Hurdle expects Rockies to rebound
Better years from Tulowitzki, Atkins could be key in 2009
LAS VEGAS -- The Rockies went through a disappointing 2008. Then they traded their biggest offensive threat in three-time All-Star left fielder Matt Holliday.
And closer Brian Fuentes, another three-time All-Star and one of few Rockies who could call last season a good one, is leaving as a free agent.
Manager Clint Hurdle reacts to the losses with high hopes for 2009.
"The Twins last winter at this time had [lost Johan] Santana and Torii Hunter, and they were [thought to be] out of the water," Hurdle said during his question-and-answer session Tuesday during the Winter Meetings. "We got a chance for Fuentes to go and for Holliday to go, and I think we're going to be all right.
"I think we'll be better than all right."
The biggest subtraction is Holliday, who hit better than .320 and drove in more than 100 runs for three straight seasons. One of those seasons, 2007, he finished second in the National League Most Valuable Player voting and led the Rockies to their first World Series appearance.
So how do the Rox perform addition that equals a better season than the 74-88 ledger in 2008?
Holliday followed up a standout year in 2007 with a year not quite as good but still the envy of most players -- .321, 25 home runs and 88 RBIs. But the supporting cast didn't keep up.
Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki nearly won the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Award, but didn't permanently climb above .200 last year until July 25. Third baseman Garrett Atkins finished a respectable .298 with a team-high 99 RBIs, but had three months during which he didn't break .270. Center fielder Willy Taveras and catcher Yorvit Torrealba, key contributors to the '07 magic, lost their starting jobs. First baseman Todd Helton missed much of the season with a back injury.
Of the key offensive contributors to the playoff squad, only Holliday and right fielder Brad Hawpe (.283, 25 homers, 83 RBIs) can say they had slight dropoffs last season.
"Well, you revisit all the people that are involved in the offensive part of the lineup," Hurdle said. "With the exception of a couple guys, everybody was below average last year. So you try and get them back to the levels that they've been in the past."
A key for the Rockies will be the top of the lineup.
Taveras, after a career year the previous year, dropped to .251 with a .308 on-base percentage and ended up dealing with inconsistent playing time. Tulowitzki, in the No. 2 hole, slumped and dealt with a quadriceps tendon tear and a lacerated hand, but after getting healthy hit .327 in the season's final 62 games.
The silver lining for the Rockies was center fielder Ryan Spilborghs, who hit .313 in 89 games. An oblique strain cost him 47 games, but his performance when healthy has earned him a shot in center field and possibly as the leadoff man, with what the Rockies hope is a rejuvenated Tulowtizki at No. 2.
"You look for more from the top of lineup, because that was a place that was kind of soft for us last year," Hurdle said.
A key will be Atkins, who was on the trading block but as the days pass is looking more like he'll be asked to be the anchor of the lineup.
"I think he's going to have an edge," Hurdle said. "You know, he did not have a good year, and he'll be the first one to tell you. So there's going to be a determination, I think, there that's going to make some -- make a difference."
The unknown is left-handed-hitting prospect Seth Smith, who has had his moments as a pinch-hitter the last two seasons. The Rockies feel he'll be a big contributor because of his swing and strike-zone knowledge. The club can only hope he has a year like second baseman Clint Barmes and catcher Chris Iannetta, each of whom made the most of their opportunities.
Jayson Nix, now with the White Sox, hit poorly early, and the Rockies pulled the plug on him at second base and went mainly with Barmes, who hit .290 in 107 games. Iannetta took over as the regular catcher and finished at .264 with 18 home runs and 65 RBIs.
The pitching, so strong at the end of 2007, fell into inconsistency last year. Still, the Rockies are confident in Aaron Cook, a 16-game winner last year, Jeff Francis, a 17-game winner in 2007, and Ubaldo Jimenez, who was strong during the second half of last year. They obtained lefty Greg Smith from the Athletics to compete for a rotation spot with Jason Hirsh, Greg Reynolds and Franklin Morales, another 2007 darling who had a rough 2008. The Rockies continue to seek another starter.
Closer Manuel Corpas will have to bounce back from losing his job to Fuentes, but the Rockies have added Huston Street and are in the process of adding Alan Embree to the late-innings bullpen. Taylor Buchholz was one of baseball's best setup men last year as well.
The Rockies could use a rebound from Luis Vizcaino, who had shoulder problems, and will benefit from the continued development of Ryan Speier, a top reliever in the Minors who will get his first shot at a wire-to-wire season in the Majors.
"It'll be a challenge, but I think everybody, just everybody pitches in and carries their own lunch pail and we'll get it done," Hurdle said.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.