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2012 Rockies Preview: Rockies 2012: Spinning Their Wheels

Derek VanRiper

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Senior Baseball Editor for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210) from 11a-2p ET on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.


2012 Rockies Preview
Derek VanRiper
RotoWire Baseball Editor

The Rockies' 73-win campaign last season was one of the bigger disappointments in baseball. Injuries were a significant factor, but the front office has been very busy since the middle of last season after dealing away Ubaldo Jimenez in a surprising blockbuster deal with Cleveland. In many cases, it seems as though the Rockies are buying low and acquiring players with years of club control as a way to maximize their long-term assets. In other instances, the transactions are akin to a dog chasing its tail - trading Ty Wigginton only to sign Casey Blake, flipping Chris Iannetta to Anaheim only to bring in Ramon Hernandez. Getting healthy seasons from cornerstones Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez would go a long in pushing the Rockies toward contention for an NL West crown, but the questions surrounding the pitching in Colorado lead us to believe that the Rockies may be looking up at both the D-Backs and Giants when the dust settles in October.

Offseason Moves

Traded INF Ty Wigginton to Philadelphia.

Versatility and pop were once again the primary sources of Wigginton's value in 2011, as he spent time at three positions while generating a familiar slash line over 401 at-bats with the Rockies. He was traded to Philadelphia in November, where his initial role might be serving as the temporary first baseman while Ryan Howard works his way back from a ruptured Achilles. Now 34, it's unlikely that Wigginton will exceed the 500 at-bat mark again at this stage of his career, but as a low-cost option with third-base eligibility and the potential for cheap homers and RBI, he's still a useful option in deeper formats. The Rockies only had him under contract for another year, but opted to sign Casey Blake as the placeholder for prospect Nolan Arenado at third base.

Traded C Chris Iannetta to Anaheim for SP Tyler Chatwood.

With Wilin Rosario nearly ready to take over as the everyday catcher, the Rockies bought low on Chatwood and picked up five years of club control after the young right-hander was rushed to the big leagues by the Angels last season. Chatwood is far from a lock to make the Rockies' Opening Day rotation and could ultimately continue his development at Triple-A.

Signed C Ramon Hernandez.

Following the decision to trade Iannetta to the Angels, Hernandez was brought in to transition the starting catcher spot to Rosario while serving as a veteran mentor after the starting job changes hands.

Signed INF Brandon Wood.

Wood will be in a battle for at-bats this spring and could ultimately carve out a utility role given Casey Blake's injury woes last season and the possibility of the Rockies needing a third-base option until Nolan Arenado is ready for promotion.

Traded SP Kevin Slowey to the Indians for RP Zach Putnam, after acquiring him from Minnesota.

Slowey's flyball tendencies would not have played well in Coors Field, so the deal to acquire a reliever made sense. Look for Putnam to battle for a job in the Colorado bullpen after finishing the season in Cleveland. Putnam has good stuff, as evidenced by his 68:28 K:BB in 69 innings with Triple-A Columbus last season.

Traded CL Huston Street to San Diego.

Street was traded to the Padres in December and the Rockies were even willing to foot a significant portion of his remaining salary to make the deal happen. Nevertheless, the 28-year-old closer moves from Coors Field to Petco Park, a shift that will undoubtedly help his chances of avoiding the long-ball issues that plagued him (career-high 1.54 HR/9IP) with the Rockies last season. In terms of his effectiveness, Street lost some velocity on his fastball, but lost very little from his strikeout rate (8.49 K/9IP) while posting a career-low 1.39 BB/9IP. If the Padres aren't contending in July, he'll be a trade chip and potential risk to miss out on save chances since the Rockies are picking up the tab, but at the very least you should get at least four good months from him in San Diego.

Traded 3B Ian Stewart and RP Casey Weathers to the Cubs for 2B DJ LeMahieu and OF Tyler Colvin.

