Compared to 2012, Rockies Are a Mile High by Jesse Schaffer

After the epic failure that was the 2012 Colorado Rockies campaign, my expectations coming into this season were low to say the least. The Rockies did little to shake up a roster that lost a franchise record 98 games and moronically retained the general manager who presided over that catastrophe. Not exactly the wisest strategy to win back the trust of fans who year after year have given the team far more support than it deserves. Two months into the 2013 season, 20 years since professional baseball came to Colorado, have the Rockies bounced back or are they just setting us up for another colossal disappointment?

Objectively speaking, the team’s performance thus far has been a little uneven. The Rockies had a great April but May ended pretty badly for them, and fortunately they managed to turn things around again in the past week against the Dodgers and Reds. But most importantly, are the Rockies under first-year manager Walt Weiss much improved? Hell yes. It’s not even close. Currently, the Rockies have a promising 32-28 record, good enough for second place in the National League West and only two and a half games behind division-leading Arizona. The fact that they are even competing at this point is an absolute blessing and I think it bodes well for the rest of the season. Here’s my thoughts on five players or position groups that have fared well, five that haven’t been as reliable as I would like and where I think the Rockies will be by the All-Stark Break.

Top Five Players/Positions 

1. Carlos Gonzalez/Troy Tulowitzki

It may seem a bit convenient to clump these two together, but it’s only because the individual success of one has such a huge effect on the other. Gonzalez (.313, 17, 42) looks so much more relaxed at the plate this year and that’s largely due to the fact that he has Tulowitzki (.349, 15, 48) protecting him in the lineup, who at the moment leads the National League in batting average. The hitting display CarGo and Tulo put on last night was awe-inspiring, combining for 5 home runs and propelling the Rockies to a series victory over the formidable Reds. You could make an MVP argument for either player and it would be completely legitimate, and I don’t know that there’s another team in baseball that could say the same. If the Rockies are still in the hunt come September, the continued excellence of CarGo and Tulo will be the primary reason.

2. Walt Weiss

Gotta show some love for the rookie manager, right? I’ve thought Walt was a solid hire for the Rockies since the beginning, but the truth is there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the selection. After all, the former Regis Jesuit High School coach had never managed at any level in the big leagues before, and the fact that he only received a one-year contract didn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence. Two months in to the job, I’m thrilled to say that Walt has been a breath of fresh air around here and has proven to be more than capable of managing our beloved Rockies. He looks like he’s been doing this for years. Sure, it helps that the team has been blessed with mostly good health, but they’ve been playing really hard for him and I’ve been really impressed with his steady approach. Bringing in his former Rockies teammate Dante Bichette to be the hitting coach was a stroke of genius, one that has already paid dividends for a lineup that ranks in the top five in the majors in nearly every offensive category.

3. Dexter Fowler

It was absurd to me that Dex was ever the subject of trade talks last winter and I can only imagine how relieved the front office is for holding onto their promising young outfielder. He has always been exceptional with his glove and a force on the base paths, but what’s really stood out so far has been his efficiency at the plate, particularly his power (.284, 10, 25). That’s quite a bit of pop for a leadoff man, continuing Dex’s transition to a solid all-around player and one of the most essential components of the Rockies’ lineup. You’d like to see his average hover a little closer to .300, but so long as he stays in this range that should be enough to keep the top of the order humming.

4. Jorge De La Rosa

Technically Jhoulys Chacin is the quote on quote “ace” of the rotation since he starts it off each go around, but to me De La Rosa (7-3, 3.10, 43) is the glue that holds it all together. The Rockies dearly missed him last season when their lack of dependable starters led them to adopt that idiotic four-man rotation. De La Rosa has looked strong coming back from Tommy John Surgery; he flirted with a no-hitter a couple of weeks ago and earned his first career victory against the Dodgers this past Sunday. As always, his health will be something to monitor going forward, but right now De La Rosa is on track for his best season since 2009 (16-9, 4.38, 193), which not so coincidentally is the last time the Rockies made the playoffs.

5. Michael Cuddyer

I was originally going to slot the bullpen here, but Cuddyer’s stellar play is just too difficult to ignore. The 34-year old veteran has been performing at an all-star level (.343, 10, 36) and he should easily surpass his disappointing totals from a year ago (he’s almost there already!). Even a brief stint on the DL couldn’t slow Cuddy down, as he’s been even better upon his return late last week. Granted, hitting behind two of the best players in baseball would boost anyone’s stats, but who cares? He’s a huge part of the Rockies’ offensive success and that doesn’t even include his excellent defense in right field. Cuddy is always hustling and never complains, and I love that his hard work is paying off for him in a big way this year.

