Walt Weiss has a much higher comfort level as he begins his second season as the Colorado Rockies manager. He's familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of all his players and won't be learning on the fly as was inevitably the case to some degree in 2013.
Weiss, who had never managed or coached professionally before last season, established himself as a capable leader and communicator and earned a three-year extension that runs through 2016, giving him some welcome security. The Rockies won 74 games last year, a 10-game improvement under Weiss but not enough to escape a second consecutive last-place finish in the National League West.
Their lack of depth was exposed in various ways last year. The back end of their rotation was a shambles, leading to a search for consistency in that area that was season-long and ultimately futile. The bullpen was unable to weather the loss of closer Rafael Betancourt, who made three trips to the disabled list, the last in late August with a season-ending elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, sidelining him for 2014. And just as it would with most if not all clubs, the loss of stars Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki for long stretches due to injury taxed the lineup.
The Rockies believe they have improved their depth after an active offseason. But a test will come right away since Jhoulys Chacin, who had been scheduled to start Opening Day, will be out until early May with a right shoulder strain and inflammation, and the Rockies are scheduled to begin the season with 40 games in 42 days, including 19 games with NL West opponents.
The Rockies added starting pitcher Brett Anderson via a trade. He has front-of-the-rotation stuff if healthy but has been troubled in recent seasons by injuries, most recently a stress fracture in his right foot last year. The foot is fine, Anderson is healthy and has shown this spring, he should be a huge addition to the rotation.
Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Tyler Chatwood and Anderson give the Rockies the possibility of four effective starters. Juan Nicasio, who will be in the rotation, has been more consistent this spring, coming off a winter where he wasn't rehabbing as was the case each of the past two years.
First baseman Justin Morneau, a free agent signed to a two-year, $12.5 million contract, should thrive at Coors Field. He replaces retired Todd Helton, a franchise icon but not a particularly productive offensive player in recent seasons.
Veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract as a free agent, will be the closer, at least to open the season. Together with free agent left-hander Boone Logan, who signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal, they will add depth to the back end of the bullpen.
The Rockies also acquired outfielders Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes and starting pitcher Jordan Lyles in trades.
In a live Twitter chat before spring training, Rockies owner Dick Monfort predicted that if healthy, the team could win 90 games. During spring training, right fielder Michael Cuddyer, the reigning National League batting champion, said it was realistic to see the Rockies end their string of three consecutive losing seasons and be playing in October.
"Obviously, health is a huge thing, but that's in any clubhouse," Cuddyer said. "If we remain healthy, I think there's absolutely no question that this could be a playoff team and should be a playoff team."
There's little chance of that happening if shortstop Tulowitzki and left fielder Gonzalez, both All-Stars, are out for a significant stretch. The Rockies need them to each play 145 games. Gonzalez has done that once (2010) and Tulowitzki three times but not recently (2007 and 2009).
Additionally, Cuddyer, 35, and Morneau, 32, have to age well and third baseman Nolan Arenado, a Gold Glove winner as a rookie, and catcher Wilin Rosario, who has a power bat and defensive shortcomings, have to continue to develop. And most of all, the Rockies, who ranked last in the National League in starters' and relievers' ERA, have to pitch better. They have two prize starting pitching prospects in Eddie Butler and Jon Gray, who should be able to help them this season, and maybe very early in the season for Butler.
The Rockies won 13 of their first 17 games last year, meaning they were 23 games under .500 and played at a .421 clip the balance of the season. They were 14 games behind at the All-Star break and out of contention.
"Last year, we were a good club coming out of the chute, but with the injuries, we weren't able to sustain it," said Bill Geivett, senior vice president of major league operations. "We definitely have more experience. I think we're more talented on the mound. We're deeper there, and we can handle some of the injuries that the season throws at you. So, from that respect, we're in much better shape than last year."
--3B Nolan Arenado suffered a bone bruise when hit with a pitch on the left hand in the sixth inning March 22 and left a Rockies split-squad game at Goodyear, Ariz., against Cleveland. Arenado had doubled on each of his first two at-bats against Indians starter Corey Kluber when he was hit with a pitch from Kluber with runners on first and second with no outs and the Rockies trailing 5-2 at the outset of what would become a five-run inning. Upon returning to the Rockies complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., Arenado underwent X-rays that were negative, leaving his status as day-to-day. The day after he was hit, Arenado participated in fielding drills but not hit. He was fortunate the ball hit him in the hand and not the fingers.
