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Rockies' aspirations are mile high

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series is in reverse order of team quality and continues at No. 6 with the Colorado Rockies.

2009 record: 92-70
2009 finish: Second place, National League West
2009 final payroll: $84.5 million
Estimated 2010 opening-day payroll: $81.5 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

Coors Field cheers still ringing in their ears from a fairytale 2009 finish, the Rockies opened the offseason to wedding bells: Shortstop and franchise anchor Troy Tulowitzki(notes) married his high school sweetheart. Renewed commitment can be contagious, and the Rockies will enter spring training with mile-high expectations.

The good vibes emanate in large part from Tulowitzki, whose rebound from the torn quadriceps he suffered early in the 2008 season was reassuring to a front office that had handed him a $31 million contract after the Rockies' even greater fairytale 2007 finish. The deal pushed back Tulowitzki's free agency by as much as two years, keeping him under contract through 2014 if the Rockies exercise a club option. Tulo is the obvious heir to the mantle of team leader when the time comes for first baseman Todd Helton(notes) to pass it on, and it appears the 25-year-old shortstop will be up to the task.

In addition to leadership, stability and the most electric infield arm in the West, Tulowitzki also will be counted upon for power in a lineup oddly devoid of multiple sources of pop. The muscled-up likes of Matt Holliday(notes) and Garrett Atkins(notes) are long gone, and the offense will center around the speed and gap power of outfielders Dexter Fowler(notes) and Carlos Gonzalez(notes).

Third baseman Ian Stewart(notes) and second baseman Clint Barmes(notes) are all-or-nothing types, although the Rockies believe Stewart can improve on his .228 batting average by cutting down on strikeouts. The addition of veteran Melvin Mora(notes) gives manager Jim Tracy a tried-and-true fallback option at third or second.

Locking up closer Huston Street(notes) for three years should give the bullpen a constancy lacking since Manuel Corpas(notes) started his Jekyll-and-Hyde routine after that heady 2007 Rock-tober. Lefty Franklin Morales(notes) continues to require patience, but no hitter in the National League enjoys facing him.

Because Yorvit Torrealba(notes) foolishly turned down a two-year, $5.3 million offer, Miguel Olivo(notes) is the new platoon partner for Chris Iannetta(notes) at catcher. They ought to combine for 30-plus homers and maybe Iannetta can teach Olivo how to mix in a base-on-balls.

REALITY CHECK

Starting pitching, always the most dicey aspect of the Rockies, will determine whether the team fades to the pack ala 2008 or qualifies for the playoffs for the third time in four years, turning the fairytales into a blueprint for mid-revenue excellence.

A healthy return of left-hander Jeff Francis(notes) after shoulder surgery sidelined him all of 2009 is a key element, although it's unclear what exactly a healthy Francis will bring. Yes, he had 17 regular-season wins and two in the postseason in 2007, and, yes, he's an impressive person whose community contributions make him easy to root for. But even in the best of times he gives up a lot of hits and posts modest strikeout totals.

The continued improvement of fireballer Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), efficiency of sinkerballer Aaron Cook(notes) and out-of-the-blue effectiveness of left-hander Jorge De La Rosa(notes) eliminates pressure on Francis to lead the rotation. Jason Hammel(notes) is a serviceable No. 5 starter.

In two of the last three years, Colorado has been like a longshot racehorse that stumbles out of the gate only to sprint furiously down the stretch and cross the line in a head-spinning second-place finish that feels like first. Tracy, a landslide manager of the year winner after taking over May 29 and leading the Rockies to a 74-42 finish and the NL wild-card berth, has a different challenge this year. He got his players to buy in, now he needs them to stay in. He needs to adjust his message from one of call-to-arms urgency to one of slow-burning, sustained excellence.

Honeymoons don't last forever, as Tracy and Tulowitzki are aware. It's time for the Rockies to dig in for the long haul.

ROCKIES IN HAIKU
Altitude and hopes
are identical at Coors
dizzyingly high

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