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Colorado Rockies kick off 2010 in a new way; with mile high expectations

NLCS Diamondbacks Rockies BaseballAh, April. When the snow melts away (hopefully), and the beautiful blue skies signal the coming of another phenomenon—the beginning of a new MLB season.

But for the Colorado Rockies, there’s something different in the rarified air of Coors Field.

For 17 seasons, the Rockies have been like a plus-30 year old mama’s boy—a perennial basement dweller.

In 1995, 2007 and last year when Colorado made the postseason as the NL Wildcard, not even the craziest Rockies’ rowdy fan expected them to get that far.

2010 is different though, in a good way.

Never before have expectations been so high regarding the Rockies, nationally or locally.

ESPN’s Buster Olney has notably dangled his baseball credibility on a limb, picking the Rockies to not only win the NL West, but he went as far as to pick Colorado as 2010’s World Series Champions.

And while the Rockies are the chic pick this year, their strong play and great depth has them there rightfully.

2009 was full of magical moments, well that is after May. The Rockies cleared a major (Clint) Hurdle when firing their manager, who was more of a major road block than anyone outside of the locker room could know.

Jim Tracy was promoted from within and took over a Colorado club that was in dire need of change.

Tracy, the rare MLB manager that wears his emotions on his black and purple sleeves, connected with the young players in a way that Hurdle never could—he treated them like human beings.

After Hurdle was handed his much needed pink slip, players came out and explained how the club’s culture changed from constant tension to a loose and relaxed atmosphere. No longer were Rockies’ players scrutinized and asked to be perfectionists—Tracy told them to simply go out and play baseball.

Colorado reacted quickly and emphatically to Tracy’s coaching, running off 11 straight wins and finishing 74-42 under their new coach. The Rockies finished the season with a franchise-high 92 wins, which was good for second in the division and their third postseason berth.

What led them to all those wins was a combination of great defense, solid pitching, and big bats up and down the lineup.

Of all the Rockies starters, only rookie third baseman Ian Stewart had a fielding percentage under 97 percent (.968) and stars Todd Helton (.998) and Troy Tulowitzki (.986) were almost automatic. Also, Helton scooped 88 percent of errant throws last year, the highest percentage in baseball.

Colorado’s pitching staff was one of the best they’ve ever had, and that was without “Ace” Jeff Francis who was lost to shoulder surgery in spring training.

Fireballer Ubaldo Jimenez stepped into the role of the true ace well, as his overpowering stuff was enough to make opponents’ knees shake or buckle completely. Jimenez, who went 15-12, had the lowest ERA of Rockies starters by far at 3.47 and he nearly reached 200 strikeouts (198).

Likewise, the hard throwing Jorge De La Rosa had a breakout season (16-9) and Aaron Cook performed well (11-6) after missing almost half the year.

Plus, the Colorado bullpen was stronger than it had ever been, as Huston Street saved 35 games.

And while 2009 was not the resurgence of the “Blake Street Bombers,” the Rockies brought more consistent bats throughout the lineup.

To wit, only Tulowitzki led in more than one major category, meaning Colorado brought batting consistency throughout the order. Helton led the team in batting average (.325), Tulo hit the most RBIs (92) and HRs (32), while Brad Hawpe hit the most doubles (42) and Dexter Fowler ran out the most triples (10).

But what’s most exciting about 2010’s version of the Rockies is that they should all be even better than they were last season.

Of the Colorado starters, only Helton has been in the majors for more than eight seasons (14th), this team is young. Third year outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is only 23, while Dexter Fowler and Tulowitzki are a mere 24 years old. On average, the Rockies’ 2010 starters are only 27.4 years old, but all have now had some experience in the postseason.

Youth and experience for Colorado’s baseball team, a rarity in any profession.

While Stewart, Gonzalez and Fowler all became starters in 2009, each improved over the season and they all have lots of room to continue to develop this year.

Jimenez will maintain throwing great stuff, hopefully earning more wins along the way, as De La Rosa grows into a great young pitcher.

Helton has proved he’s still the veteran leader of the group and Tulowitzki should challenge for MVP honors in 2010.

In all, this Rockies team is set up for winning now, and winning lots. When everything is said and done, Colorado could win 100+ games and the division, if they stay healthy and continue to play the game like they did in ’09—with heart while having fun.

As far as winning the World Series, anything is possible.

Todd Helton on 2010 expectations, “I’m looking forward to winning. I think we have a realistic chance of doing that this year. It’s going to be fun to see how we respond to the pressure. It’s going to be something that we haven’t dealt with, but I think we’re prepared for it this time around.”

If anyone in a Rockies uniform deserves to win, it’s Helton, who has played his entire storied career in Denver, one full of sad teams that get sapped by the summer sun.

In 2007, “Generation R” was born. Now they have grown up and may as well be called “Generation W” because this team is full of winners.

And really, how fitting would it be for a group of youngsters to rally around their elder statesman to bring the greatest Rockie of all time his first Championship?

Either way, 2010 promises to be a season full of fun times, fierce fights, and above everything else—great baseball in Denver.

Play ball!

Rich Kurtzman is a Colorado State University Alumnus and a freelance journalist. Along with being a contributor here with Colorado Sports Desk, Kurtzman is the Denver Nuggets Featured Columnist with bleacherreport.com, the Denver Broncos FC for NFLTouchdown.com and the CSU Rams Examiner for examiner.com.

You can follow Rich on twitter or become a fan on facebook to stay current with all Colorado sports news.

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