Can you believe it? It is already here! The grass in green, the sun is bright, and the chalk is laid — well in Arizona and Florida at least. Baseball is finally back! Today is the day when several teams, including the Rockies, have their pitchers and catchers report for duty and the 2013 season begins. It signals the start of 7 months of continual speculation and anticipation as we head toward another World Series. It also signals, personally, the end of another winter and the beginning of my favorite sports season of the year.
This year marks the first time in 4 years I haven’t been able to visit Phoenix for Spring Training. “Bummed” is an understatement. There is almost nothing better than going down to watch baseball and escape from the near-freezing temperatures of home. If you haven’t been able to get down there for a spring session, I highly recommend it. The smaller spring training parks get you closer to the action and gives you ample chances to get autographs and other souvenirs. How close? When you yell at Troy Tulowitzki, he actually acknowledges you. Well he mostly acknowledges you. Ok, maybe he was talking to the kid in front of me. Either way a 3-day weekend in Valley of the Sun is plenty of time to enjoy the pool, sunshine, and baseball. It also is relatively cheap.
Spring training is also a great time to see some of the up-and-coming talent for the upcoming year. Between the split-squad games and the overall laid-back atmosphere, the opportunity to watch younger players is abundant. You can actually go watch a AAA vs AA intra-squad game on one of the practice fields on your way to the Big League game. On top of that, the games themselves feel a little more competitive as both position players and pitchers are vying for a limited number of roster spots. So who are the players you should pay particular attention to down at Salt River Fields this spring? There really are quite a few.
In my opinion Nolan Arenado is the pin-point guy to watch this spring. He has long been touted as the 3rd baseman of the future, and God knows we need one. I was lucky enough to see him play at the Rookie level with the Casper Rockies/Ghosts in 2009 and he was very impressive. Since then the 21-year old has marched through the farm system raking in hits with a .296 BA in Asheville, Modesto, and Tulsa. There was a lot of talk last spring that he could take a peek at the majors in the September call-up, but the front office let him develop over a full season in Tulsa. That was a great call and it earned him recognition as a selection in the Futures Game during the 2012 All-Star week. It is widely assumed he will start in Colorado Springs and be in Denver at some point this season.
Another few position players to watch in Phoenix before the April 1st Opening Day game are Josh Rutledge, Dexter Fowler, Jordan Pacheco, Charlie Blackmon, and Tyler Colvin. It will be interesting to see how players coming off a hot year (Fowler, Pacheco, Colvin) adjust to the expectations they now garner. It will also be interesting to see how Blackmon responds to missing significant time due to injury in 2012. He is sneaky fast up the first base line, plays a pretty great outfield, and is a great bat. His career batting average is well over .300 at the AAA level, and he has hit .270 in almost 70 MLB games. Not horrible for a limited amount of chances.
I have a man-crush on Josh Rutledge. The Rockies have been sub-par at the 2nd base position for so long I can’t even remember when we had one that is worth me mentioning. I briefly thought Jonathan Herrera was the answer but I am not convinced of that any more. Rutledge really could be the future for the Rockies at 2B, and the thought of a Tulo-Rutledge middle infield makes me smile. I am smiling right now. Rutledge has a great bat (hitting .274 over 73 games at Colorado last year in his first year) and an average glove that has potential to be a gold glove. He displayed a .961 fielding percentage while in the Majors and was solid at 2B in limited exposure.
On the pitching side of things, watch everyone. Every single pitcher in the Rockies camp this spring is under intense scrutiny and rightfully so. I read a statistic late last year about the Rockies and their pitching woes and I don’t remember it exactly but this was the jist: In games where the team ERA was sub-5.00, the team was 13-1. Don’t quote me on those numbers, they aren’t the point. The point is two-fold. First, the Rox allowed less than 5 runs in only a handful (less than 15) of games last year. Second, it shows that we could score runs in bunches. In fact, if we could just limit the other team to less than 5 runs we’d win almost every single time! That is just unacceptable. I am not convinced we have brought in the pieces this off season to solve the pitching problems, so each pitcher will be under an eagle eye of a new coaching staff. The most puzzling off season pitching pickups have to be Chris Volstad and Manny Corpas. These guys both seem to just be broken and I wish the Rockies would stop trying to fix them. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or both of them miss the boat back to Denver.
The last piece I am watching during the spring camp is the emergence of Walt Weiss as manager and Dante Bichette as hitting coach — the main frame of a completely revamped coaching staff for the upcoming season. The pressures at the big league level can’t come close to comparing to what Weiss saw at Regis High School over the last few years. Nonetheless I am really excited to see how these guys mentor some of the younger players and manage the ebbs and flows of a season. While I was growing up and playing Little League baseball these two guys were two of my idols. So I’d love nothing then to see them succeed and take the Rockies to a higher level.
At any rate, these next 6 weeks of spring baseball can literally make or break your team’s season. The ability to enjoy them in person is something every baseball fan should experience!
P.S. — If you’re looking for other people to watch for while you’re down at spring camp, check out all of the Evaluating the Talent posts up on Rox Pile.