By Dan Karpiel
Can the Colorado Rockies contend for the National League West, or even the World Series, in the soon-to-begin 2011 baseball season?
After the 2010 season ended with the Rocks dropping 13 of their final 14 games and finishing eight games out of the postseason, they made all the right moves over the winter.
Rather than overpay for big-name free agents, Colorado prefers to make a tweak here and there to the roster with a big-picture, long-term strategy in mind. Yet, the small alterations made this off-season should make a big impact on the field.
In December, Colorado signed utility infielder Ty Wigginton. Wigginton, a career .267 hitter with 22-plus homeruns in four of the last five seasons, will spell Todd Helton at first base, compete with Ian Stewart at third and make the occasional spot start in the outfield where the Rocks will keep only four fulltime outfielders.
Wigginton has enjoyed an impressive Spring Training, hitting .304 with three homers, five doubles and a team high 14 RBI in 56 at-bats.
The Rocks acquired another infielder, Jose Lopez, from the Seattle Mariners and sent Clint Barmes to the Astros in exchange for relief pitcher Felipe Paulino. Lopez will share time with switch-hitting Jonathan Herrera at second. In saying goodbye to Barmes and hello to Lopez, Colorado is sacrificing a little defense for what the team hopes will be a significant improvement offensively.
In Lopez and Wigginton the Rockies have two proven veterans who can play multiple positions. Each improves Colorado’s depth, give Manager Jim Tracy more flexibility with the lineup and give the Rocks more pop from the plate.
New Batting Coach Carney Lansford’s influence is already being felt. The Rocks will be better equipped to hit to all parts of the field and avoid strikeouts, both areas where they struggled mightily last season.
The Rockies’ biggest and most significant off-season moves did not involve acquiring any new talent but rather reaching long-term contract extensions with their two best position players, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
CarGo and Tulo finished third and fifth, respectively, in the NL MVP voting last season and each took home the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. Combined, the contract extensions are worth $205 million, quite a financial commitment from an organization with a reputation for frugality.
“I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t believe this was the right place for me to be,” Tulo said upon signing the $120 million extension and added, “If we don’t win a World Series around here, it’s a failure.”
Despite missing 33 games with a wrist injury in 2010, Tulo managed to hit .315 with 27 homers and 97 RBI. In addition to being a force with his bat, Tulo is widely regarded as one of the game’s premier shortstops. MLB TV’s Peter Gammons referred to Tulowitzki as “the best defensive shortstop in the National League.”
Gonzalez’s contract extension was worth $80.5 million and will keep the 25 year old at Coors Field for through the 2017 season. Gonzalez won the Rockies triple crown last season hitting .336 with 34 home runs and 117 RBI. Like Tulo, he is a force defensively from any outfield position and, unlike Tulo, is a serious threat to steal 25-plus bases per season.
“This is a family here,” Cargo said, “I feel real happy here; this is a great place to be.” Gonzalez explained that watching the Rockies get Tulo locked up long-term made the decision to extend his contract with Colorado much easier. “We have the same purpose; we want to win a World Series here.” CarGo’s contract is richest ever given to a player with only two seasons of big league experience.
Despite the successful off-season, the Rockies will enter 2011 with a few question marks.
Perhaps the biggest is who will hit fifth in the lineup, behind Tulowitzki. Whether the fifth spot in the order ends up going to Stewart, Wigginton, Lopez or right fielder Seth Smith, that player has to hit to prevent opposing teams from simply pitching around Gonzalez and Tulowitzki.
Helton and centerfielder Dexter Fowler need to get on base consistently to setup CarGo and Tulo.
Huston Street has to be the consistent, reliable closer he was in 2009 and not the erratic, injury-prone pitcher he was last year.
Colorado needs Franklin Morales and Matt Reynolds to prove effective as situational left-handers out of the bullpen.
Questions aside, the Rockies are a better team today than they were when the 2010 season ended. Pencil in 91 wins and a playoff appearance in 2011.