Rockies will use spring to retool pitching plan
Colorado used a four-man rotation in '12; this year, there will be five starters
DENVER -- The fact that the Rockies hired a high-school baseball coach to manage a club that lost 98 games last year will be parroted quite a bit this spring.
Of course, Walt Weiss' credentials go deeper -- a 14-season career that included an American League Rookie of the Year award, a World Series ring with the Athletics in 1989 and eight years in the playoffs with the Athletics, Rockies and Braves. After retiring, Weiss spent seven years as a special front-office assistant with the Rockies, evaluating and instructing prospects and helping the Major League club during its 2007 run to the World Series.
But given what happened to the Rockies last season, maybe the grassroots work he did at Regis Jesuit High School in the Denver area last season was appropriate preparation.
In '12, the Rockies pitching staff posted baseball's highest team ERA at 5.22, and issued the third most walks. The defense led the Majors in errors. Offensively, the Rockies finished at or near the top of the National League in many key categories, which is not necessarily unexpected for a club that plays home games at Coors Field. But on the road, where execution is at a premium, they tied for last in the Majors in runs.
So maybe it's time for the Rockies to go back to basics under Weiss, who was hired after Jim Tracy resigned in October. Weiss' first Spring Training will focus on reinforcing essential skills.
"We're going to stress playing the game hard and playing the game right, and playing the game right is about execution," Weiss said. "Of course, defensively last year there were a lot of guys that were thrown into the fire and had to develop at the Major League level in some aspects. There were some growing pains. I think we're going to be much better defensively this year. We've got to be."
The Rockies finished a respectable sixth in the Majors with 758 runs, but Weiss believes more can be squeezed out of the club with better execution -- especially on the bases. As a player under original Rockies manager Don Baylor, Weiss was part of a 1997 team that hit 239 home runs and stole 137 bases.
Last season, the Rockies had just three players who finished in double figures in stolen bases: All-Star left fielder Carlos Gonzalez with 20, reserve outfielder Eric Young with 14 and leadoff man Dexter Fowler with 12.
Weiss believes the young, versatile and athletic roster can create more havoc on the bases, not only with steals but with the ball in play. Putting more pressure on the defense, especially at home, can help a core lineup led by sluggers Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki (hoping to come back from an injury-shortened season to re-establish himself as the game's top two-way shortstop), Todd Helton, Michael Cuddyer and Wilin Rosario. Young, Fowler, Gonzalez, Chris Nelson and outfielder/first baseman Tyler Colvin -- who earned long runs of regular playing time last season -- are among players who have shown potential to be more disruptive on the base paths.
"I think being aggressive has got to be a part of who we are," Weiss said. "I think the other teams have to look at us that way, and if they do, it will be a competitive advantage. We always have to work our running game, whether it's with steals, going from first to third. It's an attitude of attacking on the bases and with our bats, getting the opposition to react to what we're doing instead of vice versa."
The manager's major job of Spring Training will be finding five credible starters and learning to navigate the Rockies' pitching plan.
Last season's ill-fated experiment of using a four-man rotation limited starters to around 75 pitches, and led to a pitching plan for this year that's still outside the norm. The Rockies will go with five starters, and the rotation will be augmented by three relievers who could pitch multiple innings before turning the game over to the late bullpen.
"That will be the focus of the last two weeks of Spring Training," Weiss said. "I believe you should approach Spring Training in thirds -- the first two weeks, the middle two and the last two, so toward the end we'll be putting our pitching staff in place.
"As for our five-man rotation, we're not going to have a low pitch limit like 75 or restrictions in place. But we're aware of how drastically the numbers change after a certain number of pitches and the third time through the order."
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Away vs. D-backs, Feb. 23, 1:10 p.m. MT
Away vs. Brewers, April 1, 12:10 p.m. MT
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. Can right-hander Jhoulys Chacin and left-hander Jorge De La Rosa shake off injury-shortened 2012 seasons and pitch to their talent levels?
Chacin showed signs of becoming one of the game's top young pitchers before a nerve issue in his chest derailed him last season. De La Rosa was one of the game's better left-handers before undergoing elbow surgery in 2011, and a long, halting rehab ate up almost all of his 2012. Weiss said both participated in a mini-camp in the Dominican Republic last week, and should be ready for full activity. No matter how the staff fills out, Chacin and De La Rosa, as well as veteran Jeff Francis, must be leaders.
