Are the Colorado Rockies in contention? According to Todd Helton, it’s a matter of perspective. “I guess you could look at the standings and say we’re in contention, but I don’t really think that way at this point,” said Helton, the Rockies’ first baseman and longest-tenured player, having made his major-league debut in 1997. “I’d say we’ve put ourselves in position to be in contention.” Rockies manager Clint Hurdle feels the same way. “I don’t know if we’re there yet,” Hurdle said. “We’re close, but I don’t know if you’d say we’re contenders.”

This much is certain–the Rockies are 49-48 and in fourth place in the National League West, but only 5 ½ games behind the division-leading Dodgers. That is a lot better place than what the Rockies have done the previous nine seasons. While finishing either last or next-to-last in the NL West in all nine, they have had only one winning season in that span, barely getting over .500 at 82-80 in 2000, and lost 94 games in 2004 and 95 games in 2005.

“We’re pleased with what we’ve done so far this season, but we’re not satisfied,” Hurdle said. “We’ve had a plan in place here and we’ve all stuck to the plan. That’s meant a strong commitment from ownership when we’ve gone through some tough times. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re getting there. We’ve made steady progress these last few years, and the key is to keep going now.”

The Rockies tasted success quickly, becoming the first expansion team to make the playoffs in just their third year of existence when they won the NL wild card in 1995. They haven’t won more than 83 games since. The Rockies operated like a large-market franchise early on as they were among the major-league leaders in attendance. But with the losses mounting and the crowds dwindling, the Rockies began a youth movement in 2005.

Third baseman Garrett Atkins, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, left fielder Matt Holliday, center fielder Willy Taveras, and right fielder Brad Hawpe are all 28 or younger, as are left-hander Jeff Francis and right-hander Aaron Cook in the rotatio, as well as recently-installed closer Manny Corpas, who replaced injured Brian Fuentes in the role earlier this month. “We’ve become a really close-knit group,” Francis said. “We really pick each other up. If the pitchers are struggling, the offense scores some runs. It our hitters are slumping, we seem to pitch better. It’s a situation where everyone is willing to sacrifice for the good of the team because all we care about now is winning.”

The Rockies took a step forward last season, as they went 76-86 and escaped the NL West cellar by finishing ahead of San Francisco. Now, they are looking for something more. “We’re past the point of just looking to be respectable,” Hurdle said. “Our goal is to win the division this year. Whether that happens or not, remains to be seen but that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Rockies have always been an offense-first club, their hitters buoyed by playing in the thin air of Denver and that hasn’t changed this season as they are second in the NL with a 4.9 runs a game. Holliday has wrested the title of best Rockies hitter away from Helton; he leads the club in VORP with 37.0 while posting a .311 Equivalent Average. Helton’s VORP at first base is 26.8, but he’s leading the team with a .316 EqA; Hawpe checks in with a 25.8 VORP and .311 EqA.

However, the pitching staff has become much more respectable, ranking ninth in the NL with 4.9 runs allowed a game, after long putting up the worst raw numbers in the major leagues. Francis has emerged as the Rockies’ ace this season, posting a 3.2 SNLVAR, while Corpas leads the bullpen with a 1.422 WXRL.

While things are looking up for the Rockies, Helton, as the voice of experience, urges that the optimistic should be tempered with some cautious. “This is the best club we’ve had in a while, but let’s wait and see just how good we are. We’re always talking about this or that and that’s great. Instead, of talking, though, it’s time to just start showing what we can do on the field. We just need to go out and play and see where we’re at when the season ends.”

  • Stability has become the watchword in Cleveland, as manager Eric Wedge received a three-year extension this past week that keeps him under contract with the Indians through the 2010 season. Wedge’s extension came four days after the Indians tacked four years on to designated hitter Travis Hafner‘s contract with a package worth $57 million. The Indians also signed right-hander Jake Westbrook to a three-year, $33-million extension in April, and plan to make extending left-hander C.C. Sabathia‘s contract their top priority in the offseason.

    “Organizations that sustain championship-level success over an extended period of time tend to be built on stability and continuity,” Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro told the Lake County News-Herald. “That’s always been very important to me. Eric is a core part of our success. I’m convinced he’s the right guy for this job. Nobody understands our situation better, knows our players better, works harder, or cares more about this team than Eric.”

    Wedge, 39, is in his fifth season with the Indians and has a 376-369 record. The Indians were one of the surprise teams in baseball in 2005 when they went 93-69 and were eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the season. After falling to 78-84 last season, the Indians are 57-40 this year, good for second in the American League Central, but only two games behind Detroit.

    Should the Indians make no major changes between now and 2010, they will have had just two general managers and three mangers in a 20-year span. In addition to Hafner and Westbrook, right-hander Cliff Lee, catcher Victor Martinez, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and center fielder Grady Sizemore have been signed to contracts through at least 2010 in the past two years.

    Taken as a whole, the moves have silenced criticism that the owners, the Dolan family, have endured in recent years from fans, accusing them of running the operation on the cheap. “The core of this team has established itself,” Indians President Paul Dolan said. “One thing we’ve always said is that when the core emerged we’d do our best to keep it together so we can compete for championships for as long as we can.”

