On Sept. 16, 2007, the Rockies sat in fourth place in the NL West, 6 ½ games behind the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks. Only 19,161 people felt the desire to drag themselves to Coors Field to watch their team face off against the Florida Marlins on a Sunday afternoon. The outlook was, most definitely, not brilliant
Flash forward two weeks, and "See people rocking. Hear people chanting. Feeling hot, hot, hot!" Colorado won 13 out of 14 games, and ended up in a one-game playoff against San Diego for the National League's wild-card berth. The next thing you know, 48,404 screaming fans are celebrating as the Rockies score three times in the bottom of the 13th inning to beat the Padres, and the conga line kept on going with sweeps of both the Phillies and the Diamondbacks. Somehow the Rockies made it to World Series.
But is this cup half empty or half full? Is this a team that underachieved for most of 2007, only to finally get all the pieces in place toward the final weeks of the season, or is this merely an average team that got very hot at the right time and caught lightning in a bottle?
For argument's sake, let's assume it was the former, and the Rockies are a team that simply needed time to find itself. If so, they won't have that same luxury in 2008. The Rockies made few offseason moves, and in fact, are returning much of last year's team intact. They've got a powerfully strong lineup, featuring players like Matt Holliday, Todd Helton, Garrett Atkins and Troy Tulowitzki. As for the pitching staff, that's pretty good too. Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook front a steadily improving rotation, and the bullpen features solid performers like Manny Corpas, Brian Fuentes and Matt Herges. But with Arizona bringing in Dan Haren, the Padres adding Jim Edmonds, Andruw Jones and the new-look Joe Torre Dodgers, all of the Rockies chief competition is a little bit better than last season.
Waiting until September to make a move simply won't work this time around. And if it turns out that this team is actually the latter? As the saying goes, lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Ballpark: There's no question that Coors Field continues to favor the hitters, making any coin-toss situation involving a Colorado bat one with two heads and no tails. The Rockies' home was third in the majors in runs scored, and fifth in home runs according to the park factor numbers, and the team's statistics certainly reflect the advantages of playing half of their games in Denver. The team hit .298 at home, with 103 home runs and scored 478 times, compared with a .261 average, 68 home runs and only 382 runs scored at lower altitudes. Those numbers are certainly telling. But what has changed is the effectiveness of the pitching staff. Although a one-time visit to Coors can be hazardous to your ERA, if you sit and stay for a spell, you can clearly figure out how to cope. Rockies' pitchers had an ERA of 4.34 and surrendered 82 homers in Denver, numbers which are nearly indistinguishable from their road efforts: 4.29 ERA and 82 home runs allowed. Yes, it is a hitters' park, but that doesn't mean you can't pitch there, if you know how to do it the right way.
Top Sleeper: Quite frankly, I can't understand why people aren't a lot higher on Willy Taveras. Here we have a leadoff hitter, who managed to hit .320 with 33 steals while battling a leg muscle injury and a quadriceps strain. With that kind of speed output in only 97 games, what could we expect from a full season of work from a now-healthy Taveras? Is 50 steals out of the question? An argument could be made for the lack of power, but you can hit five home runs in Coors field by mistake. Certainly, he's not someone to consider anywhere near the neighborhood of an Alex Rios or a Curtis Granderson. Still, he has a firm grasp on the everyday center-field job in Colorado, and that brings far more certainty than those with merely the possibility of winning a job outright, like the battle going on between JJacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp.
Intriguing spring battle: It's a case of "Kaz" and effect. Because Kazuo Matsui signed with Houston as a free agent, there's a gaping hole on the right side of the Rockies' infield. Who fills that hole is a question that may take all spring to answer. Jayson Nix is the odds-on favorite to get the nod. Nix was drafted way back in 2001, but he has impressed recently, especially as MVP of last fall's World Cup in Taiwan. The Rockies also invited veteran Marcus Giles to camp to audition for the job. If they decide to go with the rookie, it only makes sense to have someone with Giles' experience there on the bench to help mentor Nix, as well as jump in immediately if they realize a mistake has been made. Other names in the mix are Clint Barmes, Omar Quintanilla, Jeff Baker and Ian Stewart. Certainly, they'll all get looks, but without any options remaining, we think Nix makes the team and gets at least a share of the starting spot. Regardless, it would be a stretch to draft any of these candidates with so much uncertainty as to the final outcome.
Trainer's room: Aaron Cook was only 8-7 last season, but he did go 3-1 with a 2.41 ERA in his six starts after the All-Star break. Unfortunately, Cook suffered an oblique strain in August, and missed the magic-carpet ride the Rockies went on in September. He did return for one final appearance, going six strong innings in Game 4 of the World Series, but by then the series was all but over. Hopefully, the injury doesn't return and Cook's second-half form does. After all, it was only two years ago that Cook went 9-15, but the Rockies scored two or fewer runs in 11 of those losses.
Another pitcher who had his season cut short unexpectedly was Jason Hirsh. He was beginning to string together a few nice starts over the summer, when he suffered a broken leg after being hit by a line drive against the Brewers. Hirsh certainly proved his toughness, pitching five innings after the injury, but he was wisely shut down when X-rays showed how serious things were. The team expects Hirsh to bounce back in 2008 and take the fourth spot in the rotation, but even with a healed leg, Hirsh will be on shaky ground should he stumble early.
