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June 24, 2011

On the Beat

Rocky Mountain Highs (and Lows)

by John Perrotto

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Jim Tracy has been a stickler when it comes to having his team take a consistent approach since becoming the Rockies' manager a little more than two years ago.

"We haven't been perfect going back to 2009 by any stretch of the imagination, but we stress playing the game correctly and not making excuses," Tracy said. "I really believe if you do those two things that good things will happen."

However, it hasn't always been that way for Colorado this season. Since the Rockies got off to an outstanding start by winning 17 of their first 25 games, Tracy has had to hold four team meetings to remind his team about what he expects.

"We've had some ups and downs," Tracy said.

Tracy and the Rockies believe that things have leveled off since they lost 27 of 41 games from the end of April to June 13, going from nine games over .500 to four games under .500. The club has since won six of eight to get back to breakeven at 37-37 heading into tonight's opener of a three-game series against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. They’ve also drawn within four games of the NL West-leading Diamondbacks, after going from as many as 4 1/2 games ahead of their closest rival to as many as six games off the pace.

The Rockies have established themselves as one of the best teams in the NL in recent seasons. They made an incredible late-season rally to win the franchise's lone pennant in 2007 under Clint Hurdle, and Tracy guided them to the wild card in 2009 after being promoted from bench coach to manager in May. The Rockies were in the thick of the NL West race last season until they lost 13 of their final 14 games to finish in third place, nine games behind the Giants.

Given the team’s recent participation in pennant races, expectations are high in Denver. The fans and ownership expect the Rockies not just to contend, but to reach the postseason, which makes it somewhat perplexing that the team lost its sense of urgency after getting off to a good start. However, the players seem to have regained their intensity after Tracy's multiple refocusing efforts.

"We have a lot of talent and a lot of expectations, and we're playing like that kind of team again," shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said.

The Rockies' most glaring problem has been at their top of their rotation. Ace Ubaldo Jimenez went on the disabled list with a thumb injury after his Opening Day start and has rarely looked like the pitcher who started for the NL in last year's All-Star Game, producing a 4.97 Fair Run Average, up from 3.80 in 2010. Left-hander Jorge De La Rosa, the No. 2 starter, blew out his elbow in his 10th start of the season and won't be back until at least next June.

Jhoulys Chacin has stepped into the breach with a 3.49 FRA in 15 starts and 99 2/3 innings. Right-hander Aaron Cook has also offered some reason for hope with a 3.86 mark in three starts since missing the first 2 1/2 months of the season with a broken finger. However, the Rockies realize they need Jimenez to regain his form. He does have a 2.39 ERA in four June starts, covering 26 1/3 innings.

"We're getting to the point where the ace of our staff is heading in the direction that will make us a better ballclub," Tracy said. "We lost our No. 2 starter, who was our best starter, at the time, but (Chacin) has kind of grabbed the ball and ran with it. He has really stepped up his game to a higher point than maybe we thought it would be at this point in time."

The Rockies are 12th in the NL and 21st in the majors in runs allowed with an average of 4.35 per game, and Tracy deems the bullpen "adequate," an apt description considering that the fine performances of set-up men Rafael Betancourt (3.46) and Matt Lindstrom (3.81) have been offset by that of closer Huston Street (4.90).

The offense, though, is what has puzzled Tracy, even though the Rockies are averaging 4.50 runs, which ranks fourth in the league and eighth in the majors. The Rockies' cornerstone players are having lackluster years by their standards, as Tulowitzki has a .278 True Average and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez has a .274 mark. (The pair finished at .315 and .328, respectively, last season.)

"Offensively, I have to believe the best is yet to come," Tracy said. "I'm begging to see Gonzalez get untracked. The shortstop has a burst in him that hasn't arrived yet. He's getting closer. We had a very good month of April. We did a real good job of taking significant run-producing at-bats in those months. We had enough of them to win. We've been doing that of late. Over the course of a period of time in which we didn't, we still were able to hold serve nicely and keep ourselves in a good position."

