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April 11, 2011

On the Beat

The Heart of the Rockies

by John Perrotto

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Jim Tracy beams when he is asked about the importance of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to his team. Tracy knows he could wind up keeping his job for many years to come thanks to the luxury of writing the names of Tulowitzki, the big-hitting and slick-fielding shortstop, and Gonzalez, ultra-talented left fielder, in the lineup for at least the next seven seasons.

Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd made it his primary off-season objective to keep Tulowitzki and Gonzalez under club control well into the decade. Tulowitzki signed a 10-year, $157.5 million contract with a club option for 2021, and Gonzalez agreed to a seven-year, $80 million deal through 2017, a surprise since agent Scott Boras' clients very rarely sign away any of their free agent years before testing the open market.

Tulowitzki, 26, has been worth 19.4 WARP over his four full major-league seasons. Gonzalez, 25, had 5.8 WARP last year in his full season in the big leagues. Tracy loves what Tulowitzki and Gonzalez provide on the field and believes they are just as important for their role in building a culture of winning in the clubhouse.

"To have Troy and Carlos with us for the foreseeable future is invaluable," Tracy said. "We've been a very good club since late May 2009, when we won 92 games and went to the postseason. In becoming a good club, the goal here is not to have it happen onc, but to be good for an extended period of time. To lay the foundation and continuity that is necessary, you begin with two players like this, who understand the program, and believe in the program. It will be helpful when other young players come here that they can gain an understanding from Troy and Carlos of how we play, and how if you don't want to play that way then you probably won't fit in here. You can also put Ubaldo [Jimenez] into that class, when it comes to the pitching staff."

Jimenez became the undisputed leader of the pitching staff last season, when he had 7.5 SNVLAR to finish fourth in the National League behind Roy Halladay (8.8), Adam Wainwright (8.0), and Tim Hudson (7.8). While he has yet to receive a long-term contract extension, he is signed through 2012 with club options for 2013 and 2014 and is open to something much longer.

The 27-year-old Jimenez, currently on the disabled list with a cut cuticle on his right thumb, believes the Rockies are poised to contend this year and many seasons beyond. First baseman Todd Helton is the only regular older than 28, and all five starting pitchers and closer Huston Street are in their 20s, at least until right-hander Aaron Cook returns from the disabled list.

"Almost all of us came up through the farm system, and we've been raised to win," Jimenez said. "We feel like we're going to be good this year and for a long time to come. We've had two good years in a row, but it's just the beginning for us."

The Rockies won the NL wild card in 2009, a season in which Tracy was promoted from bench coach to manager in May after Clint Hurdle was fired. Last season was an odd one for the Rockies, as they fell 11 games off the pace in the NL West on August 22, then won 19 of 25 games to get within one game of the lead on September 18. Then it all fell apart, as the Rockies lost 13 of their last 14 games, including getting swept by last-place Diamondbacks. They wound up in third place with an 83-79 record.

"It hurt all of us, and it was embarrassing," Jimenez said of the collapse. "I do think we learned from it, though, especially to never take anything for granted. That's what happened for us against the Diamondbacks. We thought that wasn't going to be a team that could beat us, and they did. We got hot. We just thought we were going to stay hot, and it didn't happen."

Jimenez said the embarrassing finish has fueled the Rockies this year. The Rockies have indeed responded. They are off to a 6-2 start, with both losses coming in extra innings.

"Last year we didn't take care of business, and this year everyone came to spring training ready to take care of business," Jimenez said. "We just didn't handle the last two weeks of the season very well. As time goes on, you get more mature, and we've got guys who are focused now and looking to go and win every night."

Another factor in the Rockies failing to make the postseason last year was that they played poorly on the road, something that has been a bugaboo for the franchise throughout its 18-year history. The Rockies were 52-29 at home but just 31-50 away from Coors Field. They scored 5.92 runs a game in Denver but just 3.59 on the road. The run prevention splits weren't nearly as pronounced, with the Rockies allowing 4.68 at home and 4.17 in away games.

Tracy believes the addition of second baseman Jose Lopez, acquired from the Mariners in an off-season trade, could be part of the solution to the Rockies' road scoring woes. Lopez was worth a combined 3.0 WARP the last two seasons but recorded a career high of 5.4 in 2008, a level Tracy believes he can return to this season. Lopez' career splits give Tracy faith that he can be the missing piece, as he has hit .288/.321/.442 with runners on base and .248/.277/.366 with the bases empty.

"I've been intrigued by what I've seen of Jose Lopez, and you see that he likes to be up with men on base," Tracy said. "Adding him to the depth we've built allows us to get on the board or extend a lead. We did not do a good job of that last year. We let teams hang around and hang around, and gave them the opportunity to have bigger at-bats later in games that caused us to get walked off. We need to take the opportunity to make that last at-bat in the game less significant. The way you do that is when you get a chance to add on runs, you do so."

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Rumors and Rumblings: The Angels have interest in free agent right-hander Jeremy Bonderman. … The White Sox have scheduled a second rehab start for right-hander Jake Peavy (shoulder) at Triple-A Charlotte on Wednesday, putting him in line to return to the major-league rotation by the end of the month. … Infielder Adam Everett and outfielder Travis Buck are the most likely players to lose their roster spots when center fielder Grady Sizemore and infielder Jason Donald (finger) end their rehab assignments at Double-A Akron and are activated from the disabled list. Sizemore will play center field when he returns, and Michael Brantley will shift to left. … With J.J. Hardy (oblique)being placed on the DL on Monday, Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino will share time at shortstop for the Orioles.

Though he pitched well in his first start following his call-up from Triple-A, right-hander Greg Reynolds will likely be sent back once the Rockies activate Jimenez from the DL next week. … Pirates right-hander Brad Lincoln (forearm) began a rehab assignment at Triple-A Indianapolis on Sunday but is not yet a candidate to fill the rotation void created when right-hander Ross Ohlendorf (shoulder) was placed on the DL on Saturday. … Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya (elbow) is not close to being activated from the DL, as he continues to feel discomfort when he plays catch. … The Nationals will give third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (abdominal) a second straight game off tonight in hopes that he can avoid the DL.

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Scouts' views:

Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett:"He's throwing his curveball harder this season, and it's got that 12-to-6 break again. I think it's because he trusts Russell Martin to block it a lot more than he did Jorge Posada. He really seems to be clicking with Martin."

Athletics center fielder Coco Crisp:"He makes a huge difference on that team when he's healthy. He makes that offense go from the top of the order. When he's not in the lineup, they're a totally different team, and they really struggle to score any runs."

Blue Jays right-hander Kyle Drabek:"He reminds me so much of his father [Cy Young winner Doug Drabek]. He has that same great mound presence and bulldog-type determination, especially for a young kid. The kid's stuff is better than his father's, though, and he looks like he has quite a career ahead of him."

Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar: "He's a lot more comfortable in the field this year than he was in Milwaukee last year as a rookie. He's got the defensive tools, with the cannon arm and great range. However, I still don't know if he'll hit. If he could figure it out enough to hit .250, you could carry his glove in the lineup."

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz:"He really gets overlooked on that team. He's completely in charge of the game behind the plate, and you can tell their pitchers trust him completely. He has also made himself a tough out over the years. He's one of the best catchers in the game today."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Carlos Gonzalez,  Jose Jimenez

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