Colorado Rockies—Darkhorse Playoff Contender…If They Don’t Do Something Stupid
Since their inception as a franchise in 1993, the Colorado Rockies have tried every conceivable way to build a baseball team. They built a team around a series of bashers who pummeled pitchers into submission; they traded for and signed veteran free agent pitchers; they went "athletic" eschewing the power hitters for all-around players who could run, play defense and hit for extra bases. In managers, they tried player’s managers; they tried old school baseball men; they tried younger retreads; they tried quiet, stoic leaders. They’ve spent money; they’ve saved money. They’ve been aggressive; they’ve been patient.
With all the upheavals and changes in philosophies, there have been relatively few successes for the Colorado Rockies. The most wins they’ve ever had in one season has been 83. While their fellow 1993 expansion team, the Florida Marlins, has won two World Series championships, the Rockies have made the playoffs once—–as a Wild Card winner in the strike shortened 1995 season. They lost in four games to the Braves.
With all the different ways the Rockies have tried to overhaul their roster to compete, who would have thought that the most innovative and successful thing that they could have done would have been to place the baseballs that they intend to use for their home games into a humidor to keep the whiffle ball numbers of Coors Field within the realm of the reasonable. But it has, to a degree, succeeded in allowing the games played in Colorado not to degenerate into scores that would look more appropriate during a Broncos game than a Rockies game. After all these years of not knowing exactly what would work in Colorado, the Rockies are finally on the right track; and it came down to what it always comes down to—–pitching.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that with every pitcher——from Bret Saberhagen; to the late Daryl Kile; to Mike Hampton; to Denny Neagle——-who joined the Rockies only to see his career disintegrate, it would become almost impossible to convince in-demand pitchers in their primes to join the wasteland of high priced, free agent starting pitchers. Any pitcher who had other options was under no circumstances going to go to Colorado and play half his home games watching baseballs rattle around like in a pinball machine complete with the prerequisite numbers lighting up the scoreboard. If they ever wanted to field a competitive pitching staff, they had to find pitchers with little choice but to join the Rockies; or develop their own.
In line with the premise of it "not taking a genius" to figure out what needed to be done, the Rockies most definitely don’t have a genius running their organization in Dan O’Dowd. O’Dowd has presided over the Rockies operation since 2000 and has distinguished himself by not distinguishing himself. He has been the one who has made the philosophical changes in what it would take to win in Colorado, and has yet to succeed. But 2007 may finally be his lucky year; the year the Rockies parlay a young, solid starting pitching staff into contention.
Last season’s starting rotation of Jason Jennings; Jeff Francis; Aaron Cook; Josh Fogg; and Byung-Hyun Kim was surprisingly good, not just for the Rockies, but for the entire league. There have been rumors that Jennings, who is coming up on his last season before free agency, might be available in a trade. I am going to make myself very clear in the following statement:
DO NOT TRADE JASON JENNINGS!!!
Jennings is 27; has been a Rockies player his entire career; has learned how to pitch and win in Coors Field; and has been an innings-gobbler and statistically consistent. With a good bullpen behind him and a good defensive team, he could repeat his best season of 2002 in which he went 16-8. At the very least, he’s a 13-15 game winner.
Cook is another pitcher who has been with the Rockies his entire career. Last season, he went 9-15; but he logged an impressive number of innings in his first full season in the starting rotation; and he’s about to turn 27.
Francis has been in the big leagues full time for the past two seasons and went 14-12 and 13-11. His hits/innings pitched ratio this season was excellent; and he’s only 25. Fogg and Kim are both pitchers who have bounced around in their careers, but have found a home and modest success in Colorado. For numbers four and five starters, there are about twenty other teams in the big leagues who are a lot worse. At the very least, both Fogg and Kim provide innings; which in Colorado can only help a bullpen that should see a lot of work.
