Saturday, February 26, 2011

Colorado Rockies open Salt River Fields with a win

For years the California-Anaheim-Los Angeles Angels were said to be cursed because their stadium was built on an ancient Indian burial ground.

Before the first at-bat at the new Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, it appeared that the field--the first ever opened on Native American land--may be cursed as well.

When the Diamondbacks Kelly Johnson hit a soft fly ball into foul territory down the third base line, nothing seemed out of sorts. Not until the trio of Ian Stewart, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki continued running full-steam at the pop-up, all three with their heads looking up.

Rockies fans excited to see the new stomping grounds on TV quickly felt their hearts sink as Stewart--the size of a middle linebacker--knocked Gonzalez on the shoulder with his knee before flipping over. Clearly the collision hurt, but replays showed that Stewart's knee missed the Rockies $80 million man's head by two inches. Two more inches and Scott Boras clients everywhere might reconsider waiting until their free agent years to sign a big deal.

In all, the day ended well for the Rockies. Their biggest victory was the health of their three starters in the collision, but they also came away with a victory on the field. The victory was christened by a 10th inning home run off of the bat of Rockies prospect Charlie Blackmon, who bailed out Adam Jorgenson, who gave up five runs in the 9th inning to tie the game. It looked as if Blackmon was using a bat from BBCOR baseball bats.

The victory was exciting because of the circumstances. For whatever reason, spring training or not, it seems as if the Rockies picking up victory No. 1 on opening day of their new complex was important.

One encouraging fact about the game came early. Ubaldo Jimenez's fastball was sitting around 89 to 90. He did fire a couple of bullets at 95, but mostly stayed in the lower 90's. Why is this encouraging when the guy normally flirts with triple digits? It shows the maturity of the best pitcher to ever don a Rockies uniform. He understands that he is going to be asked to carry the load for the club once again in 2011. He knows that 200 innings will be a benchmark that he most likely hits in late August or early September. It does not mean that his arm is slowing down, it means that he fully understands that getting his arm into shape early in spring training is more important than lighting up the radar gun.

It is also clear how deep the Rockies are. When Mike Jacobs, a guy who can still hit the ball, and hit it far, figures to only see the big league roster if three injuries happen in the same 15 days, it means the team is deep. No longer will the Rockies have to hope a 5'9" Melvin Mora can learn first base on the fly while the team tries to contend. If Todd Helton goes down, the Rox have plenty of capable first basemen at their disposal.

When the sun set on Scottsdale, the Rockies sat at 1-0 in Cactus League play. What that means is essentially nothing. It means that there are still 33 more practice games to go before the team suits up on April Fools Day at Coors Field for the first game that really matters.

For Rockies fans, that should be the second most exciting thing of the day. Right behind both Gonzalez, Tulowitzki and Stewart staying out of the trainers room before the first at-bat was done.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Colorado Rockies biggest concern? Catcher

The Colorado Rockies and their fans have plenty to be excited about in 2011.

Despite the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants residing in their division, many believe that the Rockies have as good of shot as anyone to take home their first-ever National League West crown.

The offseason was busy for the Rockies. Not just because they signed Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to long-term deals, but also because they strengthened their club with the signing of Ty Wigginton and completing a trade for Jose Lopez.

Wigginton brings versatility to the club. He can spell Todd Helton at first base and he can play third base against lefties if need be. He is even willing to move to the outfield if he needs to.

Lopez is coming off of a horrible 2010 season, but many people believe that his bad season was an aberration. They believe that once he is in Coors Field and with a team that has a chance to win, he will perk up from the doldrums of Safeco Field.

Those two additions, plus a healthy Tulowitzki and Jorge De La Rosa, there is no reason to think that the Rockies shouldn't at least be in the race in late September.

However, one area where the Rockies have decided to take a chance is behind the plate.

Chris Iannetta, the catcher who has been handed the job in each of the last four seasons, only to relinquish that job to a journeyman backup catcher due to poor play, has once again been dubbed the starter. The difference in 2011? This time there is no solid option behind him.

