The Colorado Rockies are the first to throw their hat in the ring for the honor of big surprise team for 2013. The Rockies are 13-4 coming into Sunday’s games and lead the National League West by 2 ½ games. TheSportsNotebook’s National League MLB coverage will ask the question of how much of this is real and what’s a reasonable timetable to make Colorado wait before granting them acceptance as a contender.
Here’s the quick primer on summing up the Colorado hot start, along with reasons for skepticism….
- The offense is the best in the National League thus far, with star players performing like stars.
- Starting pitching just suffered a key injury, although the bullpen has been doing well.
- The early season schedule has worked in Colorado’s favor, but that’s about to change dramatically.
Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez have each been in and out of MVP conversations at various points in their careers, and both are swing extremely good bats. Tulowitzki has a stat line of .394 on-base percentage/.648 slugging percentage. Gonzalez is clocking in at a more mind-boggling .452/.694. Two more players—Michael Cuddyer and Dexter Fowler are slugging over .600 and churning out on-base percentage to boot, while catcher Wilin Rosario is driving the ball effectively, with a .551 slugging.
Nor should one assume that the Coors Field effect is responsible for all this production. The hitter-friendly altitude of Colorado’s home park undoubtedly helps, but the Rockies have only played 8 of the first 17 games at home.
Colorado is going to have to keep hitting, because the pitching is about to enter some rocky terrain, no pun intended. The staff ERA was a respectable seventh in the NL, but #1 starter Jhoulys Chacin just went to the disabled list. Chacin had posted a 1.46 ERA in four starts, and the rotation was very top-heavy, with he and Jorge de La Rosa carrying some subpar work from the 3-4 spots in the rotation.
The Chacin injury continues the run of bad luck that Colorado is having with starting pitching. It was just two years ago that this team looked ready to make a run at the NL West flag when de La Rosa went out with a torn rotator cuff. Now he’s finally back healthy for the first time and Chacin goes down. Colorado desperately needs Juan Nicasio to pick up the pace, and Jon Garland—off to a decent start with a 3.32 ERA—to somehow turn back the clock.
There’s no getting around the fact that the Rockies are going to have to keep hitting their way to wins though. And while Tulowitzki and Gonzalez might have monster seasons, it’s unreasonable to think leadoff hitter Fowler is going to keep hitting for power like he is. Colorado needs someone like third baseman Chris Nelson or second baseman Josh Rutledge—the two players who’ve been given opportunities to prove themselves in a rebuilding situation—to step up and contribute to the offense. And speaking of turning back the clock, if Todd Helton could so at first base it would be a huge lift. But honestly, at this stage of his career, I’d bet on Fowler slugging .600 all year long before I would Helton to have a comeback year.
At the very least, if the Rockies get offense and can manage some leads into the sixth and seventh inning, they’re getting quality work from the relief corps. Rafael Betancourt has seven saves already and a 1.93 ERA. Matt Belisle and Rex Brothers are pitching very well in setup, and Edgmer Escalona has been a reliable arm.
Colorado’s schedule has not been tough so far. They’ve swept six games from San Diego and have gone 5-1 against the Mets and Brewers, two teams not generally expected to be in the playoffs. Make no mistake, you have to be playing good baseball to win 11 of 12 in any situation at the major league level, but the schedule is going to toughen up on Monday. The Rockies play a three-game set with Atlanta, which is followed by a 7-game road trip to Arizona and Los Angeles. Interleague series with the Rays and Yankees follow, then a trip to St. Louis.
That’s 19 games between now and May 13 when Colorado goes to Wrigley Field. How about we set May 13 as the real measuring point for seeing if the Rockies can sustain for the long haul. If they can hold serve against the good teams they’re about to play—even just winning 9 of 19—I’ll look more seriously at their chances for hanging in the playoff race. But for now, especially with Chacin on the shelf, I think this is more a nice start that will quickly fade.
AROUND THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
Philadelphia is digging themselves a hole in the NL East, trailing Atlanta by 6.5 games. The Phils’ pitching has been the worst in the National League. I suppose if you’re a Phillie fan you can see that as a sign of hope—there’s no way they’ll pitch that badly all year. But they need to start winning quickly in a division with the Braves and Nationals.
The NL Central is jammed up, as Milwaukee and Pittsburgh have recovered from slow starts and everyone except the Cubs is packed up against each other. Cincinnati suffered the most serious injury of any of the contenders, losing Johnny Cueto to a triceps injury. Cueto is not expected to be out for an extended period, but when you’re talking about arguably the best pitcher in the National League and one who’s injury in the playoffs last year likely cost the Reds an NLCS spot…well, no injury is too small to worry about. Cueto’s injury is the same one that Baltimore Ravens’ linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs incurred early in the NFL season. Maybe Cueto should contact them to see about some deer antler spray to accelerate the healing process.
We looked at the Dodgers’ injury situation last week after Zack Greinke went out. It’s gotten worse, rather than better, as Chad Billingsley and Chris Capuano have followed to the DL. Los Angeles is going to be running out of arms soon.