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March important for Rockies

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For most major-league teams and players, March is the most carefree month of the year.

The mornings are fresh and cool. Then come the afternoons, warm and sunny, with their daily exhibition games. No real pressure, because winning isn't a big deal. The fans are happy just to see live baseball again, and the players are content to work out their kinks slowly, at their own pace. A nice dinner, perhaps a movie, early to bed, and then start over again tomorrow.

That's the usual spring script. But not for the Colorado Rockies this time.

Too much is on the line for the team and even the franchise, starting with general manager Dan O'Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle. One more struggling start to the regular season, and either or quite possibly both of them will be gone. Same with the fans, who won't flock to Coors Field in early May to see San Francisco, Florida or Houston if the Rockies are 9-16 and already losing touch in the National League West.

The early-season schedule is certainly no help, either. It's a killer, enough to make an established contender flinch. Of Colorado's first 14 games, 11 are on the road. Not just anywhere, either, but against opponents fully expecting to make the playoffs.

To drive home the point:

April 6-8, at Arizona, favored by many to win the NL West. April 10-12, at home against Philadelphia, the defending World Series champion.

April 13-15, at the Chicago Cubs, predicted by many to win the NL Central. April 17-19, at the Los Angeles Dodgers, the other NL West favorite. April 20-22, back to Arizona for the second time.

And then the second home series, April 24-26, comes against the Dodgers.

That looks like a setup for failure, especially for a team that must replace its biggest star (Matt Holliday), its most productive relief pitcher in recent years (Brian Fuentes) and one of its top two starting pitchers (Jeff Francis, lost for the year with shoulder troubles). O'Dowd and Hurdle earned one last free pass in 2008 after the remarkable finish and National League pennant in 2007. But the team's ownership won't tolerate another 12-20 start or another 74-88 finish, as happened a year ago.

That's the short version of why this March won't be loose and relaxed for the Rockies down in Arizona. They have many questions to address, and perhaps answer, during the next month.

Here are five situations to watch closely, in no particular order of importance because all are critical:

1. Todd Helton. Can he play first base every day? Will his fragile back hold up? Any chances for Colorado to survive April around the .500 mark (the franchise would be happy to take 10-10 in the first month) start with their leader, who must pace himself through the spring and be ready when the games count.

2. Troy Tulowitzki. After a super rookie year in 2007, the young shortstop was a huge disappointment last year. He looked better in August and September, after the Rox were out of it. But Tulo has to come out smokin' this spring, and perhaps hitting coach Don Baylor can help.

3. Starting rotation. Without Francis, Aaron Cook has to be the stopper, and others have to rise above normal expectations to fill spots Nos. 2 and 3. Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jorge De La Rosa, Greg Smith and even returning journeyman Josh Fogg are candidates. Most likely, either Jimenez or Marquis will have to be the No. 2 guy. That's scary.

4. Center field. The job is open, and it's up to young newcomer Carlos Gonzalez or Ryan Spilborghs to come through. If they don't, Hurdle might roll the dice with rising prospect Dexter Fowler. Gonzalez, with great range in the field, has the most potential, but he's been immature at the plate.

5. Brad Hawpe. He's the everyday right fielder, but he has to be feeling more pressure to shoulder the offensive load with Holliday gone. Hawpe has to be consistently productive in the middle of the batting order, or else.

In fact, that should be the Rockies' theme for the next month.

They have to be ready for April. Or else.

routon@csindy.com

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