Stewart's tumultuous time in Colorado has come to a close and he'll get a fresh start on the north side of Chicago while Weathers has been unable to rediscover his control following Tommy John surgery. LeMahieu could win the utility infield spot this spring, and Colvin will get an opportunity to battle for a reserve role in the crowded Colorado outfield.

Signed OF/1B Michael Cuddyer to a three-year deal.

When several Twins went down with injuries early in the season, Cuddyer moved around the diamond and played 17 games at second base and 46 games at first base. Cuddyer bounced back from decreased power in 2010 and had 18 home runs and was hitting .295/.360/.485 before suffering a neck injury in early August. He played through the neck injury and a wrist injury and hit just .241/.287/.361 with two home runs over his final 27 games. Cuddyer should benefit from the move from spacious Target Field to a hitter's park in Colorado, but he did hit an equal number of home runs at home and the road the past two seasons. While Cuddyer doesn't have a great on-base percentage, he does draw a decent amount of walks and showed good power when healthy. He also picks his spots on the bases, with five or more stolen bases the past four seasons, though he's unlikely to repeat last year's 11 steals. He'll have added value in leagues where he qualifies at second base.

Signed 3B Casey Blake.

By all accounts, Blake is a great guy and teammate, but he's also 38 and coming off a season in which he experienced neck, back, thigh and elbow injuries. His .713 OPS was the lowest offensive output of his career, so his days as an everyday player may be numbered. The Rockies signed Blake to a one-year deal in December, so he'll likely enter the season as the starter at third base before potentially giving up the job to top prospect Nolan Arenado at some point along the way.

Traded OF Seth Smith to Oakland for SP Guillermo Moscoso and SP/RP Josh Outman.

Smith's cost and the number of viable options behind him on the depth chart made him expendable, but Moscoso is an extreme flyball pitcher and he doesn't project well at Coors Field. Outman could emerge as a rotation candidate, but he needs to improve his control after returning from Tommy John surgery in 2011.

Signed SP Jamie Moyer.

Moyer, who turns 50 in November, doesn't look to have much in the tank -- he posted ERAs of 4.94 and 4.84 in 2009 and 2010, respectively. He's also coming back from Tommy John surgery. Still, he could be just good enough to warrant a spot should one of the Rockies' starters fall to injury, so we could see him in the majors, improbably enough, in 2012.

Traded SP Clayton Mortensen to Boston for SS Marco Scutaro.

With Troy Tulowitzki locked in at shortstop, the Rockies figure to use Scutaro as their everyday second baseman. If he lands in the No. 2 spot in the Colorado lineup, he could be a nice source of runs scored given his on-base skills and having Carlos Gonzalez and Tulowitzki hitting behind him.

Traded SP Jason Hammel and RP Matt Lindstrom to Baltimore for SP Jeremy Guthrie.

Guthrie finally gets a move to the National League after years of working in the front of the rotation for the rebuilding Orioles. Unfortunately, Coors Field is an even more extreme hitter-friendly park than Camden Yards, so the league change may not help him much beyond an uptick in his strikeout rate.

Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)

1. Dexter Fowler, CF
2. Marco Scutaro, 2B
3. Carlos Gonzalez, LF
4. Troy Tulowitzki, SS
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Todd Helton, 1B
7. Casey Blake, 3B
8. Ramon Hernandez, C

Health will be crucial here, as four regulars are in their mid-30s and both stars have missed their share of time in recent seasons with injuries. Overall, Colorado should have steady production at the plate and put plenty of big innings on the board, but it may not be enough to overcome the patchwork rotation.