Iannetta fans suggest that he is better than his numbers say he is. They point to his 2008 season in which he posted a .895 OBP. His fans also say that the club has been quick to give up on him and give the job to a backup catcher that was on fire at the plate. The problem is, since that '08 season, that same Iannetta has been nowhere to be found. Instead, it has been replaced by a hitter who pops out and strikes out way too much.

The problem with that line of thinking is that this is not tee-ball. This is not junior varsity baseball where the kid with all the talent in the world is given as much time as he needs to figure it out. This is Major League Baseball.

Iannetta is lucky to be in Colorado. If he were to have put up numbers like he has in the past two seasons in New York or Boston, the media would have been ten times as difficult as they have been in Colorado. However, fans of Iannetta still suggest that his struggles have been because the organization hasn't been patient enough with him.

The hope from the Rockies is that reuniting Iannetta with hitting coach Carney Lansford, who helped repair his swing in 2007, will infuse enough confidence into the catcher that he will be able to make a full 180 degree turn around.

If Iannetta struggles, the Rockies are in a difficult spot. Instead of having proven backups like Yorvit Torrealba or Miguel Olivo, the club is relying on Jose Morales, who was acquired from the Minnesota Twins in the offseason. The 28 year-old has all of 181 plate appearances in the big leagues and has never played more than 54 games in a big league uniform.

There is reason for a good amount of optimism for Rockies fans, but the biggest wild card for the club this season is the one that has fallen well below expectations in three of his four seasons in the big leagues.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Colorado Rockies come into 2011 with a leg up

For 18 years the Colorado Rockies called Tucson their home for spring training. Those day are over.

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the name of the new Rockies facility, is incredible by any standard. The batting cages seem to go on forever, the bullpens have ten pitching mounds. The clubhouse amenities are beyond that of most big league stadiums, equipped with a state-of-the-art weight room and even boasting a movie theater large enough for players to review film in comfort. The sheer size of the site is hard to describe.

Yet, with all of the amazing features that go into the Rockies new digs, the most impressive feature might be not what is in the facilities, but where it is located.

For the past four Aprils, the Rockies have finished below .500. Instead of bursting onto the scene at the beginning of the season, the Rockies stumble out of the gate. Much of that can be blamed on long bus rides between Tucson and Phoenix.

The drive is only two hours, but consider the fact that a bus trip is far longer, plus the time it takes to load and unload, and the trip becomes much longer than that. On many occasions, the Rockies would be boarding a bus to go to Phoenix in the morning, then one back to Tucson that night, only to do the trip over again the next day.

Despite being Major Leaguers, this trip would take its toll on anyone after a month.

When the games that count began, the Rockies were already weak-legged and mentally worn out. They were trying to get their legs under them while their opponents were well-rested.

Couple that with the fact that when opposing teams made the trip to Tucson, most of the time they left their veterans in Phoenix, sparing them the long bus rides.

Those two factors combined to be a devastating concoction for the Rockies. Not only were they tired, but they hadn't had a chance to get their timing down against Major League pitchers. Sure, they would be getting at-bats, but seeing pitches from a Double-A prospect isn't enough for hitters to be ready to face the likes of Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay when the games that count started.

It may sound like an excuse for some poor play in April, but think about the difference a month could make.

In 2010, while the Rockies went on yet another September run, instead of trying to claw their way back into contention, they could have been pulling away from the pack.

In 2007, a run of 14-out of-15 to end the season wouldn't have put them one half inning away from packing up their lockers for the off season, it would have secured them the top seed in the National League.

In 2008, when the Rockies were doing their best to prove that their run to the World Series was no fluke, the club could have gained confidence early on by sticking with the pack.

In 2009, instead of being 12 games behind the Dodgers in May, only to make the Dodgers sweat out their division championship until the final weekend of the season, the Rockies could have been right in the middle of it, then put the accelerator to the floor when they had a chance to win the division.

The fact is, the games in April count just as much as the games in September. When the Rockies take four or five weeks to get into the groove of things, they are forced to play catch-up the rest of the season.

A baseball season is long enough as it is, but when a team feels like they are in a near do-or-die situation in May, not only are their bodies getting tired, but the mental strain begins to take its toll. By the time they are able to overcome the deficit, they are worn out, both physically and mentally.

