DENVER -- On the heels of the Rockies' second straight National League West basement finish, Rockies senior vice president of Major League operations Bill Geivett has big hopes and high expectations for 2014.
"I expected it to be a better team this year, and I still think that it is," Geivett said. "We realize where we still have some issues. But at the same, time we've seen a lot of progress. But it's not going to surprise me when we play well next year."
Geivett prefers to look at the progress the Rockies have made in the last calendar year. Much of it is not reflected in their record, which was hurt by a run of time-loss injuries to the No. 1 (center fielder Dexter Fowler ), No. 3 (left fielder Carlos Gonzalez ) and No. 4 (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki ) hitters, as well as their closer (Rafael Betancourt ).
"I look at it from a bigger picture," Geivett said. "In a year's time, we've got a lot more solid footing, no matter what our record would've been the year before. We went from a team that at times was not playing competitive games to ... playing very competitive games. We just have to turn that into winning games.
"We spent 33 days in first place, and we were in first and second place for a considerable amount. Then we got to the midseason point and maybe weren't good enough or deep enough or healthy enough to sustain it. But we were there. We still have a long way to go. What we'll do from here, hopefully in another year looking back, we'll not only see a lot of progress, but the foundation of a good club for years to come."
Geivett noted some key areas where Colorado has moved forward:
• The Rockies went into last offseason not being able to count on anyone for the rotation, but will return next year with solid starters in left-hander Jorge De La Rosa and right-handers Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood in place.
• The Rockies face less uncertainty with Walt Weiss' first managerial year behind him and the organization comfortable with the way the team was helmed.
• As a result of the injuries this year, there is more depth in the form of outfielders Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon. Left-hander Rex Brothers developed into a closer, and other young relievers had opportunities to pitch important innings.
• The Rockies are expected to either increase their payroll or pursue trades to add a proven starting pitcher and hitter, and will look to bolster the bullpen.
Geivett's list goes deeper.
"With Tulo, we were a little concerned about him in the wintertime," he said, referring to the groin injury that limited Tulowitzki to 47 games last season. "He did miss [25 games in June and July] with the [broken] rib, but with his leg and all that, he probably ran better now, later in the year, than he has all season.
"There are a lot of other things -- the emergence and the progress that [catcher Wilin Rosario] made, to see Nolan Arenado step in and have people talk about the possibility of a Gold Glove at third base, and Michael Cuddyer winning a batting title."
During that period when the Rockies were at or near the top of the division, the Dodgers were struggling. However, as the season progressed, L.A.'s injured players became healthy and many of the decisions it made with its massive payroll came to friution. Suddenly, the West went from a division in which there was little distance between first and last to one in which the Dodgers left everyone in the dust.
With the Rockies expecting increased revenue once a new regional television deal is signed, they still won't come anywhere close to the Dodgers in ability to bid, but there should be enough money that they won't have to be completely dependent on their farm system. Some free-agent pitching additions could be particularly important. Acquired experience would give recent high Draft picks Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray development time, although both could be in Major League camp next year and could arrive quickly.
"No, I think heading into this winter, we're assuming our payroll is going up, and we'll see," Geivett said. "Whatever type of player acquisition, trade or free agent, we'll look there first. We know what we have internally."
Arbitration-eligible players: Left-handed reliever Josh Outman, right-handed relievers Wilton Lopez, Manny Corpas and Mitchell Boggs, and infielder Jonathan Herrera. (It is unclear if anyone will receive Super Two eligibility.)
Potential free agents: De La Rosa (although the club is expected to exercise its 2014 option at $11 million), Betancourt (mutual option), right-handed reliever Matt Belisle (mutual option), right-handed pitcher Roy Oswalt, left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis and catcher Yorvit Torrealba.
Rotation: In 2012, De La Rosa had several setbacks in his return from Tommy John surgery and made just three starts, Chacin missed a large chunk of the year with a nerve issue in his chest, and Chatwood was a young power pitcher who couldn't find the strike zone. Now the Rockies are dreaming of a big future from all three.
De La Rosa matched his career high in wins with 16 and went 10-1 with a 2.76 ERA at Coors Field. Chacin lived up to his billing in his first year as a No. 1 starter, and he had one of the NL's best road ERAs (2.44). Chatwood came up from Triple-A Colorado Springs and displayed the power arm the Rockies craved.
Questions face the rest of the rotation, especially righty Juan Nicasio. In the beginning, he struggled so mightily after the fifth inning that the Rockies sent him to Triple-A Colorado Springs. He returned much more capable of holding leads, but fizzled at the end. It turned out that Nicasio was pitching with tired legs and pain in his left knee -- the same knee in which he underwent season-ending surgery in 2012. While fans and analysts theorize that Nicasio profiles better out of the bullpen, the Rockies believe that with a full offseason of conditioning, rather than rehab, Nicasio will make dramatic strides next season.
