Rockies find stability with Jim Tracy in charge
Rockies manager Jim Tracy reached into his mini-fridge after a spring game, pulled out a frosty root beer and settled into his office chair for a rare moment of relaxation.
The serenity lasted all of one sip.
Soon, there were coaches tapping at his office door requesting an audience and players sauntering by just to chitchat.
Tracy graciously invited them in.
It was this same friendly and forthcoming manner that helped rescue the Rockies' floundering season last year. Tracy took over for Clint Hurdle on May 29 after Colorado stumbled to an 18-28 start, falling 14 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West.
Tracy's easygoing demeanor was infectious, the team reeling off wins in 17 of 18 games to climb back into the playoff race and eventually make the postseason as the NL wild card, where they lost in four games to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Colorado went 74-42 under Tracy, nearly catching the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of the year for the NL West crown. Fans and players alike wondered what might have been had Tracy been in charge from Day 1.
They'll soon find out.
The Rockies return virtually the same cast, except for some tweaks here and there, in 2010.
Gone is All-Star pitcher Jason Marquis, who had a brilliant first half only to run out of steam toward the end of the year. In his place steps former ace Jeff Francis, who's returning to the rotation after missing last year following shoulder surgery.
The team also let go of third baseman Garrett Atkins but brought in a versatile utility player in Melvin Mora.
The shrewdest move of all?
``Holding on to Jim Tracy,'' insists Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd.
The Rockies signed Tracy to a three-year deal last fall on the same day he was named NL Manager of the Year.
In Tracy, the Rockies have a manger who meshes with their personality. His players have a set place in the lineup each day, which they appreciate. They have established roles, which they prefer.
``There is a certain way I like to see the game played. There is a group of people here that embraces that thought,'' Tracy explained. ``We have a group of people focused on wanting to play the game the way it is supposed to be played.''
No one benefited more from Tracy's tutelage than star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
Tracy offered up some friendly advice - stand more upright in the batter's box - and Tulowitzki took off at the plate. He had a career season, hitting .297 with 32 homers and 92 RBIs. He also was his customary reliable self at shortstop, a virtual vacuum.
The rest of the team prospered, as well, reaching the postseason for the second time in three seasons.
Now, Tulowitzki scans the clubhouse and sees a team ready to win its first division crown.
``Since I've been here, we've made a playoff appearance and a World Series appearance. But I'd take this team over any of them, talent-wise,'' Tulowitzki said. ``That doesn't necessarily mean it's going to transfer over to how the team jells and comes together. If we can jell and stay injury-free, I like our chances.''
There are plenty of components in place for a productive season.
Colorado brought back Jason Giambi, who found no takers in the AL, where he had hoped to be a DH. The slugger became a September catalyst for the Rockies last season after the team signed him following his release by Oakland. In 19 games with Colorado, he hit .292 with two homers and 11 RBIs.
Aside from his clubhouse leadership, Giambi provides insurance for Todd Helton, who returned from back surgery and hit .325 last season. Helton gladly welcomes the company at first, a position where All-Star right fielder Brad Hawpe and Mora could also spend some time.
``Jason's just a good dude,'' Helton said. ``He's fun to have around, been through this.''
That Giambi has, going to the World Series with the New York Yankees in 2003. He's eager to lend any assistance he can.
``It's my job to help push these kids along to get them to the next level and get that expectation level back to where it needs to be, which is making a World Series,'' Giambi said.
Those youngsters include Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler, outfielders who made quantum leaps last season.
Gonzalez was acquired - along with closer Huston Street and lefty Greg Smith - in the deal that sent Matt Holliday on to Oakland in November 2008. And although Gonzalez struggled early, spending the first part of the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, he caught fire toward the end of the year, hitting .320 after the break and was the Rockies' best hitter in the playoffs.
Fowler made a rather seamless transition from Double-A ball all the way to the majors, enough so that Tracy gives him the green light whenever he's on the basepaths. Fowler stole 27 bases last season.
About the only position up for grabs is catcher, where Chris Iannetta and Miguel Olivo will split duties following the departure of Yorvit Torrealba, who had a nice rapport with the pitching staff.
The Rockies' rotation is led by flamethrowing ace Ubaldo Jimenez, followed by Francis, Aaron Cook, Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa.
Once healthy, the bullpen will be pretty much the same as last season. Rafael Betancourt will be the bridge to Street, who saved 35 of 37 games last season.
However, both Betancourt and Street have been contending with shoulders ailments all spring. Street is all but certain to start the year on the disabled list, but Betancourt believes he could be ready in time for the opener.
Expectations are high this season, with some national publications even tabbing the Rockies to win the West.
Asked about the makeup of this squad Helton simply said, ``Talented.''
``But that doesn't mean anything,'' Helton cautioned. ``I've been on talented teams before that haven't been that good.''
That's where Tracy and his easygoing ways may figure in.
``He's a very good manager, a very good person,'' Hawpe said. ``Everybody enjoys being around him and getting to know him.''