If recent baseball history has taught us anything, it’s that you can never, under any circumstance, rule any team out. There’s always a surprise team lurking, just waiting to go from worst-to-first. Last year everybody counted the A’s and Orioles among the dead before the season even started and by October those teams got the last laugh. The Diamondbacks followed a similar script in 2011, improving by 29 wins to jump on top of the NL West after finishing in the cellar the year before.
These kind of quick turnarounds are happening more and more often and they seem to be coming from further and further out of left field. Everybody and their mother was picking the A’s to finish near the bottom of not only the AL West but baseball. But some savvy front office moves, some progression from the young players, some big years from rookies, and a few star turns later and the A’s were rocking their way to an AL West title on the final day of the season. Could this worst-to-first team come from out west again? Could the Rockies actually be flying under the radar?
They certainly fit the first part of the profile after finishing 64-98 a year ago. Colorado’s 2012 season was the worst in franchise history. It was one wrought with scary injuries to key players, disjointed pitching, and lackluster management, but 2013 may be different. Here’s a few of reasons that Blake Street may be home to baseball biggest surprise party:
1. Troy Tulowitzki is back
The miseries for Colorado began all the way back in second game of the season a year ago when shortstop Troy Tulowitzki came up lame turning a double play. He was diagnosed with a left groin strain, one that would eventually require surgery to remove scar tissue in the area. That caused the talented shortstop to sit out more than 100 games as he recovered and it forced the Rockies into using far less appealing options at the shortstop position.
When the Rockies have both a healthy Tulo and a healthy Carlos Gonzalez in the lineup good things tend to happen. Since Cargo’s promotion to the bigs back in June of 2009, the Rockies are 178-154 (.536 win %) with both of their superstars in the starting lineup. With just one of the two the team begins to fall apart, playing just .430 baseball and if you take both players out of the equation the results are downright ugly. Colorado is just 98-136 (.418 win %) without both players.
That’s good news for the Rockies who could use his 30 homer power and silky smooth defense in the middle of the infield. He routinely ranks as one of the most valuable players in the National League when healthy and his presence alone could be worth an extra 3-4 wins for the Rockies. As Tulo himself said “It’s important I am on the field. Not for my numbers — more because I feel like the guys can feed off my energy. I believe I can create a different atmosphere when I am out there.”
2. The offense is going to mash
Only one offense in the National League ranked in the top 3 in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging a year ago and that was the Rockies. They rode their hit-friendly attack all the way to 3rd in the NL in runs scored thanks to big years out of Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler and with Troy Tulowitzki back to full health, they could top the National League in scoring in 2013.
Gonzalez did his normal thing, pummeling extra-base hits all over the field and he improved his pitch selection as well, drawing a career high 56 walks. He’s also a lock to swipe at least 20 bags as well, making him a threat on the base paths as well. Fowler, on the other hand, finally had the breakout season everyone has been expecting of him. The switch hitter was on-base constantly a year ago and his game shown plenty of improvement already this spring.
The rest of the offense is chalked full of quality supporting pieces. Wilin Rosario, Michael Cuddyer, and Todd Helton may not be the guys you want carrying your offense, but all three are more than capable in a supporting role. Rosario in particular has the potential to develop into a fearsome offensive weapon at catcher. He may never be up to snuff on the defensive end, but he has major power for a 24-year-old, as evidenced by the 28 homers he popped as a rookie in 2012.
3. The pitching staff has to be better, right?
Well, the Rockies pitching staff can’t be much worse than last year when they allowed more runs to cross the plate than any other staff in the league. The 2013 rotation has to be better if only because it would be difficult to be this terrible again. The last pitching staff to allow more than the 890 runs the Rockies gave up a year ago was the Rangers from back in 2008, so a repeat of the nightly massacre at Coors Field is unlikely. Remember, this is a pitching staff that gave Old Man Moyer 10 terrible starts before finally pulling the plug on that experiment only to try and fail at using a 4-man rotation, so no matter who they put on the mound things should be better.
But will the pitching staff be able to improve enough to compete? Texas and Baltimore each allowed about 700 runs on their way to playoff births a year ago, riding homer-happy offenses to the playoffs. The Rockies will have to chip somewhere around 160-190 runs in order to be truly competitive and if you squint hard enough at the talent on hand, that seems possible.
The starting staff’s two best pitchers, Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa, combined to throw just 80 innings a year ago before succumbing to injuries. If they can stay on the field and combine for somewhere around 300 inning of work, those two alone could be responsible for cutting out 50-75 runs off last year’s total. They both have average to above-average stuff in their repertoire which is something no Rockies starter could say a year ago.
The Rockies have also added Jon Garland as filler at the bottom of the rotation in a low-cost move. He’s been a groundball machine over the course of his career which is something that could play nicely in Coors Field. He’s won’t post an ERA better than 4.25, but then again none of the Rockies starters did that a year ago which makes Garland an improvement. There is also the off-chance that one of the youngsters, be it Alex White, Drew Pomeranz, or Juan Nicasio has a breakout year.
4. It’s the wild, wild NL West
In the past five seasons the NL West has sent four different teams to the playoffs with three different franchises taking the division’s crown. The only team missing out on the action is the Padres and even they’ve posted an 89 and a 90 win season during the time frame. This is always the toughest division in baseball to pick for a reason which means don’t count anybody out.
With that all being said, I still don’t think the Rockies are going to take the crown in the NL West. San Francisco and Los Angeles are overloaded with pitching, which may make it tough for Colorado to keep up. But no team in the West has anywhere near the amount of lumber the Rockies do and if they can get a surprise or two out of the rotation, this is could be a team that sneaks their way into the Wild Card chase thanks to their two bona fide MVP candidates, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez
All statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com or Stats Inc. Feel free to comment below!