the better.
Lopez is a better fielder and would nicely round out the team's infield with solid glove work. He is also six years Wigginton's junior. If the team had its druthers, Lopez would re-emerge as a 15-20-homer threat with a decent batting average and good contact rates. Lopez got unlucky in 2010 in Seattle, but he has legitimate pop, and none of his indicators changed much from the 2009 season, when he had 69 extra-base hits. If Lopez cracks 20 or more bombs for the Rockies this season, their lineup is much stronger than it looks at first glance.
Stewart initially appeared to have a job sewn up at third base, even after the acquisitions of Wigginton and Lopez. Unfortunately, a knee sprain kept him out of action early this spring, and Wigginton (batting .269/.321/.577 with two homers in Cactus League play) now looks poised to get at least some time there when the regular season begins.
Stewart is younger, more athletic, has a world of upside and plays better defense. The Rockies need him to prove he can stay healthy and be more effective against left-handed pitchers, but they absolutely ought to commit to Stewart at the hot corner. If Stewart rewards their faith with the kind of offensive breakout of which he is capable, the Rockies will get a huge boost to the middle part of their order.
This is really nitty-gritty stuff, but it is crucial to understanding why pitchers are so unpredictable, and it bears strongly on the Rockies' 2011 prognosis, so bear with me.
Ubaldo Jimenez looked absolutely unhittable for the first two months of the 2010 season. Through May 31, the day on which he threw the pitch in this photo, his ERA stood at a freakish 0.78. He absolutely dominated with a mix of at least four above-average pitches, including the hardest fastball among starting pitchers in all of baseball.
Beginning in June, though, Jimenez suffered a slow decline. His ERA from June 1 forward was 4.08, and his WHIP leaped from 0.93 to 1.34. What happened?
There were many reasons, of course. Regression was inevitable, so chalk part of it up to the law of averages. Another part can be attributed to the weather, which favors hitters as it warms through June and into the heat of summer.
Part of the problem, though, was within Jimenez's control. He could have been much better simply by consistently extending his arm more during his delivery.
Arm extension is critical in making all of a pitcher's offerings work. It is a critical component of repeatability in mechanics, which dictate control. The tension throughout the arm also ensures that the muscles will whip and twist more eagerly, creating more and better spin. The slight additional length of the levers in the delivery when the arm is fully extended also improve velocity.
Here are maps of Jimenez's release points in three 2010 outings. First, from his no-hitter on April 17:
Next, from a June 23 outing in which he lost to the Red Sox:
And finally, from a rough late-season outing against Arizona:
The pattern is clear: When Jimenez gets full extension to his release point, especially on his curveball and tailing heat, he is untouchable. He struggles only when he gets tired or lazy and allows his release point to wander ever closer to his head, hurting his control and the general nastiness of his great stuff.
The Rockies inevitably considered a handful of free-agent outfielders this winter after some sort of demon swallowed up Brad Hawpe. Ultimately, though, they entrusted right field for 2011 to Smith, on whom they must now depend to improve after a poor showing in 2010.
Colorado pretty well knows what they have in Smith these days. He draws walks well but not exceptionally. He makes roughly average contact, both on a pitch-to-pitch basis and in terms of strikeout rate. He tends very slightly toward fly balls and has the power to make that a valuable skill set. He is an average runner and fielder in right field. He hits fastballs and changeups very well, but struggles against breaking pitches and therefore is susceptible to platoon disadvantages.
Smith is hitting well this spring with a .276/.382/.448 overall line, and he even has six hits in 16 at-bats against left-handed pitching thus far. The Rockies need that production to carry over into the regular season.
When Huston Street is healthy, he ranks among the five or six best closers in baseball. He has great control, can miss bats and uses good deception and a three-pitch mix to baffle batters from both sides of the plate.
Would Colorado prefer a cleaner delivery or at least a cleaner injury history? Sure. Would they prefer if he favored fly balls a bit less? Sure.
However, Street moved in the direction of throwing more two-seam fastballs with greater movement in 2010, so he may yet improve in that regard. In the meantime, he is a great hurler as long as he holds up. Frequently in the past, Street has struggled to stay healthy because of hip, shoulder and elbow injuries. If he appears in 70 games this year, it's hard to imagine anyone topping the Rockies in the NL West.
Chris Iannetta has real power from behind the plate, but may never fully tap into it. He simply swings and misses much too often, striking out in over a quarter of his career at-bats. He does draw walks, but he never seems to hit balls cleanly and consistently. He will hit 20-plus homers given full playing time, but his batted-ball profile and all-or-nothing approach will always mitigate his value.
He still hits quite well for a catcher, but Iannetta is not elite and will never be so. One guy who could be elite is Wilin Rosario, arguably the Rockies' best position-player prospect. Injuries limited Rosario last season, but he still hit .285/.342/.552 at Double-A, all at age 21. Rosario will strike out plenty himself, but his swing is much smoother and his all-around skill set at the plate is more projectable. Ultimately, he has every chance to be big-league ready by the All-Star break and could be a high-impact rookie right away.
If the Rockies have healthy competition between Rosario and Iannetta, their offense will be more than good enough.
As good as Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Hammel, Huston Street, Rafael Betancourt, Jhoulys Chacin and Matt Belisle have the chance to be, the Rockies need to be able to get out left-handed hitters in order to find success in October. The Philadelphia Phillies are lefty-heavy, and the best hitters on six other crucial NL contenders all bat from the left side of the plate.
Franklin Morales is the only critical left-handed reliever the Rockies have, and rotation members Jimenez, Hammel, Chacin and Aaron Cook all are right-handed. That makes Jorge de la Rosa exceptionally important to this squad.
De la Rosa does a great job keeping the ball on the ground, and both his slider and his changeup are plus offerings when he commands them well. If his arm is up to increased use of the slider in 2011, he can be death on left-handed hitters. When the Rockies need to quiet Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and the Phillies in Game 2 of a potential postseason series, de la Rosa needs to be ready.
Call me crazy, but I love Dexter Fowler. He is long and athletic, a guy who could still develop more power and already has speed and patience up there. He has a legitimate line-drive swing that should produce a ton of doubles and triples in Colorado. He will not even turn 25 until next week, so the upside is very much there.
Injuries and a lack of organizational patience have cost Fowler chances to help the team more the past two years. He needs to play 150 or more games in 2011 and prove he can better defend center field, but Fowler has a chance to be the X-factor for the Rockies in every aspect of the game.
Matt Trueblood is a National MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and for AtHomePlate.com. He is on twitter @MattTrueblood. Matt will graduate with a degree in journalism from Loyola University Chicago in May.