Last year the Colorado Rockies looked like hopeless also-rans for a month, then changed managers and turned into playoff contenders, riding an incredible streak of consistent starting pitching through the entire summer and into October.
In part because the pitching was so good, and in part because new manager Jim Tracy had made all the right moves with such amazing instincts, the Rockies came into 2010 expecting the magic to continue.
But it hasn't, and though April hasn't been a disaster, Colorado is fighting to hang around .500 heading into May. So as we think about a quick first-month report card, the big concern has to be pitching — especially from the starters.
Sure, Ubaldo Jiménez has been arguably the best pitcher in baseball so far, with that no-hitter in Atlanta and four straight superb outings. But the depth of solid starters is nothing like a year ago. And now injuries have come into play.
First, of course, Jeff Francis still is far from ready, after his spring-ending arm problems. That has been the biggest blow, because his return was the main reason why the Rockies gave up on Jason Marquis after one season. (Marquis, you'll recall, carried the staff through midseason, earned a spot in the All-Star Game ... and slowly flamed out in the final two months. But his spunk endeared him to Colorado's fans.) Trying to fill that vacancy, Greg Smith has been disappointingly mediocre.
Next, Aaron Cook struggled through his first three starts before finally showing signs of his old self last Saturday night in beating Florida. If he can run off a string of solid outings, it would be huge for a team that desperately needs a dependable No. 2 starter.
Jorge De La Rosa has been acceptable, but now he's out indefinitely after the middle finger on his throwing hand went numb Sunday.
Then there's Jason Hammel, who has had his own problems. The Rockies have yet to win a game he's started, and if not for the troubles elsewhere in the rotation, you had to wonder if Hammel's job as the No. 5 starter might be in peril. That was confirmed after his troubles Monday night against Arizona, when he left after three innings and five runs with a strained groin.
On top of all that, closer Franklin Morales already has blown two saves and lost his only decision while filling in for the still-sidelined Huston Street. But unless Tracy wants to mess with bullpen roles and try Rafael Betancourt or even Manny Corpas in that role, there isn't a realistic alternative.
And now, the Rockies already are reaching down to the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, grabbing 22-year-old Jhoulys Chacin, who has delivered a 3-0 record and three scoreless outings through his first four starts. He also has 21 strikeouts in 21 innings, which surely has the Rockies' attention. In a perfect world, Chacin would stay in the Springs for longer, perhaps until midsummer, building more confidence and experience. But the big club's needs take precedence.
Then there's 24-year-old Esmil Rogers, who started the season with the Rockies until reliever Joe Beimel was ready. Rogers came down and turned in two superior five-inning starts, allowing just one run for a 0.90 ERA. With Hammel also out, Rogers might be starting for the Rockies by Sunday.
As for the closer situation, Sky Sox veteran Juan Rincón, who was a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities entering this week, also has been called up, though perhaps only briefly. At some point though, unless Morales finds a better groove soon, Rincón might get a shot.
Of course, every promotion must mean a demotion, or the Rockies giving up on somebody, but the injuries to De La Rosa and Hammel are making those choices much easier for Tracy. But if Chacin or Rogers bombs, the Rockies might look to the Sky Sox again for veteran Tim Redding, who has big-league experience.
All things considered, it already looks to be a busy summer of transactions involving the Rockies' pitching staff.
But sometimes those openings produce new stars.