The Rockies Take Up Arms

That confidence wafting up from Tucson, Arizona, that unmistakable whiff of spring hope, might be real this year. A lot of baseball folk believe the Colorado Rockies improved their roster in the off-season more than any other team in the National League, and it's hard to argue with them.

I know, I know. The city's favorite feline, Andres Galarraga, has gone to Atlanta, along with the 88 home runs, two consecutive RBI titles and .311 batting average he amassed over the last two seasons. Solid shortstop Walt Weiss, who has an uncanny ability to get on base, is also now a Brave. As if Atlanta needs any more veteran help to return to the World Series this October.

But the gruesomely wounded Rockies of 1997 are on the mend. Don Baylor's lineup boasts two young players who may be destined for stardom. And in Colorado's famous (or notorious) thin air, new Rockies second baseman Mike Lansing could become the most potent lead-off hitter in all of baseball. Certainly, he'll help keep the long-ball punch in a team that hit a league-record-tying 221 homers in 1996 and topped it last year with 239.

Oh. Did I mention that the Rox now have two authentic starting pitchers? Guys with no need to carry smoke and mirrors in their equipment bags? And that the staff has two or three other arms that could be ready to jump up and bite?

The Los Angeles Dodgers, who have every advantage a team could want except for consistent outfielders, will be very tough to match in the expanded National League West. But with a little luck, a lot of fire and minimal injuries, Colorado should contend.

Here's a closer look at the coming war:
REARMAMENT: Forget the old B.S., which is to say, Bret Saberhagen and Bill Swift. They were a couple of unconscionably expensive old soldiers who had plenty of medals on their chests but not the strength to fight on. Happily, they're gone. Enter Darryl Kile, the Rockies' most exciting off-season acquisition, and Pedro Astacio, who had his problems before leaving the aforementioned Dodgers but won five straight for the Rox in three weeks late last summer before losing his final start. Don't bother telling Pedro any horror stories about pitching at altitude, because he won't be listening: He's already fanned that demon.

As for Kile, late of the Astros, he'll earn every penny of the $24 million he's paid over the next three seasons. Last year the veteran righty was 19-7 and had a 2.57 earned-run average for Houston, and the Coors Field altitude doesn't scare him, either. He's got a devastating fastball, a tricky curve and a 1993 no-hitter on his resume. By mid-July, it says here, the beer-drenched fans will be calling this the Kile High City. By the end of September, Darryl and Pete will have 35 wins between them.

And if last year's number-one and number-three starters, Kevin Ritz and Mark Thompson, continue recovering from their season-ending arm injuries, the rest of the Rockies starting pitching could suddenly look pretty good, too. Consider: In 1997 the team jumped out to a 21-9 start behind a starting rotation of Ritz, Thompson, Swift, Jamey Wright and Roger Bailey. All five eventually went on the disabled list, and the team fell out of the race with a 1-15 swoon in July. With the additions of Kile and Astacio, the new starters are much stronger--now if only the orthopedic surgeons will stay away from the clubhouse.

Now, about that relief corps. Messrs. Jerry DiPoto (5-3, 4.70) and Bruce Ruffin (also coming back from arm surgery) will get their share of work. But Curtis Leskanic, another member of the sawbones contingent following an overworked 1996, has finally regained the zip on his fastball and could very well be the key to close games in the late innings this year. Meanwhile, the Rockies quietly picked up lefty Chuck McElroy, who pitched for the Angels and White Sox last year, and he might turn out to be the steal of the year: He's widely regarded as one of the most underrated relief men in baseball, a tough-as-nails competitor who can work long or short. Keep an eye on him, okay?

WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION: The Big Cat may be in Dixie, but that doesn't mean the Blake Street Bombers are grounded. National League MVP Larry Walker hit 49 homers and drove in 130 runs in his dream season, and his numbers are not likely to dip very much in 1998. The man is a gamer, the best right-fielder in baseball. He's also recovering nicely from arthroscopic elbow surgery (January 13).

Teammate Dante Bichette is currently fighting the Battle of the Bulge (he reported to camp at 260-something), and it looks like he'll win it. He's also won Galarraga's old cleanup spot in the batting order, a full year after reconstructive knee surgery. His 26-homer, 118-RBI numbers last year were accomplished on one wheel and amid incessant trade rumors: This season, I predict, Bichette Happens more than ever. You know he wants to give himself and Rockies fans another year like he had in 1995, when he should have been named MVP.

Meanwhile, reluctant center-fielder Ellis Burks rounds out the best-hitting outfield in the majors, and he, too, is healthy for once: Injured much of 1997, he still managed 32 homers and 82 RBI.

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