Injuries take their toll on Rockies in tough season

Club unable to rebound after multiple losses to lineup, rotation

Injuries take their toll on Rockies in tough season

The number of injuries, and the strangeness of some of them, are well-documented factors in a Rockies season that started promising, but descended into a fourth straight below-.500 season. But manager Walt Weiss realizes that much losing turns reasons into excuses in the eyes of fans.

"We've got to earn the benefit of the doubt around here," Weiss said. "The last couple years, finishing in last place, you don't get the benefit of the doubt. We've had a lot of injuries, obviously, but we tried not to focus too much on that."

The Rockies can refuse to focus on the injuries, but it would be tough not to see and acknowledge them. Some are hard to forget.

Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki's standout season ended when he suffered a left hip injury just after his All-Star Game appearance and underwent season-ending surgery in August. Left fielder Carlos Gonzalez struggled early because of a tumor in his left middle finger, which was removed in June, and suffered a knee injury that led to season-ending surgery around the same time as Tulowitzki's operation.

The season also saw 2013 National League batting champ Michael Cuddyer miss time twice with left hamstring injuries, and in between he lost 60 games when he suffered a fractured left shoulder while diving for a ball while playing third base. It was a position he hadn't played at since 2010. He was playing third because 2013 rookie Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner Nolan Arenado suffered a broken left middle finger. Power-hitting catcher Wilin Rosario missed time with the flu early, and dealt with left hand and wrist issues throughout the season.

Starting pitching injuries, of course, were a problem. Righty Jhoulys Chacin, who was supposed to join lefty Jorge De La Rosa at the top of the rotation, suffered a right shoulder injury before even throwing a bullpen session in Spring Training, and made just 11 starts before being shelved for the year.

Then came the unusual injuries. Lefty Brett Anderson broke his left index finger hitting a pitch off the end of his bat in his third start and missed three months, and five starts after his return he suffered a season-ending back injury. Right-handers Jordan Lyles and Christian Bergman each ended up breaking their non-throwing hands.

Sure the injuries were extreme in their number and nature, but there was no escaping that they exposed a lack of depth in the system. Part of it is the Rockies' salary structure doesn't allow big spending on pitching and bench experience, but they didn't have enough viable players from their farm system to remain competitive.

"We feel like when we got all our pieces together we're a good club and we were a very good club early," Weiss said. "But you know what? That's part of the game. We got hit hard this year, but like I said, you've got to adapt and overcome those things."

Defining moment: By early May, the disturbing patterns of injuries and poor road play were creeping into the season. After starting 8-8 away from Coors, the team went 2-5 on its next road trip. Cuddyer was not long off the first of his three trips to the DL, and Gonzalez was resting, hoping his finger would heal. Anderson was already hurt, and Chacin was back from his Spring Training injury, but nowhere near form. Still, with Tulowitzki putting up MVP numbers, the Rockies entered a May 23 game against the Braves 26-22 and four games out of first place.

But in the second inning, Arenado suffered the broken left middle finger when he jammed it jammed into second base on a head-first slide as he hustled out a double. Then the Rockies went on a season-killing slide of their own -- 10-27 with Arenado out of the lineup. In a year of so many injuries, that one seemed to be the tipping point.

What went right: Imagine what the signing of first baseman Justin Morneau, for two years and $12.5 million, could have done for the Rockies had the team around him stayed healthy. Morneau went on to win the NL batting crown with a .319 average, but Tulowitzki had a much higher average (.340) when he went out, and Cuddyer finished with a higher mark in and around his injuries.

For a club with a moderate payroll to succeed, multiple young players have to make major strides. Although it wasn't nearly enough, the Rockies had some. Charlie Blackmon, in his first year starting in center field and first full big-league year, was one of the most productive leadoff men in the league in terms of home runs and stolen bases. Outfielder Corey Dickerson's hitting made him difficult to keep out of the lineup. Righty Adam Ottavino displayed an electric slider throughout, found increased fastball velocity as the year progressed and just might be the closer of the future. Lefty Tyler Matzek, the 2009 No. 1 Draft pick, was by far the best of the pitchers called from the Minors. Also, catcher Michael McKenry, who made a quick comeback from knee surgery last year with the Pirates, provided unexpectedly strong offensive numbers. Closer LaTroy Hawkins, who was supposed to gracefully bow out of the closer role, didn't, and had a solid season.

What went wrong: Successful Rockies teams have covered for injuries and inexperience with a solid bullpen. To help ensure themselves of such, they signed lefty Boone Logan to a three-year, $16.5 million contract -- the richest they had ever given a reliever. But Logan was coming off surgery for bone chips and a bone spur. He constantly battled elbow inflammation, and a bout with a digestive ailment to boot, and finally ended his season early for a follow-up bone spur procedure. Add to that to total meltdown of lefty Rex Brothers, who had a sub 2.00 ERA last year but was prone to walks and home runs this time, and the bullpen spent the year on the run. The starting rotation -- between the injuries and the struggles of righty Juan Nicasio and lefty Franklin Morales to avoid homers -- left a bullpen already dealing with problems with a large innings load.

Biggest surprise: The Rockies entered Spring Training needing to answer a question at the top of the order, but Weiss planned on Blackmon all along. Blackmon started the year at a pace that no hitter could keep and ended up in the All-Star Game. Although he struggled after the break, Blackmon more than adequately filled what many observers felt was a vexing problem.

Hitter of the Year: The way Tulowitzki, Cuddyer and Morneau produced, the healthiest hitter would win. It turned out to be Morneau, who missed some time around the All-Star break with a neck strain, but otherwise was healthy and productive on his way to a National League batting title.

Morneau had dealt with injuries in his final seasons in Minnesota, but proved his health this year. Also, he put up solid home/road splits -- a major problem for players throughout the history of the franchise.

Pitcher of the Year: De La Rosa's 10-2 home record with a 3.08 ERA and a .228 batting average against were more than just gaudy stats. They offered a counterpoint to the notion that Coors Field will claim any good pitcher's career. Well, De La Rosa is 45-14 with a 3.98 ERA in 81 starts at Coors. De La Rosa further perfected his blueprint for Coors pitching by adding a cut fastball, which helped him work inside to right-handers and set up his fastball and his main pitch, the changeup. The way he works hitters on both sides of the plate is serving as a teaching tool for younger hurlers such as Lyles, who added a changeup during the season, and rookie righty Christian Bergman, who works well inside against right-handers, but is developing a curveball for the other side of the plate.

Rookie of the Year: The Rockies toyed with making Matzek a reliever, sending him to the Arizona Fall League last year to convert and using him in that capacity this spring, before deciding he was more valuable as rotation depth. When Matzek received his chance, he found the control and location that had been iffy earlier in his career. His 3.55 ERA after the All-Star break was fourth-lowest among NL rookies starters.

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