Schedule Preview: Do not fret if your Rockies start off the year a bit slow. The schedule takes the team on the road for 15 out of 19 games from April 11-30. After that trip, there are three huge chunks of home schedule on the horizon. From May 2-25, Colorado stays at Coors for 16 of 22 contests, and one of the two road series is in batter-friendly Chase Field. (The other series is in Petco; there, not so much with the happy hitters.) During a 15-game stretch from June 6-22, the Rockies play 12 contests in Denver and one series at U.S. Cellular Field, which usually offers up more blasts than Coors. And don't even think about swapping out your Rockies as the trade deadline approaches. September could once again be good to the Rockies; they have 15 of the month's first 18 games at home.
Future Closer: There aren't too many teams that have a closer-in-waiting as impressive as Brian Fuentes. Coming off back-to-back 30 save seasons in 2005-06, it was no surprise when Fuentes was named to the 2007 All-Star team. Then, everything fell apart. Between that announcement and the All-Star break, Fuentes suffered four consecutive blown saves, then developed a lat strain. Luckily for Colorado, Manny Corpas jumped right in and claimed the job, excelling as the Rockies won nearly every game down the stretch. After a 0.87 postseason ERA with five saves in six chances, Corpas will definitely start 2008 as the Colorado closer. But you could do a lot worse than to have a three-time All-Star waiting in the wings.
Backups to watch: Chris Iannetta was a hot sleeper candidate last season after being named the 2007 starting catcher for the Rockies, but performed so poorly, he was sent packing to Triple-A. He returned late in the year, perhaps a little bit wiser, and hit .348 in 16 games. Certainly, the Rockies aren't going to make the same mistake in 2008, and the catching job belongs to Yorvit Torrealba, for now. If Torrealba doesn't improve his ability to throw runners out, manager Clint Hurdle won't hesitate to give Iannetta another chance.
The outfield certainly may provide an opportunity for one of the Rockies' bench players to make a huge impact, whether it comes in the form of a repeat of Taveras' injury problems, or Brad Hawpe's continued inability to hit left-handed pitching. Certainly there are several candidates who will jockey for position as the first choice to step in. Ryan Spilborghs hit .310 as a pinch hitter and .299 overall for 2007. Cory Sullivan wasn't as impressive, but he did manage to hit .294 in games during which he played more than one inning. Also in the mix was September superstar Seth Smith, who had several key hits in the Rockies' playoff run. And then there's Scott Podsednik. He's in camp, and hoping to come back after an injury-plagued 2007 during which his stolen-base production dropped to only 12, which ultimately led to the White Sox cutting him in November. If he can recover even a portion of that speed, perhaps it will be enough to allow him to race past his competition to the front of the line.
Fantasy Stud: How good is Matt Holliday? Quite. And he's been doing it far longer than many think. Yes, we all know Holliday led the National League in batting average and RBIs and tied for fourth in home runs last season, but few know that this Triple Crown threat has hit .330 since the 2005 All-Star break. That's a pretty good track record. Many people who voted for Jimmy Rollins over Matt Holiday in NL MVP voting may have factored in the fact that Holliday plays at Coors Field, and yes, his numbers were indeed better at home (.376, 25 home runs, 82 RBIs versus .301, 11 home runs, 55 RBIs on the road.) As a fantasy owner, I couldn't care less. I get credit for those stats no matter where they occur. But in Holliday's defense, let me please point out the fact that Coors Field is but fifth in home runs allowed (according to park factor) and it is Rollins' home turf that sits atop that list. Perhaps it is a moot point for 2007, but it's worth noting, because Holliday should be right back in the mix for MVP honors in 2008.
Prospects to watch for 2008: Franklin Morales began 2007 in Double-A and pitched so well, the Rockies quickly called on his services for the parent club. In eight starts, he went 3-2 with a 3.43 ERA, and Colorado won the last seven games Morales started. That success has given the left-handed fireballer a real chance to make the rotation in 2008. It is very possible that Morales may start the season in the bullpen though; the Rockies are notorious for taking their time with young arms and they have invited some veterans like Kip Wells, Mark Redman and Victor Zambrano to camp to compete for that fifth starting slot.
While the aforementioned Nix is the newcomer most likely to grab that second-base spot, we shouldn't completely dismiss Ian Stewart. He hit .304 with 15 home runs in Triple-A last season, but appeared to be a tad overmatched at the big league level, hitting only .209 in 43 at-bats. Of course, most of those plate appearances were as a pinch hitter, a role that was very new to Stewart, so perhaps some slack should be cut. If Stewart fails to win the second-base job, he's likely to go back to Colorado Springs to play every day at third base. At some point, though, we do anticipate his being on the Rockies roster in 2008, and he may be able to provide you with some power his second time around.
Prospects to watch for the future: As we said, the Rockies like to take their time with the young arms, so there's no firm timetable for the arrival of their numerous pitching prospects. Some names to look out for are Juan Morillo, who can reach triple-digits on radar guns but has some control issues, Josh Newman, Brandon Hynick, Greg Reynolds and Casey Weathers, the eighth overall pick of the 2007 amateur draft.
The Rockies have one other prospect who is ready to go right now, Joe Koshansky. Unfortunately, he's stuck in a holding pattern because he plays first base, and the only way he's going to get a long big league look is if something happens to Todd Helton. Koshansky has hit 88 home runs in the minors over the past three seasons, and appears ready to take that next step. Unfortunately, there's no room at the inn just yet.
A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.