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.

And what can you say about third baseman Vinny Castilla, except that the Atlanta Braves still can't figure out why they gave him up? Now the spiritual leader of the club's Latin players, he's the model of consistency: In each of the last two years, he whacked 40 dingers and knocked in 113 runs. That big increase in salary don't mean a thing, 'cause Vinny's got that swing, and more of the same at the plate will be just fine, thank you.

That brings us to second baseman Lansing, a brilliant choice by general manager Bob Gebhard following the trade of Eric Young to the Dodgers (for Astacio). Last year in Montreal, hardly a hitter's paradise, Lansing batted .281, hit 20 home runs and had 70 RBI. Look for dramatic increases in all those numbers but RBI as the Wyoming native becomes the Rox's new lead-off man. He was born to play in this ballpark, and he's a gamer, too. Watch him put a charge into his teammates on and off the field as he vies for Bomber status.

TO HELTON AND BACK: Replacing Galarraga at first base won't be easy. He is one of baseball's best power hitters and a two-time Gold Glove winner. But in 24-year-old Todd Helton, twelve years younger than the Big Cat, the Rockies have an authentic Rookie of the Year candidate. When he was called up from Colorado Springs last year, the 6-2, left-handed hitter was batting .352, with 16 homers and 88 RBI. In 93 at-bats with the parent club, he hit .280 with five home runs--pretty good for a guy some said wasn't ready for prime time. Helton plays his position well (as long as you don't stick him in the outfield, where he resembles George Shearing), he has one of the most beautiful swings in baseball, and he knows the strike zone. The Cat he ain't--yet--but in a year or two, he could be one of the most coveted players in the game.

Over at shortstop, enter Neifi Perez, a switch-hitting prodigy with a strong arm and far more speed than the departed Weiss. He still needs some seasoning, but after coming up in late June, he showed surprising prowess with the bat, hitting .291 with five homers and ten triples. In this era of great major-league shortstops, Perez gets lost in the shuffle a bit, but if you've ever watched him take infield, he looks like the second coming of Omar Vizquel. Last year the Rox became the first club to hit 200 homers and turn 200 double plays, and they'll probably do it again in 1998 because of Neifi's range. If he could just learn to steal bases, he'd be the complete package. Prediction: By late June, fans here will be asking, Walt Who?

CATCH-8: Unless the entire pitching staff winds up in sick bay again, Colorado's most glaring weakness will probably be squatting behind the plate--because Joe Girardi is in New York. Veteran catcher Jeff Reed hit .297 with a respectable 17 home runs in 1997, but he isn't the starter most days. That would be Kirt Manwaring, formerly of the San Francisco Giants, whose years of broken bones and assorted injuries have worn him down. He made just three errors and had only three passed balls last year, and he throws out his share of runners. But he's a .243 lifetime hitter to whom not even Coors Field has given a new lease on life: In 1997 he batted .226, with just one home run and 27 RBI.

BATTLE PLAN: As if you didn't know. While Walk, Dante, Vinny and Ellie bomb stuff out of every ballpark (the Rox hit a club-record 115 homers on the road last year), a reinvigorated pitching staff led by Kile, Astacio and relievers Leskanic and McElroy keeps Colorado in all those harrowing 9-8 games and close to the pace set by a balanced, pitching-rich Los Angeles team. When the Rox and Dodgers last meet, in a three-game set September 14-16 in L.A., they're, say, dead even in the standings, and the series proves to be the best of the year in either league. The Rockies win two of three.

A few weeks later, Kile and Kompany get to play mighty Atlanta for the National League pennant and a trip to the World Series. Anyway, isn't it pretty to think so?

Anyone watch Stevie "L'il Man" Johnston pound on big George Scott for most of twelve rounds Saturday afternoon? No? Well, after winning a lopsided unanimous decision, Denver's own world champ is now 24-0 as a pro.

Johnston's third title defense of the past year was a surgical strike, a thing of beauty. It appears that the WBC lightweight championship belt will remain snug around Johnston's trim midriff for some time to come. At 5-4 and 135 pounds, the diminutive southpaw is one of the strangest boxers to watch, especially when he's going against a stringbean like Scott (32-2), who is 5-9. But this guy's a real artist and, at 25, continues to develop into one of the great fighters of his time.

Good for him. Now, if the powers that be would just concoct a title defense here in Denver. Since winning the crown from favored Jean Baptiste-Mendy March 1, 1997, in Paris, Johnston has defended it in Yokohama, Japan (Hiroyuki Sakamoto), Las Vegas (Saul Duran) and Atlantic City (Scott). But he hasn't fought in the Mile High City since February 18, 1996.

What champ doesn't deserve a little home cooking now and then?


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