Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Do The Rockies Have What It Takes To Stay In The Race?

Entering the 2009 season the average Rockies fan felt that the team had no chance to compete and was destined for yet another mediocre finish in the National League West.

The offseason was busy with the club unloading two of the most decorated players in club history. First, slugger Matt Holliday was shipped off to Oakland for what critics complained was far too little. They received a former Rookie of the Year in Huston Street who had struggled in '08, being demoted from his closers role. In addition to Street they got Carlos Gonzalez, who had the famous "five-tool player" tag, but had yet to show he could hit in the big leagues. The third player the Rockies recieved was Greg Smith, a starting pitcher who lost in double digits in '08.

In addition to trading Holliday the Rockies also lost Brian Fuentes, a three-time All-Star who holds the club record for saves. Fuentes agreed to a deal with the Angels which was a mere $1.5 million more than what the Rockies were willing to pay. It seemed as if the team was intent on struggling and not spending a dime on anyone with relevant Major League success.

While many Rockies fans were incredibly disappointed and felt betrayed, the truth was, Dan O'Dowd and the front office knew exactly what they were doing.

The Rockies knew that they had no chance of signing Holliday. He was intent on getting top-dollar in free agency after the '09 campaign, so they had to get something for him. In that trade received Street, who had been an incredible closer for the A's. Street struggled with a hamstring injury which may have been the reason for his struggles.

Also, the team knew that they had a plethora of outfielders ready to get their chance. Ryan Spilborghs had been an incredible platoon outfielder for the squad in the last two seasons, and Seth Smith had shown late inning potential and the ability to play everyday.

Another move in the offseason was the acquisition of starting pitcher Jason Marquis. Marquis was viewed around the league as an "innings-eater," a title that ignores the fact that over the past five seasons he had won no less than 11 games.

As the Rockies opened the '09 campaign they struggled greatly. The majority of their April schedule was on the road and the starting pitchers still seemed to be in spring training mode. Both Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez struggled out of the gate and could not find their sinkers.

It was clear that the talent was there but the confidence was missing. When the team got down by a couple of runs the look on the faces in the Rockies dugout was that of a younger brother who knew he stood no chance against his older sibling. There was no fight to be found.

Then the big pink elephant in the room was removed. Clint Hurdle was fired on May 29th after starting the season 20-32.

The rest of the story is history as the switch was flipped and the Rockies crawled within 1/2 a game of the Wild Card lead in the National League.

At the break the Rockies sit at 47-41, nine games behind the Dodgers in the National League West, but more importantly two games behind the Giants and in second place in the Wild Card race.

While June was fun for any Rockies fan, the question is whether or not the team has what it takes to stay in the race.

Who are the real Rockies? The team that won 22 games through the first two months of the season, or the team that rattled off 11 straight wins and 16 out of 17?

The fact is, anyone watching this team knows that the offense is as good as any team in the National League. They have depth, they have power and they have speed. The scariest part for the Rockies opposition is that the offense has yet to hit it's stride.

Chris Iannetta, Ian Stewart and Troy Tulowitzki have all struggled at times. Tulowitzki has turned the corner of late, but Iannetta and Stewart's batting averages will both rise.

Garrett Atkins, the Rockies RBI leader a season ago has been the biggest disappointment for the club. For much of the first half his batting average was below .200 and he looked both lost and disinterested at the plate. Of late Atkins has found his stroke and been productive off of the bench.

Dexter Fowler is getting a feel for the big leagues. He is a player who has never seen a pitch in Triple-A. He has stolen 20 bases, but has yet to learn how to steal bases. He is playing strictly on talent alone. The good news for the Rockies is that he is a smart young man who will figure out how to maximize his talent.

Even if the lineup comes together and hits on all cylinders, the Rockies greatest weakness is their middle relief. Manny Corpas struggled in the eighth inning role and was just beginning to look strong before he was sidelined with bone spurs in his elbow.

Matt Daley was productive early, but has given up runs in four of his last seven outings. Alan Embree was a trusted veteran and never was able to find success until the last week before the break, which was the end of his season after he was struck in the leg by a Martin Prado liner on Friday night, ending his season.

The Rockies have turned to Franklin Morales, a starter, to fill the lefty specialist role. It seems as if he fits well based on the fact that he throws hard from the left side and has a devastating breaking ball. He has been good in his first three outings in the role, but his young career has been marked with mental weakness, resulting in big innings.

The Rockies have made it known that they are searching for middle relief help. The only problem is that at the All-Star break, 22 teams out of 30 still believe that they are in the race and are not in a position to trade a reliever of value.

In addition, middle relievers are in that role for a reason. They are not dominant enough to be a closer and they are generally failed starters. Therefore, trading a top-line prospect for someone whose success is a flip of the coin does not sound too appealing.

So do the Rockies have what it takes to stay in the race, or even make a run at the Dodgers? Only time will tell, but for many Rockies fans, just the fact that they are within striking distance at the All-Star break is a major victory for the team.

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