This Rockies team has no excuse. They will be no more than 30 minutes away from any ballpark that they play in all spring. They will be able to play in a game and come home in time to rest and relax and get ready for the next day.

If the Rockies come out of the gate running in April, the best part of the new Scottsdale facilities will not have anything to do with the amenities of the gorgeous new park, but rather the location of it.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Did the Colorado Rockies do enough in the offseason?

Baseball fans have their own version of Christmas. It is called Opening Day. However, Christmas wouldn't be the same without the holiday season. That is called Spring Training for the baseball fan.

On Monday, Colorado Rockies pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to their new Scottsdale home. As far as baseball action, that doesn't mean much. As far as excitement levels, it means everything.

The Rockies are coming off of a shocking offseason. One in which they defied the stereotypical viewpoint of the team by signing Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to long-term deals, something that nearly everyone thought would be impossible. Especially in the case of Gonzalez, who is represented by Scott Boras.

The club also was able to re-sign lefty starter Jorge De La Rosa, lure free agent infielder Ty Wiggington to Denver, and trade for second baseman Jose Lopez.

Most fans in Denver are ecstatic with the clubs offseason. They believe that with the core of the team intact for years to come, the club will gel and play a high caliber of baseball.

As always, however, there are skeptics.

The skeptics say that this club is, for the most part, the same club that could only muster 83 wins in 2010. This is the same club that looked lost at the plate with runners in scoring position. This is the same team that could really use more more quality starter in the rotation. This is the team that lost Miguel Olivo and will start a catcher who seems to be watching his career in a tail-spin.

While the skeptics have valid points, there are things about the 2010 season that they are forgetting.

The Rockies finished nine games behind the Giants in the NL West race, but cashed it in during the final two weeks, losing 13-of-14 to end the season.

Skeptics are also quick to forget how badly the Rockies were bit by the injury bug in 2010. De La Rosa missed nearly eight weeks with a finger injury. Tulowitzki missed 33 games with a broken wrist.

Injuries are an easy excuse to point to, and could easily happen again, but how much different would things have looked had those two players been with the team the whole year?

In addition to injuries, the Rockies also had a rash of players underwhelming with their performance. Ian Stewart, Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta, Todd Helton and Dexter Fowler had years that they hope will end up as the worst of their careers. Stewart forget how to hit the opposite way, and forgot how to swing the bat at all in many cases. Iannetta looked too frustrated to think straight, Smith often looked tired, and admitted that he lost his focus when he felt that he should be playing more, Helton struggled through nagging injuries and Fowler showed growing pains, perhaps because the club rushed his development.

Will all of those players have better seasons? There is no guarantee of that. However, will a couple of them have bounce-back years? Odds would say that they should.

Couple that with the development of Jhoulys Chacin on the mound and the Rockies suddenly look like a far better team than the one who was looking to sneak into the playoffs as late as September 20th.

While all of that happening seems far-fetched, and it is very possible that the club will deal with many key injuries again, it shows why the Rockies still have a very good chance at winning their first-ever division crown.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Time for Colorado to step up to the plate

The Colorado Rockies hold nearly every attendance record in Major League Baseball. For the first five years of their existence, scalping Rockies tickets may have been the most lucrative business in the state.

The honeymoon ended, and reality set in. Instead of fans packing the seats at Coors Field, season after season of losing 90 games or more started to wear on the fans. Management had a plan, but many in Rockies nation didn't have the patience to wait out a generation of minor leaguers that the front office insisted would propel the club to contention.

The Rockies were an afterthought in Denver. The town's darling, the Broncos, were still the most important news topic. Fans crammed into Invesco Field regardless of the fact that the team was largely mediocre.

Even a surprise appearance in the World Series couldn't sway fans to spend their summer nights at 20th and Blake. The team was labeled a fluke, and frankly, most fans in the city couldn't list off too many more players than Todd Helton.

After a disappointing 2008 season, fans felt justified in labeling the club a fluke, and continued complaining that the Rockies were simply a farm system for the other 29 clubs. Especially when Matt Holliday was shipped to the Oakland Athletics early in the offseason for three players that no one in Denver had ever heard of.

