5:02 PM EST, January 28, 2012
No. 19 Colorado Rockies: 12th in a series counting down to spring training: Next: Royals
Like Cowboys and Indians in the front yard, baseball is a kid's game. But sometimes, once every million or so encounters, that's not a cap gun the batter has in his hand. It's a loaded weapon, and it can be deadly.
Only every now and then, generally after a near-tragedy, does anyone think about the real-life risks of the sport. But there are people around the Rockies who will think twice when their own children step into a batter's box or onto a pitching rubber.
When the Rockies went to the World Series in 2007, their players quietly voted a full share to someone who had never spent a day in the big leagues with them. That was Mike Coolbaugh, who would have been touched.
Only 35 and in his first year as a minor-league coach, Coolbaugh was killed when a line drive struck him in the side of his neck while he coached first base in a Texas League game. It was a freak occurrence, just like one that happened at Coors Field last August.
A line drive off the bat of the Nationals' Ian Desmond smashed into the neck of Juan Nicasio, a then-24-year-old right-hander who was making his 13th big league start. His neck was broken and, after surgery the next day, doctors said he might have died on the pitcher's mound if not for the work of the team's trainers as he lay motionless.
Unlike with Coolbaugh, the Nicasio story could have a happy ending. Fear of paralysis was short-lived, as the surgery was successful, and he steadily has returned to normal. He spent the winter in the Dominican Republic and by December was throwing hard. He began facing hitters in January workouts, at first with a screen in front of him, but he doesn't expect to need any extra protection when spring training begins next month.
Nicasio hopes to reclaim a spot in the starting rotation.
"I'm going to spring training ready to go and work hard," Nicasio told MLB.com. "I say I don't care, No. 5 (starter), No. 1, whatever. I'm working for the rotation."
Dan O'Dowd, entering his 13th season as the Rockies general manager, spent the winter working to improve a starting rotation that collapsed behind ace Ubaldo Jimenez a year ago, ranking 15th in the National League with a 4.43 ERA.
Jorge De La Rosa is ahead of schedule in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He hopes to miss only a month or two of the 2012 season, but will find a vastly different rotation when he returns. Beginning with the deal that sent Jimenez to the Indians for minor league starters Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, O'Dowd has tried to build strength through numbers.
The Rockies added three more potential starters in trades this winter. Tyler Chatwood, who at 21 made 25 starts for the Angels last year, was acquired for catcher Chris Iannetta; right-hander Guillermo Moscoso and lefty Josh Outman came from the A's for outfielder Seth Smith. And in a truly optimistic stretch of the imagination, O'Dowd agreed to a minor-league contract with 49-year-old Jamie Moyer, who is attempting a comeback after missing last season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
No one had to tell O'Dowd how quickly you could lose quality pitchers. But the deterioration of Jimenez (4.46 ERA in 21 starts for the Rockies last season) and the horror of seeing Nicasio on the mound would appear to have spurred him into action.
• The Rockies' success is tied to the hitting of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez, who are owed $231.25 million over a combined 15 seasons.
• Tulowitzki and Gonzalez are expected to be worth the money in 2012. Bill James projects them among 15 players with an OPS of .900-plus this season, and only three teams are lucky enough to have two of them — the Rockies, the Tigers (Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder) and the Rangers (Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli).
• The Rockies have another devastating hitter on the way in third baseman Nolan Arenado, who should arrive at some point this season.
• Rockies manager Jim Tracy is in the last season of his contract.
• Despite the much heralded humidor, Coors Field remains the most consistently tough park in the majors for pitchers. Three other parks are better for home run hitters (U.S. Cellular Field, Yankee Stadium, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington) but none are better for base hits and only Fenway Park is better for doubles.