2. How much have the younger pitchers progressed since their rough days in 2012?
Lefty Drew Pomeranz had some impressive sequences, but those were few and far between. Lefty Christian Friedrich also showed flashes of promise, but finished the season on the shelf with a back injury. The Rockies believe Juan Nicasio has star potential, but his first callup in 2011 ended with a line drive off his face, and his 2012 season ended in early June when he suffered a knee injury while trying to field another screamer through the box. Righty Tyler Chatwood, who threw nearly a full season with the Angels in 2011, had a strong finish last season, and is ahead of the others on the learning curve. For the team to contend, several of these young pitchers must progress rapidly.
3. Was catcher Rosario, who set a Rockies rookie record with 28 home runs, scarred by a difficult defensive year in 2012 in which he led Major League catchers in errors (13) and passed balls (21)?
This much is known: Weiss has full confidence in Rosario. Weiss became familiar with Rosario when the catcher was a freshly-signed teenager in the Dominican Republic. "He was one of those guys thrown into the fire. He had to handle a young staff and he jumped a level -- he didn't play in Triple-A," Weiss said. "But he is a supreme athlete. He's got all the tools, and he can shut down the running game with his arm. He can catch, and I really expect him to take a big step forward this year. I'm not worried about him." If Rosario doesn't progress as Weiss expects, several other players could pick up the slack: Ramon Hernandez, hoping to come back from injury, the versatile Jordan Pacheco, who could see increased catching duty, and Yorvit Torrealba, in camp under a Minor League contract.
64-98, fifth in NL West
Projected batting order
1. CF Dexter Fowler:
.300 BA, .389 OBP, .474 SLG, 13 HR, 53 RBIs in 2012
2. 3B Chris Nelson:
.301 BA, .352 OBP, .458 SLG, 9 HR, 53 RBIs in 2012
3. LF Carlos Gonzalez:
.303 BA, .371 OBP, .510 SLG, 22 HR, 85 RBIs in 2012
4. SS Troy Tulowitzki:
.287 BA, .360 OBP, .486 SLG, 8 HR, 27 RBIs in 2012
5. 1B Todd Helton:
.238 BA, .343 OBP, .400 SLG, 7 HR, 37 RBIs in 2012
6. RF Michael Cuddyer:
.260 BA, .317 OBP, .489 SLG, 16 HR, 58 RBIs in 2012
7. C Wilin Rosario:
.270 BA, .312 OBP, .530 SLG, 28 HR, 71 RBIs in 2012
8. 2B Josh Rutledge:
.274 BA, .306 OBP, .469 SLG, 8 HR, 37 RBIs in 2012
1. LHP Jorge De La Rosa, 0-2, 9.28 ERA in 2012
2. RHP Jhoulys Chacin, 3-5, 4.43 ERA in 2012
3. LHPJeff Francis, 6-7, 5.58 ERA in 2012
4. RHP Tyler Chatwood, 5-6, 5.43 ERA in 2012
5. LHP Drew Pomeranz, 2-9, 4.93 ERA in 2012
The new guys
RHP Miguel Batista: This is often the time for older veterans to show they're still viable Major League options. Last year, it was lefty Jamie Moyer who won a starting rotation position. Now, the well-traveled Batista joins the Rockies under a Minor League contract, with a chance to either grab a rotation spot or a key bullpen job.
RHP Manny Corpas: Corpas was the Rockies' closer during the 2007 World Series season, but elbow surgery derailed his first tour of duty in purple pinstripes. After reestablishing his health and his credentials as a Major League reliever last year with the Cubs, he is looking for a new chance under a Minor League contract with his old team.
RHP Wilton Lopez: The late bullpen could have been a strength in '12, if the Rockies had leads to protect. Lopez, a power arm who has a high groundball-to-flyball ratio and the ability to force double-play grounders, adds to a solid late group that includes lefty Brothers and righty closer Betancourt.
LHP Daniel Rosenbaum: Rosenbaum had a standout first half last season as a starter at Double-A Harrisburg, but struggled in the second half. However, the Rockies saw ability and selected him in the Rule 5 Draft, believing he could win a job in the bullpen.
C Torrealba: For much of the time from 2006 to 2009, Torrealba was the team's primary catcher and also a spirited leader. Some feel that the Rockies have missed some of that since Torrealba left. He is back under a Minor League contract, and will fight for a job.
RHP Chris Volstad: It seems like a long time ago that Volstad was an up-and-comer with the Marlins, but he is only 26. Being reunited with his former Marlins pitching coach -- new Rockies director of pitching Mark Wiley -- in Spring Training, under a Minor League contract, could spark a resurgence.
Prospects to watch
LHP Tyler Anderson: The stats that Anderson produced last year -- 12-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 20 starts at Class A Asheville -- were impressive enough. Add that to the fact that Anderson, 23, the Rockies' top pick in 2011, elected to pitch through a sports hernia and put off surgery until the end of the season, and it was an outstanding beginning to his pro career.
