Colorado shortstop battle to heat up

Colorado shortstop battle about to heat up

TUCSON, Ariz. -- After a long 2006 season during which his bat stalled and he lost his starting lineup spot, Rockies shortstop Clint Barmes took off for Hawaii.

It literally was the longest year of Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki's baseball life -- his first full season since being drafted in the first round in 2005. Tulowitzki played well enough at Double-A Tulsa to earn a trip to the Futures Game on All-Star Weekend, skipped Triple-A and replaced Barmes as the starter for the regular season's final month. He was impressive enough after the season in the Arizona Fall League to be named that loop's best prospect by Baseball America magazine.

So Tulowitzki took a postseason trip -- to Hawaii, no less. Alas, there was no meeting. Barmes was there to marry the former Summer Dennison.

"We got married at Old Lahaina Luau, on Maui -- it was family only," Barmes said, laughing. "I didn't run into anybody, actually."

Besides, Barmes and Tulowitzki would be joined at the hip soon enough in a stress-filled competition for the starting job in 2007. The comparisons start Wednesday afternoon, when the Rockies open their Spring Training schedule at Tucson Electric Park against the White Sox.

The not-so-exciting secret of Spring Training is that most teams take six weeks determining back-of-the-rotation, bench and long relief jobs. Starting rotations are often set, whether it's with a single player or a platoon. In some cases players scrap for the greater piece of the playing-time pie, as is the case with Rockies catchers Yorvit Torrealba, Javy Lopez and Chris Iannetta. Only an injury here or there changes the dynamic.

It's rare that two players enter Spring Training considered even, then engage in a daily, high-stakes can-you-top-this contest. Barmes-Tulowitzki could become a loser-leave-town match.

If Barmes wins, Tulowitzki will continue his education in the Triple-A Colorado Springs' starting lineup. If Tulowitzki earns the job, Barmes' future becomes uncertain.

With Kazuo Matsui and Jamey Carroll sharing second base, Carroll could move to short on days Tulowitzki isn't in the lineup. The Rockies could shuttle Barmes to other positions. Or they could entertain trade offers -- the Rangers and Cardinals expressed interest during the winter. Or they could send Barmes to Colorado Springs without having to expose him to other teams through waivers.

With so much at stake, manager Clint Hurdle has announced plans to give them extended playing time when they start games this spring. Most of the time, starters play little for much of the spring.

"I like that," Tulowitzki said. "You have time, rather than feeling like you have to do everything at once because you're only going to get one or two at-bats."

It's easy to assign dramatic roles.

Barmes, who turns 28 on March 6, would play the tarnished darling. Into the third month of the 2005 season, Barmes hit .410 in April and was at .329 on June 5 when he suffered a broken collarbone. He missed 78 games, and has batted .219 since his return.

Last season, he tinkered with his hitting approach, settled on nothing and floundered.

Tulowitzki, 22, is cast as the new darling, thanks to his draft status and quick ascension to the Majors. Double-A Tulsa manager Stu Cole gave him a crash course in patience at the plate by batting him in the leadoff spot. In the Majors, Tulowitzki wasn't perfect. He hit .240 with one home run and sruck out 25 times in 96 at-bats and committed two errors.

But his backhand play and leaping throw to retire the Mets' Paul Lo Duca in the eighth inning of his first big-league game, on Aug. 30, was one of several highlight reels featuring him that live in the multimedia archive of this Web site.

Now the players must earn the role of starter.

After the honeymoon, Barmes set about finding his swing in batting cage sessions at Coors Field. Under the watch of former collegiate coach Mike Bard, brother of Padres catcher Josh Bard, Barmes settled on an approach that is drawing positive reviews from teammates and coaches. Barmes is holding the bat higher and is comfortable with the way he is moving his hands to set the timing for his swing.

"It's the body positioning, behind the ball," Barmes said. "Last year I went to get everything and couldn't stay back on anything. That's a trust factor and me trying to do too much. There are a lot of things I did last year that I could learn from, because not many of them went the right way. But this year more than anything, it's trusting everything I worked on this whole offseason."

The Rockies would like for Barmes to make the same progress with the bat that he has made with the glove. Throughout his Minor League career, the club discussed making him a utility player, but Barmes has used his natural athletic ability to go from an iffy defender to a dependable one.

"He put away just about everything he could reach and made a lot of above-average plays," Hurdle said. "That's definitely what kept my confidence in sending him out there. It showed me he was able to separate offense and defense."

Tulowitzki didn't display major fundamental flaws, but understandably finished the season knowing he had much to learn.

His first big-league home run, a center-field launch off the Padres' Woody Williams at difficult PETCO Park on Sept. 4, and all of the dazzling defensive plays indicated that Tulowitzki's natural tools could make him a rare big (6-3, 205) shortstop who's a two-way threat. But the strikeouts and the fact that several plays could have been errors had they been scored differently underscore that the speed of the Major League game is an adjustment.

Tulowitzki admitted that he had some catching up to do in all areas.

"It's just being in the big leagues and seeing what it takes to be at that level and be a good player, whether it's handling things off the field or on the field," Tulowitzki said. "Just living the big-league life, so to speak, is the biggest thing I'm going to have to adjust to.

"I think you're just playing in a bigger atmosphere than you've ever played in -- bigger stadiums, more media. You have better players. When you put all that together, it makes it a tougher gig."

Hurdle noted that Tulowitzki needn't cram for this Spring Training course.

"Just have some fun, not to get overwhelmed with trying to learn everything overnight," Hurdle said. "Just go out and play and play with some freedom. He had a little short period of time with him. He did well in some areas and he actually improved in some areas as his time spent here went forward.

"They just need to play within their skill sets. They both can complement the team. What we're looking for is consistency on defense and who could provide us with some consistent offense."

In other words, Hurdle is telling them to relax.

That was much easier a few months ago on the islands.

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