Projected Rotation

1. Jeremy Guthrie
2. Jhoulys Chacin
3. Drew Pomeranz/Juan Nicasio/Alex White/Tyler Chatwood/Guillermo Moscosco
4. Juan Nicasio/Alex White/Tyler Chatwood/Guillermo Moscosco/Josh Outman
5. Alex White/Tyler Chatwood/Guillermo Moscosco/Josh Outman/Jamie Moyer

While Drew Pomeranz should slot into the rotation come Opening Day, nothing is guaranteed at this point. He might already be the most talented arm of the bunch in Colorado, and there's reason to think he could draw the Opening Day assignment in 2013. Beyond that, it's a wide-open race for the remaining spots while Juan Nicasio should have the inside track to the No. 4 spot if he's fully recovered from the fractured vertebra that ended his 2012 season prematurely. Alex White was very effective at Triple-A last season, but that success did not translate to the big leagues and Tyler Chatwood may need more development time in the minors after being rushed by the Angels a year ago.

Closer: Rafael Betancourt - Betancourt has always displayed the skills that would make him an excellent closer, but that opportunity evaded him until the Rockies gave him a look in the ninth inning down the stretch last season. After taking over the job in August, Betancourt converted 8-of-9 save opportunities as part of a dominant second half, where he carried a 39:1 K:BB in 27 innings. At press time, the Rockies appeared willing to enter the season with him as their closer after trading Huston Street to San Diego. Although he's a flyball pitcher prone to surrendering his share of long balls, Betancourt's miniscule walk rate mitigates the damage. He'll turn 37 in April, but there's reason to believe that he'll succeed and be undervalued on draft day in his new role.

Key Bullpen Members: Rex Brothers and Matt Belisle - Brothers possesses a filthy high-90s fastball and hard slider combination that should eventually grant him an opportunity as a closer. The next step in his development will be improving his control, as the gaudy Triple-A (14.46 K/9IP) and big league (13.06) strikeout rates he showed last season were somewhat offset by his walk rate (4.82 BB/9IP at Triple-A, 4.43 with Colorado). Barring changes to the roster, Rafael Betancourt will open the season as the ninth-inning option for the Rockies, but Brothers could be waiting in the wings to take over should he falter. Just 24 years old, Brothers is an excellent target for keeper leagues considering Betancourt's age and brief track record of ninth-inning success. If Betancourt struggles, Belisle may get the first crack at replacing him given his senior status over the young left-hander.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Which young players will produce in a backup role?

The Rockies have as many young spare parts with an opportunity to contribute on the big league roster than any club in baseball. As previously mentioned, a number of former top prospects are vying for rotation spots including Alex White and Tyler Chatwood while holdovers Charlie Blackmon, Jordan Pacheco and Eric Young Jr. should be factors at some point this season in reserve roles. The Rockies' busy offseason could lead to a busy spring for the front office as they have a number of controllable young players and not enough spots to utilize them. Keep a very close eye in March on which players are going to make the Opening Day roster, in addition to any that may be on the move in trades where a clearer path to playing time exists.

Strengths

Two stars in the heart of the order and a lineup filled with veterans capable of getting on base when healthy.

Weaknesses

The rotation has a number of intriguing young arms and a potential ace in Drew Pomeranz, but the back end looks particularly shaky and the slew of unproven arms in the bullpen could put a lot of pressure on the Colorado offense to score runs.

Rising: Rafael Betancourt - (see above)

Declining: Todd Helton - Now 38, the ongoing back trouble Helton has dealt with in the twilight of his career is showing no signs of improving, but he managed to play 124 games last season and continues to be a better than average defender at his position. His once elite plate discipline continues to erode, but Helton should parlay his 450-plus at-bats into another double-digit homer season as his isolated power seems to have leveled off over the last five seasons. You could do worse trolling the low-end options at first base, but the risk is certainly to the downside given his age and two-year battle with injuries.

