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No. 23 Rockies: The team that is stuck between winning and losing

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
tulowitzki
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Will Troy Tulowitzki stay with the Rockies or will he be traded? (AP Photo)

Editor's note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Colorado Rockies.

2013 record: 74-88
Finish: Fifth place, NL West
2013 final payroll: $78.8 million (23rd of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $88 million (T-16th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 23rd
Rockies in six words: Good job, good effort, fell short

OFFSEASON ACTION
The Rockies are this winter's bridesmaids, its silver medalists, its ode to the idea that second place is the very same as 30th. They offered Jose Abreu a $63 million deal. He took $68 million from the White Sox. They thought themselves the favorites for Carlos Ruiz. He went back to Philadelphia. They targeted St. Louis as the likeliest team to pony up in a trade for Troy Tulowitzki. They wound up with bupkis.

At this juncture, the Rockies are the definition of tweeners, a team probably good enough not to lose 90 and probably not good enough to win 90. In baseball today, that is a bad, bad place to be, with neither a strong shot at the playoffs nor the prize of big draft and international money to soften the blow of a season gone wrong.

[Also: No. 24 Marlins: MLB's cheapest franchise still resides in Florida ]

For the positive of signing first baseman Justin Morneau to a very team-friendly two-year, $12.5 million deal, the Rockies counterbalanced it by giving away center fielder Dexter Fowler in a trade that returned the young Jordan Lyles, whose repertoire is about as un-Coors Field-friendly as possible. For the stealthy acquisition of left-hander Brett Anderson, who if healthy can front a rotation, the Rockies lavished $16.5 million over three years on Boone Logan, big money and especially big years for a relief pitcher.

Putting LaTroy Hawkins at the back end of their bullpen for $2.5 million should turn out to be a good deal, even if Rex Brothers ultimately supplants him as closer, which may happen sooner than later. And trading from a position of strength by sending lefty reliever Josh Outman to Cleveland for outfielder Drew Stubbs could benefit Colorado, especially if Carlos Gonzalez's appendectomy forces the Rockies to rethink their plan of putting him in center and plant the defensively superior Stubbs there instead.

All in all, the offseason is about a net wash for a Rockies team coming off a disappointing year. Abreu would have given them the long-term solution at first base with Todd Helton's retirement. Ruiz would have allowed them to remove Wilin Rosario from behind the plate and transition him into the corner-outfield role that seems a likely endpoint. And dealing Tulowitzki – which remains a possibility despite his advancing age and big contract, because he's still the best shortstop in the major leagues, and that deal is beginning to look better and better in light of what elite players are fetching in this TV-money-soaked era – would have allowed them to shore up their middle infield and add to a rotation that always could use more arms.

Instead, the 2014 Rockies should look a lot like the 2013 Rockies: barreling toward that thankless area where they're not good or bad enough.

REALITY CHECK
Part of the Rockies' problem is geography. The NL West might be the league's best top-to-bottom division. The Dodgers are monsters. The Diamondbacks, desperate to win this season, will crack the $100 million mark in payroll. The Giants likely won't be as bad as they were last year. The Padres return an interesting young core. Unless the injury bug bites a team particularly hard, none should be a pushover.

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Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez, at a Nuggets game in December, recently underwent an appendectomy. (AP Photo)

The Rockies' intrigue comes from their lineup, one that could flirt with 200 home runs, even as the humidor does its best to keep balls in Coors. A healthy Tulowtizki and CarGo are good for 30 apiece. Rosario and Michael Cuddyer may knock 25 each. Should Morneau rediscover his groove against left-handed pitching, he's a cinch for 20. Third baseman Nolan Arenado easily could double the 10 he hit as a rookie last season. Beyond his glove, Stubbs' calling card is his pop. Home runs mask weaknesses, and they're Colorado's best antidote to a pitching staff that posted the third-worst ERA in the majors last season.

Part of that is Coors, of course, and the success of right-hander Jhoulys Chacin and left-hander Jorge de la Rosa portend well. The Rockies' keys are Anderson, still just 25, and right-hander Tyler Chatwood, whose heavy fastball induced ground balls nearly 60 percent of the time last season. All four of them clicking, with top prospects Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler on the cusp, makes the Rockies a very interesting team, especially if the bullpen proves to be a strength as expected.

Of course, a team with that many ifs needs a warehouse full of luck to parlay them all into realities, and should they falter at the beginning of the season, general managers Dan O'Dowd and Bill Geivett will face tough choices. Do they trade free agents-to-be de la Rosa and Cuddyer, knowing that they can't afford the cost of a qualifying offer, which is likely to approach $15 million next offseason? Do they entertain trading Tulo or CarGo, seeing as ownership has intimated they won't keep both long-term? Or do they stand pat, as they've done with their oddly constructed front office, because the path of least resistance is one down which the Rockies often tread?

This isn't a vital year for the Rockies, not in the same way it is for a team that harbors deep playoff hopes or goes full tilt on a rebuild. It's just another middling season waiting to happen, another in a line since the 2007 World Series appearance that proved more flash in the pan than perpetual.

SAVIOR
When Jonathan Gray dropped to the third pick in the draft last year, the Rockies gladly snatched him up, let him get his feet wet in rookie ball and then unleashed him in High-A Modesto, where he proceeded to throw 24 innings, strike out 36, not allow a single home run and post a 0.66 ERA over five starts. With a fastball that sits in the upper 90s, topping out in triple digits, and a slider every bit as good, the 22-year-old Gray could well be the best pitching prospect in baseball. He's got horse size (6-foot-4, 250 pounds), horse stuff and horse moxie. It is not a stretch to call Gray the best pitching prospect in the Rockies' two-decade history. He should be up by midseason, and when he comes, look out.

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Previous teams
No. 24 Marlins
No. 25 Brewers
No. 26 White Sox
No. 27 Mets
No. 28 Twins
No. 29 Cubs
No. 30 Astros

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