The Rockies bullpen was surprisingly good last season as well. While the starting rotation consisted of predominately home grown talent, the bullpen had a few names that are familiar because they’ve bounced around so much. The Rockies got solid performances from Jose Mesa, Tom Martin and Ray King. For some reason, O’Dowd didn’t exercise options on King and Mesa. Other pitchers that were effective out of the bullpen were Ramon Ramirez and Manuel Corpas. Jeremy Affeldt was acquired from the Royals last season, and has always had great stuff and he’s a lefty. It might take him some time to get out of the losing mindset of being trapped in Kansas City for so long. Brian Fuentes has turned into a reliable lefty closer with a good strikeout/innings pitched numbers and at least 30 saves in each of the last two seasons.
O’ Dowd must adequately replace the veteran pitchers he allowed to leave. There are moderately inexpensive veteran relievers that could be useful such as Steve Kline or Aaron Fultz; or they could trade for someone like Tim Worrell. Why O’Dowd would allow pitchers who did well for the club go for nothing is hard to understand and par for the course with the same guy who is reportedly considering trading Jason Jennings.
For so long, the Rockies were designed to live by their bats, sink or swim. Most of the time, they’ve sunk. For all the huge numbers that Andres Galarraga; Larry Walker; Dante Bichette; Vinny Castilla; Preston Wilson; Todd Helton; et, al. have put up in the light air of Colorado, it never resulted in any team-wide success. Now, they’ve developed a lineup that isn’t so reliant on the home run.
Helton had an off year in 2006, but his numbers before that were Hall of Fame quality. He’s a good fielder and a leader in the clubhouse who should rebound. Even if his numbers were slightly inflated by Coors Field, the team should still reasonably expect a season of 25+ homers and 110 RBIs. Garrett Atkins is a young third baseman who busted out with 29 homers and 120 RBIs. Left fielder Matt Holliday had 34 homers and 114 RBIs. Brad Hawpe showed power in right field with 22 homers. These are all young, home grown talents who have arrived in the big leagues and produced.
Clint Barmes arrived in the big leagues and was expected to blossom. He had a truly awful year in 2006. His minor league numbers and stats in 2005 were a portent of a high-average, good power hitting shortstop. Barmes must return to the player he was before 2006; the days of teams being able to carry a shortstop that doesn’t hit are long gone. Starting with a clean slate would be well advised for the young shortstop.
Kaz Matsui played well at second base after his acquisition from the Mets and has signed a contract for next season. Having seen Matsui up close and personally for the past three years, I wouldn’t get too caught up in his brief run of good play after arriving in Colorado; but the expectations in New York were very high—–unfairly so. When Matsui signed, the Mets moved budding star Jose Reyes to second base to accommodate him; New York was expecting to get their own version of Ichiro, except as a Gold Glove shortstop. The pressure seemed to get to Matsui; perhaps in a less stifling environment, where no one is expecting much of anything, he can regularly display the flashes of talent he occasionally showed in New York.
The Rockies need a catcher. There are suitable veteran alternatives available in Greg Zaun, Bengie Molina or someone coming back from injuries like Mike Lieberthal. Perhaps they intend to give young Chris Iannetta a chance to play every day; he showed power and a great on base percentage in the minors.
Clint Hurdle is going into his sixth season as the Rockies manager. He has been there through the mostly bad times as his team was finding their identity and trying to develop a plan that would work. Last season, the team got off to a solid start and played good fundamental baseball throughout the season. Hurdle runs his bullpen well; the young players are flourishing under his stewardship.
The entire situation is truly—–I’m not being facetious here—–whether or not O’Dowd is going to screw up the good things that they have going on in Colorado. There is an influx of young talent there; their starting rotation is good enough to compete in the weak NL West; and there are enough bats to score enough runs to win. When I heard Jennings’s name mentioned in trade rumors, I was incredulous. The Rockies have a young anchor to their starting rotation who has had success in the pitcher’s netherworld known as Colorado, and they’re considering offers to trade him? This is the team that threw $120 million at Mike Hampton; and $50 million at Denny Neagle? They’ve spent so much time and money trying to lure successful starting pitchers to try their luck in Colorado—-with disastrous results—–that trading their own commodities for monetary purposes makes no sense whatsoever. If they st
ay the course, they are at the very least one of the top teams in the NL West and could be a surprise contender for a playoff spot if, as the title says, they don’t do something stupid.