- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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On most major league teams, this might earn a guy some stature, but the Rockies had already been there and done that with first baseman Todd Helton, who played behind Eli's older brother Peyton at Tennessee.
So what's a jock to do? As a high school basketball player in Mississippi, Smith once finished first in a slam-dunk contest. During the All-Star break last July, he tracked down the video and brought it back to show his teammates in the clubhouse. They had to be impressed by that display of athleticism, right?
"We all assumed he was either jumping off a trampoline or the rim was at eight feet," said Rockies outfielder Ryan Spilborghs, who admittedly delights in tormenting Smith. "We're never going to give him any more credit than he deserves."
Said Smith, "I got a little more respect out of it, but it's fleeting. I have to find something else now to get my cred back up."
Baseball players are athletes -- contrary to John Kruk's feelings on the subject -- and no current team makes the point more emphatically than the Rockies, who keep coming at opponents in waves. Barring a rash of injuries or some other unforeseen meltdown, they'll leave the Cactus League as a very fashionable pick to win the National League West.
"They're the type of club that can distract the hell out of you," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "They can beat you in a lot of ways."
After getting off to a 18-28 start last season and costing manager Clint Hurdle his job, the Rockies posted a 74-42 record under Jim Tracy and made the playoffs as a wild-card team. Best of all, they thrived behind a young, mostly homegrown nucleus of players.
Of the 14 position players who appeared on Colorado's 25-man roster against Philadelphia in the Division Series, 11 were drafted and developed by the Rockies. Colorado's farm system also ranked 10th among the 30 big league clubs this year in Baseball America's ratings.
Combine those two elements with a strong presence in Latin America and scouting director Bill Schmidt's impressive track record, and the Rockies have the underpinnings of an extended run.
"I told our kids when we got beat by Philadelphia, 'We're not going to go away,'" Tracy said. "You don't want to disappear and take four years to reappear. We re-established the identity we had lost. Now let's hold onto it."
Like many teams, the Rockies have a lithe, athletic profile in mind for their middle infielders and their outfielders. But their success in developing position players is just as attributable to the synergy between scouting and player development. Schmidt drafts good players, and the organization nurtures them from one stop to the next.
"The thing you have to remember is, this didn't happen overnight," general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "It's been a long, long time in coming."
Football isn't the only sport the Rockies have covered. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki averaged 22.6 points per game as a high school senior and was a second-team all-state basketball player in California, and second baseman Clint Barmes played baseball and hoops in junior college in Illinois. If they're not the best defensive middle-infield combination in baseball, they're close.
The same standard applies in the outfield, where center fielder Dexter Fowler and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez chew up big patches of ground. Gonzalez, a legitimate five-tool player, was billed as a future star several years ago before bouncing from Arizona to Oakland to Colorado in trades. Now he's 24, and it's hard to find a scout or talent evaluator who doesn't consider him an All-Star-in-waiting.
When Gonzalez arrived from Triple-A Colorado Springs last June, his strike zone extended roughly from his helmet to his shoes. The Colorado beat writers asked Tracy how long he planned to stick with him, and the Rockies' manager kept giving the same calm reply.
"I gave them the old Felipe Alou answer: 'Until he figures it out,'" Tracy said.
Gonzalez appeared to figure things out in August, when he hit .371 with a .714 slugging percentage. He finished the season with 13 home runs and 16 stolen bases and attracted as much attention for his glove and arm as his bat.
"He's as graceful an outfielder as I've ever seen," Tracy said. "He can be one of the better players in either league, if that's who he wants to be."
Gonzalez's biggest challenge this year will be taking a fly ball or two away from Fowler, an aggressive-minded defender who has elicited comparisons to seven-time Gold Glove winner Devon White for his range in center.
Fowler did not grade out well in some of the new defensive metrics last season, but that's no surprise given his lack of experience and the huge spread he has to cover at Coors Field. "We have a cavernous outfield, and it can make a lot of people look pretty bad at times," O'Dowd said.
Fowler is still just a pup. Not counting his stint with the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing in 2008, his minor league experience consisted of a 337-game whirlwind tour of Casper, Wyo.; Asheville, N.C.; Modesto, Calif.; and Tulsa, Okla. That's all it took for the Rockies to summon him to the big leagues and hand him a heaping plate of responsibility.
"He had never seen a pitch in Triple-A," Tracy said. "And we told him, 'Now Dexter, all we want you to do is play center, lead off, take pitches and have a high on-base percentage. Other than that, enjoy yourself at the major league level.'"
Fowler, whose attempts to grow a beard can't mask his youthful profile, leaves no doubt that he's enjoying himself. When he's not on the field at 6 a.m. practicing his bunting -- a la Juan Pierre -- he's working hard to dispel the notion that teammate Eric Young Jr. might give him a serious challenge in a 60-yard dash.
"I think E.Y. is the quickest," Fowler said. "In short distances, he's got me. But I'm probably the fastest in a 60. Everybody asks us, but we've already discussed this. It's set in stone. We both know."
Of course, speed alone won't make for an elite base stealer. Fowler succeeded on 27 of 37 attempts last season, and the Rockies ranked 27th in the majors with a success rate of 66 percent (106 steals in 161 tries). Tulowitzki, for one, has been prone to mistakes of aggression while trying to steal, advance from first to third, or stretch singles into doubles.
The Rockies also ranked a mediocre 17th in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency ratings in 2009. But they've upgraded at third now that Garrett Atkins has departed for Baltimore and Ian Stewart will log more playing time at the position, and the other kids are a year older and more knowledgeable. Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook and the other Colorado pitchers will be the prime beneficiaries.
It's also impossible to measure the confidence and insights that Colorado's young players gained from those four high-pressure games with Philadelphia in October. Gonzalez hit .582 (10-for-17) in the Division Series and carried that sense of accomplishment with him all through the winter.
Many of the Colorado players were together in the minors, and the clubhouse is starting to develop a Minnesota Twins-like sense of continuity. The young Rockies feel like caretakers to a burgeoning tradition and understand their responsibility to maintain it. Prima donnas, slackers and disruptive influences need not apply.
"Even guys who are a year into the minor league system with the Rockies see they have a chance to make the big leagues and grow with this organization," Spilborghs said. "It's not just statistics -- how high your on-base percentage is or how many home runs you hit. It's what else you bring to the team. Do you make the guys around you better?"
Talent, athleticism, synergy and drive make for a potent combination. The Rockies took considerable pride in making the World Series in 2007 and earning another playoff spot in 2009. It's been so much fun that they hope to make a habit of it.
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