It's only one game, but the Rockies' victory over the Cubs yesterday meant a great deal. It would have been extremely painful for Aaron Cook to pitch as well as he did and for Colorado to lose once again, as they did in decent starts by Jeff Francis and Franklin Morales during the bullpen's four-game blown save streak. After the second inning Cook went on a stretch where he retired 16 in a row; the game was crisp and speedy and treat to watch thanks to the quick work of Cook and Chicago's Jason Marquis.
In winning, the Rockies looked like the opposite of the team that's been in the doldrums of late: they played excellent defense, they got runners on and knocked them in, they got notable contributions from their bench. And in the ninth, instead of Manny Corpas hanging his head as Cubs rounded the bases, it was Brian Fuentes, like it was 2006 all over again, coming in to finish things out. Fuentes was devastatingly effective -- as he has been all season save for one brushfire last week -- and made Japanese Cubs sensation Kosuke Fukodome, in particular, look just dreadful at the plate. I don't believe Fukodome saw any of the three pitches he swung at from Fuentes.
Clint Hurdle has acted faster this season to replace players in the lineup who aren't performing than at any time in his tenure as Rockies manager. It's as if a switch in Clint's mind flipped over after the '07 postseason and he's decided that the Rockies are officially Contenders now and he must manage as such. What's positive about Hurdle's new mindset is that he doesn't have a Dusty Baker-like fixation on weathered veterans. Clint's manuevers to improve the Rockies' offense have included benching the young Willy Taveras (for whom the bunt singles just aren't falling this year) in favor of wily vet Scott Podsednik, it's true. But he's also increased Chris Iannetta's playing time since the young catcher is hitting better than Yorvit Torrealba out of the gate, and he's been awfully crafty at finding at-bats for Ryan Spilborghs and Jeff Baker. The switch from Jayson Nix -- it was wishful thinking on the part of the Rockies that the glove-ly Nix was going to hit in the major leagues -- to Clint Barmes is merely one Rockies product taking the role of another.
So what about Brian Fuentes, who's not particularly old but a veteran on this Rockies team, taking over for the young Manny Corpas? Will Corpas rebound out of the closer's role, and will Fuentes regain the 40-save form he had two years ago? Dan O'Dowd would very much like to see both happen. Corpas's early-season struggles are precisely what the doctor ordered for the Colorado GM, since Fuentes is a free agent after this season. If Brian pitches well for the rest of the first half -- and Corpas gets his composure back pitching mop-up duty for a few months -- O'Dowd would be foolish not to listen to offers for the lefty Fuentes, who would surely be the most desirable reliever on the market.
The Rockies have other guys who could close besides Fuentes and Corpas. Taylor Buchholz, like Fuentes, seems to pitch better and better the later he enters a game. If Jason Hirsh's recovery goes well, one of the Rockies' tender young starters could make the switch -- Ubaldo Jimenez seems more suited due to his stuff, but Franklin Morales' wildness makes him a five-inning pitcher, and he might be more focused in a one-inning role. That would be more of a plan for next season, however, since you can't really convert a guy from starting to closing in the middle of the season. Were either of those young starters to get mildly injured, however, having them work their way back in the bullpen might be wise. And of course all young pitchers are injuries waiting to happen.
The question facing the Rockies and the other teams in the NL West isn't so much, Are we this bad? as Are the Diamondbacks this good? If Arizona continues to score at a near league-leading pace and pitches up to expectations, there's no way anyone in the division is going to catch them. The Padres can't score, the Rockies' rotation is shaky, the Dodgers have all those albatross veteran contracts clogging their lineup, and the Giants are simply horrible. I thought that the division would once again be won, as it was last year, around the 90-win barrier. If the D-Backs you now see are the real deal, they're going past that and then some.
With all of the buzz about how the AL is home to all of the game's stars and showcase teams, the shape of the playoffs this year might be quite different than last. Rather than 4 AL teams with the look of champions and a handful of NL teams that were lucky to even get in with their records, it could be -- could be -- the other way around. The Cubs and D-Backs could approach 100 wins while no one in the AL save Boston gets close to that number. And no matter what their record is, the winner of the three-way race in the NL East between Atlanta, Philadelphia, and the Mets is going to be a battle-hardened team. (So probably not the Mets.)
It's a new development that the National League might have two real good teams, but it isn't a new thing that pretty much everybody save the Giants and the Pirates has a chance at the wild card. There may be some better teams in the senior circuit this season, but there aren't going to be any races like the '93 NL West. The wild card is going to be there in that 86-88 win range and the Rockies have enough offense to get to that level, assuming the bullpen at least holds together to give a league-average showing.
Should the Rockies prepare for a playoff race... and shop guys like Brian Fuentes? Of course they should. The Rockies are a self-defined Small Market Team, and thus they must always keep one eye on next year. Colorado still desperately needs its own young ace starter -- sorry, Jeff Francis, you're #1 in my heart, but not in my dream postseason rotation -- and a trade target like Fuentes could absolutely shake a prospect of that echelon loose, if O'Dowd is doing his homework.