Hope springs forth at Coors

Rockies excited about their team, prospects

With Spring Training approaching, Rockies chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort is uttering words that warm up baseball fans during one of the coldest and snowiest Colorado winters on record.

"We've been building toward this for four or five years, and I think our time is here," Monfort said. "Not to steal a phrase from [Colts head coach] Tony Dungy, but it is our time.

"And it's not just a one-year shot. We've got a chance here with the farm system in the position it is and the experience we have at the Major League level to make some noise for quite some time."

Fulfilling such high aspirations will be a tall order considering where the Rockies are coming from -- nine straight fourth- or fifth-place finishes in the National League West, including a tie for the bottom in 2006 with the Diamondbacks.

But it beats recent years, when the talk from the Rockies didn't go much beyond payroll constraints and the hope that the farm system would produce some Major Leaguers.

That has changed. When the 2007 season opens against the D-backs on April 3 at Coors Field, at least five positions will be manned by products of the farm system. That figure could be six if one of the homegrown pitchers, left-hander Jeff Francis or right-hander Aaron Cook, earns the Opening Day start. It could be seven if rookie Chris Iannetta wins the catching job.

Included in the homegrown starters are two budding stars in third baseman Garrett Atkins and left fielder Matt Holliday, who combined for 63 home runs and 234 RBIs; another star hoping to rebound in first baseman Todd Helton; and a hitter showing signs of power at the Major League level in right fielder Brad Hawpe.

Of course, the Rockies had all those players last year and were in first place as late as July 3. They wound up 12 games behind the NL West Division champion Padres and NL Wild Card-winning Dodgers. So, what have the Rockies done to take the next step?

The Rockies traded their No. 1 starter, right-hander Jason Jennings, to the Astros, but received two Major League-ready arms in right-handers Jason Hirsh, one of baseball's top prospects, and Taylor Buchholz, who can help in the rotation or the bullpen, as well as speedy center fielder Willy Taveras to help at the top of the lineup.

They also traded with the Orioles for durable right-hander Rodrigo Lopez and signed two key free agents who spent time with the O's last year -- veteran right-hander LaTroy Hawkins, who will be a setup man for closer Brian Fuentes, and catcher Javy Lopez, who is looking to approach the All-Star caliber production he displayed with the Braves a few years back. They also signed righty Brian Lawrence, who pitched well for the Padres 2001-05 but missed last season because of right shoulder surgery.

These amount to low-budget, off-the-radar moves when compared with the rest of the NL West. The Dodgers added Jason Schmidt and Randy Wolf to their rotation and Juan Pierre and Luis Gonzalez to the lineup. The Padres signed pitcher Greg Maddux and David Wells, the Giants outbid the world for pitcher Barry Zito and the Diamondbacks traded for their onetime ace, Randy Johnson.

But after seeing how well last year's team competed until the latter part of the season, when the inability to get key hits helped sink the club, the Rockies felt tweaks rather than big moves were in order. They're counting on younger regulars to take the next step.

In addition, a growing number of prospects will be on display this spring. Fans know about shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and Iannetta, who saw time last year and are battling for jobs in camp. But a crew of prospects behind them, many of whom are not yet on the 40-man roster, will see time during Spring Training. All that leaves Monfort excited about the present and the future.

"The thing that really makes us feel good is we've got depth like we've never had before in our 15-year history," Monfort said. "We've got depth at pitching. We've got depth on the bench. We've got some guys that have been there before. We look forward to the challenges and hopefully a successful season."

Monfort also doesn't want distractions going into the season, which means he is not putting manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Dan O'Dowd on notice. The Rockies have had one winning record in O'Dowd's term -- 2000, the first season -- and none under Hurdle, who took over early in the 2002 season.

"Everyone wants to tie their contract discussions to wins and losses, and that's not true," Monfort said. "We've got our own internal discussions that we go through, and we're very happy with both of them. Dan's done a tremendous job getting us out of the contracts we had built up. And we've got a lot of guys that are playing at the Major League level right now. We've got some down the line that are going to be playing at the Major League level. I think he's done a fantastic job.

"Clint is growing in the management mode. He's great with the players, he's great with the front office, with Dan and [club president] Keli [McGregor]. I just don't see anything changing. We haven't had any sit-down discussions on it. At some point we will, but it's nothing that really brewing right now."

Now, with Spring Training on the horizon, only the Rockies' big dreams are brewing.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.