Than the 2009 Rockies stormed back from 12 games under .500 in June to a playoff appearance, even coming within a weekend of winning the National League West title.

That effort, however, did little to change the perception in Denver. Attendance went up, but getting a ticket was only tough when the Red Sox or Cubs came to town. In those situations, the stadium was not packed in order to root the Rockies past an opponent, it was packed full of people wearing the visiting clubs apparel.

The Rockies came up short in 2010 after a valiant effort to climb back into contention, but the offseason was filled with surprises. Re-signing Jorge De La Rosa seemed like a lost cause, until the team did it. The alone would have been a good enough signing for most fans to be happy, but the Rockies continued on to lock up Troy Tulowitzki, and Scott Boras represented Carlos Gonzalez to long-term deals.

If there was ever was a time when fans complained about the cheapness of the Rockies owners, Dick and Charlie Monfort, those complaints were muted with those signings. It has become clear that the teams plan to contend was working, and working well. They had built a club that was competitive, and not one year at a time, but for years to come. They had also built a club where free agents were picking the Rockies over other offers, as evidenced by the Ty Wiggington deal.

The plan has come full circle-with one part remaining to be complete. The Rockies have put a winner on the field, they have put together a team that is fun to watch and fun to be a fan of. They have done their part. Now it is the fans turn to respond and show that they will come back.

It's time for Colorado residence to embrace their baseball team. Everything that they complained about in the team's struggling years has been fulfilled. It is time for the fans to fulfill their end of the deal.

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Trade talks swirl again around Michael Young and Colorado Rockies

The winter meetings are usually a pretty dull period of time for the Rockies. They are not the type of team that is going to throw around huge money to big-name free agents.

That's why it was such a big surprise when the Rockies name was linked to reports that they might be interested in the Rangers Michael Young. The rumors were quickly dispelled when experts suggested that the Rockies wouldn't be very interested in taking on a three-year deal with $48 million left on it. Especially considering Young is a 34 year-old.

However, it seems that those rumors had legs. Reports said that the talks were far enough along that the Rockies had Eric Young Jr. take a physical in order to complete the deal. The Rangers backed out over concerns of Young's stress fracture that he suffered in May.

If the Rockies could find a way to get Young in a Rockies uniform, it would be a huge boost to the lineup. The lifetime-Ranger is a career .300 hitter, with 158 home runs and 811 RBIs with a OPS of .795. He is 34 years-old, so the numbers should be slightly below his career averages, but he would be a great addition to the two-hole in the Rockies lineup.

With Young owed $16 million over the next three seasons, the deal will certainly have to include the Rangers eating a large portion of his contract. Of course, the Rangers would be willing to eat more of his salary if the Rockies include better players.

The question is, what would be smart for the Rockies to give up in order to acquire Young.

Young would be the Rockies second baseman. All of the talk of a four-man battle for the position going into Spring Training would be done. So, realistically, moving Eric Young might not be a bad decision. While he is already a fan favorite, his playing time is still a concern, and would certainly be diminished with Michael Young on the roster. So having EY stuck in Colorado Springs for another year is not advantageous for the Rockies or EY.

The Rockies might be able to sweeten their side of the deal, and make taking on Young's salary far more reasonable if they throw Aaron Cook into the deal. Cook is entering the final year of his three year extension that will pay him just over $10 million with a $500,000 buyout for 2012. That would rid the Rockies of Cook's deal, and make Young more affordable for the 2011 season. If the Rangers were willing to pay half of Young's salary for the next two years, it might be worth it for the Rockies.

Getting the Rangers to pay $16 million for a player who won't be suiting up for them might be hard for them to swallow, especially considering that Young is essentially the Rangers' version of Todd Helton.

If the asking price goes too much over that, the Rockies should forget the deal. It simply isn't worth giving up multiple prospects, plus established Major League players, to acquire a 34 year-old two-hole hitter, even if that makes the Rockies a much better team.

However, if they are able to pull off the deal, the Rockies lineup will be tough to pitch around in 2011.