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Rockies: Big pressure entering 2009 

Six months ago, the Colorado Rockies headed into the 2008 baseball season as the defending National League champions, determined to make it back to the World Series.

They wanted to prove their remarkable 2007 finish wasn't a fluke. They wanted to show they truly had arrived among the elite major-league franchises, capable of contending for years to come.

Perhaps most of all, they wanted to conquer the National League West for the first time. And with so many young, rising stars, that division title seemed like a perfectly reasonable goal.

Six months later, reality looks much different. Colorado has returned to its usual place among the major-league wannabes, with too many missing ingredients to resurface as a postseason threat.

After winning 90 games in the 2007 regular season (counting the one-game playoff against San Diego for the NL wild-card spot), the Rockies entered their final week of 2008 trying to avoid 90 losses. That's a disaster for a team picked by many outsiders at least to make the playoffs.

From this view, the trouble started in March at spring training. Colorado was not jelling, and its pitching looked especially suspect. Nobody showed enough concern for the fact that too many starters were struggling badly, and nobody seemed to be worrying that the bullpen might be in trouble after expending so much in the 2007 stretch run.

You could blame the front office for not having pursued another quality starter, good enough to step in as the No. 1 or No. 2 guy in the rotation. Instead, the Rockies were content to depend on Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook as the mainstays, with others such as Jason Hirsh, Kip Wells, Mark Redman, Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales filling out the five starting spots.

Bad plan. Hirsh's shoulder troubles kept him sidelined until September. The other journeymen weren't good enough, and Colorado management pushed its young starters (in particular Morales and Greg Reynolds) too far too fast.

With that, let's identify five key areas that went wrong:

Mishandling pitchers. It's OK to build around Francis, Cook and Jimenez for next year and beyond. But if they want to win consistently, the Rockies can't lean so heavily on kids who need more time to develop. Reynolds, a prospect with much potential, is the obvious case in point: 13 starts, 2-8 record, 8.13 ERA. He should spend next year in Colorado Springs, no questions asked. Solution: Whether by signing better free agents or making trades, the Rockies should add two proven starters, one who could lead the way.

Hampered Helton. Veteran first baseman Todd Helton followed his great 2007 performance with a letdown, marked by physical problems that shelved him in the second half. Meanwhile, heir apparent Joe Koshansky spent another year in Colorado Springs tearing up the Pacific Coast League, while Garrett Atkins moved over from third base to fill in and increase his value. But without Helton's example and bat, the Rockies suffered. Solution: Use Helton or Koshansky as part of a trade for a top-level pitcher, depending on whether Helton is capable of regaining his form once more.

Troubled Tulo. Nobody expected gifted shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to go from looking like the next Cal Ripken Jr. to such a disappointment. He struggled at the plate before an injury took him out nearly half the season. Without him as the productive No. 2 hitter, there was no stability. Solution: Don't change a thing. The kid still can be Colorado's leader and anchor.

Who's on second? This trouble spot might be overlooked now, as many other problems as the Rockies have had, but nobody ever surfaced to replace Kaz Matsui and Jamey Carroll. Jayson Nix, Clint Barmes and Jeff Baker had their chances, as did Ian Stewart (perhaps the team's future third baseman) and veteran Marcus Giles in spring training. Barmes fared as well as anybody, but he still looks more like a utility guy. Solution: Nix might get one last chance, but this is another spot where Colorado should find an established veteran.

Manager's fate. Clint Hurdle did everything right in 2007, but it's hard to defend his many questionable decisions this year. If the Rockies had come back off the World Series experience with a division title, Hurdle probably could have stayed forever. Now, one more bad start and he could be gone. Solution: First, the front office must help out by bringing in a few reinforcements. But if Colorado stumbles out of the gate next year, change appears inevitable.

This outlook doesn't even cover the Rockies' headliners, starting with Matt Holliday as he enters the final year of his current contract. General manager Dan O'Dowd might want to keep his Big Three of Holliday, Atkins and Brad Hawpe, but with rising young players such as Stewart, Koshansky and promising center fielder Dexter Fowler, somebody might become the vehicle to upgrade the pitching.

Bottom line: As this year began, there was a good argument for Colorado maintaining the status quo. Now, though, O'Dowd and the ownership have no choice but to jump into the market aggressively and make a few bold moves.

Colorado has to do something, after seeing how Arizona and Los Angeles have benefited from being so proactive in 2008. The result: Arizona has a 12-3 edge over the Rockies this year, with the likes of Joe Torre and now Manny Ramirez leading Los Angeles back to prominence.

Unless the Rockies can keep up, their one World Series experience will go down as an aberration, and they'll remain stuck behind the Diamondbacks and Dodgers for years to come.

routon@csindy.com

Sports Shot

  • Colorado has returned to its former place among the wannabes.

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