Rockies poised to win first division title?

April, 15, 2011
4/15/11
9:00
AM ET
The Giants might have been the preseason favorite to repeat in the NL West, and the Dodgers' loss of Rafael Furcal won't do them many favors, but neither of those two teams are on top two weeks into the season. Who's riding high early? How about the Rockies?

Already 10-2, they're in first place after sweeping Thursday's doubleheader in New York against the Mets. Could the team that always seems to put the "wild" in wild card after epic in-season comebacks propelled them to October glory in both 2007 and 2009 win its first division title? Absolutely, and if the Rockies do, it'll be a testament to their adaptability.

Adaptability, you ask? That's the word I prefer, although because of those rallies to win the NL wild card, some folks might talk about their resilience. However, there was enough turnover between the various season editions of Colorado baseball -- including the celebrated switch to Jim Tracy in the dugout in '09 -- that it's somewhat hard to ascribe that to the players in isolation.

[+] EnlargeTroy Tulowitzki
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesCould this be the year Troy Tulowitzki and the Rockies break through and with a division title?
The only pitchers still on the staff who contributed significantly to both the 2007 and '09 teams are Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales, and that's stretching the meaning of the word "significant." Aaron Cook will make that three guys if he really does come back from the 60-day DL in May.

Among the position players, you've got four holdovers: the current and former faces of the franchise, Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton, in the everyday lineup. They also have frequently frustrating catcher Chris Iannetta, and handy, dandy fourth outfielder par excellence Ryan Spilborghs. So as far as this entire team's concerned, we're talking about all of six or seven guys -- out of 25 -- who can talk about multiple playoff experiences in purple and black.

That isn't a negative, not by any stretch. The Rockies' turnover across five years reflects what a tremendous job GM Dan O'Dowd and his staff have done at restocking that roster and digging up value, both through player development and their acquisitions from trades and the floating pool of available talent. Building around this core talent -- or core talents of Jimenez and Tulo, when you get right down to it -- they've made inspired trades, leveraging their last season in control of Matt Holliday into Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street, or getting Jorge De La Rosa from the Royals in a nothing-seeming sort of deal. But they've also added just enough homegrown talent over that time.

Which is why I think we're better off crediting the Rockies as an organization for their adaptability. This isn't about moisturizing the ball to overcome the challenge of playing at altitude, or at least it isn't just about that. Even with the humidor, Coors Field is still the best hitters' park in baseball. That's OK, because the Rockies didn't win in 2009 because of their home-field advantage, they won because of three key inter-related factors.

First, they led the majors in quality starts, a surprising development to no little extent because they were counting on journeyman Jason Marquis and Rays roster-crunch refugee Jason Hammel among their front five. But those starters had the benefit of a quality supporting cast in the field, reflected somewhat in the best park-adjusted defensive efficiency in the National League. Finally, they finally had a lineup that wasn't entirely park-dependent and was drawing walks everywhere, leading the league in free passes. Those three play-everywhere factors contributed to a franchise-best 41-40 road record.

As far as upsetting the Giants' applecart and winning their first division flaglet, this year's team should have those same three things going for them. Gone are the days of that 2007 team that goosed its offense by depositing a pair of former first basemen, Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins, at other corners and taking the defensive hit that came with it. The offense is again rating among the league's best at drawing walks anyway. And on the staff, even with Cook out, thanks to the breakthrough of Jhoulys Chacin in the rotation last year and the retention of De La Rosa, they might have an even better rotation than 2009's improbable outfit. Jimenez is now better established among the game's best starters, Chacin might be the third man in a homegrown trinity of top talent.

However, the hope that Tulo stays healthy and in the lineup (and on the field) is perhaps the fulcrum around which both their offense and defense depends upon, which is why he rated well on some preseason ballots for MVP. There's nothing coincidental about the fact that, when he's been able to play a full season -- he did in both 2007 and 2009 -- Rocktober becomes a possibility. If he's able to manage another 150-game season this year, the MVP award won't be the only hardware he'll have a shot at.

Christina Kahrl helped found Baseball Prospectus in 1996, is a member of the BBWAA, and covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?