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April 20, 2011

On the Beat

Heightened Expectations

by John Perrotto

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Clint Hurdle understands the stereotypes that surround the Rockies as much as anyone. Though Hurdle is now the Pirates' manager, he spent more than seven years managing the Rockies from April 2002 to May 2009. He served as the Rockies' hitting coach for five seasons before that.

"When everyone talks about the Rockies, they always say the same thing," Hurdle said. "They talk about the Rockies playing in altitude, playing in the thin air. They talk about how you have to outslug to win a game at Coors Field. They talk about how the Rockies will never win because they'll never have enough pitching to get through a season playing in that environment."

Hurdle then paused and said, "Those are people who don't go to Denver and they don't see what is going on there. Those stereotypes are a thing of the past."

The Rockies have gotten out the gate at 12-5, the best record in the National League. They figure to be serious challengers to the defending World Series champion Giants in the NL West this season. While the Rockies' offense is quite formidable, anchored by two rising stars in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez, a dynamic starting rotation also sparks their hopes of playing into October.

"We have some very intriguing pitchers in our rotation," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said recently. "Some of them have already proven they can be successful at the major-league level and are leaving the impression that there is more there, that they aren't finished products. Then we have some young pitchers who are very talented and are stair-stepping their way to a point where they are becoming very effective major-league starters."

The unquestioned ace of the rotation is right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, a 27-year-old who had a breakout season last year when he finished fourth in the NL with 7.5 SNLVAR, raising his career total to 15.3 in 3 1/2 seasons. He was the NL All-Star starter in 2010, and the only negative to his season was that he had a 2.20 ERA at the All-Star break but a 3.80 mark after. Jimenez also came up short in his bid to win 20 games after posting 15 victories before the break.

"He tried to do too much in the second half," Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca said. "He was 15-1 at the break, and he felt as if needed to continue that pace, which was unrealistic, in the second half. There were breakdowns mechanically that came from overthrowing his pitches. He's a great kid, and he cares so much that he put unnecessary pressure on himself, especially to try to get that 20th win."

Jimenez said he learned some painful lessons in the second half, as the Rockies lost 13 of their last 14 games to fade from playoff contention after being only one game off the pace in the NL West on September 18.

"I tried to do everything, tried to throw a no-hitter every time out," said Jimenez, who did throw his first career no-no last season against the Braves on April 17 in Atlanta. "I found out that you can try too hard. This year, I'm going to stay relaxed and just pitch my game."

Jimenez returned to the rotation Tuesday night against the Giants after being activated from the disabled list. He had been suffering from a cut on the cuticle of his right thumb, leading him to be disabled just a few days after getting tagged for six runs, five earned, in six innings by the Diamondbacks in the April 1 season opener.

"You can't overstate Ubaldo's value to us both on the mound and as the leader of our pitching staff in the clubhouse," Tracy said.

Left-hander Jorge De La Rosa, meanwhile, has developed into a solid number-two starter. The oldest member of the rotation at 30, he contributed 6.1 WARP over the last three seasons, and the Rockies believe he is a late bloomer.

"He was an excitable guy when we first got him from the Royals," Hurdle recalled about the first time seeing De La Rosa following a trade in the 2007-08 offseason. "He would get really wild and lose the strike zone. He's calmed down a lot and developed into a good pitcher."

The Rockies also have high hopes for right-handers Jhoulys Chacin, 23, and Esmil Rogers, 25. While neither has spent a full season in the major leagues, they have already showed flashes of brilliance, Chacin being a step ahead of Rogers, a converted shortstop.

"Jhoulys is taking that step toward establishing himself and Esmil is right behind him," Tracy said.

Right-hander Jason Hammel, 29, rounds out the rotation. He is a serviceable No. 5, providing 4.8 WARP in his two seasons since being acquired in a trade from the Rays.

Two aspects of the Rockies' rotation stand out. One is that none of its members are older than 30. The second is that three of the five pitchers were developed by the Rockies and the other two, De La Rosa and Hammel, have made the majority of their major-league starts with Colorado. That shows the shift in organizational philosophy following the signings and eventual underperformance of big-ticket free agent starters Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton, and Denny Neagle in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"What we learned is when you got pitchers from outside the organization, it was tougher for them to adjust to pitch at altitude," Hurdle said. "They were used to getting them out this way at Shea Stadium or that way at Busch Stadium, but it was different for them once they got to Colorado. Finally, we just said we're not going to sign free agent pitchers. We decided to develop our own and let them learn to pitch at altitude, and it's a game plan that has really worked for the organization. You can see the type of talent the Rockies put on the mound every single day."

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Rumors and Rumblings: That the Rockies were not sold on third baseman Ian Stewart, who was sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs on Tuesday, became evident over the winter when they signed Ty Wigginton as a free agent and traded for Jose Lopez. Stewart will likely become an interesting trade chip later this season as a 26-year-old left-handed hitter with power potential. ... Dodgers rookie first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands will get an extended look, as first baseman James Loney is struggling and none of the group of Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames, and Jay Gibbons is an everyday option in left field. ... Dodgers right-hander Vicente Padilla (forearm) is expected to be activated from the 15-day disabled list later this week, and will be used solely in relief this season because he has not built up enough arm strength to start. ... The Rangers are considering giving David Murphy more starts in place of Julio Borbon in center field and playing first baseman Mitch Moreland in left field in place of Murphy. ... Justin Turner is the Mets' new starting second baseman after being called up from Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday when Rule 5 draft pick Brad Emaus was waived, but Ruben Tejada is likely to get another crack at the job later this season after playing 78 major-league games last season as a 21-year-old. ... The Rays are hoping to get third baseman Evan Longoria (oblique) back on the active roster on April 29.

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Scouts' views:

Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa: "He was a switch-hitter in name only when he was up with them last September, but his left-handed stroke has really gotten better this year. If he can become productive from the left side, then he has a chance to be a pretty good hitting middle infielder.  It's tough to be an effective switch-hitter if you can't hit right-handed pitching."

Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan: "What concerns me about him is that he has no command of his slider. He throws 97, which always helps, but even a closer needs a second pitch to keep the hitters off the fastball. If he gets the feel for the slider back, he'll be awfully tough to hit."

Royals first baseman Kila Ka'aihue: "Pitchers are starting to get a book on him. He has a hard time hitting anything that spins or is slow. He can crush any fastball but he really struggles with soft stuff."

Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum: "His body is starting to fill out a little bit and you can tell that has helped his fastball. It's firmer this season. When he's running that fastball up to 95 mph and mixing it with his other pitches, he's almost impossible to beat."

Diamondbacks left-hander Joe Saunders: "He seems like he has traffic on the bases every inning and is always one pitch away from disaster. Yet he has a great knack for getting ground balls when he needs them. He bails himself out of a lot of jams with double plays."

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:  Colorado Rockies,  The Who,  Rockies

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