Rockies to open Cactus League play

Rockies to open Cactus League play

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The first crack of the bat of the Spring Training schedule is like a starter's pistol for new Rockies center fielder Willy Taveras.

Rockies manager Clint Hurdle wants his team running more, whether it's stealing bases or taking the extra base.

Taveras was been successful on 77.3 percent of his steal attempts in three seasons with the Astros, who traded him to the Rockies this winter. But because the Astros had difficulty scoring runs, especially the past two seasons when the club had just one 100-RBI man each year, Taveras rarely had the green light.

As he begins his first Cactus League with the Rockies against the White Sox at Tucson Electric Park on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. MT, Taveras has the smile of a man free to run.

The results of Cactus League games are meaningless, so Hurdle is going to let Taveras and several other Rockies who have speed, judgment or a combination of those traits be aggressive. With Garrett Atkins (120 RBIs in 2006), Matt Holliday (114 RBIs) and Todd Helton in the middle of the order, Taveras and second basemen Kazuo Matsui and Jamey Carroll -- who will occupy the top two spots of the order in some combination -- can feel free to run, since getting thrown out does not necessarily kill an inning.

"If I get a chance, I want to be smart, but I'm definitely going to be running," said Taveras, whose .278 batting average last season included a late-season hit streak of an Astros-record 30 games. "I want to get ready for the season. Soon as I get on, if I get a chance to go, I'm going."

The Rockies are unlikely to get back to the days of the Blake Street Bombers, whose speed actually matched their power.

But with the speed at the top of the order, and with Holliday adding some speed and awareness, the Rockies can be similar to the 2000 club. That season, the club employed speedsters Tom Goodwin, Brian L. Hunter and Juan Pierre at various points, but was more noted for aggressive running when the ball was in play than steals. It led to the Rockies' last winning record, 82-80, under Buddy Bell.

It's a departure from a strategy based heavily on the sacrifice bunt in recent years. Hurdle at times encouraged players to run, but they were tentative.

"We want to know what we're doing but be unpredictable to the defense," said Hurdle, who will start right-hander Aaron Cook against White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle on Wednesday. "To an extent that will come from me. That will come from opening the guys up, giving them the freedom to do some different things in different situations, and give them every opportunity to take the step and run with it."

The speed emphasis also will carry over to the defense. Hurdle said Taveras in center, Holliday in left and Brad Hawpe in right will play more shallow in Spring Training than last year's outfield. The hope is when the season begins, they'll cut off some of the soft hits over the infield that drive pitchers nuts at Coors Field.

Taveras isn't concerned about covering the expansive center-field area at Coors. Often directed to play close by Astros standout pitchers Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, Taveras adequately patrolled a large and oddly shaped center at Houston's Minute Maid Park.

Taveras also will look to demonstrate an above-average outfield arm. He has 19 assists over the past two seasons. Cory Sullivan, the Rockies' primary center fielder from the end of 2005 through last season and a strong defender in his own right, had 11 assists over the two years.

Since workouts began, Taveras regularly has been icing his arm much like a pitcher, but he said it's because he does extra throwing to strengthen his arm and not because of any injury.

"My arm is in great shape -- it never hurts," Taveras said. "If I've got an opportunity, I'm going to throw it."

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