Tracy also likes how a number of players who have been called up from Triple-A Colorado Springs in recent weeks have helped give the Rockies some life, including left-handed reliever Rex Brothers, infielder Chris Nelson, and outfielder Charlie Blackmon. Some in the Rockies' organization believe Brothers has the stuff to supplant Street as the closer down the road. Nelson has become a serviceable bench player after spending six years in the minor leagues following his selection in the first round of the 2004 amateur draft, and Blackmon has supplanted Dexter Fowler as the starting center fielder.

"What's really helped to keep us in a position where we're playing for special things in the last three years is the body of work of our organization in general," Tracy said. "If you're playing special games in August and September, the mettle of your organization will get tested over the course of the 162-game championship season, and I can safely say this organization, going back to 2009, has passed that test. I like to think this ballclub is getting closer and closer to hitting its stride and being where we want to be. If we can have another couple of months like we did in April, then I have no doubt we'll be playing for something significant come September."

---

Rumors and Rumblings: The Indians would at least consider pairing right-hander Fausto Carmona with a prospect in a trade for a veteran starting pitcher who could provide innings. One possible target is Astros right-hander Brett Myers… Trade interest is reportedly heating up for Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano after he threw 37 pitches at 92 mph or higher against the White Sox on Monday night, and there are also teams asking about right-hander Ryan Dempster, closer Carlos Marmol, and right fielder Kosuke Fukudome… There is increasing speculation that White Sox assistant general manager Rick Hahn could move across town to the Cubs if they fire GM Jim Hendry… Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is pushing for a right-handed power hitter to balance his lineup, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't seem inclined to trade for one… Cardinals GM John Mozeliak is working the phones hard in an attempt to find bullpen help and doesn't plan to move starter Kyle McClellan back into his old set-up role… The Mariners plan to give the majority of starts at third base to Adam Kennedy, reducing Chone Figgins to a part-time player… The Pirates called up infielder Chase d'Arnaud from Triple-A Indianapolis to play third base, but he is expected to get a look at shortstop, his natural position, once third baseman Pedro Alvarez comes off the disabled list, which likely won't be until August.

The Angels insist they will not rush outfield prospect Mike Trout from Double-A Arkansas to the majors despite their need for some offense… The Brewers are not happy that they will play each of the three American League East powers in interleague play while their chief competition in the NL Central won't. The Reds do not play the Red Sox, and the Cardinals do not face either the Red Sox or Yankees… Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is likely to see his first action in right field since 2005 in this weekend's three-game interleague series against the Pirates in Pittsburgh in order for designated hitter David Ortiz to get a start at first… Tigers manager Jim Leyland will rightly not change his starting rotation so right-hander Justin Verlander can be a candidate to start for the American League in the All-Star Game. Verlander is scheduled to pitch the Sunday before the All-Star break, and Major League Baseball instituted a rule last season that makes anyone who starts on that day ineligible to pitch two nights later in the Midsummer Classic.

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Scouts' views

Twins right-hander Scott Baker: "He's pitching great right now. He's pounding the strike zone, getting ahead in the count, and quickly putting hitters away. Like a lot of Twins pitchers, he doesn't have great stuff, but he is efficient and doesn’t beat himself."

Indians right-hander Fausto Carmona: "He's really killing that club. He's leaving way too many pitches up in the zone for a sinkerball pitcher, and they're getting crushed. He has no poise on the mound, either. The first time something goes wrong, he gets completely undone."

Cubs left-hander Doug Davis: "He has nothing left. He tries to pick around the corners of the plate, winds up walking guys, then gets hammered when he has to throw the ball over the plate. I'd say his career is on its last legs."

Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton: "He's lost the bite on his sinker, and that's made him very hittable. He's trying to finesse guys with curveballs and changeups, but he needs to get his sinker back to be successful. He's not going to beat anyone with his secondary pitches."

Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz: "It's hard to believe now that a lot of people, myself included, thought he was about at the end of the line at this time last year. He's turned himself back around. His bat speed is back, and he can turn on the best of fastballs. It's like he drank from the fountain of youth."

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:  Jim Tracy,  Colorado Rockies,  The Who

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