1) This is officially now Troy Tulowitzki's team.Much like the rest of the Rockies last season, cult hero Tulo came crashing back to earth after the team's improbable run to the 2007 World Series. Six months after being rewarded with a six-year, $31 million extension last January, he was battling injuries and batting .166, a slump that culminated with him angrily -- and somewhat childishly -- slamming a bat onto the ground after manager Clint Hurdle pulled him from an 18-17 win over Florida.
The resulting laceration on his right hand required 16 stitches and landed Tulowitzki on the DL for the second time that season. This year, Hurdle says, it's Tulo's chance to apply what he took from that experience and become the guy, especially with slugger Matt Holliday having been traded away to Oakland in the offseason.
"The most valuable lesson he learned last year is that leadership isn't negotiable," Hurdle says of his 24-year-old shortstop. "I really think it helped him grow up and understand what leadership is truly about at this level. Not only are your skills under the microscope every single day, your character is also under the microscope."
For his part, Tulowitzki acknowledges that he made mistakes in '08 and says he's happy and eager to accept the burden of leading the team at such a young age. Jokes his manager, "There comes a time when you throw your kid the car keys and say, 'Take me for a ride.' You just cover your eyes while they're driving."
2) Two young studs are poised for a breakout -- if they'd just relax. Ubaldo Jimenez may end up being the ace of this staff, and Carlos Gonzalez could be the Rockies' every-day left fielder. But for all of their talents, they're still basically kids (25 and 23, respectively) who have a tendency to try too hard.
Jimenez is the No. 2 starter behind Aaron Cook, and is blessed with some of the nastiest stuff in the division, including a four-seam fastball that has been clocked at 100 mph. But the team prefers that he not try to make the speed gun explode. "Ninety-three to 95 is plenty," says GM Dan O'Dowd. "He has an above-average slider and breaking ball, and a great change. He needs to control his emotions a lot better. If he works on those intangibles, he's ready to take that next step."
The 23-year-old Gonzalez, one of the players Colorado received in the Holliday trade, has some nifty pop with his bat and has a great arm in the outfield. In a five-man battle for the starting left-field position, Gonzalez's lack of plate discipline may be working against him most. "It's a matter of how much he learned from first 300 to 400 plate appearances," O'Dowd says. "His strikes-to-walks [ratio] is not something he can survive."
3) Todd Helton is in good spirits, and that's a good sign.The five-time All-Star first baseman has yet to see any game time this spring as he recovers from arthroscopic back surgery. (He missed almost half of last season with back problems.) But the fact that he's back to his jovial self says a lot about how he's feeling.
Just ask any of the Rockies beat reporters, most of whom have been targeted by Helton's playful slaps and general teasing. "If he does that, it means he likes you," says one longtime Denver Post scribe. Still, Hurdle isn't taking any chances with Helton, tops among active players in career on-base percentage (.428). He may not play Helton much at all during spring, and will certainly rest him regularly during the season.
"He won't be like Willis Reed in the Garden in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals," quips Hurdle. "We're capable of winning games without him in the lineup -- he knows that. We also know that with a healthy Todd Helton in the middle of our lineup, we're a better team."
Never mind the fact that Gonzalez, Seth Smith, Ian Stewart, OmarQuintanilla, Matt Murton and even Scott Podsednik all are fighting for the left-field role. The departure of Brian Fuentes has left a big hole in the closer slot, and both Huston Street and Manuel Corpas are fighting to fill it. "One of those guys will step forward," predicts Hurdle, who will alternately use the duo in eighth-inning set-up and closing positions.
If that fleet-footed, slick-fielding dude at second looks familiar to Rockies fans, he should: That's Eric Young Jr., the 23-year-old son of the former Colorado icon. Perhaps the eventual heir to Clint Barmes, the switch-hitting EY2 did his pops proud by hitting .290 with 46 stolen bases last season at Double-A Tulsa. He's far from a finished product, however: After stealing second and later turning a nifty double-play in a late February game, he committed two bone-headed errors just two days later. But much like his dad, the team loves his quickness and athleticism. Young could see a late-season call-up from Triple-A Colorado Springs.
Are those two-hour drives up and down Interstate 10 soon to be a thing of the past? The city of Tucson is showing little interest in approving $10 to $20 million in public funds to upgrade dilapidated Hi Corbett Field. That might make both the Rockies and Diamondbacks -- the only two clubs who still train here -- flee north. The teams are exploring building and sharing a new facility by 2011 in Goodyear; that would bring all the teams in the Cactus League (15 by then, with Cincinnati joining next year) into the Phoenix area, at most an hour's drive from each other. ... Let's just say Helton isn't exactly a fan of nearly two months of spring training: "You need about a week as a hitter to get ready, maybe two if something goes wrong with your swing." ... Tulowitzki liked to keep fans on their toes last season with his choice of walk-up music at Coors Field, mixing it up with everything from Britney Spears to Lupe Fiasco. This year? It's Roll with Me, by country duo Montgomery Gentry. "It has some good words," he explains. "'Ain't worried 'bout nothing 'cept for the man I wanna be.'"