Rockies: just 76-86 this time 

End Zone

Among the many attributes that make baseball so special and enduring, one has always struck me as different from the other pro sports. In baseball, it's OK for any team and its fans to enter a season clinging to the most unlikely fantasies. Why? Because, almost every year, such a crazy dream comes true for at least one team.

Nobody outside Arizona gave the Diamondbacks a chance to win the National League West last year. But they did. You didn't hear anyone predicting the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2011 World Series. But they did. Same with the San Francisco Giants in 2010. Closer to home, none of the "experts" gave the Colorado Rockies a chance to make the 2007 World Series. But they did.

Of course, it can work both ways. The teams that look like certain contenders in March can become distant also-rans by August, as happened to the Rockies last year. Picked by many to win the division, they stumbled to a 73-89 debacle.

So as another season closes in, it's no surprise to hear some Colorado players saying they could be the next Arizona. New faces have helped create a new attitude, and many who never realized or sustained their potential are gone: Ubaldo Jiménez, Aaron Cook, Huston Street, Ian Stewart, Chris Iannetta, Seth Smith, Jason Hammel, Franklin Morales and Ryan Spilborghs.

All had their moments, but with so much on the line in 2011, none of them came through. So they're gone.

In their place are at least one proven star, rightfielder Michael Cuddyer, plus several players with solid credentials, a few journeymen and some prospects.

But the Rockies' forecast hasn't been this dim since 2006, when the franchise suffered through its sixth consecutive losing season. Colorado is being picked as most likely to finish fourth in the NL West, ahead of only San Diego.

Las Vegas oddsmakers are setting the Rockies' over-under for wins at 81.5, but they rate division favorite San Francisco at just 87.5 wins, which would suggest a close race. This could be one of those years, in other words, when just a little better than .500 might be enough to share in the September drama.

But is that realistic for these Rockies? Sorry, but I can't see it. For every good point about this team, there's a weakness.

Cuddyer looks like a superb role model, capable of sharing the leadership load with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. But Dexter Fowler, counted on heavily as the leadoff hitter and everyday centerfielder, has struggled all spring.

Ramon Hernandez has shown he could be the team's best all-around catcher in years, but nobody has stepped up to claim the starting job at third base.

Newcomer (from Baltimore by trade) Jeremy Guthrie has earned the chance to be Colorado's No. 1 starting pitcher, but Jhoulys Chacin has not looked ready to succeed in the No. 2 role — and neither has anyone else. Also, the bullpen isn't good enough to make up the difference, and will wear down quickly.

Todd Helton will try to hold it together, but how realistic is it to expect a 38-year-old (turning 39 in August) who played 124 games last year to help carry the team?

Let's acknowledge this: Colorado could be fun to watch offensively. Cuddyer, Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez form a solid nucleus, with Hernandez and veteran infielder Marco Scutaro providing support. If Helton hits .300, all the better.

But the pitching? No way. Even if Juan Nicasio blossoms into the comeback story of the year, he's still a kid with only a few months of big-league experience. Unless Guthrie and Chacin suddenly turn it on and show themselves as capable of combining for 30 wins (15 each), the Rockies will find themselves on the wrong end of scores like 8-5, 9-7 and 10-6, night after night.

My prediction is 76-86 — and that's perhaps overly optimistic. Anything more than 80 wins, and manager Jim Tracy will deserve that long-term contract.



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