Injuries to key players had major impact in '13
Tulo, CarGo, Fowler all spent time on DL, giving rookies chances to impress
DENVER -- The Rockies had their problems this season with short outings from the starting rotation -- even though the starters were generally better than expected -- situational hitting outages, especially on the road, and iffy bullpen performances. But the story of 2013 can't be told without addressing injuries to key players.
Leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler, All-Star left fielder Carlos Gonzalez and All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki missed significant time. In the cases of Fowler and Gonzalez, they attempted to play through injuries and saw their production severely compromised at times.
The Rockies were mostly healthy early and it showed. They were tied for first place in the NL West on May 22, and showed up for a June 13 game with the Nationals just two games out of first place. On that day, Tulowitzki suffered a broken rib that cost him 25 games. Fowler was hit on the right index finger by a pitch, tried to play through it and finally went to the disabled list two weeks later with a wrist injury.
Oh, yeah. That same game against the Nationals, Gonzalez was in the on-deck circle when he was hit hard on the left ankle by a foul ball. That incident didn't cost him time, but a sprained right middle finger he suffered on July 7 forced him to limp through the next month, then finally go to the disabled list. By the end of the season, he was essentially just a Gold Glove-level defensive replacement.
Any time there's a run of injuries, it's a fine line where the injuries end and the excuses begin. But there's no denying the numbers when key offensive players were on the shelf. In games missed by any combination of Fowler, Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, the Rockies didn't perform anywhere near .500.
"It's possible [to succeed], but not likely when you have the injuries to the middle-of-your-lineup guys," first-year Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "Every team is going to have to overcome it to some extent, but the bulk of the time those guys missed is tough to overcome. But we always talk about competing with what we have and those things. I think our guys have done that, but it's difficult to overcome missing chunks of time with your horses."
Not only that, but veteran closer Rafael Betancourt went to the disabled list on three occasions -- with a strained right groin, following an emergency appendectomy, and finally, with a right elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Overall, the bullpen performance suffered.
It's possible that the injuries to key position players made the Rockies deeper for future years. But to Tulowitzki, that sounds too much like an excuse. Besides, he said, there were many areas in which the Rockies fell short when they were healthy.
"We had our opportunities," Tulowitkzi said. "You look at how well we play at home, but on the road again, we struggled. We've got to figure that out. In years we've been better, we've held our own on the road. We've got to figure that out. We played the division not too bad this year. We didn't do well against the American League, which is weird. A couple years back, we were one of the best Interleague teams there was.
"I can't sit here and say injuries are the reason we're sitting where we're at. At times, we just didn't play good baseball."
Record: 74-88, last in the National League West
What went right: With pitchers Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio having made a combined 28 starts in 2012, the starting rotation was a question. But Chacin earned the Opening Day start and pitched with consistency, and De La Rosa led the team in wins with 16. Righty Tyler Chatwood also turned out to be a revelation. Suddenly, starting pitching was a strength.
• A second full season of the mental and physical grind of catching didn't reduce the power of Wilin Rosario, who ranked among baseball's best offensive catchers.
• The Rockies had to speed up Rex Brothers' development into a closer, but he responded well and should be able to handle the job.
• Left-handed-hitting outfielders Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon turned in eye-opening performances as they saw increased game action because of injuries.
• Veteran first baseman Todd Helton, who only played 69 games last year because of a torn labrum in his right hip, had his healthiest season in recent years, and -- after announcing his retirement -- finished with a flourish.
What went wrong: The Rockies need a strong bullpen to contend, but Betancourt's injury-filled year sent the relief staff into a spiral. Four years of being the most-used reliever in baseball seemed to catch up with Matt Belisle, and acquisition Wilton Lopez -- who saw 204 1/3 innings from 2010-12 with Houston -- was uncharacteristically high in the strike zone and paid dearly for his mistakes.
• The Rockies never found their calming veteran influence in the rotation. Jon Garland was released in June. Jeff Francis lost his rotation spot in July and finished the year in the bullpen. Roy Oswalt was signed in May, but rust and a hamstring injury erased any impact he might have had.
• The injuries didn't entirely explain the inconsistent offense, which hurt the team on the road. The Rockies embarked on five three-city road trips from June through September and went a combined 13-35.
Biggest surprise: The Rockies went with second-year player Josh Rutledge at second base and kept veteran utility man Reid Brignac to start the year, so DJ LeMahieu was sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs to play shortstop just in case something happened to Tulowitzki. Well, before Tulowitzki even made it to the disabled list, LeMahieu had played his way into the starting second base job. The Rockies have rarely had stability at second in their history, but LeMahieu just might be the answer there and at the No. 2 spot in the batting order.
Pitcher of the year: De La Rosa missed much of 2011 and '12 because of Tommy John surgery, but returned this year to go 16-6 with a 3.49 ERA.
Hitter of the year: The Rockies signed veteran outfielder/first baseman Michael Cuddyer before the 2012 season to provide production and leadership. After battling injuries his first year in uniform, Cuddyer put up a career year offensively in 2013 and provided a quiet example for the many young players who took a turn with the club. He entered the season as a .271 hitter, but his penchant for extra-base hits suggested he could do more. This year, he fashioned a 27-game hit streak and won the National League batting title by 10 points with a .331 clip.
Rookie of the year: Third baseman Nolan Arenado was promoted at the end of April. Although his reputation in the Minors was forged with his power bat, Arenado made his mark with defense. In future years, he could wind up in the middle of the lineup.
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.