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Rockies battle many 'ifs'

End Zone



Ah, February, the month of unlimited hope in baseball. Teams are gathering in Arizona and Florida for spring training, nobody has lost even an exhibition game yet, and the low-budget teams can dream as much as the big-spending Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees about the summer to come.

Case in point: Even the Colorado Rockies, after consecutive last-place finishes, are talking smack about the 2014 season. Co-owner Dick Monfort insists the Rox are capable of 90 wins (after 64-98 in 2012 and 74-88 in 2013), and team leader Michael Cuddyer (assuming that role after Todd Helton's retirement) feels Colorado could contend for the playoffs. Manager Walt Weiss, obviously more comfortable entering his second season, shares a similar view.

That's despite being in the National League West, with Los Angeles picked by many for the World Series, San Francisco determined to win its third title in five years, and Arizona a trendy long-shot pick. Against all that, and with Vegas giving the Rockies 50-1 odds of winning the NL pennant, you'd think Colorado should set 81-81 as a sensible goal.

But then again, it's a long way to July and August when most fantasies finish their annual slow deaths. And if only to appease the eternal optimists — hey, 50-1 to make the World Series doesn't sound impossible, right? — let's examine the reasons for Colorado's enthusiasm.

The best analysis is to call this a Season of Ifs. We can make a list of 10 "Ifs" that will determine Colorado's fate. If all 10, or perhaps nine, fall into place, then sure, the Rox might be contenders. But if only four or five produce happy endings, 81-81 looks far more realistic. In other words, this team needs everything to go its way, or else.

Here's that list of ifs, in no particular order:

1. Veteran Justin Morneau replaces Helton at first base, which should mean a bigger bat. But can Morneau stay healthy? And will his defense be adequate?

2. Brett Anderson was Oakland's starting pitcher on Opening Day last year. Can the lefty step in and produce at least 12 to 13 wins?

3. Trade acquisition Drew Stubbs can run and play defense, but can he hit enough to bat leadoff and play center, allowing Carlos Gonzalez to stay in left? Or, can Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson share a productive platoon with Stubbs?

4. Colorado adding 41-year-old reliever LaTroy Hawkins means nothing for the closer spot. Hawkins can share the load, but the equation doesn't work unless Rex Brothers can handle the main job.

5. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki might be facing his last year in Denver (could he replace the Yankees' retiring Derek Jeter?) unless Tulo can deliver a healthy All-Star season playing 145 games or more. Can he do that?

6. Cuddyer looks to be slotted as No. 2 in the batting order, but will that experiment work? And can he hold up another entire season in right field, now in his mid-30s? Or will he have to fill in at first base if Morneau falters?

7. No matter what happens with the other starters, Jhoulys Chacin remains Colorado's top righthander. Can he finally grow up and supply 15 or more wins? Every positive scenario for the team demands it.

8. Any major-league starting rotation is only as good as its weakest link, and the Rockies are counting on Juan Nicasio to fill the fifth spot. If he can't handle it, who will? Jordan Lyles, obtained from Houston? Viable candidates are few, unless somebody like Christian Friedrich emerges.

9. Colorado's bullpen was awful last year. Can Hawkins make a difference? Can Manny Corpas and Franklin Morales pretend it's 2007 again? Can newcomer Boone Logan find a role, and can Matt Belisle bounce back and be dependable?

10. Saved this for last. Every improving team needs a big-time breakthrough, which in this case could be third baseman Nolan Arenado. He won a Gold Glove as a rookie, but now can he emerge as an offensive star and perhaps fill that No. 2 spot in the order?

That's a lot of questions for this Season of Ifs. For now, though, the dreams are unbeaten. The doubts can wait.

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