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Rockies search for new reality


They are the defending National League champions, yet they never have won a division title. They have the memories of that incredible season-ending run last fall, skyrocketing from also-rans in early September to swaggering overachievers in October.

They hit the wall in the World Series and were swept by Boston, yet they came away with the reputation as perhaps a team of the future, not just a one-year wonder.

And now, just three months after their astounding 2007 finish, the Colorado Rockies are just two weeks away from the first players reporting to Tucson, Ariz., for spring training. In four weeks, they'll begin their Cactus League exhibition schedule.

At this point, they aren't sure how to look at themselves. Was that storybook ending to last season real, or was it Memorex? More importantly, can it happen again?

So far, nobody is sure what to expect from Colorado in 2008, especially in the National League West against the division-winning Arizona Diamondbacks, the well-stocked San Diego Padres and, of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers with Joe Torre at the helm.

This week, Vegas oddsmakers rate Colorado at 8-1 to make it back to the World Series, behind the Mets (4-1), Cubs (9-2), Braves (6-1)and Phillies (6-1). In the division, the Rockies appear to be favorites, followed by the Dodgers (10-1), Padres (10-1) and Diamondbacks (12-1).

The biggest questions surrounding Colorado: Was that surge to the NL pennant a preview for this year? Is it possible for manager Clint Hurdle, who did such a masterful job last season, to maintain the low-key, tight-knit (but, refreshingly, never paranoid) bonding that worked so marvelously last season?

Will the loss of second baseman Kaz Matsui, who left via free agency for Houston, be that much of a detriment? And can the starting pitchers show the kind of needed improvement to carry the Rockies through another 90-win season?

Hurdle is the least of Colorado's concerns. He's the rock of the franchise, revered by the players and front office alike. Success hasn't changed him, and his steady, humble demeanor should prevent anyone (including fans) from slipping into complacency.

Replacing Matsui will be one of Hurdle's spring priorities. For now, it looks to be a battle between just-signed veteran Marcus Giles and homegrown rookie Jayson Nix. Giles, a former All-Star (2003) in Atlanta, could become the latest Braves alum to fit in Denver, a string that leads all the way back to Vinny Castilla. Nix, highly regarded for his defense, probably needs just a decent March offensively to earn the job for Opening Day. Both likely will make the roster, since backup infielder Jamey Carroll also must be replaced.

The everyday nucleus of young stars who came up through Colorado's farm system, and the Sky Sox, remains intact, led by outfielders Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, first baseman Todd Helton and third baseman Garrett Atkins. After what Helton meant to the team down the stretch last season, on and off the field, his presence will be invaluable until he's done.

There are issues, such as finding another catcher to pair with Yorvit Torrealba unless Chris Iannetta earns another shot. Hurdle must determine whether Seth Smith, who rose from nowhere to help so much in September and October, can be a dependable extra outfielder and left-handed bat. Surely, the Rockies will look for another backup hitter with power. And if they can count on Willy Taveras, both in center field and filling the leadoff role, that'll make up for losing Matsui.

Pitching still has to be the top concern. Three of the starting spots are set with Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez. From there, it's a crapshoot. If veteran Kip Wells can emerge as more than the next Josh Fogg, and Jason Hirsh can deliver as hoped, fine. If not, there will be much uncertainty going into April.

The bullpen should be fine with Manny Corpas and Brian Fuentes as anchors, but let's not forget that the relief corps was a liability during some stretches last year. So the setup spots will be competitive.

Clearly, the front office hopes that euphoric taste of success will make this team more mature and consistent. Yes, there is pressure. That 2007 team went 90-73, counting the playoff against San Diego. Still, Colorado looked like a .500 team for most of the season.

Will this be a .500 club or a legitimate contender all season? What's realistic for 2008?

It's too early to say, but the discussion is much more promising than last year at this time.

Most of the Rockies aren't just trying to save jobs anymore. They're trying to win a championship.

Around the horn: Officials of the Colorado Springs Sports Corp. are planning a baseball luncheon at some point in the weeks ahead, hoping to schedule Hall of Fame pitcher Rick "Goose" Gossage and Rockies hitting coach Alan Cockrell as guests. Cockrell would have the chance to give his acceptance speech for induction into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame, which he missed last October because of the World Series. ... Good news from the Sky Sox, opening the season with an eight-game trip (during the dicey weather of early April) before starting their home schedule on Friday, April 11, with a 6:05 p.m. game against Tacoma, followed by 1:05 p.m. starts on April 12-13. Those come just after the Rockies' first two home series against Arizona (April 4-6) and Atlanta (April 7-10).


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