The future is bright.
That used to be a statement that Rockies fans regarded as fact. A playoff appearance in 2009, two of the best young players in the game in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, and a burgeoning ace in Ubaldo Jimenez had fans believing that the best was yet to come. And up until about mid-September of 2010, you could have appended an exclamation point to the end of that sentence.
One hundred seventy-six games later, it's no longer a statement in some quarters. It's a question, instead. The Rox gagged down the stretch in 2010 and completely imploded in 2011. Jimenez got traded, Jorge de la Rosa blew out his elbow, Gonzalez and Tulowitzki missed time with injuries, and a large group of young players submitted seasons that were causes for alarm. Whether it was Jhoulys Chacin forgetting how to throw strikes midway through the season, Ian Stewart's utter disaster at the plate, or disappointing extended auditions for Eric Young Jr., Chris Nelson, and Alex White, the Rockies will enter the 2012 season with more questions than answers, a position they haven't found themselves in since that 2009 campaign.
Tulo and CarGo are the bedrocks, of course, and many teams in the majors would jump at the chance to have two such talented players headlining their roster. And the Rockies can point to some stability in their bullpen as well, should they decide to hang on to Huston Street in the final year of his contract. Street, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle, Matt Reynolds, and flamethrowing youngster Rex Brother comprise what should be a steady relief corps.
But look elsewhere, and there is, at best, unproven youth, and at worst, either proven mediocrity or just a big gaping hole (second base). Outside of shortstop, right field, and center field (Dexter Fowler's domain after a hot second half), there are no definite slots filled for the Opening Day lineup in 2012. In a world where the Rockies could just enter the PORNTIPS GUZZARDO cheat code from the old Sim City games and have unlimited funds, they'd have no problem bolstering the roster around their two existing stars and making a run in the ever-fluctuating NL West. But financial reality will keep the Rockies from dipping into the sweepstakes for a pitcher like CJ Wilson or an impact bat.
The Rockies seem to be in a good place when it comes to their minor league system. Third baseman Nolan Arenado just won the Arizona Fall League's MVP award, and catcher Wilin Rosario is lighting it up in the Dominican. Outfielder Tim Wheeler had a breakout year at Double-A Tulsa, as did shortstop Josh Rutledge at High-A Modesto. In addition to White and Drew Pomeranz, the two youngsters acquired from Cleveland in the Jimenez trade, the Rockies boast other fine young hurlers like Chad Bettis, Edwar Cabrera, and potentially a rejuvenated Tyler Matzek.
The hot stove season brings with it pages of roster-related fantasizing, and I'm no different. So I thought I'd share with you the 25 man roster I'd like to see the Rockies break camp with to start the 2012 season. I'll explain myself where necessary.
Yes, I'd keep Street rather than pursue the salary relief in a trade this winter. The in-house solutions for the extra bullpen slot (Edgmer Escalona? Rob Scahill? Casey Weathers?) wouldn't match Street's performance, and I think the Rockies are better off having the 10 million that Street costs in their hands for next year's free agent market, which projects to better suit the Rockies needs should they be a buyer. I've included Rogers because I think he's got a real chance to be excellent in short relief, but then, I thought that about Felipe Paulino, too. The three names I listed above will battle Esmil for that slot, and they're in order of how excited I am about them.
It's tough to predict how this rotation will look given the uncertainty of the timelines for return for both Nicasio and De La Rosa. Nicasio, trying to come back from a horrible neck injury, has wowed observers with his workouts so far, and could perhaps be ready for the start of spring training. De La Rosa's estimated return from Tommy John Surgery is unclear, but expecting him back any earlier than June is probably too optimistic. Pomeranz and White debuted with the Rockies last season. Each had their moments but weren't at their absolute sharpest due to injury setbacks, which was especially evident with White, who gave up 47 home runs in his 36 innings of work with the Rockies. (I didn't look that number up, but it sounds about right.) The Rockies will need depth here – Rogers qualifies – but youth needs to be served, as it wouldn't do Pomeranz and White any good to pitch in the minors.
Hey, if Jim Tracy's going to bench Iannetta three times a week, the Rockies are better off having those at-bats go to a potential future star rather than a proven and worthless commodity. Rosario didn't light the world on fire in his 16-game cameo in September, struggling all year long coming off of an ACL injury, but his great fall in the Dominican is a good sign, and scouts remain high on Rosario's power and throwing arm. If you want to argue that Rosario would benefit more by playing every day at AAA Colorado Springs in 2012, I'd hear you out, but as often as Tracy likes to rotate his backstops, I think Rosario will get plenty of action and show well enough to perhaps take over the everyday job.
Prado, the Rockies top trade target at present, would be the Rockies best offensive second baseman since Ronnie Belliard. The truth of that statement shows that the bar isn't a terribly high one to clear, but still, Prado's professional approach would be a great fit in the second slot in the batting order. If it takes Seth Smith and another piece to bring him over, so be it. The Rockies need him. Arenado just decimated the AFL as a 20 year old and drew comparisons to Albert Pujols. Not a bad breakout year for the former second round pick. He'll still be 20 on Opening Day, and with Stewart out of favor and Wigginton an unappealing everyday option, I think he ought to be given every chance to win the third base job right out of the spring. It's a big jump from High-A, to be sure, but I want to see the kid get a real look. Wigginton will be much more palatable as a bench option instead of the everyday nightmare of last season, Giambi is Giambi and ensured a roster spot as long as he wants one for some reason, and as for Herrera... he plays the three tough infield positions, has a slick glove, can run a bit and will hit an empty .250. That's plenty enough for a 25th man for me.
The Rockies can most easily spend a reasonable amount of money on a short term contract for a starting caliber player in the outfield, and Willingham is a perfect fit. He slugged 29 home runs in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum (or whatever they're calling it this week) in 2011 while pocketing six million bucks. If the Rockies are able to acquire a second-baseman in a trade – and in my scenario, they are – they should have no trouble setting aside similar money for Willingham for the next two seasons while Blackmon (and later, Wheeler) get chances to show they belong in the bigs. If the Rockies are priced out or choose to stay out of the bidding for a true starting-type player in the outfield, such as Willingham, Grady Sizemore or Michael Cuddyer, I like Reed Johnson as an alternative. Hell, there's always Ryan Spilborghs, but sadly, he looked pretty well toasted last year.
So back to that first sentence, posed as a question – is the future really bright? 2012 is going to tell the tale. But it won't cost the Rockies much to find out, while also adding a couple of starting position players that can bolster the lineup. If the pitching comes together, this could be a very interesting ballclub next season. A warm thought on a hot stove for a cold winter.