Sports: Rick Jussel Column February 13, 2009

Morales gives Rox a chance in weak West

Bits ’n’ pieces …

It’s hard to believe after weathering months of being cooped up indoors, only to escape on occasion to shovel snow, but it’s time for pitchers and catchers to report — the first real sign of spring, robins be damned.

For the Colorado Rockies, that means an early start for a couple of aces and a gaggle of hopefuls on the mound.

The good news for the Rockies again this year is the simple fact that they play in the National League West, definitely not to be confused with the American League East.

Without slugger Matt Holliday, now with Oakland, and maybe without left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis, as recently as one year ago the unquestioned top dog on the staff, the Rockies are still good enough to compete in the West.

Before waxing poetic on those who will hit the ball and those who will field it for the Rox — that will come later when we actually have a Todd Helton sighting — here is my early season pick as the key to Colorado’s fortunes: 22-year-old pitcher Franklin Morales.

Two years ago, Morales was one of the bright spots of the Rockies’ unprecedented pennant run, throwing his 95- to 97-mph fastball and a nasty slider at the best hitters in the bigs and getting them out late in the season. Last year, he was counted on in the starting rotation, but couldn’t figure out a way to throw a strike, eventually struggling mightily at Class AAA Colorado Springs.

There are reports, however, that he has returned to form this winter in Venezuela and found his fastball and slider — and the strike zone — again.

If healthy and able, Morales could join a talented top end of the rotation with Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez. Add free agent signee Jason Marquis and any one of five or six other possibilities for the rotation, and the Rox would have a chance to win more than their fair share of games in April and early May, even if Francis can’t pitch.

That being the case, they might have the weakest division in baseball wrapped up by the All-Star break.

SPEAKING OF THE ALL-STAR BREAK, the Denver Nuggets are in great shape to win the NBA Northwest, leading the young Portland Trail Blazers by three games and the old Utah Jazz by six with 29 games to play in the regular season.

Yes, it’s been a great ride since the arrival of Chauncey Billups, especially on the road (they are 16-11) and against teams that are under .500 (they have lost only two games all season to the dregs of the league).

Billups has a way of keeping youngsters like Carmelo Anthony and even J.R. Smith involved by controlling the pace of play and speaking his mind to both on and off the court.

Here’s the real good news:

The Nuggets finish an eight-game road swing with three games immediately after the break (at Philly, Chicago and Milwaukee), but they have a favorable late-season schedule.

They close out February and go into March with a tough stretch that includes home games against Boston, Atlanta and the Lakers. They also play at home against Portland on March 5, then go to Utah the next night.

Things will likely be tight in the Northwest at that time.

But in March, the Nuggets should be favored in 11 of their 16 games, with nine of those games against teams that are below .500.

They also have four of their seven April games against sub-.500 teams.

Hello playoffs, hello homecourt advantage in round one.

FINALLY, A WORD OR TWO ON THE BRONCOS: While Josh McDaniels and his staff are looking at whom they can count on to play and whom they need to replace, don’t look for a blockbuster signing of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.

He is simply demanding too much money for the Broncos, a team that needs numerous upgrades, to drop on one spot.

A couple of other big names that Denver could certainly use, defensive end Julius Peppers and linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs, will likely be in the same category.

What the Broncos need most, defensive linemen and safeties, are, however, abundant.

Top-rated defensive linemen Denver might be able to afford would include defensive ends Igor Olshansky of the Chargers, Antonio Smith and Bertrand Berry (former Bronco), both of the Cardinals. Interior linemen Kendrick Allen of the Vikings, Jovan Hayes of the Bucs and Grady Jackson of the Falcons also are big, available and relatively affordable.

As for safeties, Brian Dawkins, the Eagles headhunter, is out there. So are Will Allen of the Bucs, Yeremiah Bell of the Dolphins and the highest-rated safety on the board, according to ESPN’s ratings, Oshiomogho Atogwe of the Rams.


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