3B Nolan Arenado: Arenado was the hot prospect going into last spring, and he hit well at the beginning of Cactus League games before learning just how far he was from the big time. Now 21, Arenado is heading into his second big league camp. He will most likely begin the year at Triple-A Colorado Springs, but he is talented enough to force his way onto the Opening Day roster conversation.
OF Corey Dickerson: The Rockies liked Dickerson so much they drafted him twice -- in the 29th round in 2009 and the eighth round in 2010. Their persistence paid off last year, when the left-handed hitting Dickerson, 23, hit a combined .304 with 22 home runs and 81 RBIs at Class A Modesto and Double-A Tulsa.
OF Kent Matthes: Matthes entered last season as a highly-regarded prospect, but battled injury and hit .214 at Tulsa. He did show signs of a turnaround during the Arizona Fall League. If he can impress the Rockies in camp, he could be back on the fast track.
OF Kyle Parker: The Rockies' first pick in the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft, Parker put up some impressive numbers -- high in terms of run production and power, low in terms of strikeouts -- at the high Class A level last season. What he learns in his first Major League Spring Training could accelerate his climb to the Majors.
On the rebound
RHP Chacin: Chacin's conditioning was called into question last winter, which put him in a difficult spot. His velocity and location mysteriously went missing at the start of the season. The team was ready to demote him to Triple-A in May, but decided to investigate the source of the problem. Several looks revealed the chest nerve problem. Chacin pitched well after returning (3-2, 2.84 ERA in nine starts from Aug. 1 to season's end), and pitched in winter ball in Venezuela with no health issues.
OF/1B Cuddyer: Cuddyer, in the first year of a three-year, $31.5 million contract in 2012, had his moments in the middle of the Rockies' order. But, late in the year, he twice suffered oblique muscle strains. The second injury ended his season. He'll be a key member of the lineup and a veteran presence this season.
LHP De La Rosa: The Rockies had hoped he would return from his 2011 Tommy John surgery in May or June, but it wasn't until near the end of the '12 season. All he could contribute was three ineffective starts. De La Rosa also suffered a knee strain while continuing to work in October. He is reportedly fine for Spring Training and is expected to be a leader in the rotation.
LHP Friedrich: In '12, Friedrich was performing as well as any of the Rockies' young pitchers when his effectiveness disappeared. It turned out that he had suffered a stress fracture of the lower back. Various ailments have marred Friedrich during his developmental years. He could make strides forward if he can stay healthy.
1B Helton: Helton saw a sharp decline in his production when he tried to play through a hip injury, which led to surgery in August to repair a torn labrum. The veteran first baseman expects to be ready for Opening Day.
C Hernandez: Last year's plan was for Hernandez to do the bulk of the catching, while the Rockies eased rookie Rosario into the Majors. But Hernandez suffered a left hand strain that put him on the disabled list for 42 games early in the season and finished the year on the shelf with a hamstring injury. Hernandez will have to hold off challenges for his roster spot this year.
RHP Nicasio: Last season, Nicasio came back ahead of schedule after breaking his neck when a line drive hit him in the head in August 2011. Then, on June 2, he was going through the usual growing pains of a young pitcher when he sustained a knee injury trying to field a ball. Setbacks while trying to return led to season-ending surgery.
SS Tulowitzki: After two years as the most accomplished player in the game at his position, Tulowitzki sustained a slight left groin injury in the season's first series, kept playing, but was done by the end of May. Tulowitzki reports that he is fully rehabbed, and Spring Training games will be his last big test.
OF Eric Young Jr.: Young, a speedy convert from second base to the outfield, took advantage of the playing time that became available when Cuddyer went down. Young built his batting average to .316 before he sustained an oblique injury of his own in August and missed the rest of the year.
OF Gonzalez: It's the first World Baseball Classic for Gonzalez, who is one of the most popular players in his baseball-mad country, Venezuela.
C Hernandez: Hernandez is coming off of a hamstring surgery that ended his season, but he is on Venezuela'a provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic.
RHP Alex White: White will have a chance to develop an effective pitch mix and be the consistent starter he believes he can be in Houston.
RHP Josh Roenicke: With the four-man rotation being largely ineffective, it only seemed as if Roenicke threw every single day. But after the season, the Rockies left him unprotected and the Twins grabbed him.
RHP Guillermo Moscoso: At the end of last season, Moscoso threw strikes with the consistency that was missing early. Now, he'll have a chance to build on that consistency in a Royals uniform.
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.