Hopeful Hurdle won't rest on laurels
Skipper, players believe in themselves after run to Series
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Whether their 2007 World Series appearance has made the Rockies a favorite in the National League West in 2008 doesn't matter to manager Clint Hurdle.
"As far as the experts go, I always laugh every spring when the experts pick," Hurdle said on Wednesday during his annual meeting session during the Winter Meetings. "I don't laugh at the experts. I just laugh because there are so many dynamics that take place during the course of the season, whether it be injuries, whether it be up seasons or down seasons for personnel.
"I know this: It was very hard for people last year to say we had a good team. It took some people 150, 155 games to say we had a good team. But we felt we had a good team going in, and the most important facet was they kept pushing the entire season with their belief in themselves, not letting anything else sway them."
Although second base and a few key pitching spots are up for grabs, the Rockies are expected to start next season with basically the same team that finished the last one. That club used a 14-1 regular-season finish to go from also-ran to the playoffs as the NL Wild Card, and they swept their first two playoff series before being swept in turn by the Red Sox in the World Series.
The Rockies come back to a West to face the division champion Diamondbacks, who finished a half-game ahead of a Rockies club that had to beat the Padres in a one-game showdown for the playoff spot. The Dodgers have a new manager in the accomplished Joe Torre, and the Giants have the pitching that can accomplish a worst-to-first run. Keep in mind that the Rockies and Diamondbacks tied for last in 2006.
The Rockies remain a club outside baseball's spotlight, evidenced by the fact that NL batting and RBI leader Matt Holliday didn't win the NL Most Valuable Player Award, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki fell short in NL Rookie of the Year voting and numerous Rockies -- especially first baseman Todd Helton -- didn't win Gold Gloves in a year in which the club set an all-time record for fielding percentage.
As usual, Hurdle's press briefing was attended by Denver-area reporters, but those on the outside had other things to do, as the eight-player trade between the Tigers and Marlins was being announced at a press conference in the same room as Hurdle's press briefing.
At least the transcription service that handles the briefing was present. It wasn't last year, when the Rockies were coming off their sixth straight losing season.
But Hurdle noted that the Rockies don't have time to worry about expectations or the other clubs. After all, they have more to accomplish.
"We didn't pull off winning the West," he said. "That was an expectation last year. I'm not worried about anybody's expectations but [the players']. ... Who cares? They picked us last [place] last year. I'm just saying, that's not a focus point."
Hurdle acknowledged that some issues need to be solidified between now and the start of the regular season.
The most-discussed issue of the Winter Meetings is the future of second base after the departure of Kazuo Matsui for Houston and whether the Rockies go with veteran Jamey Carroll, offer an opportunity to one of the younger in-house options (Omar Quintanilla, Jayson Nix, Jeff Baker or Ian Stewart) or fill the position through trade or free agency. But there are other areas of concern.
The Rockies need a full and healthy season from center fielder and leadoff man Willy Taveras, who missed time with groin, finger and quadriceps injuries, and finished with a .320 batting average. But he missed the end of the regular season and the first playoff round with a quadriceps strain and was rusty during the playoffs, in which he went 3-for-26 and was benched in Game 4 of the Series.
Fans' final impression was of Taveras attempting bunts and not coming close to succeeding, but Hurdle said that the lasting impression should be of Taveras when healthy.
"I think what you saw [was] the effects of the rust show up there more than anything else, because it wasn't so much when he was playing every day," Hurdle said. "So I think it was more that [rust] than anything else, because he was getting pitches to bunt. They weren't going where they needed to go. I mean, there was a time during the season [when] he was one of the most efficient bunters I've ever seen play."
That would mean that Ryan Spilborghs, who hit .299 in 99 games, would continue in his role of backing up all outfield positions. Without Matsui to hit leadoff when Taveras is being rested, Hurdle said that the Rockies would have to be "creative."
The Rockies will have the leaders of their rotation, Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook, at the top, and young talents Jason Hirsh and Ubaldo Jimenez behind them. The intriguing question is what to do with left-hander Franklin Morales, who had several outstanding outings when pressed into service because of injury late in the regular season.
The question is whether Morales is ready to begin a regular season in a starting role. The Rockies are seeking veteran help.
"We've even talked about, depending on the starting rotation, would he be a fit in the bullpen to start the season?" Hurdle said. "If things spun in a very positive fashion, would he fit better in the starting rotation?
"We know Franklin and like him. He's an important part, a valuable part, but we actually envision him maybe fitting in a couple of different ways."
Hurdle also said that catcher Yorvit Torrealba, recently re-signed to a two-year contract, will start the majority of games in the beginning. But Chris Iannetta -- who struggled when handed the starting job out of Spring Training in 2007 but looked better after a stint in Triple-A -- could earn a greater share of playing time as the year progresses.
Whatever concerns the Rockies have, they still have a strong heart of the order, with Holliday, Helton, Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe (107 home runs, 455 RBIs combined), and aspirations.
And they have the feeling of success.
"I've never been more proud of the club than the way they handled themselves late September, postseason, the poise they played with," Hurdle said. "For me as much as anything, they had fun while doing it.
"It wasn't guys that were so locked into playing a game that they just had game faces 24/7. There was fun going on in the dugout and on the field."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.