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Improving Rockies' defense tops Weiss' to-do list

The SportsXchange

The Colorado Rockies, losers of a franchise-record 98 games last season, embark on spring training after a surprisingly quiet, almost dormant, winter.

The hope is the recoveries of a some key injured players will lead to improved play.

The most notable player move was the acquisition of Wilton Lopez, who will strengthen the back end of the bullpen. He arrived in a trade with the Astros for pitcher Alex White and minor league pitcher Alex Gillingham.

The most notable overall move was the hiring of manager Walt Weiss. Former Jim Tracy resigned, walking away from $1.4 million due this year, unhappy with the day-to-day responsibility for the major league team given to senior vice president Bill Geivett on Aug. 1.

Weiss was a very sound shortstop, and is bound to stress the importance of defense to a team that played extremely poorly in the field in 2012. The Rockies committed a major-league-worst 122 errors, an increase from 98 in 2011 and well above their totals from 2007 (68 errors) and 2009 (87), when they made the playoffs.

The return of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, a two-time Gold Glove winner who didn't play after May 30 last season due to a groin injury that required surgery, will help the defense, and, in particular, take some of the burden off third basemen Jordan Pacheco and Chris Nelson, both below-average defenders.

Josh Rutledge, who played shortstop the second half of last season, will move to second base, where DJ LeMahieu is expected to see time. Both will be defensive upgrades over Marco Scutaro, the regular second baseman until he was traded to the Giants in late July.

Catcher Wilin Rosario can't help but be better than he was as a rookie last year. He led major league catchers in passed balls (21) and errors (13) and contributed mightily to the Rockies' big-league-leading 94 wild pitches by frequently failing to block balls.

Better defense would help the pitching, which must improve -- the starters, in particular -- for the Rockies to take meaningful steps forward. The starters' ERA of 5.81 last year was by far the worst in the majors, nearly half a run a game worse than the mark of the 29th-ranked Twins.

Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio combined to make just 28 starts and pitch a total of 137 2/3 innings last season, with each missing significant time due to injury.

Chacin offers the most reason for hope, because he returned Aug. 21 after being out almost three months and had a 2.84 ERA in his final nine starts. He entered spring training last year trying to pitch through the irritated nerve in his right pectoral muscle that ultimately put him on the disabled list in early May and left him at odds with the front office after general manager Dan O'Dowd complained about his weight and conditioning.

Not only is Chacin healthy, but he signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract that should give him peace of mind.

Tulowitzki, first baseman Todd Helton and right fielder Michael Cuddyer -- the fourth, fifth and sixth hitters -- played a combined total of just 217 games last year.

At 39, Helton is no longer the run producer he once was, but he still has the ability to make pitchers work and draw walks. He's a superb first baseman, able to scoop low throws and give the other infielders the confidence to attempt difficult plays. He's coming back from surgery on his right hip that led to an unproductive 2012 season, and he would like to go out of the game a healthy contributor to the team.

The Rockies have to decide in spring training who will play third base. Candidates include Pacheco, Nelson, newcomer Ryan Wheeler -- acquired from the Diamondbacks for reliever Matt Reynolds -- and prospect Nolan Arenado.

Chacin, De La Rosa, Nicasio and Jeff Francis appear set in the rotation, with Drew Pomeranz, Chris Volstad, Christian Friedrich and Tyler Chatwood challenging for the final spot.

The back end of the bullpen is expected to consist of closer Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle, Rex Brothers and Lopez. The three remaining relief spots will be finalized in spring training.
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