Making a pitch
for the Rockies

Feb 28, 2006 1:33 AM

In major league baseball, talk of quality pitching doesn’t include the Colorado Rockies. But, things are different in Canada.

Second year lefty Jeff Francis is off a 14-12 rookie season and an integral part of Team Canada, one of 16 countries competing in the inaugural World Baseball Classic beginning Friday and lasting until March 20.

Francis is also the ace of a Rockies pitching staff that showed improvement last season despite the team’s 67-95 record, matching the all-time low set in the 1993 expansion year. While finishing 28 games below .500 is poor, it’s not unrealistic to think Colorado has a chance to be competitive in the NL West.

Check the breakdown: a 15-35 start, then 52-60 the rest of the way including 30-28 after Aug. 1. The futures prices are certainly right. The Plaza Sports Book in downtown Las Vegas has Colorado 150-1 to win the World Series and 80-1 to capture the NL pennant.

"I’m a big Rockies booster," said Plaza sports book director Mike Colbert, who placed the "over / under" projected win total at 67½. "I like the improvements Colorado has made and there are no dominant teams in the NL West."

Certainly, 67½ seems an absolute bargain. The Rockies have a year’s more experience and would only need to eclipse last year’s victory total by one to secure a winning bet. In other words, the OVER is a no-brainer.

Here’s why:

Hitting: Todd Helton and Luis Gonzalez are the elder statesman and regular .300 hitters. Behind them are a group of potential 25-homer, 100-RBI batters in 3B Garrett Atkins along with outfielders Matt Holliday and Ryan Shealy. Shortstop Clint Barmes was on his way to being Rookie of the Year until an injury sidelined him for nearly the entire second half. Cory Sullivan gets on base and could steal 30.

Pitching: Always a problem at Coors Canaveral, especially when the staff allowed nearly five walks a game during that 15-35 start. That average was down to 3.38 in September games, comparing favorably to division winner San Diego’s 3.11 per nine innings. Francis was the most improved, — 83 strikeouts to just 38 walks after the All Star break.

Coaching: Ex-Mets reliever Bob Apodaca has quietly brought improvement to a staff that historically pours kerosene on fires. Manager Clint Hurdle, another former Met, has great patience and there is finally reason for optimism.

Forecast: There is a long way to go, but the Rocks are heading in the right direction. Always been tough at Coors, if Colorado comes anywhere close to .500 on the road, there will be plenty of fireworks coming out of the Rocky Mountains in 2006.

Prediction: 77-85 overall, 50-31 at home.