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Rockies camp report: Lineup is solid, but young staff must grow up fast

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Tulowitzki might be the best player in the NL, now that Albert Pujols is an Angel. (AP)  
Tulowitzki might be the best player in the NL, now that Albert Pujols is an Angel. (AP)  

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The oft-heralded Rockies started last season 12-2 before imploding, sliding all the way to a distant and dismal fourth place.

"I don't know if we believed our press clippings, or what?" longtime Rockies great Todd Helton said. "But we didn't deal very well with adversity."

The solution, Rockies executives and veterans decided, was to add several mature veterans to an occasionally underachieving team invariably dotted with 20-something players and thought-to-be top prospects. But while 30-something imports Michael Cuddyer, Jeremy Guthrie, Ramon Hernandez and Marco Scutaro came to Colorado this winter to lengthen a strong lineup, bolster a talented but questionable rotation, and most importantly, add much-needed experience, the extreme youth of the pitching staff remains the $64 million (the Rockies' approximate payroll) question.

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At least here in camp, the rotation can appear to be comprised of the miraculous middle-aged Jamie Moyer and his children. Excluding the new ace Guthrie, the rest are indeed young enough to be kids of Moyer, the 49-year-old pitcher who became the story of camp by battling kids Tyler Chatwood, Drew Pomeranz, Guillermo Moscoso and Juan Nicasio, who's trying to overcome come long odds of his own by returning to the rotation after being struck on the head by a liner last August. "To be able to move and get on the field, much less compete, is amazing," Cuddyer said of Moyer, whose AARP card is coming in a matter of months.

"It's crazy," Helton said.

Part of Moyer's trick is not to be amazed or crazed. "It's my job," Moyer said, flatly. "Regardless of my age, I have to come in and compete for a job."

Moyer is the great spring sidelight. The real strength of the team remains the uber-talented shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and the almost-as-talented left fielder Carlos Gonzalez, but the key to the squad remains the staff, which has to deal with inexperience, youth, Coors Field and lots of questions.

Dependable Indians import Rafael Betancourt gets his first full-time chance to close, with the trade of Huston Street to the division rival Padres, but the pen is similar to the rotation in that it relies on the relatively young. Another noted strike thrower Matt Belisle (14 walks in 72 innings for him, 8 in 62 1/3 for Betancourt) is the only other reliever past 30. Rex Brothers is the strikeout artist of an amazing anonymous group.

The rotation, where everyone but the imported Guthrie (and obviously Moyer if he makes it) is 25 or under, is even younger. Beyond Guthrie, the only one guaranteed a spot will go to Jhoulys Chacin, who is 24, inconsistent and who inspired Rockies graybeard Jason Giambi to say, "He's Cy Young one game, brutal the next."

The potential of several of the starters is outrageous, but the uncertainty is almost that high, as well. Pomeranz is the big left-hander who came as the main piece in the Ubaldo Jimenez, and he may only need to grow up a bit to become a star. Nicasio is an upper-90s thrower with command who needs to refine his secondary pitches. Chatwood has an extraordinary mix. "It's time for them to shine," Gonzalez said, hopefully.

All have impressed this spring, though none more so than Chatwood, who came from Los Angeles of Anaheim in the deal for disappointing catcher Chris Ianetta after following a solid first half with rough second half. Echoing the thoughts of many Rockies, Cuddyer said, "Chatwood is as nasty as any of 'em."

The Rockies actually have been long on potential for awhile, having drafted some beauties, and this year's team is no exception.

Catcher Wilin Rosario has monstrous power and is an outside threat to make the team as a backstop partner of veteran Hernandez, one of the better hitting catchers in the game. Third baseman Nolan Arenado, widely considered among the best prospects in baseball, apparently has been deemed to need a bit more time, leaving third base as an area of question for now. Veteran Casey Blake is trying to show he can stay healthy to play another year, but if he proves to be too brittle, Chris Nelson, another home-grown product, is likely to get the initial nod over Brandon Wood, another ex-Angel who was once considered baseball's top prospect before the strikeouts piled up.

The Rockies' prospects, whether one means their young players or their outlook, often outstrips the team's performance, and the heard-throwing 22-year-old Chatwood is the latest getting the big buildup. Helton marveled, "The swings he gets with his fastball are amazing."

Generally though, the Rockies don't want to get too far ahead of themselves with superlatives, as they've looked better on paper than the field a couple times in recent years. The lineup appears especially promising this time around, what with Cuddyer, who should benefit from a switch to Coors Field from impossible Target Field, batting sixth. He's here not just for his power (that 20 home runs could turn into 30) but he's also there for his character, a hallmark of Rockies teams.

Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd tried hard to get Michael Young the winter before and in fact thought he had a deal for Young before the longtime Ranger told his team he'd be willing to stay to DH and O'Dowd allowed the Rangers to back out of the trade.

Consider Cuddyer to be Young Lite, and that monicker doesn't bother him because he's that kind of guy. He also understands that Gonzo, Tulo and Helton make up the 3-4-5 heart of the order and that he'll gladly bat sixth because "those are the superstars."

The key guy on offense, many agree, might still be Dexter Fowler, who seemed to wake up when he was optioned to the minors last year after starting poorly, but has looked overmatched again at times this spring. It's hard to find bona fide center fielders, so he's going to get another full chance. But his time should be now. Scutaro, a virtual giveaway from the Red Sox, provides yet another table setter for the vaunted middle.

"Scutaro is an absolute professional," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "He's an absolute professional."

And now that Albert Pujols has gone to the American League, a case could be made that Scutaro's DP partner Tulowitzki is the best player in the league, an opinion expressed by no less than ex-Rockies star Matt Holliday.

Tulowitzki is a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop with immense power and clearly the Rockies' biggest star. But Gonzalez isn't bad as a second fiddle with a great combination of power, speed and an arm -- though he still looks bad too often against lefties and strikes out too much. Tulowitzki probably has the best shortstop arm in baseball, and Gonzalez has the best left field arm.

But the arms that will determine how far this team goes are the young ones on the mound. Moyer provided an amazing diversion in spring training, and no one should write him off, even at age 49. But the Rockies will go only as far as their array of 20-something pitchers takes them.

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