Generally when an MLB team hands out around $200 million in offseason contracts, it's a case of new faces joining the roster. Such was not the case this past winter for the Colorado Rockies whose spending spree was done on the home team shopping channel.
There are new faces at camp in Scottsdale that figure to be key components in Colorado's hopes of getting into the NL playoffs. But the big contracts instead went in the form of extensions to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (six years, $119 million) and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (seven years, $80 million).
Tulo and CarGo are part of a current three-headed monster for the Rockies along with starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. Having turned 27 about two weeks before camp, Jimenez qualifies as the elder of the bunch. Additional youngsters such as Ian Stewart, Dexter Fowler and Jhoulys Chacin add to the mix for manager Jim Tracy and his coaching staff to meld with a veteran group that includes old Rockies standards like Todd Helton and Aaron Cook plus newcomers Ty Wigginton, Jose Lopez and Matt Lindstrom.
The pieces are definitely there for the Rockies to make the playoffs, possibly even wrestle the NL West belt from the defending world champion San Francisco Giants. Now, will they all fit together?
A severe case of the Coors Field, road game split blues
Colorado could neither win nor hit on the road last season. The Rocks were a sparkling 52-29 at the House That Coors Built, and a puny 31-50 on the road. That nearly 260-point win percentage difference is backed up by more than two runs per game less on the road than at home and a 72-point batting average letdown.
The gap was even larger in the second half when the Rocks averaged just 3.2 runs per road game after the All-Star break. Nine of their 31 wins away came as a result of Colorado pitchers blanking the other team. Those were the only nine shutouts by the mound staff.
Tulowitzki and Gonzalez were guilty of lesser numbers on the road than at home, but the two stars still hit well away from Denver, .291 and .289 respectively. The trio that really needs to step their games up in 2011 both at home and on the road are Dexter Fowler, Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta. Fowler and Smith will fill out the outfield along with Gonzalez, and they're coming off seasons in which their home/road splits were atrocious. Fowler's OPS was over .400 points lower away from home, sub-.600, while Smith's OPS gap was a tad over .300 points.
Iannetta simply stunk it up at home and on the road, hitting below the Mendoza line and slugging all of .383 for the season. As the team's No. 1 backstop now that Miguel Olivo is gone, Colorado can't afford for Iannetta to be a black hole in the lineup again.
Tulo's infield mates will be Ian Stewart at third, the veteran Helton across at first and some mix of Lopez and Eric Young Jr. at second. Lopez adds insurance for the hot corner, with Wigginton offering capable backup at both infield corners, especially at first base for Helton who is clearly on the downswing of his career.
Wigginton also provides some backup in the outfield corners. Ryan Spilborghs is the proverbial fourth outfielder on the team and versatile enough to play all three positions.
Home/away pitching splits not as pronounced
The home/away statistical splits also carried over to the mound, though nowhere near as pronounced as the batting numbers. The five arms expected to serve as Colorado's starting rotation this season – Jimenez, Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Aaron Cook and Jason Hammell – combined for a very nominal ERA gap, 3.86 at Coors and 4.04 on the road. Cook and Hammell were the primary culprits away from home with 5.85 and 5.71 marks.
It goes without saying that Jimenez has to once again lead this group. There's a lot of promise in Chacin and De La Rosa behind him, assuming Chacin doesn't succumb to the dreaded sophomore jinx and the southpaw De La Rosa can stay healthy enough to make 30+ starts. Hammell and Cook are big question marks at the back of the order, with Cook already slowed in the early days of camp with a sore shoulder.
Depth in the rotation is lacking. Felipe Paulino, acquired from Houston in the deal that sent infielder Clint Barmes to the Astros, is one to watch this spring. He throws hard and has always held a lot of potential. At 27, he's still young enough to realize it.
Huston Street enters the campaign with the closer's job after saving 20 in 25 opportunities last year. A deep Rockies relief corps includes Matt Belisle, Rafael Betancourt and Matt Lindstrom, another arm picked up from Houston in a separate offseason trade. Belisle and Betancourt were marvelous in 2010 bridging from the starters to Street (or Manny Corpas who served as the closer for a while). The knock on Lindstrom has always been wildness and health issues. If he can harness his stuff and remain healthy, this could eventually pan out as one of the top bullpens in the major leagues.
Trip to Yankee Stadium on schedule
A 9-6 record against AL teams last season made the Rockies one of eight NL clubs to post a winning interleague mark. Colorado's interleague slate this time includes road trips to play the Yankees and Indians with home series against the Royals, Tigers and White Sox.
In addition to the horrible road mark in 2010, Colorado also came up short in comparison to its NL West rivals when it came to playing and beating NL Central clubs. San Francisco and San Diego, the two clubs that finished ahead of the Rocks in the division, recorded 28-14 and 27-14 records versus NLC squads while Colorado posted a 21-20 mark.
The Rockies will have their road woes tested early on with eight of their first 13 games away from home. Colorado's 2011 slate also begins with a fairly easy April, if 2010 records are much indication. The club's first 16 games will be against teams that recorded losing records a year ago, and only three of their first 31 games are opposite a winning club from last season. Those three games are a home series versus the Giants in mid-April.
Betting the 2011 Rockies
The bottom line for Dan O'Dowd and his bosses this season looks to be about a $93 million payroll, give or take a few million. Seven NL clubs will pay more for their pennant chances while MLB bettors can have the Rockies as the fourth-highest favorite to win the Senior Circuit at around 12/1.
Colorado finished nine games back of the San Francisco Giants in the NL West last season, and eight behind wild-card winner Atlanta. The Giants are still the favorites in the division, but not by much according to the oddsmakers. San Fran is 3/2 or thereabouts to take the NL West with the Rockies a little shy of 2/1 at most shops. But odds can be found that have the two squads in a dead heat around plus 180.
Off 83 wins a year ago, 2011 win totals are in the 86½-87 span. Colorado completely fell apart the final two weeks of the 2010 campaign, winning just one time in the last 14 games. Simply avoiding a closing stretch like that would push the club plus-five in the win column this time around.
The Rockies averaged 87.2 wins in my simulations. It's easy to project a fairly major regression in the division for the Padres, so 88 wins would definitely have the team in the running for the NL wild card. I'm just not ready to pick the Rockies to beat out the Giants and win the division.
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