Here's a silver lining in the Rockies' most recent rebuilding plan: continuity. Yes, I understand that in order to rebuild one must first have been built. Poor choice of words on my part. But you know what I mean. In any event, if you'd asked me October 1st, 2006 what the Rockies' 2007 Opening Day lineup was going to be, I would have said something like this:
CF Cory Sullivan
2B Kaz Matsui
3B Garrett Atkins
1B Todd Helton
RF Matt Holliday
LF Brad Hawpe
SS Troy Tulowitzki
C Chris Iannetta
P Jason Jennings
And that might have been wishful thinking on my part, hoping against logic that Jennings was going to get a contract extension. In any event seven of nine is pretty good (with Cory Sullivan moving aside for Willy Taveras, acquired from the Astros when Jennings was sent on his merry way). Major questions remain as to how the Colorado bench will be constituted, what the pecking order in the bullpen will be, and who among several candidates will fill in the back of the rotation, but that's true of pretty much every team beginning play today in Arizona and Florida. So if we replace Sullivan's name with Taveras's and Jennings' with Aaron Cook's (Cook gets the Opening Day start over Jeff Francis due to seniority, not because that's how I would do it but because I suspect that's how Clint Hurdle will), how confident are we as of today that that is our lineup? I would say better than fifty-fifty, but for the sake of an argument let's take a look at what might change and why.
The Matsui question. The Rockies didn't pick up Kaz Matsui from the Mets last season to be an end-of-the-bench player. If he hadn't shown Hurdle and Dan O'Dowd something down the stretch last year, he wouldn't be back in Denver. Colorado is exhibiting uncharacteristic self-awareness by not expecting as much (five homers!) from Jamey Carroll as they got last year. Matsui if he plays to his potential would provide the Rockies with a power/speed combo good enough to push their infield from promising to genuinely good. The bench, an open sore last year, will be much better with Carroll in the super-utility role for which he is best suited. But Matsui, as his whole unpleasant experience in New York indicates, is a fragile soul. This is his last chance to change the minds of a whole country's worth of baseball fans before packing it in and going back to finish his career in Japan. He could seize this opportunity, as he certainly tried to do in his first few months with the Rockies, or he could fold like the Rocky Mountain News frustratingly won't do. The guy who has to be crossing his fingers and toes in the hopes that Matsui crashes and burns is Clint Barmes, who isn't going to wrestle the starting shortstop job away from Troy Tulowitzki and hasn't been prudently messing around with an outfielder's glove the way Carroll has this spring. I don't know about May 1st, but Matsui should definitely be the Rockies' Opening Day starter. He has a knack for hitting homers in his first at-bat of a season.
Gotta be centerfield. Just when you thought we'd be in for a trying year of sub-.300 OBPs and double-digit caught-stealing totals from the non-dynamic pairing of Taveras and Sullivan, the Rockies added the weatherbeaten Steve Finley when it became clear no other team was going to offer the 42-year-old a contract. Colorado has nothing to lose with Finley, who was overused and finished-looking last year with the Giants. Alexis Gomez, last year seen by many as the final incontrovertible proof of Jim Leyland's overwhelming genius (but you and I know better), is in the mix as well. One of the group of Sullivan, Gomez, and Finley isn't going to make it out of camp, and I suspect the burden of proof lies upon Sullivan, who has had more than ample opportunity to lock down a regular's job the last two years. The Rockies' best bet offensively might be to figure out which of the group of Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe, and Jeff Baker would be least exposed defensively in center (says here Baker, although he's barely been an outfielder for a year), use Willy T. as a glovely replacement and pinch-runner, and keep Finley around as the principle lefty bat off the bench. Sadly, no matter who wins the Finley/Sullivan/Gomez cage fight, I expect we're going to have to live with Taveras starting and hitting leadoff at least until he loses himself the job.
Catch me if you can. Speaking of guys you thought retired four years ago, Javy Lopez is in Rockies camp this spring. Yes, that Javy Lopez. While the Finley signing makes sense since even Julio Franco would be an upgrade on the weak sticks the Rockies have in center, Colorado already has a pretty nifty up-and-coming catching platoon with Iannetta and Yorvit Torrealba. If the latter, who definitely showed flashes in 2006, has a good spring he could certainly seize the majority of April's playing time. It's not like Clint Hurdle to hand a job to anybody, although the Rockies certainly expect the world of Iannetta starting right now. Hurdle can also get a little overexcited about his own cleverness sometimes, and there's no greater siren's call for self-styled clever managers than the allure of carrying three catchers. Last year Hurdle persuaded Eli Marrero, who hadn't caught in years, to don the tools of ignorance a couple of times while Colorado was still nominally in the NL West race. Of course, Marrero had already proven his mettle as an acceptable backup outfielder and first baseman to make the roster. I don't know what Lopez is other than an ex-catcher. While open competition seems like just what the doctor ordered for the center field quagmire, the best thing for all parties involved here would be for Iannetta to grab a hold of the job with both hands and not look back.
1:05 today, Rockies and White Sox. Aaron Cook will take the mound for Colorado. Wow, somebody is taking the mound today! Let the wildly disproportionate celebrations begin! Sadly, although you can watch live coverage of today's FA Cup tie between Arsenal and Blackburn or the all-day NFL Network feed from the scouting combine taking place at the same time, the baseball game today isn't on local TV. Oh well.
If you haven't checked out my "American Idol" musings over on Western Homes yet, now's as good a time as any. Seldom has so much thought gone into something so mindless.