Sleeper: Charlie Blackmon - Blackmon tore up the Pacific Coast League to earn a promotion to the big leagues last season, but he slumped in 27 games with the Rockies before a fractured left foot ended his season in July. On some teams, Blackmon might be a lock to grab a starting job during spring training, but he's currently in position with Colorado to enter a battle for a bench job barring a move or two by the Rockies' front office. In addition to carrying a steady contact rate through each stop in the minors, Blackmon has displayed a combination of power and speed that could make him a 20-20 threat capable of hitting for a good average at some point down the road. While the Rockies signed Michael Cuddyer as a free agent to start in right field, the trade of Seth Smith to Oakland increases Blackmon's chances of becoming the fourth outfielder this season.

Supersleeper: Rex Brothers - (see above)

Don't Forget: Jorge de la Rosa - De La Rosa was having a career year before a complete tear of his UCL led to Tommy John surgery in May. He's never boasted pinpoint control, so it may take him a bit of time after the surgery to get back to where he was in his 2011 (career-low 3.36 BB/9IP). This offseason, De La Rosa is on schedule with his recovery, while the timetable for his return points to June before he'll be ready to take the ball for Colorado again. Even before the surgery, De La Rosa had durability concerns, with just once season since 2007 where he eclipsed 130 innings at the big league level.

Top Prospects

Drew Pomeranz, SP - Pomeranz was the centerpiece of the blockbuster deal that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to the Indians last season, and he managed to make four big league starts in September after opening the year at High-A Kinston. Considering that he finished his college career at Ole Miss as a polished left-hander with a low-to-mid-90s fastball, plus-curveball and change-up, the fast track shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Pomeranz projects as an eventual strikeout-per-inning starter, and at age 23 he could break spring training with a rotation spot for the Rockies. Even if the Rockies send him to Triple-A for additional seasoning, he'll likely be in the big leagues for good before the All-Star break.

Nolan Arenado, 3B - Arenado capped off an impressive age-20 season in the California League by earning MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League. A good defender at a premium position, the right-handed hitting third baseman could fill an immediate need for the Rockies before the end of 2012. Keep in mind, however, that he'll almost certainly open the year at Double-A Tulsa and spend another half season of development in the minors before a promotion to Colorado is considered. While both of his 2011 stops were hitter-friendly environments, his power and contact skills (88 percent in the AFL, 90 percent at High-A) project him as a middle-of-the-order bat and potential star soon after his big league arrival.

Wilin Rosario, C - Rosario has the physical tools - raw power and a big arm - that make him a prized prospect in the Rockies' system. He swatted 21 homers at Tulsa over 405 at-bats before getting a taste of Colorado down the stretch. At 23 and having lost some development time to a torn ACL suffered in August of 2010, it's likely that Rosario will open the 2012 campaign at Triple-A. Although his plate discipline is a concern and he still needs some defensive polish behind the plate, Rosario's timetable to become the Rockies' starting catcher could be accelerated with the decision to trade Chris Iannetta to Anaheim.

Chad Bettis, SP - The California League offered little challenge to Bettis last season, as he racked up an impressive 184:45 K:BB and led the league in innings, strikeouts and WHIP last season. A second-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2012, Bettis should move quickly through the Rockies system and will begin 2012 at Double-A. There are concerns about his secondary pitches, but Bettis has a high-90s fastball and plus slider and at the very least projects as a potential closer if he's unable to remain starter. For now, he'll be a future target for the rotation, and he'll likely vault onto more prospect lists in 2012 if the strikeouts follow him to Tulsa.

Tim Wheeler, OF - Wheeler erupted with his 33-homer performance at Double-A Tulsa, despite a one month drought that started in late July while he was looking for elusive No. 30. His combination of power and speed makes him an intriguing keeper league target, but there are warts here. Wheeler was picked apart by lefties, hitting just .236/.322/.401 against them in 209 plate appearances last season and experiencing similar difficulty during his time in the Arizona Fall League. Further, his 75 percent contact rate makes it unlikely that he'll remain a .287 hitter as he continues to advance. At 24, he's not a finished product, but we'd like to see improvement against southpaws or an improved contact rate to believe that he'll be a 30-homer threat in the big leagues down the road.