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Rockies expected to tackle free-agent market

With trades unlikely and money available, Colorado seeks ways to improve

DENVER -- It looked for almost three months like the National League West would be a close race from beginning to end, and that the Rockies would be a part of it. But the deep-pocketed Dodgers got healthy and made the proper moves before leaving all others in the dust. No one ended up dustier than the Rockies, who ended up in last place for the second straight season and who head into an offseason of free agency and potential trades needing to find their way back to relevance.

The lack of recent success has tested the patience of fans, who saw the Rockies make the World Series in 2007 and the playoffs in 2009 with a mostly homegrown roster but struggle since.

What can be said about the Rockies' offseason plans is that the team is willing to participate in the Hot Stove league, as opposed to being the wallflower it had been in recent winters. After seeing the offense struggle on the road -- for runs and to merely get on base -- and the rotation and bullpen unable to produce, the team is not content waiting for the farm system to shape a winner.

"It's still very early in the process, but at the same time I think we'll get a very good idea what we'd like to do during the General Managers Meetings in the early part of November," said Bill Geivett, the Rockies' senior vice president of Major League operations. "We'll get a better lay of the land when it comes to free agency or working out trades, one or the other. We'll be very involved in all that."

Trades can be a shortcut to filling holes, but the Rockies tend to avoid creating one hole to fill another. The last major trade the team made was after the 2008 season, when the Rockies sent star outfielder Matt Holliday to the Athletics and got solid Major League reliever Huston Street and a budding star in outfielder Carlos Gonzalez.

Don't expect that type of trade this year. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is guaranteed $134 million through 2020, and Gonzalez is under contract for $63.5 million through 2017. While either could bring multiple players on the trade market, club owner Dick Monfort has said he is not dealing either this winter, and there has been no rumor to the contrary coming from outside the organization.

An intriguing trade possibility could be center fielder Dexter Fowler, who is signed for $7.85 million next season and is eligible for arbitration going into 2015. But don't count on it.

The Rockies are not shopping Fowler and have indicated they value him to the point that it would be hard for another club to wrest him away. When Fowler was not dealing with wrist, hand and knee injuries, he was getting on base at a near .400 clip. The Rockies do not have a leadoff type to replace that production, and a team trying to trade with them would be looking for that type of player and would therefore be unlikely to have one to send Colorado's way.

The Rockies also do not want to deal catcher Wilin Rosario, as there have been suggestions the Rockies could find a better defensive catcher on the market. But the Rockies must slug, and Rosario's .472 slugging percentage was third-highest among NL catchers with 400 or more at-bats. Expect the Rockies to hold onto him and hope he makes strides forward defensively.

All this leads to a winter where it appears free agency will be where the Rockies try to make the biggest improvements to their roster.

Contract issues

Arbitration-eligible players: Left-handed reliever Josh Outman, right-handed relievers Wilton Lopez and Mitchell Boggs, infielder Jonathan Herrera

Potential free agents: Right-handed relievers Manny Corpas and Jeff Manship have already opted for free agency. Righty reliever Matt Belisle has a mutual option. Other eligible free agents are right-handed pitcher Roy Oswalt, left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis, right-handed pitcher Rafael Betancourt (who is likely out for the year because of right elbow surgery) and catcher Yorvit Torrealba.

Areas of need

Right-handed hitter: The Rockies are seeking a productive right-handed hitter and have some flexibility, thanks to the versatility of NL batting champion Michael Cuddyer, who plays right field and first base.

The farm system has not produced a player who could be an impact bat at those positions, even though the retirement of Todd Helton had been pending for years. The Rockies, who usually offer openings to their products first, outbid several teams for Cuddyer before the 2012 season and will have to do the same this time.

But it is not just slugging. The team's difficulties on the road dictate that the player they sign must be a grinder as well as a basher. Cuddyer, who in 2013 posted a .311 batting average and .367 on-base percentage on the road, is a nice benchmark.

This is a team that spends much organizational energy defining and pursuing the elusive leadership quality -- and currently believes it is lacking. A Cuddyer-esque figure, who says little but works and studies at a winning level, would be just fine.

Starting rotation: Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Tyler Chatwood went a combined 38-21 with a 3.40 ERA. As a random comparison, the three Rockies posted a .644 winning percentage, just three percentage points shy of the top three winners for the Athletics, who went to the playoffs. The Rockies also insist that Juan Nicasio, who went 9-9 with a 5.14 ERA, will take steps forward now that he has finally had a full and healthy Major League season.

This leaves the Rockies in position to boost their rotation, and now it looks as if they're going to seek a starter in his prime. In recent years, they have gone into seasons with reclamation projects such as Jamie Moyer, Francis and Jon Garland, or youthful hopes. The results have not been pretty.

The Rockies can still sign a veteran looking to recapture his form, and they have had success with such pitchers in the past. But they are in a position where the offseason strategy does not have to center on the down-on-his luck veteran.

The temptation for the Rockies could be to hope a youngster becomes a solid starter. But whether they are hoping lefty Drew Pomeranz has the potential that led the Rockies to deal Ubaldo Jimenez to the Indians for him, or whether they are trusting that lefty Christian Friedrich is finally past back problems that kept him out of the Majors last season, or whether they are hoping prospects Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler -- right-handers taken in the last two MLB First-Year Player Drafts -- can make a big league impact this season, they simply cannot go into 2014 depending on these developments.

Bullpen: The final record shows the Rockies were not close to the playoffs. But flawed Rockies clubs have become contenders when the bullpen was outstanding. Through May and early June, the Rockies had a contender's look to them because Betancourt was healthy and dependable at closer. But when Betancourt went to the disabled list in early June -- for the first of three times -- the bullpen went haywire because relievers were thrown into unfamiliar or ill-defined roles.

But left-hander Rex Brothers established himself as closer, which alleviated a potentially expensive headache. Now the Rockies have to solidify the group getting the ball to him, which means they will have to beef up the primary right-handed setup role.

Veteran Belisle showed signs of wear last season, after four seasons of heavy use. Belisle's contract has a mutual $4.25 million option that both sides must decide upon soon. It is unlikely the Rockies will pay that amount, but look for them to attempt to negotiate salary, use Belisle earlier in the game and seek a stalwart for the eighth inning.

Rather than remake the 'pen, the Rockies will hope righty Adam Ottavino can move from the middle innings to late in the game and re-sign Corpas at a free-agency rate lower than they would have been roped into if they had let him go to arbitration. The club will also have to determine how much it will spend upgrading the left-handed relief, where Outman's results were inconsistent when he moved later in games.

2014 payroll: Monfort said after the regular season that a payroll of $84 million in 2013 should rise to $95 million next season, thanks in part to the increased share of national TV rights revenue.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.

Colorado Rockies