There is perhaps no team in baseball more eager for the fresh start that comes with spring training than the Colorado Rockies, who might like to forget the 2012 season — worst in franchise history — ever happened.
After a last-place finish in the NL West, countless injuries and offseason upheaval, the Rockies open spring training with a clean slate under new manager Walt Weiss.
Weiss, a former shortstop for the Rockies, took over in November following Jim Tracy’s resignation. Tracy had been given an indefinite extension by the organization and was asked to return for the 2013 season, but he didn’t feel he was right for the organization anymore following a historically unusual season.
On top the worst record in team history (64-98), the Rockies took heavy criticism for the decision to use a four-man rotation with limited pitch counts for part of the season. Some defended the unconventional choice, but it proved of little or no benefit, and the Rockies eventually switched back. Factor in injuries to Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Helton, Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer, Ramon Hernandez and others, and almost nothing went right for the Rockies in 2012.
So that is what Weiss inherits as the sixth manager in Rockies history. Task No. 1 this spring will be retooling the pitching staff. That first requires finding five capable starters — a tall task considering no one on staff won more than six games last season.
It appears likely Jorge De La Rosa, who returned from Tommy John surgery late last season and started just three games, will top the rotation with Jeff Francis (6-7, 5.58 ERA in 2012) and Jhoulys Chacin (3-5, 4.43 ERA in 2012) in some order. That should leave the last two spots to competition between Tyler Chatwood, Drew Pomeranz, Juan Nicasio, Christian Friedrich and Chris Volstad, who comes to camp on a minor-league deal.
The Rockies will also try to sort out middle relief to bridge the gap to a strong back end that includes close Rafael Betancourt, left-handed setup man Rex Brothers — one of the team’s best pitchers overall last year — and newly acquired right-hander Wilton Lopez.
There are not many questions to answer around the rest of the field. The Rockies return a talented group with a pretty clear starter at every position. While the group must improve offensively, particularly away from Coors Field, it at least has the benefit of clarity and continuity.
There will be questions, however, about the ability of a few players to stay healthy. Tulowitzki suffered a groin injury early last season that he played through at first before missing most of the season. He has said Cactus League games will be a big test of his readiness. Right fielder Cuddyer, 33, suffered two oblique strains, the second of which ended his season. And Hernandez twice went to the DL last season, leading to the emergence of rookie catcher Wilin Rosario, who belted 28 home runs.
Helton, the aging franchise cornerstone, also battled injuries, including a torn labrum that ended his season in August, but he should be good to go for Opening Day. Helton’s dwindling production is a concern, but he has a bigger battle on his hands this spring. He’ll have to field questions about his recent arrest for driving under the influence and deal with the legal ramifications that come with it. That’s not the kind of buzz the Rockies need as they try to put an unfortunate stretch behind them.
There will be just a handful of new faces in camp for the Rockies, with Weiss being the most notable among them. He’ll no doubt bring some new ideas and philosophies, but the fact the Rockies hired him away from a high school coaching job ought to indicate the team will remain among Major League Baseball’s most unconventional.
Who’s new: P Wilton Lopez, trade (Astros); 3B Ryan Wheeler, trade (D-backs); SS Reid Brignac, trade (Rays); P Miguel Batista, P Manny Corpas, P Jeff Manship, P Mike McClendon, C Yorvit Torrealba, P Chris Volstad, minor-league free agents.
Who’s gone: OF Andrew Brown (Mets), P Mike Ekstrom (A’s), 1B Jason Giambi (Indians), P Guillermo Moscoso (Royals), P Matt Reynolds (D-backs), P Jonathan Sanchez (Pirates), P Carlos Torres (Mets), P Alex White (Astros).
Battle grounds: At least two spots in the starting rotation appear up for grabs, and the competition for those includes Tyler Chatwood, Drew Pomeranz, Juan Nicasio, Christian Friedrich and Chris Volstad. … Ramon Hernandez and former Rockies favorite Yorvit Torrealba will likely be competing for the backup catching job.
Health watch: Starting pitcher Christian Friedrich finished last season on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his lower back. The injury is reportedly healed and Friedrich is expected back sometime during spring training, where he’ll compete for a spot in the rotation. … Starting pitcher Juan Nicasio’s suffered a knee injury last June and never made it back, but he’s also expected to compete for a spot in the rotation this spring. … Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki missed most of last season after suffering a groin injury early in the year. He’s reportedly fully healthy and ready to test himself in Cactus League games. … Catcher Ramon Hernandez finished last season on the DL with a hamstring injury and comes to camp this year healthy but fighting for his roster spot. … First baseman Todd Helton had a torn labrum repaired in August but expects to be ready for Opening Day.
Sneak preview: Third baseman Nolan Arenado might have a good enough spring to get his name in the conversation but will more than likely reach the majors late in the 2013 season or in 2014. Still just 21, Arenado has taken strides in each year with the organization since being drafted in 2009. His numbers were down offensively in Double-A last season, but he improved defensively, and the Rockies see him as their everyday third baseman within the next couple seasons. Spring training info:Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, 7555 N. Pima Road, Scottsdale. First workouts Feb 11. (pitchers and catchers) and Feb. 17 (full squad). First Game Feb. 23. Tickets: coloradorockies.com.