2013 Preview: Colorado Rockies

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Colorado Rockies.

The Big Question: Can the Rockies dig themselves out of last place?

The Rockies went 64-98 last season, posting their worst record in franchise history. There were no shortage of contributing factors, as their best player, Troy Tulowitzki, was limited to 47 games due to groin surgery and the starting rotation was a complete and utter disaster.

Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio each missed time due to injury and were largely non-factors. Jeremy Guthrie struggled after coming over from the Orioles and was eventually traded to the Royals. Jamie Moyer resembled a batting practice pitcher before being released. With the season circling the drain, the Rockies moved to an unconventional four-man rotation, complete with 75-pitch limits and piggyback relievers. Whether you want to blame the talent, the process, or some combination of the two, the experiment just didn’t work. The Rockies finished with the highest ERA in the majors at 5.22. They will return to a more conventional five-man rotation this season, though the piggyback relievers are expected to stick around.

This offseason brought a significant change in the dugout, as Jim Tracy resigned amid reports that he wasn’t comfortable with the dynamic of director of major league operations Bill Geivett having an office in the clubhouse. Following a lengthy manager search in which the likes of Jason Giambi and Matt Williams were considered, the Rockies settled on first-time manager Walt Weiss and gave him a one-year deal. It was a pretty surprising choice, as Weiss has no pro experience as a manager or coach. He was the head varsity baseball coach at a Denver-area high school last year. Quite a change of pace.

While there is a new manager in Colorado, the roster is pretty close to what we saw going into last year. And so, the Rockies are hoping that improved health will lead to better results. And they should, at least on paper. Getting full seasons out of Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer could make a major impact for the middle of the lineup. I’m just not convinced that they’ll stay healthy. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they won’t. Chacin, De La Rosa and Nicasio should all be upgrades for the rotation, but there’s not an ace in that bunch. Jeff Francis hardly inspires much confidence at this point and 24-year-old Drew Pomeranz is a wild card. Oh, and pitching in Coors Field remains one of the toughest tasks in the sport. In short, digging out of last place will be a challenge.

What else is going on?

  • There were some silver linings in an otherwise miserable year, as Dexter Fowler posted career-highs across the board while Wilin Rosario and Josh Rutledge emerged as potential impact players. While Rosario still needs a lot of work behind the plate, the 24-year-old batted .270 with 28 home runs, 71 RBI and an .843 OPS in 117 games. Rutledge helped fill in for Tulowitzki during the second half and batted .274 with eight home runs, seven stolen bases and a .775 OPS. Plate discipline is a weakness for the 23-year-old, but he’s expected to start at second base this season.
  • The Rockies could soon have another exciting young player to add to the mix, as prospect Nolan Arenado is currently pushing Chris Nelson for the starting third base job. The soon-to-be 22-year-old saw his stock drop a bit after he produced an underwhelming .285/.337/.428 batting line with Double-A Tulsa last year, but he’s capable of better and has enjoyed an excellent spring. While the Rockies haven’t made a final decision yet, the smart money is that he’ll begin the season in the minors and make his major league debut in mid-June.
  • Todd Helton is entering what will likely be his final season in the big leagues. The 39-year-old has a history of back issues and is coming off hip and knee surgeries, so he figures to get plenty of regular rest in his 17th season. It will be interesting to see how he’ll be viewed by Hall of Fame voters down the road, as he owns a superb .320/.419/.545 lifetime batting line. Only 19 players have a higher career on-base percentage. However, he owes a lot of his success to playing in Coors Field, so it will be tough for him to get much respect. Larry Walker has had a hard enough time, even though he didn’t spend his entire career in Colorado.
  • The biggest move the Rockies made this offseason was acquiring right-hander Wilton Lopez from the Astros. This was only after the Phillies nearly acquired Lopez, but reportedly backed out over concerns about his elbow. Still, with elite command and a 2.64 ERA over the past three seasons, he has a chance to be a solid set-up man in front of veteran right-hander Rafael Betancourt. But he may be a luxury for a team with a questionable rotation.

Prediction: Fifth place, NL West.

Evan Longoria: ‘I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base’

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.