Reminder: The Rockies were a sexy preseason pick to make the playoffs last season. In retrospect, it might seem like we should have known better, as if the 2011 Rockies were the Pets.com stock of last March. But it made sense at the time, dang it. They had pitching. They had hitting.
Well, they were supposed to. The team wasn't especially effective with the bat (90 team OPS+), and while the bullpen was a strength, the rotation was an unlucky mess. Ubaldo Jimenez was supposed to contend for the Cy Young; he had cuticle issues and reduced velocity, and he ended up on the Indians. Jorge De La Rosa, whom the Rockies paid good money for to keep away from the Yankees, made ten starts before needing Tommy John surgery. Esmil Rogers and Aaron Cook were messes; Juan Nicasio was much better, but he suffered a horrific injury shortly after joining the rotation.
It's the rotation that's the issue again. Here's the face of the Rockies' rotation.
I know that's not fair or accurate. Jamie Moyer might not even make the team. But he's instantly funny, like The Clapper! Remember those? Clap on! Clap off! Just mentioning it makes people laugh. Look at that picture of Jamie Moyer! Isn't he hilariously old?
But he's up there mostly because you wouldn't recognize a picture of Jeremy Guthrie. And there's an argument to be made that Jeremy Guthrie is the face of the Rockies' rotation. He might not be the Opening Day starter, but he could be. He's almost certainly the most accomplished pitcher in the rotation, just as he was with the Orioles. Read that last sentence out loud if you're looking for ways to be pessimistic about the 2012 Colorado Rockies.
That's only if you're looking to make Guthrie the face of the rotation, though. He might be at the top of the rotation, but he isn't where the hope is. The Rockies have an interesting collection of arms after Guthrie, and it's not like Guthrie is a bad pitcher himself. He's a perfectly acceptable pitcher. But he's not going to be a surprise. He isn't going to be why the Rockies are good or bad. He's going to be Jeremy Guthrie, with all that implies.
After that, it's a mix of interesting, unproven arms. If you think of interesting, unproven arms as praying-mantis babies, you can assume that over half of them will be eaten by their own mothers. Hey, I didn't write the rules. Blame Abner Doubleday. And praying mantises. The odds are great that one pitcher will get hurt, one will regress, one will implode, etc …. Young pitchers, man.
But taken individually, there are things to like. One name that was omitted from the litany of horrors from last year was Jhoulys Chacin, who was the Rockies' most effective pitcher for a lot of the year. His strikeout rate dropped, and he led the league in walks, but his innings-pitched mark rose, and he's still just 24 and just two years removed from being one of the top-100 prospects in baseball.
Nicasio is an extreme strike-thrower who can keep the ball in the park -- that's the secret sauce that Colorado has been looking for over the last couple of decades. And while his injury was shocking and gruesome, he's back on the mound and pitching fantastically. He has a great chance to be the best pitcher on the team this year, which is absolutely amazing considering what happened to him last summer.
Drew Pomeranz is one of the best pitching prospects in baseball -- #30 according to Baseball America -- and he did well enough during a brief four-start trial last year. With the Rockies moving Alex White to the bullpen, at least for this year, a good season for Pomeranz would do a lot to help the Rockies fans forget Ubaldo Jimenez.
That leaves a scrum for the fifth spot, which is still a mystery. It could be Moyer. It could be former A's pitcher Guillermo Moscoso, or it could be prospect Tyler Chatwood. Those three are ranked in order of potential, but not hilarity. Jamie Moyer! Who happens to be 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA in nine innings this year. Some of which came against the Giants, so they shouldn't count, but still …
So if you made it through that description of the Rockies' rotation, and you're thinking good thoughts, congratulations. You're probably somewhat optimistic about the whole team. Because the lineup isn't a whole lot different, even if the players are. Out went Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta, in came Michael Cuddyer and Ramon Hernandez. Ty Wigginton and Kevin Kouzmanoff took a lot of the third-base starts last year, so even if Chris Nelson isn't good, it's not like the team will notice a big difference. Marco Scutaro should be better then the melange of nonsense they were getting from the second-base position last year. Seems like it cost a lot for the Rockies to move sideways, for the most part.
But Troy Tulowitzki is a menace, and if you call him injury-prone, the good folks at Purple Row will cut you. He's one of the very best players in baseball. And you might not remember this, but at the end of April, there were all sorts of "What's wrong with Carlos Gonzalez?" articles floating around because of Gonzalez's dreadful start. Turns out he was juuuuust fine. It's still amazing that the A's managed to turn him into Michael Taylor through some sort of bizarre alchemy.
Dexter Fowler, Todd Helton, Scutaro, Hernandez, and Cuddyer are all fair-to-good hitters for their position, so the only real danger zone is with Nelson at third base. It's probably fair to suggest that Rockies fans probably aren't too optimistic about how third is shaping up. But considering that the Rockies' offense as a whole probably won't get quite as many below-replacement-level at-bats this year, they'll probably be a bit better.
That leaves it up to the pitchers. Which didn't work out so well last year, mostly for reasons beyond the Rockies' control. But young pitching coalesced for the Diamondbacks last year, and we suddenly forgot that we started the season not thinking Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy were going to do much. It's not likely for the Rockies to follow the same path, but it wouldn't be cover-of-Sports-Illustrated crazy, either.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
Again, Chris Nelson is the presumptive starter now that Casey Blake was released. Nelson was a former first-round pick and top prospect for the Rockies who hit .329/.366/.547 last season for the Sky Sox. Sounds great until you realize that the entire Sky Sox team hit .305/.366/.489. The games in Colorado Springs are so long that they don't sell tickets, they sell timeshares. So don't expect much. And while it's hard to ding the Rockies in the "move they didn't make category" when they got Blake, they should have got someone who wasn't so releasey.
When you think your team is messing with a young player or prospect, remember Dexter Fowler. The Rockies were messing him around last year, moving him to the minors and considering asking him to give up switch-hitting. Somehow he still managed to hit .288/.381/.498 in the second half, even after the jerking around. He could be even better.
Not all of the young pitching will work out. Bold prediction, I know, but it rarely works out that neatly. Chacin might continue to struggle with his command, or Pomeranz struggles with the adjustment to the majors, or Nicasio … well, I'm not betting against Nicasio ever again. But you get the point. A lot can go right. More can go wrong, at least for this year. But it could be an encouraging season all around.