Why are the Rockies mountain-high?
April, 20, 2013
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com
You already know the Braves have been the hottest team in the National League. You also know they have the guy with the most home runs in baseball in Justin Upton. But who has the second-best record in the NL, and who, even more surprisingly, has the second-most homers in MLB? The Colorado Rockies and Dexter Fowler? Yes, for reals. But how are they doing it? Here are a couple of reasons:
Is there another "best" outfield in baseball? Adding a double dose of Uptons to Jason Heyward makes the Braves' outfield everybody’s easy-to-love unit. But the Rockies’ trio is off to a hot start. Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer and Fowler all are slugging better than .600. You might expect that kind of performance in multiweek stretches from Gonzalez and Cuddyer. But as the song goes, "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same." What has gotten into Fowler?
You might wonder, because Fowler has belted seven home runs already. He is more than halfway to last year’s single-season career high of 13. And before you might sensibly say, “It’s a Coors Field thing,” four of them have come on the road, two of them in Petco. Of course, two of them were hit off John Axford, and he probably isn’t going to get to hit against the Brewers’ former closer again, at least not with a game on the line. Yes, it’s small-sample craziness in the third week of April, but it’s also something to keep an eye on. If Fowler enjoys a big breakout as a power hitter in his age-27 season, he won’t be the first or last.
So, perhaps we can say CarGo is being CarGo, Cuddyer is doing that “professional hitter” thing and Fowler is someone to follow, whether you want to believe or not. But it’s a great place to start from on offense. Add in that speedster Eric Young Jr. is getting regular playing time as the Rockies' spare and getting on base effectively, and they even have a nice change-of-pace alternative from their big-bopping trio.
Remember Tulo? In Troy Tulowitzki's first six seasons as a regular, the Rockies have enjoyed just three in which he didn’t land on the disabled list. They went to the postseason in two of them. That isn’t quite the 2-for-3 the Giants have gotten with World Series-winning seasons when Buster Posey is available, but it’s a reminder that when Tulo is around, he’s a candidate for MVP and best player in baseball. He ripped his fifth homer of the young season Friday night. Maybe you still expect him to get hurt, but here’s hoping he doesn’t -- you want to see the great ones play, and there’s no doubt Tulo has the talent to be counted among them.
Add in catcher Wilin Rosario ripping four homers, and the Rockies are getting tremendous power up the middle. Add the expected offense a team is supposed to get from the corners, and you're going to score runs by the truckload. The Rockies are doing just that, running neck and neck with the equally surprising Mets for the NL scoring lead.
The rotation is back. The interesting question for the Rox is whether Jhoulys Chacin is ready to be the staff ace Ubaldo Jimenez had been. In his young career, Chacin has put up two of the four best single-season ERAs in a full year; Jimenez has the other two. (Thanks to the strike of 1994, we’ll never know what Marvin Freeman would have done that season.)
Not to knock Jon Garland's comeback, but if Chacin silences last year’s complaints about his conditioning and injury-abbreviated season, that gives the Rockies a pitcher they can spot against any top starter in the ace-laden NL West. Jorge De La Rosa might give them a second; after missing most of the previous two years while recovering from elbow reconstruction, he has tossed a pair of quality starts in his first three turns. And who says Garland can’t pull out a season like the come-out-of-nowhere All-Star campaign Jason Marquis cranked out in 2009? OK, OK, it’s obviously early, that’s crazy talk.
Skippering isn’t particle physics. Which I say not to diminish the job Walt Weiss has done so far, but to credit it. The concern over his lack of experience at any level higher than high school appears to have been overstated. He’s keeping his bench involved and using his whole roster. He’s platooning Todd Helton, he’s showing admirable restraint with his healed-up hurlers over workloads and there is no reason to complain about his bullpen management. Of course, when you’re winning, everyone looks smart, and we’ll see how Weiss handles his first major in-season setback or extended rough stretch. But so far, so good.
Not everything has been perfect, of course. Second baseman Josh Rutledge's bat will have to come around. Chris Nelson still looks like nothing more than a placeholder at third base -- but with Nolan Arenado slugging better than .800 in Triple-A, the organization’s ultimate answer at the hot corner might be about to present itself.
And perhaps most of all, Chacin’s early exit Friday night with “oblique stiffness” is troubling. We’ll have to see whether it’s cause for concern. Just as the Rockies depend on having a healthy Tulo to win, the Rockies cannot afford anything less than Chacin on the mound every fifth start. But if they get these things, I wouldn’t bet against Colorado come October.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.