Rockies have pieces to contend in NL West

Rockies have pieces to contend in NL West

Rockies have pieces to contend in NL West
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies' pitching -- including a season-opening rotation that's three parts fresh-faced youth, one part vet in his prime and one part ageless wonder -- will play the biggest role in determining the club's 2012 fortunes. But the Rockies also are high on the guys with the bats.

The Rockies' acquisition of second baseman Marco Scutaro, right fielder Michael Cuddyer and catcher Ramon Hernandez, and the Spring Training breakouts of three young players, could provide depth throughout the batting order that can make Colorado a force in the National League West.

The early part of the Rockies' history, when the team regularly smashed offensive records while playing home games at Coors Field but rarely contended for the postseason, suggested that you can't win by offense alone. However, trying to win without it is no picnic, either.

Last season, the Rockies were hurt by a poor pitching performance from former ace Ubaldo Jimenez, an injury that took left-hander Jorge De La Rosa out of the rotation in May and an overworked bullpen. But the offense didn't help.

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The Rockies hit .245 with runners in scoring position last year, managed productive outs on 31 percent of their opportunities (according to baseball-reference.com) and scored just 51 percent of runners who reached third with fewer than two outs.

Adding veterans to a lineup that has 2010 batting champ Carlos Gonzalez, power-hitting shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and veteran first baseman Todd Helton in the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 positions is expected to help. Colorado is in strong position to have professional at-bats up and down its lineup.

"I feel good about it," Helton said. "When the struggles do come -- and they're going to, offensively -- we're still going to score runs. We'll put at-bats together offensively and make good things happen."

Scutaro will hit second behind leadoff man Dexter Fowler, who has had strong second halves the last two years and hopes to put together a full season. Cuddyer, a power hitter in a pitcher's park with the Twins, bats sixth. Seventh could go to young third basemen Jordan Pacheco and Chris Nelson, who have had productive at-bats at the big league level in limited opportunity. Hernandez, a strong offensive catcher, will hit eighth.

"Anytime you can hit somebody in the eight hole who is a proven guy at the big league level, meaning he's had some success," Tulowitzki said. "You have a lot of guys that could hit second, a lot of guys that can lead off and the middle-of-the-order guys.

"And it's great having a guy like Cuddyer, a guy who in the American League has hit 30 home runs before, to be hitting that far down in the lineup."

Even with all the additions, the Rockies are not the hot pick in the NL West the way they were last season. Then again, the D-backs were expected to struggle last year, and they won the division. The Rockies are back where they were in 2007 and '09, when they entered with low expectations but ended up in the playoffs.

"It's an insult, but it's encouraging, if that makes any sense," Fowler said. "People think we're not that good. But at the same time it gives us motivation to prove people wrong."

If the offense improves the way the Rockies expect, it'll be up to the pitchers to provide credible work at Coors Field and be competitive on the road -- especially in the West, where they will be working in parks that yield low run totals in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego.

There is electric young talent in Jhoulys Chacin, a right-hander who yields a low batting average but needs to throw more strikes to translate that into dominance; Juan Nicasio, a righty who had a standout spring after suffering a broken vertebrae when hit by a line drive last August; and Drew Pomeranz, a lefty who was the key to the Jimenez trade with the Indians.

The Rockies also have a reinforcement in righty Tyler Chatwood, who threw 142 innings for the Angels last year at age 21 and is considered almost ready to be a big winner.

Righty Jeremy Guthrie came in a trade with the Orioles and is expected to be the staff anchor. Also, 49-year-old Jamie Moyer made a successful comeback from 2010 elbow surgery and made the squad this spring. Also, De La Rosa, the Rockies' best pitcher in the early going last year before undergoing elbow surgery, is expected to return in late May or in June and could give the squad a boost.

The rotation and a bullpen led by closer Rafael Betancourt, who performed well at the end of last season, will need to control opponents' bats while the Rockies' offense does its work.

If so, the Rockies could be special this year and have staying power.

"From afar, everybody knew the D-backs were going to be good, sooner or later, then all of a sudden their pitching caught lightning in a bottle, almost the same way the Tampa Bay Rays did it a few years ago," veteran power pinch-hitter Jason Giambi said. "Those teams are going to be good for a lot of years.

"Maybe you get a guy you didn't expect on the mound. Is this the year that Chacin figures it out and wins 20? Is this the year Nicasio wins 18. Or maybe Jamie comes out and does incredible. And you've got Tyler Chatwood. If we figure it out, we're going to be tough to beat."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.