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.

Pirates looking for outside outfield help

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Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Pirates GM Neal Huntington is looking for outside outfield help in the wake of Starling Marte‘s 80-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. With Marte out of the picture, the club moved Andrew McCutchen back to center field and have played Adam Frazier, John Jaso, and Jose Osuna in right field. But, as Brink points out, Osuna and Jaso — neither an outfielder by trade — misplayed balls over the weekend against the Yankees.

Among available free agents, the pickings are slim. There’s Coco Crisp, Jeff Francoeur, Cole Gillespie, Kelly Johnson, and Nolan Reimold (who is currently in independent baseball). The Pirates may have to find themselves a trade partner. They could also try to talk Angel Pagan back into action, as the veteran outfielder recently said he’s taking the year off. The Pirates could also look at Leonys Martin, who was recently designated for assignment by the Mariners.

Matt Barnes ejected after throwing at Manny Machado’s head

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On Friday, tension between the Orioles and Red Sox rose when Manny Machado spiked Dustin Pedroia sliding into second base. Although the umpires found no fault with Machado’s slide, third base coach Brian Butterfield was later ejected, still feeling like Machado wronged the Red Sox. Pedroia exited the game and was not in the lineup on Saturday or Sunday. He’ll undergo an MRI for his left knee and ankle in Boston on Monday.

For what it’s worth, Pedroia didn’t seem to feel any bitterness towards Machado for his slide. As MLB.com’s Jeff Seidel reported, Pedroia said, “I don’t even know what the rule is. I’ve turned the best double play in the Major Leagues for 11 years. I don’t need a … rule. The rule’s irrelevant. The rule’s for people with bad footwork.”

Tempers flared between the Red Sox and Orioles again on Sunday. In the bottom of the eighth inning with a runner on first base and one out with the Red Sox leading 6-0, reliever Matt Barnes threw a first-pitch fastball up-and-in to Machado. The ball actually hit Machado’s bat, so it counted as a foul ball. Home plate umpire Andy Fletcher ejected Barnes and the Red Sox brought in Joe Kelly. Machado doubled on the first pitch Kelly threw to put the Orioles on the board, but the Orioles ultimately lost 6-2.

MASN’s broadcast later showed Pedroia talking to Machado, seemingly clarifying that Barnes acted of his own volition without encouragement from Pedroia. “You know that,” Pedroia appeared to say. “It wasn’t me. It’s them.”

Update: Pedroia even apologized to Machado and the Orioles, per Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal.

Commissioner Rob Manfred will likely look into Sunday’s incident. He could fine and/or suspend Barnes.

The Orioles and Red Sox meet again in Boston for a four-game series May 1-4. It will be interesting to see if the tension still remains then.