DENVER -- A plan to build a winner from within can work. The Rockies proved that with their World Series appearance in 2007, another playoff appearance in '09 and a near-playoff trip in '10. But what happens when there are positions to be had but not Major League starter-level players to fill them?That's where the Rockies stood in '11. To improve in '12, Colorado will have to depend on trades and free agency to improve its nucleus. In many ways, the job is more difficult than it has been in years. The free agency period begins tonight at 10:01 p.m. MT. Before this past season's 73-89 finish, the Rockies' last losing season was '08. Knowing they were unable to sign outfielder Matt Holliday to a significantly long contract, the Rockies traded him to the Athletics. The club filled two holes by receiving, in return, young star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and relief pitcher Huston Street.
FREE AGENT PREVIEWS
The Rockies have already made their big trade of a young player, right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to the Indians before the July 31 Trade Deadline. They received four players, the most celebrated of whom are left-handed pitcher Drew Pomeranz and right-handed pitcher Alex White.The key in the deals is both are similar to Gonzalez -- talented players with bright futures just beginning their big league careers. But like Gonzalez, who didn't begin the '10 season in the Majors, it's not certain they will be ready when the '12 season begins. The difference is the Holliday deal landed them a proven Major League reliever -- a hole that needed to be filled. Now the Rockies head into next season needing two starters -- veteran innings-eaters for the front and back of the rotations -- while they wait for their best pitcher, lefty Jorge De La Rosa, to complete his recovery from Tommy John surgery. They also need at least one impact bat, with second-base and third-base positions in question. These holes exist even though the club gave trials to multiple pitchers and position players in 2011. At third, they must make a decision on Ian Stewart, who had a promising start to his career in '07 and '08, but struggled in '09 and spent most of '10 in Triple-A. The Rockies' best Major League trading chip is arbitration-eligible outfielder Seth Smith. They can deal some of the strength in the lower part of the farm system, but that would be going against the team's preferred pattern of building from within. However, free agency looks to be expensive and uncertain, so the club might have to be willing to go out on a limb. If the Rockies go with free agency, they'll have to be shrewd. In recent years, they've concentrated on complementary players or they've taken flyers on marginal or struggling players hoping they would find their stride in Colorado. CONTRACT ISSUES
In-season acquisitions Mark Ellis, right-handed pitcher Kevin Millwood and left-handed relief pitcher J.C. Romero are eligible for free agency, and the club released third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff at season's end, rather than face a potential salary increase in arbitration. The Rockies did not pick up right-hander Aaron Cook's $11 million option. Stewart and outfielders Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler and Ryan Spilborghs are eligible for arbitration.AREAS OF NEED
Second base: The Rockies could go for what they know, so to speak, and re-sign Ellis. They're also quite familiar with two veterans who could be on the market -- Clint Barmes, who played shortstop for the Astros in '11, and Jamey Carroll, who had a good offensive year with the Dodgers. With the Yankees almost certain to pick up Robinson Cano's $14 million club option, there will not be a headline-maker at this position. The Rockies are familiar with the Jays' Kelly Johnson and the D-backs' Aaron Hill, and they could be targets.Third base: Part of it is a thin free-agent market. Part of it is the expense of acquiring a proven third baseman through a trade. At any rate, right now the Rockies are looking at reviving Stewart. That could change if someone like the Mets' David Wright is available through a trade and the Rockies are able to swing a deal. Of the potential free agents, the biggest name is Aramis Ramirez, but the Rockies aren't likely to go in that direction. Starting pitcher: The Rockies sorely need protection at the front and the back of the rotation in case some of their young talent is not ready. This is especially true as the team awaits De La Rosa's return to health. Millwood, who pitched well for the Rockies after signing with them in August, could help the back of the rotation. At the front, the Rockies could revisit trying to pry Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros. Colorado made a waiver claim in August, but could not work a trade. The Rockies have long had interest in the Rays' James Shields and the Twins' Carl Pavano, who could be on the trade market. 2012 PAYROLL
Back in '06, the Rockies saw their payroll dip to just over $41 million -- a move that put them in the small-market category. But ownership has quietly built the payroll to in excess of $87 million in '11. The Rockies will have to be prepared to spend if that's what's necessary to improve the club. Last winter's flirtation with trading for Rangers infielder Michael Young demonstrated that they are willing to do just that. The Rockies were prepared to increase the payroll to add such a player.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.