  • The Houston Astros are likely to finish below second place in the NL Central for only the second time since 1993. They are fifth in the division with a 41-56 record, and are 13 games off Milwaukee’s pace. That is a disappointment to Astros owner Drayton McLane, and has led to speculation that General Manager Tim Pupura and manager Phil Garner might soon be fired. However, after having a breakfast meeting with Purpura and Garner this past week in Washington, McLane told the Houston Chronicle that his management team is safe.

    While McLane is still hopeful can put together one of their patented second-half surges under Garner. However, Garner is more realistic. “We’re not going to quit, but we do have some issues with our club,” he observed. “It’s hard to be in the thick of the race every single year, and this franchise has basically done that for more than a decade. It’s just tough to do year after year after year.”

    Purpura’s fatal mistake in constructing the 2007 club was underestimating the difficulty of replacing Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte in the rotation. The two veteran starting pitchers went a combined 21-19 with a 3.54 ERA and 9.2 SNLVAR last season for the Astros; both bolted to the Yankees as free agents. Their primary replacements, right-handers Jason Jennings and Woody Williams, are a combined 5-17 with a 5.14 ERA and 1.7 SNLVAR this year.

  • Time has forgotten who first uttered the old saw, “a walk is as good as a hit.” However, it is almost certain that Kansas City Royals shortstop Tony Pena Jr. has never repeated the line. Pena has gone 264 plate appearances since drawing his last bases on balls on May 5 in Detroit off of Tigers left-hander Wilfredo Ledezma. Ledemza isn’t even a Tiger now, having been traded to Atlanta last month, perhaps as punishment for walking the walk-proof Pena.

    Pena has walked six times this season in 347 plate appearances. The Royals, though, aren’t concerned about Pena’s plate discipline. “I couldn’t care less if he walks again all year,” GM Dayton Moore said. “I don’t want him worrying about that. The biggest mistake that players make is they start focusing so much on their weaknesses that they don’t maintain their strengths.”

    Pena is certainly a chip off the old block when it comes to free swinging. His father, a major league catcher for 18 seasons from 1980-97, drew just 455 walks in 7,073 career plate appearances.

  • From the rumor mill: While Mark Cuban’s application to bid on buying the Chicago Cubs from the Tribune Company has drawn much attention, the frontrunner to buy the franchise is the group headed by John Canning. Canning runs Madison Dearborn Partners, an investment banking firm in Chicago, but he is also a minority owner of the Brewers. … The New York Mets are looking for a starting pitcher that they could plug into the top half of their rotation, and are targeting Astro Roy Oswalt, Marlin Dontrelle Willis, and the White SoxJavier Vazquez. The Mets have also inquired about White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye. … The White Sox would prefer to move right-hander Jose Contreras instead of Vazquez before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, and also would listen to offers on shortstop Juan Uribe, though none of the contenders are really looking to upgrade at this position, which will also hurt the Pirates‘ attempts to dump Jack Wilson. Colorado quickly ended its pursuit of Contreras when the White Sox asked for two top prospects, left-hander Franklyn Morales and third baseman Ian Stewart. The Dodgers also have interest in Contreras but won’t give up such youngsters as first baseman James Loney and outfielder Matt Kemp or shortstop prospect Chin-lung Hu … The White Sox have also talked to Arizona about outfielder Carlos Quentin, now at Triple-A Tucson, as they are not sold on the progress of young outfielders Brian Anderson, Jerry Owens, and Ryan Sweeney … Arizona outfielder Eric Byrnes will test free agency after breaking off contact negotiations with the Diamondbacks this past week. Byrnes believes he can get a contract similar to the five-year, $50-million deal that Gary Matthews Jr. signed with the Angels as a free agent last winter. … Kansas City starter-turned-reliever Zack Greinke is drawing interest from the Cubs and Yankees, but the Royals are asking a steep price for the 23-year-old. … Washington is pushing hard to move first baseman Dmitri Young and second Ronnie Belliard in deals for prospects. At the top of the Nationals‘ wish list is a young center fielder. … The Yankees would like to trade for Dodgers third baseman Wilson Betemit, with the idea of making him a super utility man, though Tampa Bay’s Ty Wigginton is also on their radar. The Dodgers apparently have their choice of one of three right-handed relievers–Brian Bruney, Scott Proctor and Luis Vizcaino. … Kei Igawa‘s time in the Yankees’ rotation is running out, as right-handers Philip Hughes and Jeff Karstens have had their injury rehabilitation assignments moved up to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. … Philadelphia doesn’t seem to have enough trading chips to deal for a top-flight starting pitcher, but is considering offering rookie outfielder Michael Bourn for a quality reliever. … Pittsburgh is getting plenty of trade interest in its veteran relievers, particularly left-hander Damaso Marte and right-hander Salomon Torres. The Pirates are more likely to move right-hander Shawn Chacon, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. … Cubs right-hander Wade Miller has looked good enough on his minor-league rehabilitation assignment that he might be able to fetch at least a low-level prospect in a deadline deal.

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