Mile High Pride – Rockies/Cardinals Preview

In his introductory 2008 season series preview, columnist Will Horton takes a look at the St. Louis Cardinals' opening opponent, the National League defending champion Colorado Rockies.

For the second consecutive year, a surprise National League pennant winner opens the new season at Busch Stadium. Only this year, it isn't us; the Colorado Rockies now wear the mantle and the heavy burden of raised expectations after their miracle year.

Much like the Cardinals in 2006, the Rockies scuffled below their talent level for a good part of the season, and then suddenly found another gear and simply forgot how to lose. Unlike our Cinderella season, the Rockies didn't need all 162 regular season games to find that second gear.

The Rockies are also hoping to avoid our post-miracle year fate. Our 2007 began with a resounding thud, as the Mets and a swarm of bad news (from the medical staff and the police blotter) ran roughshod over our delicate hopes of repeating. We watched helplessly as the nightmarish second volume of our Cinderella story unfolded, where the princess discovers she's suddenly too old and out of shape to fit into the glass slipper. Her old dogs and skinny rats lose the magic that had made them into temporary gentlemen, fickle Prince Charming turns his attentions elsewhere, and she discovers that soot-covered rags are even more painful to wear after having a taste of riches. By the time the Cards received their championship rings, less than a week into the new season, they no longer looked worthy of wearing them.

The Rockies have a chance to write a completely different story, a sequel worthy of Disney rather than the Coen Brothers.

For starters, their core is significantly younger. Matt Holliday (28) - pictured, Jeff Francis (27) and Troy Tulowitzki (23) should be playing at a high level for years to come, and they have several impact players in the pipeline. And their grizzled veterans are still productive: while Todd Helton is in his thirties and decidedly past his slugging prime, he hasn't lacked for endurance, averaging 150 games played over the past four seasons.

Moreover, the Rockies are just plain nicer and more Christian than any other team, at least according to their general manager Dan O'Dowd. O'Dowd has repeatedly touted "character" and "Christian values" when discussing the makeup of his newly talented roster, and suggested during the team's miraculous run that prayer might have given his team an edge on the playing field.

Reportedly, O'Dowd saw the light when Denny Neagle, a horrendously overvalued pitcher to whom O'Dowd acquired in free agency and gave one of the worst contracts in baseball, was caught with a hooker, and just days later, arrested for DUI.

The fans in Colorado had put up with losing in one form or another for years with a polite grumble and slowly waning attendance, but these acts of bad citizenry were another thing all together. For context, understand that Denver is the founding home of the Promise Keepers, a high-minded group of born-again men who gather together in the tens of thousands, filling football stadiums with cries of "Jesus" and high-priced merchandise.

Clearly, O'Dowd saw that the Rockies had better get in front of this thing, and took to the pulpit of the press box. And the theme of reinvention through higher morals became a useful storyline while the team began weeding out overpriced older players (like Neagle and Mike Hampton) in favor of the hard work of developing a pipeline of young talent.

Both the offense and the pitching staff have been completely reinvented in the past three seasons. This pipeline produced outfielders Holliday and Brad Hawpe, as well as infielders Tulowitzki, Garrett Atkins, new second baseman Jayson Nix, and a budding star in Ian Stewart waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile the rotation has been anchored by the precocious southpaw Francis (right), who has won 13 or more games in each of the past three years. Joining him this season are three young Latin-American hurlers – Ubaldo Jimenez, Franklin Morales, and new closer Manny Corpas – that just might do the unthinkable and make this team a pitching powerhouse.

All of these players were in the stable prior to the start of the 2007 season, which saw the Rockies rise up from last place in May, overcome an eight-game losing streak in June, and put together a run of 21 wins in 22 games spanning the regular season and playoffs that led them from fourth place in the NL West as of September 15th to game one of the World Series.

As the Cardinals begin their own stealth project of restocking talent (don't call it a "rebuilding year"), we can only hope for this kind of early return.

In bidding for a repeat, though, Dan O'Dowd has diverged from the straight and narrow path. To fill roster gaps, he plunked down cold hard cash for injury reclaimee Scott Podsednik, inglorious former Royals All-Star Mark Redman, and our very own Kip Wells. To be fair, this is a team without many glaring holes (except at catcher, where the team hopes perpetual prospect Chris Iannetta can finally realize some of his long-untapped potential), but it certainly seems as though the GM made better decisions under the guise of "building for the future" than in "winning now."

But maybe I'm missing something. I'm no biblical scholar, so it's possible that there are passages somewhere that presage the signing of Podsednik and Redman. And as for Kip Wells, clearly O'Dowd was strongly impressed last year with how the Cardinals fed him to the lions.



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