Rockies poised for more success
Young team built the right way not satisfied with 2007
TUCSON, Ariz. -- How do you encore from what seemed to be a miracle? What's your next act after a history-making run?
This is the situation of the Colorado Rockies. It is a situation that could be envied by 28 of the other 29 Major League clubs.
The 2007 Rockies staged one of the most remarkable late-season stretches in the history of baseball. Maybe it was one of the most remarkable late-season stretches in the history of humankind.
The Rockies won 14 of their 15 last regular-season games in 2007 to qualify as the National League Wild Card team. They followed that by sweeping two postseason series to win the National League championship. In a matter of three weeks they had traveled all the way from apparent oblivion to the World Series.
Including the sweeps of the two postseason series, they won 21 of 22 games, which would be the stuff of myth, of fiction, of Hollywood, except that the Rockies actually made it happen. The happy ending that this feat seemed to deserve did not occur when the Rockies were swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox. But this remarkable Rockies stretch will be recalled as long as baseball is played.
The Rockies had all winter to savor this achievement. But now it's what-have-you-done-for-me-lately time on the baseball calendar, as the new season beckons.
The Rockies' return path to the top of the NL won't be any easier. Their division, the NL West -- not that long ago derided as a bastion of mediocrity -- has become one of baseball's most competitive neighborhoods. The Arizona Diamondbacks, last year's division winners, have added real quality to their rotation in Dan Haren. The San Diego Padres, whom the Rockies beat in a tiebreaker to claim the Wild Card berth, have had loads of roster turnover, but they still have pitching in quantity and quality. The Los Angeles Dodgers have added defense in center and power potential with Andruw Jones.
The Rockies put this championship unit together in the right way, the tried-and-true way, building from within the organization, drafting talent shrewdly, developing that talent diligently. They were fundamentally sound, setting a Major League record for highest fielding percentage. Their 90-73 record was the best in franchise history. Their 4.32 team ERA was the lowest in franchise history. Their accomplishments were testimony to what an organization without unlimited resources could still achieve.
But they still cannot be confused with a push-button operation. This spring they have fairly large questions to answer. They have a six-way competition for second base to succeed Kazuo Matsui. The available candidates seem potentially worthy enough. Another competition might be somewhat more of a dilemma. The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation are still open to a four-man competition. With two weeks left in Spring Training, time grows short for two of those candidates to step forward and definitively seize the available jobs.
Still, there is talent at the top of the rotation, a deep bullpen, a surplus of highly qualified outfielders, top-shelf run producers, steady defense everywhere and further talent in the organizational pipeline. There are not many organizations capable of producing a rookie shortstop who could be a mainstay of a pennant-winning club, but the Rockies did that in the case of Troy Tulowitzki. He had the most well-rounded season of any NL rookie last year, even if he came up two votes short in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
The Rockies made themselves tough acts to follow with their epic stretch run last year. This year, they'd obviously like another pennant but perhaps one achieved in a more conventional way.
"There are guys in here who aren't satisfied," No. 1 starter Jeff Francis said on Sunday, after being rained out of a start against the San Diego Padres. "We're happy with what we accomplished, but we think there's a lot more to do.
"The way we did it last year made it special, but we'd like to play better baseball for six months and not have to do that in the last two weeks of the season."
The dominant streak at the end of the season leaves evidence of how good these Rockies could be and confidence that future success can be achieved.
"We always knew we could ... we knew what kind of talent we have here, it was a matter of putting it together," Francis said. "We just had to go out and execute. You know, it's like being a pitcher -- a lot of guys are good enough to pitch, but the guys who can execute are the ones who are successful.
The late-season success is an obvious source of confidence, but that should not be read as complacency in the case of the Rockies.
"We see what happened last year, we know what we're capable of, " Francis said. "We take that confidence and we roll with it on the field.
"But there's always more to achieve. As long as you're playing this game, there's more to achieve. If you don't think there's anything left to achieve, you shouldn't be playing."
The Rockies are a team with considerable young talent, talent that still has room to grow. The competition will be fierce, but perhaps the most encouraging thing for the Rockies is that even after performing what seemed like a miracle, they still have valid reasons to believe that they can get better.