Rockies have big hopes for 2007 season

DENVER (AP) -- Last September, the Colorado Rockies got their first glimpse and a big chuckle out of 23-year-old Chris Iannetta, the best catching prospect in the franchise's 14-year history.

The Rockies were impressed with Iannetta's strong arm, his quick bat, his smothering defense and his superb handling of pitchers.

"He showed us he's a very good prospect. He showed us flashes of all those things," manager Clint Hurdle said. "At times it was comical to see him go out there and talk to Jose Mesa. We had to push him out there the first few times," Hurdle said. "A kid of his age to go out and talk to a guy who's been around."

Iannetta isn't shy anymore.

Last year, Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe had breakout seasons in Colorado. The Rockies believe it's Iannetta's turn. They released veteran Javy Lopez early in camp when it became obvious Iannetta was the best catcher on the team, ahead of incumbent Yorvit Torrealba.

It's been a quick rise for Ianetta, who grew up idolizing Lopez but became a catcher quite by accident.

"I started out at third when I was in Little League but a kid broke his wrist and they said, 'You look like a catcher.' And I got behind the plate," Iannetta said. "I hated it at first but now I love it.

"It's like playing a huge video game," he said. "You're kind of in control of everything, you see everything, from the same angle you play a video game, calling pitches and watching it unfold in front of you."

Iannetta will also get the best view of the Rockies' starting rotation, which looks less than stellar after ace Jason Jennings was jettisoned to Houston in an offseason trade. The Astros sent speedy center fielder Willy Tavarez to Colorado, along with right-handed pitchers Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz.

Hirsh will be in the rotation behind Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis and Rodrigo Lopez, who was acquired from Baltimore, and ahead of fifth starter Josh Fogg.

Once again, the Rockies' rotation inspires fear in no one, but their lineup should pack a punch again along with some speed, which never had been a priority at Coors Field before.

Tavarez had 33 steals in 42 attempts last season in Houston and second baseman Kaz Matsui provides the Rockies with another dimension at the top of the order.

Holliday, the best cleanup hitter in the majors last year, was bumped to the No. 5 spot in favor of slugger Todd Helton. Hurdle hopes that experiment will light up his lineup while burning more bullpens by alternating left- and right-handed hitters.

"It's just something I've thought about over the winter," Hurdle said. "I want to find a way to put our best offense out on the field, our most dynamic offense, the offense in which our hitters can complement one another the best, provide more difficult matchups for the opposition, more decision-making for the manager, and to test the bullpen depth for the other side."

With their righties and lefties split up, the meat of the Rockies' lineup now looks like this:

No. 3, right-hander Atkins.

No. 4, left-hander Helton.

No. 5, right-hander Holliday.

No. 6, left-hander Hawpe.

"That's a very challenging lineup," Hurdle said.

Although Helton is a career .344 hitter from the cleanup spot, the danger in all this is messing with Holliday, who hit .334 with 34 homers and 82 RBIs from the No. 4 spot last year.

Yet, he insists he's cool with the change -- he's just glad that Helton is still his teammate.

The Rockies dangled the franchise's best and most popular player in front of the Boston Red Sox over the winter, but the Sox wouldn't part with pitching prospects, so no deal was struck.

"I was really hoping that things would fall apart and that he would be back," Holliday said. "When that happened, I was ecstatic."

Helton, 33, reported to camp weighing in at close to 230 pounds, a career high, after spending all of last summer fruitlessly trying to regain his strength, stamina and power stroke after an intestinal infection landed him in the intensive care unit in April.

"I really got to feel what it felt like to be unhealthy and hit a ball and see it not really go anywhere," Helton said. "So, I put on some weight and hopefully it'll translate into some more power. I basically got sick of people telling me, 'Man, it looks like you've lost a lot of weight."'

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)