Rockies' 2011 derailed by injury, inconsistency
Missed time by big bats, arms left Colorado treading below .500
DENVER -- The Rockies entered 2011 expected, in many circles, to win the National League West for the first time in their history, and the 11-2 record to begin the year seemed like a sign this year would be their year. No one saw them becoming an injury-plagued, slump-ridden, sub-.500 team with poor fundamentals in May, and by season's end becoming thoroughly irrelevant in the standings.
The difference between reasons and excuses is a murky one.
There's no escaping the odd and numerous injuries that turned the depth the team trumpeted in Spring Training into a mirage.
The craziness began in Spring Training. Pitcher Aaron Cook accidentally slammed a door on his pitching hand and broke a finger, and never became the veteran force the team needed. Third baseman Ian Stewart and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez collided chasing the first foul popup of Cactus League play, and Stewart's resulting knee sprain began a spiral from which he never recovered. Former Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez developed a cut on the cuticle of his right thumb, which in the lazy days of spring seemed no big deal, but led to his inconsistent work and, eventually, a trade to the Indians.
Two key injuries scuttled the regular season. Left-hander Jorge De La Rosa -- whose fine early work made up for Jimenez's struggles -- saw his season end in May because of Tommy John elbow surgery, and Gonzalez's repeated wrist injuries starting in July slammed the door shut on any late run.
Even prospects weren't spared. Outfielder Charlie Blackmon showed promise before breaking his left foot while running the bases in July. Right-hander Juan Nicasio showed plenty of raw talent before his season ended on Aug. 5, when he took a line drive off his face and suffered a broken neck.
Still, the Rockies can't blame injuries alone. Slumps by key personnel, and at times the inability to have key players hot at the same time, prevented the team from gaining any traction.
Jimenez, who also pitched through some leg muscle discomfort that flared in Spring Training, spent part of April on the disabled list, didn't win until June 1, and was 4-6 with a 4.46 ERA by the time the Rockies dealt him to Cleveland on July 31.
In shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, the Rockies had players expected to be forces in the lineup. Both ended up with solid numbers, but for much of the season they weren't clicking at the same time. It was especially problematic because Todd Helton, with Jason Giambi spelling him occasionally, returned first base to a position of run-producing prominence.
The Rockies needed the core of the lineup playing well, because so many other spots sprung leaks. Stewart, who hit 25 home runs in 2009 and slumped to 18 in 2010, crashed to zero this year while bouncing between the Rockies and Triple-A Colorado Springs. Switch-hitting leadoff man Dexter Fowler battled frequent strikeouts that resulted in a demotion to Triple-A for the second straight year. The trade with the Mariners for second baseman Jose Lopez was a bust.
Then there were the continued struggles with the hitting approach -- the key reason the team has been through three hitting coaches since making their surprise run to the 2007 World Series.
The strong start was against the Rockies' reputation of recent years, but that only goes so far. The Rockies also played against a reputation of strong second-half play, forged during playoff runs of 2007 and 2009, and enhanced, at least slightly, by a late push in 2010 until things fell apart in the middle of September.
This year, September was a mess once again. Injuries to key personnel left the Rockies fielding a team more suited for taking a bus trip for a road Spring Training game. Even if the games had been meaningful, the Rockies might have had a hard time being competitive.
Defining moment: Could the Rockies overcome all their ills? It certainly seemed that way. The Rockies were 16-13 between June 1 and July 2, and Tulowitzki and Gonzalez were starting to click simultaneously. On July 3, the Rockies needed to beat the Royals, not only to complete a series sweep, but to get to .500. But that all disappeared during the seventh inning, when Gonzalez -- who had driven in six runs during the slugfest -- crashed into the center-field wall to catch Brayan Pena's deep fly ball. Gonzalez suffered what was then called a bruised right wrist, which he would later reinjure twice. The Rockies lost, 16-8, and never reached .500.
What went right: The early start can't be totally forgotten, since the Rockies had dug holes in previous years. Tulowitzki, streaky in the beginning but consistent by the end, homered in four straight games against the Mets at Citi Field.
Although he didn't sustain throughout, right-hander Jhoulys Chacin, in his first full season in the rotation, looked like an All-Star during the early days of the season.
Defensively, Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, Rawlings Gold Glove Award winners last year, again played up to those standards. Helton was spectacular when his back would let him be, and catcher Chris Iannetta played well enough by season's end to deserve consideration for the postseason award at his position. Yes, Fowler was sent down for the second straight year, but this year, as well as last, he finished the season as hot as anyone in the lineup.
The bullpen also was solid. Closer Huston Street lost his job when he was injured late in the year, but he had solid numbers -- despite giving up a career high in home runs and turning save chances into adventures. Matt Belisle and Rafael Betancourt had their best seasons. Callups Rex Brothers -- a rookie lefty who could eventually emerge as the team's closer -- and Josh Roenicke -- a righty who had previously bounced around -- put up strong arguments for beginning 2012 on the Major League roster.
The Jimenez trade yielded two exciting young pitchers, former Indians first-round picks Drew Pomeranz's debut, a left-hander, and Alex White, a righty. Both weren't at their best when they appeared in Rockies uniforms at the end of the season. Pomeranz had been inactive because of red tape involving the trade, and underwent an emergency appendectomy in August, while White was coming off a middle finger injury on his pitching hand. But both have a chance to be key members of the rotation.
Catcher Wilin Rosario came up from Double-A in September and provided a reason for optimism.
What went wrong: After recovering from the knee sprain that he suffered in the early Spring Training collision with Gonzalez, Stewart tweaked a hamstring before the start of the regular season and rushed to make it for Opening Day. Could more rest have helped?
It seemed when Jimenez struggled in the opener, an eventual loss to the D-backs, a pall of concern hung over the team, even through its good early start.
The injuries and slump led depth players such as Ty Wigginton, Jonathan Herrera and Ryan Spilborghs to be used more regularly than planned. Herrera and Spilborghs each finished the year on the shelf with injuries.
Fowler's finish is cause for encouragement, but the early struggles are a concern. Gonzalez was playing center field at the time of his first wrist injury because Fowler had played his way off the active roster by then.
The rotation also was hurt by the inconsistency of right-hander Jason Hammel, who had reached double figures in wins the previous two years, but didn't take a forward step until the very end of the season.
Everything adds up to a crisis of confidence. The Rockies' two recent playoff trips came in years when not much was expected of them. But their last two sub-.500 seasons, 2008 and this year, came when many were expecting them to compete for a World Series crown. The ability to come up small when they're expected to win big is a concern.
Biggest surprise: It used to be that Helton's production was predictable. However, back pain in recent years turned Helton into a question mark. He solved all those fears this year with a patient hitting approach. He no longer reached for power that was not there, and put up a season that would have fit right in with a playoff team, had more players performed the same.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.