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Rockies need No. 1 arm

End Zone

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For those who can't wait for baseball to arrive, take heart. This issue hits the streets Jan. 19, exactly one month before the Colorado Rockies' pitchers and catchers report to Arizona for the start of spring training.

And it's been a busy offseason for the Rockies, as the front office has made major revisions to the roster, giving up on some familiar names while taking chances with new faces.

That doesn't guarantee a huge, instant turnabout for Colorado in 2012. Not at all. In fact, if you take a close, analytical look at the Rockies today, there's no way even a big-time optimist could envision them winning the National League West or just making the playoffs.

Their everyday lineup might be capable, but they simply don't have the pitching to win 90 or more games. Probably not even close. More on that later.

Let's give general manager Dan O'Dowd credit for some noticeable changes. He gave up on starter Aaron Cook, a good guy who ran out of chances (and now has signed a minor-league contract with the Boston Red Sox). O'Dowd also dealt away closer Huston Street, which has to be good news for Rockies followers who lost their patience for Street long ago.

That's not all. Colorado won't have catcher Chris Iannetta or third baseman Ian Stewart to fret over anymore, and outfielder Ryan Spilborghs also has been jettisoned. Third baseman Ty Wigginton won't be back for a second year, and neither will veteran second baseman Mark Ellis, who would have been welcome to stay but found better free-agent money in a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Some of those vacancies remain unfilled, or at least uncertain. There's no way to be sure about third base when the starter going into spring is 38-year-old Casey Blake, signed from the Dodgers to a one-year deal. Behind him on the January depth chart are holdover utilitymen Jonathan Herrera and Chris Nelson, both of whom are also in the mix at second base.

That should tell you how uncertain the Rockies' regular lineup continues to be, this close to spring.

And that's not even including first base, where Todd Helton will try to ignore his advancing age (38) once again, with only 41-year-old Jason Giambi backing him up.

Granted, the middle of the order will be stronger with free-agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer combining with Carlos Gonzalez and All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Also, veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez (coming from Cincinnati) should be a measurable offensive upgrade.

If Blake can regain his mid-career form, if Nelson or Herrera can emerge as a solid everyday second baseman, and if centerfielder Dexter Fowler can finally deliver a full, consistent season, the offense will be OK.

None of that will matter, though, unless Colorado can come up with a serviceable group of starting pitchers. And this is where it suddenly becomes painful to look at the pitching staff and not see the name of Ubaldo Jiménez at the top. That means nobody is a proven No. 1 starter, which also means the others will be one or two slots higher than they should be.

As of now, the likely rotation candidates look like this: Jorge De La Rosa, coming off elbow trouble; Jhoulys Chacin, who will be counted on to make a quantum leap; Kevin Slowey, a journeyman newcomer who has to pitch a lot of innings; Alex White, part of the Jiménez deal but perhaps still a year away; Drew Pomeranz, the other prospect who came with White; Tyler Chatwood, a 22-year-old who came from the Angels for Street; Esmil Rogers, who has had a chance already; and Juan Nicasio, who will be a tremendous story if he can bounce back from the broken neck he suffered last year.

Of that group, only De La Rosa and Chacin seem capable to being legitimate No. 1 or 2 starters. Everyone else would be Nos. 3, 4 or 5 at best.

So unless De La Rosa and Chacin can win at least 15 to 18 games apiece — nobody else will — Colorado won't have a prayer of finishing over .500 this season.

That's why we should be paying more attention than usual to what happens in Arizona, starting just a month from now.

routon@csindy.com

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