Oswalt struggled and dealt with a left hamstring injury after joining the Rockies in May. The club hopes he can return next year on a low-risk contract. But there is nothing preventing the Rockies from pursuing a veteran who is at the top of his game. It'll be one of the closest-watched stories of the offseason.
Other rotation candidates will be given a chance to compete for jobs after not exactly dazzling in 2013. Lefty Drew Pomeranz struggled after a callup from Triple-A, and missed much of the second half with biceps tendinitis. Lefty Christian Friedrich, a recent No. 1 Draft pick, missed the year with a continuation of the back problems that shortened his 2012. Righties Collin McHugh and Jeff Manship looked more like depth pitchers than starters a team could depend on.
Regular lineup: At one point, Tulowitzki was leading the NL in batting with Cuddyer not far behind; Gonzalez was the leader in home runs; Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Cuddyer were at or near the top in a handful of run-producing and slugging categories; and Rosario was being mentioned with the Cardinals' Yadier Molina and the Giants' Buster Posey among the league's top offensive catchers. In addition, Fowler was reaching base at a .399 clip. During that period, the Rockies were either in first place or close to it.
Of that group, only Cuddyer and Rosario were healthy enough to maintain their statuses throughout the season. So the Rockies are left believing that they can compete with any club, should all those key players stay healthy.
Yet there are questions.
The lineup screams for a right-handed hitter who can match Cuddyer's production, which means the Rockies need to make a trade or go to the free-agent route.
Fowler, who will make $7.35 million in the final year of his contract, might be the best trading chip on the Major League roster. But much like last year, when Fowler's name was in the headlines during Winter Meetings before other clubs determined that the Rockies were asking too much, it looks like the team would rather hold onto him.
Dickerson and Blackmon both played in center, and each put up strong batting averages and slugging performances. But unless they make major leaps in their ability to get on base, neither is anywhere close to Fowler in that category. If the Rockies deal Fowler, they'll have to acquire a high-production, high on-base leadoff hitter in the deal, or find one elsewhere.
DJ LeMahieu solidified the No. 2 slot and second base -- two areas in which the Rockies have rarely been settled. Gonzalez at No. 3 and Tulowitkzi at cleanup form one of baseball's top tandems in those spots -- when healthy, of course. Cuddyer (likely to move to first base with Helton's retirement) and a proven free agent hitting behind them (most likely in right field) could extend the lineup. On days when a lefty bat is needed, Dickerson and Blackmon each showed this year that they are capable.
There is potential for power at the bottom of the lineup. Even though Rosario has been put through a crash course in defensive play behind the plate the last two seasons, he has still found the energy to put up strong power numbers. Arenado's glove drew most of the raves this year, but before he arrived, he was known for power in the Minors.
Next season also could see the emergence of 2010 No. 1 Draft pick Kyle Parker, who hit 23 home runs at Double-A Tulsa in '13 and has hit 67 in three Minor League seasons.
Bullpen: Brothers has established himself as closer in the absence of Betancourt, who pitched well for the Rockies after arriving in a 2009 trade with the Indians, but won't pitch in 2014 and isn't certain his career will continue. Otherwise, few jobs are established, but the Rockies feel good about their candidates.
As the season progressed, right-handers Adam Ottavino and Corpas (the onetime closer) received greater trust in later innings. The team also liked the velocity of right-hander Chad Bettis, who started eight games before moving to the bullpen at season's end. Outman had his moments against lefties and began to show signs of sharpening his command. Righty prospect Rob Scahill stayed in the strike zone and showed the ability to escape trouble.
Belisle and Lopez badly need bounceback seasons. Belisle never complained about pain or overuse, but it's hard not to wonder if having the most pitching appearances in the Majors over the last four seasons didn't catch up to him in the second half. Lopez arrived in a deal with the Astros, but never lived up to his groundball-inducing reputation. His usage over the last four years has been nearly as high as Belisle's.
Expect the Rockies to concentrate some spending on relievers.
Bench: Each spring, stories fly that there may not be room at the table for Herrera, but he never comes close to losing his job. After a stunning offensive season -- unexpected from a defensive utility man -- it's about time to see him as a Major League cog, rather than a borderline send-down. The main problem with Herrera is his impact is muted when a team is out of the race and has to evaluate players breaking into the Majors.
The Rockies also appear to have a young backup catcher in Jordan Pacheco, who played third base in 2012 and first base for the first half of '13. Pacheco returned to his Minor League position and showed he is a good receiver. Pacheco also can fill in at third, first or in the outfield.
One of the club's biggest shortcomings was the lack of run production from the bench. The club has moved away from the veteran types with dramatic swings (Greg Norton, Mark Sweeney and Jason Giambi in recent years). If they bring in a proven bat, it's possible that Dickerson, Blackmon and corner infielder Ryan Wheeler from the left side, and infielder-outfielder Charlie Culberson from the right, could provide enough impact.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.