Arenado is the third Rockies regular to be hit with a pitch this spring. RF Michael Cuddyer was hit in the left scapula by the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija, and SS Troy Tulowitzki was hit in the left calf by the Diamondbacks' Wade Miley.
--RHP Jhoulys Chacin, who was shut down Feb. 23 with right shoulder strain and inflammation, threw off the mound March 20 at full speed to a catcher stationed in front of home plate. After Chacin was diagnosed with his shoulder injury, the original estimate was he would be ready to return about mid-April. However, in a live Twitter chat on March 19, senior vice president of major league operations Bill Geivett said of Chacin, "He's in his throwing program now, getting ready to progress to the mound for bullpens. If all goes well, ETA is early May." Chacin had been scheduled to start Opening Day March 31 at Miami. Pitching every fifth day from that date, Chacin's eighth start would be scheduled for May 7 with five of those starts scheduled against NL West opponents.
--LHP Boone Logan made his 2014 Cactus League debut on March 20. A free agent who left the Yankees and signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Rockies, Logan underwent surgery in October to have bone chips removed from and a bone spur shaved down in his left elbow. He pitched to one left-handed batter in a designed situation in a minor league game March 22 -- he issued a nine-pitch walk -- and is scheduled to work one inning or 25 pitches in a minor league game March 24. By pitching him in minor league games, the Rockies, if necessary, can back-date Logan to the 15-day disabled list to March 21, the day after he pitched in a Cactus League game. That would make him eligible to be activated April 5 if Logan opens the regular season on the disabled list. Under that scenario, Logan would miss the first five games of the regular season. Logan believes he will be ready by Opening Day but said, "It's going to go down to the wire."
--C Mike McKenry was added to the 40-man roster March 20. A spot opened up when OF Kent Matthes was claimed off waivers by the A's. McKenry, 29, is competing with Jordan Pacheco as the backup catcher to Wilin Rosario. McKenry has a minor league option, meaning he can be sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs without having to clear waivers. Pacheco is out of options so can't be sent to the minors without clearing waivers. McKenry, who began his career in the Rockies organization and was signed to a minor league contract, saw his 2013 season with the Pirates end July 27 due to a left knee injury that required surgery. Bill Geivett, senior vice president of major league operations said, "It was a little bit more his injury than anything else that he wasn't on the roster before."
--OF Corey Dickerson showed he could hit last season after the Rockies recalled him in June. In 69 games, Dickerson totaled 213 plate appearances and hit .263/.316/.459 with five homers and 17 RBIs, and 23 of his 51 hits went for extra bases. Dickerson has hit well again this spring and has worked hard with first base/outfield coach Eric Young Jr. on his play in center field. That's where Dickerson, if he makes the Opening Day roster, will play the most, given that Carlos Gonzalez is a fixture in left field and Michael Cuddyer is set in right field. Manager Walt Weiss gave Dickerson a somewhat lukewarm endorsement on his play in center field. "The times he's been out there, he's handled himself just fine," Weiss said. "Corey has good instincts. I don't think he's going to have any problem covering ground. He runs well. He can put balls away out there. I think he is serviceable."
--RHP Juan Nicasio knows better than most what Reds LHP Aroldis Chapman has experienced. On March 19, Chapman was hit above the left eye with a line drive off the bat of Salvador Perez of the Royals. Chapman underwent surgery to repair facial fractures and was diagnosed with a mild concussion. Chapman had a titanium plate inserted above his left eye to stabilize the fracture but was fortunate to suffer no eye or brain injury. On Aug. 5, 2011, Nicasio suffered a broken neck and a fractured skill when struck in the right temple with a line drive hit by Ian Desmond of the Nationals. A day later, the Rockies team physician credited the quick work of the Rockies training staff for likely saving Nicasio's life. "It's hard whenever I see that, because it reminds me," Nicasio said. "He doesn't have the same thing I did, which is good. I just hope he's going to be OK."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's going to be tough when they leave, and I have to stay here. I'm just trying to get better and get back soon." -- RHP Jhoulys Chacin (right shoulder strain and inflammation), who is expected to join the rotation in early May but meanwhile will continue his rehab in extended spring training at the Rockies complex in Scottsdale, Ariz.