Top Five Disappointments 

1. Josh Rutledge/DJ LeMahieu

When you talk about disappointing players, for me these two come to mind first simply because they haven’t carried over the momentum they had from last season. Rutledge (.242, 5, 13) was the Opening Day starter but his issues at the plate prompted Walt to send him down and give LeMahieu a shot: he’s been even worse (.233, 0, 4). Personally I think demoting Rutledge was a mistake and that he just needed a little more time to regain his confidence. Hopefully the Rockies give him another chance soon, but either way they need one of these guys to fill the void at second base or they could be forced to explore veteran options come July.

2. The Pitching Staff

To be fair, the Rockies’ pitching is much improved from the pathetic group put together last season, and it is one of the main reasons the team is near the top of the division. Tyler Chatwood (3-1, 2.14, 30), Adam Ottavino (1.72, 0, 34) and Rex Brothers (0.35, 2, 25) have been particularly stellar, while Matt Belisle (2.97, 0, 22) and closer Rafael Betancourt (3.20, 11, 22) have been their usual reliable selves. So why did I put the pitchers in this category? The simple answer is that there’s just been way too much inconsistency from the rotation; a guy will have a great start one day and then get totally shellacked the next time. Another problem here is the struggles of Wilton Lopez (3.86, 0, 19) and Jon Garland (5.82, 4-6, 32), who have improved of late but overall haven’t been as consistent as the Rockies hoped they would be when they acquired them. As a team, the Rockies rank in the bottom 10 in strikeouts (395) and batting average against (.262), and are barely in the top half in team ERA (3.88). Again, a lot better than last year, but that simply won’t get it done in the long haul. Luckily, there are a quite a few options for Walt to turn to if things don’t improve and I’m particularly excited about the prospect of Roy Oswalt and Drew Pomeranz being brought up from the minors. Should Chatwood and Betancourt both come back strong from the DL, that should help immensely as well.

3. Wilin Rosario

The Baby Bull is a tricky player to analyze because his power at the plate gives him an edge over most other catchers in the big leagues. Personally, I think Rosario (.247, 9, 28) is a great asset to have in your lineup, but when he’s slumping as he has been lately it becomes increasingly difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt. What concerns me the most about Baby Bull is his approach; pitchers are attacking him with off-speed and breaking stuff lately and he just hasn’t shown a willingness to adjust, swinging too early in the count and putting himself in a hole nearly every at-bat. So far in June his average stands at a putrid .077, and that combined with his sometimes mediocre defense may convince Walt to rely more on the veteran Yorvit Torrealba (.274, 0, 6), who has a torrid .479 average in his last two starts. The Rockies would much prefer to keep Rosario in there as much as possible, so hopefully he snaps out of this funk sooner rather than later.

4. Nolan Arenado

If last night was any indication, Arenado may be the Rockies’ answer to their issues at the two-hole in their order (he went 4-6 in a win against the Reds). However, like Rosario the young third baseman has really struggled with his approach. He ate up the fastballs he was getting early on, but hasn’t adjusted well to the breaking stuff. That’s to be expected of a player who was just promoted from the minors, so I’m optimistic that last night was the beginning of a trend for a guy whom the Rockies hope will be their long-term third baseman.

5. Todd Helton

Let me be clear, I’m not in the camp that believes that the Toddfather (.241, 6, 22) is washed up. I think he proved he still has something left in the tank over the past week, launching three home runs and effectively doubling his total in that category on the season. You would just like to see more consistency and a higher average and on base percentage (.730, currently the second lowest of his career) from Todd, especially considering he doesn’t play every game any more. Although he has displayed solid power lately, he hasn’t exceeded 15 homers since 2007, so it’s unrealistic to expect him to provide that kind of pop in anything more than short spurts. I have faith in Todd and think he should continue to get the lion’s share of the starts at first, but it will be tough for the Rockies to continue to rely on him if his average and OBP don’t improve.

My prediction for the All-Star Break: 50-46, Second Place in the NL West

If the Rockies are in that position come July, I will be ecstatic. My thinking is that the lineup will continue to be lethal so long as everyone remains relatively healthy and the pitching staff will improve when the reinforcements arrive.  I don’t believe Walt and Dante will allow these guys to become lethargic and they’ll continue to put them in positions to succeed. It’s great to be excited about baseball again.

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