By Ralph Routon
This week began for the Colorado Rockies with their first full-team workouts at spring training in Arizona, and with first baseman Todd Helton making his first public comments since being arrested for DUI two weeks ago.
Neither of those developments told us anything about what to expect from the Rockies in 2013, other than Helton still being determined to play this year and end his great career on a positive note. But when the exhibition games start this weekend, we'll slowly start to see whether the Rockies can rebound from that awful 64-98 season in 2012.
From all advance indications, Colorado's everyday lineup — even with a few uncertainties, most notably Helton — looks like it shouldn't belong to another last-place team. The Rockies should be able to score runs, and it's a safe guess that the defense will improve with rookie manager Walt Weiss raising those expectations (given how he delivered as a player).
But nobody making predictions across the major-league scene is giving Colorado a chance to become a surprise contender. The general assumption, echoing throughout early projections, is that the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants will battle it out in the National League West, with the Arizona Diamondbacks not far behind. Then it's simply a question of whether Colorado and San Diego will finish fourth or fifth.
That's certainly fair, but still sobering if you're a Colorado fan. The consensus would suggest that the Rockies might improve by as many as 12 to 15 wins this season, but that still puts them only in the range of 76-86 to 79-83.
To have a chance at sniffing .500, Colorado must find solid answers to five questions, beginning in the weeks ahead. Here they are, in no particular order:
What happens at first base? If Helton, who turns 40 in August, has a poor spring, he might retire. Or he could push through one last productive year, probably platooning with Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer might play 100 games to Helton's 60, which might work well. But Helton won't stay if he's just dead weight.
What about the other corner? Jordan Pacheco should have the edge over Chris Nelson in the battle at third base, but both are average at best, especially in the field. For a mediocre team, the answer might be pushing hot prospect Nolan Arenado onto the stage.
Who's the Opening Day starter? Mostly likely the Rockies are counting on Jhoulys Chacin finally growing up and realizing more of his potential, but for the best shot at 81-81, they need Jorge De La Rosa to return from elbow surgery and regain his winning form (16-9 in 2009). Expect the worst if veteran Jeff Francis has to be the No. 1 starter going into April.
Can Dexter Fowler keep it going? With a .300 average, 13 homers and 53 RBIs in 143 games last season, Fowler earned a two-year contract and an early lock on the center field job, as well as the leadoff spot in the batting order, going into 2013. But Fowler, who turns 27 next month, has to continue being that dependable for the Rockies to have any kind of offensive consistency.
Where does Tyler Colvin fit in? He's been mentioned as the possible everyday right fielder, especially if Cuddyer spends much time at first base. But Colvin also could become the starter at first if Helton doesn't make it out of spring. After hitting .290 with 18 homers and 72 RBIs last year, Colvin deserves more than a backup or utility role.
Sure, there are more questions, especially about pitching after last year's abysmal performance. But from this view, answering those five stand out as the Rockies' front-burner agenda for Scottsdale.