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Rockies face tough choices

End Zone

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Just when the baseball world starts thinking the Colorado Rockies might slip, they reel off two quick wins at Arizona to end the regular season's last lengthy road trip.

That brought them into this week with a commanding lead in the National League wild-card race (five games ahead of San Francisco going into Wednesday), starting a nine-game homestand before finishing on the road with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Oct. 2-4.

That wild-card berth is Colorado's to lose, especially given how well the Rockies have played at Coors Field. With any luck, they should clinch a playoff spot before that last trip, giving them the chance to set up their pitching for the playoffs.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Actually, the Rockies, and particularly manager Jim Tracy, have some shaping up to do if they want to have any chance at going far in the playoffs. And it'll probably include several difficult personnel moves.

As much as Jason Giambi has meant to Colorado since joining the team on Sept. 1, it's hard to imagine the front office not maneuvering to put him on the team's postseason roster — as happened two years ago when outfielder Seth Smith moved up from Colorado Springs for the final month and earned his way into the playoff mix. As a pinch hitter, a backup for Todd Helton at first base and even an immediate positive force with teammates inside the dugout, Giambi has endeared himself to the entire franchise in just three weeks.

But if Giambi stays, who goes from the roster when the regular season ends? Most likely it would be Omar Quintanilla, the barely used utility infielder who has been nice insurance but not much of a factor this year, hitting just .167. It's always nice to have somebody capable of stepping in at second base or shortstop, even if it's for a few innings. But he only has four hits since late June, and only two RBIs all season (both in one game, on Aug. 8). Another alternative is keeping Eric Young Jr. for his pinch-running speed and backup help at several positions.

So this might become the moment when the Rockies give up on somebody like Garrett Atkins, who's hitting .222 with hardly any production since the All-Star break and hasn't helped as a pinch hitter, either.

Another option might be thinning the bullpen, which takes us into the pitching staff.

You have to assume Tracy is hoping to have starter Aaron Cook ready for October. But if Cook returns, who becomes the odd man out in a four-man starting rotation? Jason Marquis has been showing the most signs of late-season wear, which has been typical for him in the past, but it's hard to dump a 15-game winner and All-Star. Jason Hammel has been the No. 5 guy, but he's been steadier and more dependable than Marquis the past two months.

Probably, if Cook can get a productive start or two between now and the playoffs, he'll be in the rotation with Hammel as his designated backup. But if Cook doesn't progress fast enough, he might slide into a long-relief role for at least one playoff series. It's actually a nice situation to have, with no obvious weak links.

One more uncertainty would be the fate of veteran starter Jose Contreras, out since Sept. 10 with a strained leg muscle. Tracy surely would like to give Contreras some chances between now and the postseason, if only to decide whether to keep him on the roster. Cook has been penciled in to start Friday night against St. Louis, perhaps with Contreras as backup, when the Rockies have left an opening for a spot starter. One or both also might pitch Sept. 30 against Milwaukee.

Then there's the bullpen, with five certainties (Huston Street, Franklin Morales, Joe Beimel, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Daley) and a handful of others trying to earn the final one or two spots. No sense in projecting, because the final two weeks will answer those questions. Tracy and pitching coach Bob Apodaca have made good use of their late reinforcements, such as Randy Flores, Matt Belisle and Juan Rincon. The first question might not be whom to keep, but how many.

And the sooner Colorado can secure a postseason spot, the sooner those subplots will matter.

routon@csindy.com

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