Jussel: Plenty of ifs surround Rockies’ chances in NL West

Pitchers and catchers report!

Snow melts, and winter magically transforms to spring, meaning green grass, sunshine and baseball.

The Colorado Rockies will be back on the scene, training for the next month-and-a-half at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz., and, yes, they are in the process of improving.

Still, the realist in us all should look at what will surely be a Colorado payroll of less than $100 million going up against the Richie Rich Dodgers. The defending National League West champs will spend three times what Colorado spends — and could spend much more if deemed necessary by an ownership group of the richest folks in captivity, including poster boy Magic Johnson.

The Rockies have an eight-foot ceiling on their payroll. The Dodgers’ roof rests on trusses in another galaxy.

This massive incongruity is the one thing keeping baseball fans in the Rocky Mountain region from possessing the optimistic outlook displayed year after year by Denver Bronco fans.

The Broncos spend as much money as the vast majority of NFL teams and compete annually for postseason honors. Their fans know that and appreciate that.

Our Rockies are in the bottom third in terms of spending and sinking further and further behind the Dodgers, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and other large-market “haves” because Major League Baseball’s owners, including the Rockies’ Monfort brothers, are doing just fine, thank you.

A hard salary cap that would help level the playing field will not be put in place until long after you and I are feeding worms.

But with spring approaching, virtually everyone, Rockies fans included, is optimistic because his or her team is unbeaten.

The Rockies can win the NL West. They could advance in the playoffs and earn a World Series berth and win it all for the first time.

And if you believe that, I’ve got a little land on the Bookcliffs just teeming with coal that I’ll make you a little deal on. And I’ll even get the permitting process started for you.

Right now, with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu anchoring a starting staff that goes seven or eight deep with experienced Major League starters, the Dodgers are far and away the team to beat in the West.

But, the Rockies can compete for postseason honors — remember, there are two wild-card berths to be had — if:

■ Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki plays 145 games, hits .300, mashes 40 home runs and drives in 130 runs from the cleanup spot.

■ Center fielder Carlos Gonzales avoids running into fences and puts up Tulo-like numbers hitting No. 3.

■ Right fielder Michael Cuddyer comes close to duplicating last season’s effort that saw him win the National League batting title with a .331 average.

■ New first baseman Justin Morneau can turn back the clock just a bit and give the team some pop that has been seriously missing for as many as five years.

■ Young catcher Wilin Rosario can keep improving defensively and start roughly 120 games behind the plate. He hits more than 30 home runs if he can play 20 games at first base.

■ And young third baseman Nolan Arenado adds a bit more offense to what is the best fielding package at the hot corner in the bigs.

The Rockies can compete for postseason honors if:

■ New lefty starter Brett Anderson can throw 160 innings.

■ Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood, can come close to duplicating what they did last season on the hill.

■ Someone steps up, grabs and holds onto the fifth spot in the rotation, be it Juan Nicasio, Franklin Morales, Jordan Lyles or maybe a surprise debut from Jonathan Gray.

■ LaTroy Hawkins can keep Rex Brothers in the setup slot in the bullpen, meaning not closing. Not that Brothers is bad as a closer, it’s just that with him in the eighth inning and a nasty Hawkins in the ninth, things will work out so much better in August, September and perhaps October.

Yes, if ... if ... if ...

This is why we all pay attention in the spring.

Because there is that chance, remote as it may be.

The Colorado Rockies have a good core group.

They can compete, probably not with the loaded-up Dodgers for the NL West title but for one of those wild-card berths.

If all or most of the above come to pass, our guarded optimism may indeed pay off.

Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one. His Broncos-related columns are also published on SI.com’s “Predominantly Orange” and “Fan-sided” websites through the football season and beyond.


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