The winter is long and cruel for baseball fans, longer and crueler still if the preceding season felt like a slow-motion, 162-game car wreck. In the aftermath of arguably the most disappointing season in Colorado Rockies history. This winter, like the reality that a season that had offered such promise had derailed so spectacularly, was particularly harsh.
The 2011 campaign was a dull, depressing slog. Outside of a strong April start -- which in the end only served to make the next five months even more of a bummer - the season was a march to mediocrity, filled with uninspiring losses featuring uninspiring individual performances. There were injuries and trades of popular players. Most disappointingly, it was a season that shook the faith of a fanbase that had started to take the promise of a bright future for granted.
The day that pitchers and catchers report to spring training - for the Rockies, it was Sunday - is supposed to be a day of hope and optimism. But those things are harder to come by this spring, after the team most Rockies fans thought was finally set up to contend in the National League West division on a yearly basis fell flat on its face and then was dismantled in the offseason.
Gone are Ubaldo Jimenez, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith, Chris Iannetta, Huston Street, and others who contributed to the best team in Rockies history in 2009 before taking steps backwards (Street, Jimenez) or simply stalling on the precipice of making the jump to the next level (Stewart, Iannetta, Smith). In place of those players, missed as much for their popularity and likeability as for their production, there are veterans (Jeremy Guthrie, Casey Blake, Michael Cuddyer, Ramon Hernandez) and youngsters (Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Chatwood, Alex White) alike.
As fans, we crave familiarity and certainty. That's what made March and April of 2011 so exciting. We were certain the Rockies had the kind of team that could roll through a regular season, despite their pratfall in the final two weeks in 2010. Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Jimenez were surrounded by a deep, talented roster with no holes. The West was there to be won. They had the pitching -- and the offense. And after the 11-2 start to the season, we fans had the kind of team that could dominate. We knew it.
We didn't know anything, of course. Didn't know Ubaldo would implode and get traded. Didn't know Jorge De La Rosa's elbow would give out. Didn't know Gonzalez and Tulowitzki would miss time due to injury. Didn't know Stewart wouldn't hit, Aaron Cook was toast, Iannetta and Smith didn't have a "next level" in them. Never, ever, saw 73-89 coming.
So if the certainty of last spring went belly up by the All-Star Break, maybe a little uncertainty won't be so bad this time around. Not that everything's an unknown, of course. Cuddyer and Guthrie, along with Marco Scutaro, are veterans with strong track records. And there's Tulo and CarGo, outrageously talented, two of the best players in the National League anchoring the lineup.
But the questions hang heavy over Talking Stick in Scottsdale, clouds marring the idyllic spring scene. Who is Jhoulys Chacin, the outstanding first-half performer or the erratic walksmith of the second half of last season? Can the stockpile of young pitchers that Dan O'Dowd has collected bear immediate fruit to supplement Chacin and Guthrie? Can Juan Nicasio be counted on to return to the promise he showed before his horrifying broken neck last season? Will the old guard - newcomers Cuddyer, Scutaro and Blake, as well as old standbys Rafael Betancourt and Todd Helton - stay healthy and effective? Is Dexter Fowler finally ready for his long-predicted breakout season after he looked like a premier leadoff hitter in the second half?
On paper, at least, the Rockies look like they should have an improved lineup, one without any holes in the OBP department. And even with all the question marks in the pitching staff, there are at least a lot of potential candidates with prospect bonafides that will get a chance to fill those roles. The Rockies aren't anybody's preseason favorites in the West this year - in fact, most experts will probably peg them for a return to fourth place - but if the Rockies get enough good answers to the questions they'll ask of their 25-man roster, nobody will be good enough to run away from them in the division.
So no, this is not the kind of year where the Rockies, to say nothing of their fans, can swagger into the Cactus League season with the unshakable confidence of a contender. But if the optimism and belief in the franchise's future wasn't entirely drained out after last season, I think fans will find this year's Rockies are good enough to dream on, and dreams are what Spring Training is all about.