Will talks with Tracy about the Rockies’ chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

Hall of Famer George Brett, in uniform with the Kansas City Royals this spring, was reflecting on the emergence of the Royals domination of the AL West during the decade of 1976-85.

“I had a couple years in the big leagues, and so did Frank White and Al Cowens,” he said. “We’d come up in the system. We had a bond.”

He paused. “We were kind of like that team taking batting practice,” he said, nodding at the Colorado Rockies.

Now, let’s not get carried away. A run like the Royals made–seven of 10 years in the postseason capped by a world championship in 1985–is more dream than reality in the everchanging world of major league baseball. There is, however, some validity to Brett’s comparison, and there is definitely a feeling among the Rockies that they have reached a point where it’s time to start winning.

Add in that manager Clint Hurdle, a former first-round draft choice of the Royals, happened to be the right fielder on their 1980 AL championship team. “It has been a challenging journey for us to be in a position now where a lot of people involved with the club expect us to win,” said Hurdle. “We are at a point where we are expected to take a bigger step than we have previously.”

The oddsmakers still rank the Rockies at the bottom of the West. But ownership expects better if Hurdle is going to be back after 2007, and so does Hurdle. “I believe that’s a reasonable expectation,” said Hurdle. “I look forward to the challenge. For me, it’s the best opportunity I have had to manage. I have loved every year. It’s been a different aspect and challenge that we have faced. But when you manage, the thing you want most is to feel you have the chance to win.”

Winning has not been easy for the Rockies. Last year’s 76 victories were the most in the four full seasons that Hurdle has managed. Twice they have suffered 90-plus losses. Management was able to live with that, however, because they felt they had a plan that involved patience in the development of a homegrown nucleus.

A lot of that nucleus, however, now has two full big-league seasons of experience. Like the contracts for Hurdle and general manager Dan O’Dowd, patience is reaching an end.

“This is the year that we thought, from the start, that our plays would be good enough and would understand what winning was all about that we could start a winning trend here,” said O’Dowd. “It’s time that we know how to win and expect to win. … You look at the age of our players, the experience level, and it is reasonable to think this year we should make that big step.”

The heart and soul of the Rockies is the heart of a batting order that has been put in place this spring with the decision by Hurdle to alternate his left-handed and right-handed bats. After right-handed-hitting center fielder Willy Taveras leads off and switch-hitting second baseman Kaz Matsui bats second, Hurdle will primarily fill out the lineup card with third baseman Garrett Atkins, first baseman Todd Helton, left fielder Matt Holliday, and right fielder Brad Hawpe. That is a right-left-right-left combo that will present more of a late-inning challenge for opposing managers than the lineup at the end of last year, when Hurdle had Atkins-Holliday and Helton-Hawpe hitting back to back.

Helton is the veteran who survived a January dance with Boston about a potential trade. Matsui is the former star in Japan who flopped with the Mets but showed signs of baseball life in the final two months last year with the Rockies.
The next most experienced regular is Holliday, with three years big-league service. Hawpe, Atkins, and Taveras (who came from Houston in the Jason Jennings trade) are all headed into their third years in the big leagues. Rookies Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop and Chris Ianetta at catcher fill out the lineup.

The defensive challenge is in the outfield. Taveras can cover plenty of ground and has a plus arm, but Coors Field has sizable territory, and this will be Taveras’ first year trying to cover this ground. He’ll adapt, but playing in Coors Field places a premium on having Holliday and Hawpe get serious about cleaning up the struggles they are still resolving in their conversion from the infield to the outfield.

Hurdle has versatility with the bench which allows him flexibility in deciding on the 25th man this spring. Jamey Carroll, last year’s primary second baseman, can play second, third, short, and left field. Jeff Baker provides protection at the four corner positions, and has the type of bat that allows him to fit comfortably into the middle of the order when he plays. Veteran Steve Finely is moving into a backup role to Taveras, with Yorvit Torrealba expected to catch two or three days a week. That leaves Hurdle to chose from a potential left-handed bat off the bench, John Mabry or Alexis Gomez, or a versatile right-handed-hitting outfielder, Ryan Spilborghs, for the final spot.

That mix has generated expectations. “I do think we have experienced things that we can learn from that should allow us to make noise in September,” said CEO and President Charlie Monfort. “From the start (of the current plan) 2007 was on our radar screen. I was optimistic some things might happen in 2006, but all along, 2007 was the realistic time. The important thing is I think this team is built to last awhile. … We are still young, and we have guys coming behind this group. What we have been through has taken patience.”

Now the time has come. The NL West is a decent division, but the team that made the most dramatic off-season moves was the Dodgers, and while they added starting pitchers Jason Schmidt and Randy Wolf, they did not address concerns about their lineup, which is actually a bit less imposing this year with J.D. Drew‘s decision to leave town.

The Rockies, meanwhile, feel their nucleus has matured. The bottom line, however, will hinge on the arms of the pitching staff. They added LaTroy Hawkins to exert some veteran influence in the bullpen; he will also handle eighth-inning chores. The pen also has successful seasons from relievers Ramon Ramirez and Manny Corpas to build off of.

They have a rotation foundation in Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis. They now need to see how well pitching coach Bob Apodaca handles the resurrection of Baltimore’s Opening Day starter a year ago, Rodrigo Lopez, a veteran who never meshed with Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone. And they are anxious this spring to see how Jason Hirsh, who came with Taveras from Houston, builds off back-to-back seasons in which he was the pitcher of the year in the Double-A Texas League and then the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

The pitching staff has grown at least a tad, considering that Byung-hyun Kim and Josh Fogg, the fourth and fifth starters a year ago, are left to battle it out for the final rotation spot this spring.

“You can’t keep saying you are building from within and not have success,” said Monfort. “We know that.” This year, the Rockies are looking for the success that has thus far been elusive.

Will talks with Tracy about the Rockies’ chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3
(4.3 MB)

Tracy Ringolsby was the 2005 recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, and honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 30, 2006. He is embarking on his 32nd year of covering Major League Baseball, and has covered the Rockies since 1992, the year before their first game. He can be reached by clicking here.

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