Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Darron Cummings/Associated Press
If Ramon Hernandez’s big smile and immediate, positive remarks about the first day of work under Walt Weiss provided any insight, the Colorado Rockies believe they have the man to manage their club back into a winner.
“I’m thrilled,” Hernandez said, lugging his catching gear inside early Tuesday afternoon. “It went great.”
Weiss led his pitchers and catchers through their first spring training workout Tuesday at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick and made one thing certain: His team will play defense, and that will start by turning double plays – plenty of them. He preached fundamentals in the field, knowing he has the offensive talent to score runs.
“There’s a clear vision of what we’re trying to do,” Weiss said. “The next step for us in our development as a club is learning to win. There are a lot of things in place already. It’s that next step for these guys.”
All eyes will be on Weiss to see whether he can make the remarkable jump from high school dugout to managing in the majors with no other head coaching jobs in between.
Just last spring, Weiss was at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, where he guided his son’s team to a 20-6 record and a spot in the state semifinals. He certainly looks the part so far.
Weiss will make a point to spend the early weeks getting to know each of his players, particularly the pitchers he’s not as familiar with at this stage. In order to compete in the pitching-heavy NL West, Colorado will have to find a way for its rotation to stay in the close games against talented staffs on reigning World Series champion San Francisco, new-look Arizona and the big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Rockies’ starters won only 20 games at Coors Field last year. Rotation mainstays Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio were rehabbing rather than pitching, while Drew Pomeranz and Alex White struggled as the faces of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade with Cleveland.
Chacin and De La Rosa “are full-go, and that’s a good thing,” Weiss said.
Still, there’s a lot of work to do for Colorado’s pitchers; establishing a rapport with them is the first step for Weiss.
“Big part of the process,” he said. “We keep talking about trying to build an atmosphere where players can thrive and where they respect each other, respect the staff, they trust us. That’s all part of that. That started (Tuesday), building those relationships and trying to personalize them.”
While he called many players over the winter after his November hiring, Weiss still wants to get some important face time with his guys in the desert.
He already has spoken with first baseman Todd Helton, a five-time All-Star and longtime face of the franchise who was arrested last Wednesday for driving under the influence. Helton apologized through the team and is expected to formally address his situation later this week upon reporting in Arizona. He already is in town but not yet in camp.
Weiss doesn’t expect any distractions from Helton, the franchise’s most decorated player, in the final year of his contract.
“Todd’s built up a lot of good will in this game and in the community,” Weiss said. “He’s going to deal with this, he’s going to take it head on, he’s going to face the music, and then we’ll turn the page. He put himself in the position to get a mulligan or two. I talked to him. Exactly what he expressed: He’s embarrassed, he’s going to face the music, and he knows what he’s got to do. He’ll come down here, and he’ll be the old pro that he is.”
The 49-year-old Weiss spent four seasons as the Rockies’ shortstop from 1994 to 1997 before wrapping up his 14-year big league career with three years in Atlanta. Now, his task is turning around his former club that went a franchise-worst 64-98 and ended up in last place in the NL West in 2012. Weiss replaced Jim Tracy in November.
“It’s a new beginning for everybody,” slugging left fielder Carlos Gonzalez said. “Whatever happened in the past, everybody can forget it from Game 1. That’s what it’s all about. Even if you win the World Series, you still have to work the next year.”
For Gonzalez, there’s plenty he wants to leave behind from 2012 – specifically, a forgettable second half after making his first All-Star team.
“Nothing real revolutionary,” Weiss said. “A lot of organizations talk about the same thing, but we’re really going to try to drive home the fact that we’re going to put the ball on the ground as a pitching staff. Good things happen when you do that. We’re going to get real good at turning double plays. Our infielders are going to do it well. Everything we do defensively is going to be geared toward turning double plays, getting two outs with a pitch. ... We’re going to spend a lot of time doing that, to the point where these guys can do it in their sleep. That’s going to be a big part of who we are.”
Gonzalez is game for whatever new approach it takes to bring the Rockies back to respectability. They lost the 2007 World Series to the Red Sox and have reached the playoffs only once since then, eliminated in four games of the 2009 division series by the Phillies.
“You have to have your confidence,” Gonzalez said. “You have to have your swag.”