Colorado Rockies: Top five storylines heading into the season

Categories: Baseball

Thumbnail image for troy tulowitzki on flickr cropped.jpg
Troy Tulowitzki.
The Rockies are the best team in baseball. As of this writing they're a half game ahead of the defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.

We're not sure what all the talk of grapefruit and cactus is about or why the good players keep leaving after half a game, but the Rocks are looking sharp.

What's that? It's still spring training and the games don't matter all that much? Shit.

The real games start Friday, when the Arizona Diamondbacks come to Coors Field. From then on, the Rockies will probably fall somewhere between just-out-of-the-playoffs and World Series contender -- where they have been since the epic Rocktober run in 2007. Five story lines will determine where in that spectrum they end up.

While Rockies fans are excited because the franchise finally dropped some big dough to ensure key players will stay in Colorado for several years, it also spent north of $250 million to construct a team that is very similar to the one that lost thirteen of its last fourteen games in 2010 and missed the playoffs.

Last year, the Rockies were essentially three excellent athletes -- starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez -- and a bunch of average players. So the main theme is: What will Colorado gets out of its non-stars? But here are the details:

5. Starting pitchers not named Jimenez: Over the first half of last season, Jimenez was the closest thing we've seen to pitching perfection since 1968 Bob Gibson. In the second half, he was simple decent, and the law of averages says he will wind up between these extremes -- which makes him a top five pitcher in the National League. He's as close to a sure thing as there is pitching at this elevation.

The rest of the staff might as well wear question marks on the back of their jerseys. Will Jorge De La Rosa remain healthy and motivated after he got paid? Aaron Cook has a broken finger and will likely start the season on the DL, and when he does return, will he be an injury factory or ground ball machine? Will Jhoulys Chacin capitalize on his talent and become an impact starter? Can recently-named fifth starter Esmil Rodgers hold on to that spot?

4. Position players not named Tulowiztki or Gonzalez: Specifically outfielder Seth Smith, third baseman Ian Stewart and whoever plays catcher and second base.

Smith and Stewart need to produce at the plate this year or face the prospect of never starting again for the Rocks. Newcomer Ty Wiggington is capable of taking Stewart's spot at third and Ryan Spilborghs is constantly vying for more playing time in the outfield.

Chris Iannetta has the starting catching job in the same way Charlie Sheen has sanity -- it could go at any moment. Defensive ace Jonathan Herrera might get the nod at second, but after the Rocks received almost nothing on offense from that position last year, newly acquired Jose Lopez will see plenty of time there given his prowess at the plate. Tulo and Cargo showed how far they can take the team almost singlehandedly, and it wasn't far enough.

3. Loaded bullpen: How can you tell the Rockies think they have a great bullpen? Matt Daley, who didn't allow a run in spring training and has been reliable for years, didn't make the 25-man active roster. But relievers are the most unpredictable players in baseball. Closer Huston Street, who is 27, has already been excellent and sucked twice each in his career. And the pen has only two lefties -- consistency-adverse Franklin Morales and Matt Reynolds, he of the eighteen innings of major league experience.

2. Double down on defense: Last year, the Rockies ranked 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency, which is the rate at which balls put in play are converted into outs. Teams that occupy a similar ranking in defensive efficiency are a who's who of awful teams not close to making the playoffs. Jimenez and De La Rosa can rack up strikeouts, but when anyone else is on the mound the defense simply has to create more outs.

1. Lonely road: If there was only one reason the Rockies didn't make the playoffs last year, it was because they couldn't take Coors Field with them when they left Denver. The Rockies were 31-50 on the road in 2010.

They hit .226 on the road vs. .298 at home and recorded an OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) of .654 on the road and .866 at home. The Rockies always hit a lot better at home, but that disparity in OPS represents the difference between Ryan Braun and Yunel Escobar. Who is Yunel Escobar, you ask? Exactly.

A team full of Yunel Escobars will fight for worst record in the league, while a team full of Ryan Brauns will battle for a spot in the World Series. How far the Rockies go will largely be determined by how much the road version of the team catches up to the home version.

More from our Sports archive: "Colorado Rockies opening day will be on a Friday, and on April 1 -- no joke."

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