Younger Than Yesterday
How in the world did the Rockies avert an eighth consecutive season of falling attendance? They spent only one game on the high side of .500 and fell to 29-49 by early July. Since 1998, when the NL West, expanded to five teams, the Rockies have never finished higher than fourth.
Maybe the weather was responsible. According to the National Weather Service, Denver "finished slightly above normal in temperature and... below normal [in] precipitation."
Pray for more good weather, Colorado fans.
Last year, Colorado signed veterans Jeromy Burnitz, Vinny Castilla, and Royce Clayton to buy some time while the prospects developed. General Manager Jim O'Dowd and skipper Clint Hurdle dutifully played up the veteran presence and character of their squad. "We're not very good, and signing Clayton isn't a solution" makes for a poor marketing campaign.
This offseason, the Rockies adopted a policy of masterly inactivity, stirring occasionally to see if anyone would (please!) take the contracts of Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson off their ledger. Denny Neagle's corporeal presence is gone but his corpulent salary lingers on. Their contracts have seemingly imbued a state of organizational paralysis.
As a result, the prospects will play, consequences be damned. To their credit, O'Dowd and Hurdle aren't throwing out the "we could surprise people" clichés. The Rockies will struggle this season, period, and no one suggests anything different.
2005 will be a referendum on the farm system. If all goes well, you could be witnessing the primordial soup that will evolve into the next great Rockies club. If not, you'll be watching a random bunch of guys who were fortunate enough to play Major-League ball during 2005. The weather should be nice.
"If you throw five or six rookies out there, you run the risk of disaster." - Toronto G.M. J.P. Ricciardi
Did Ricciardi have Colorado in mind when he made this statement in his Batter's Box interview? Colorado will probably lurch their way to another superficially impressive offensive performance, but with so many untested players, any prediction carries a high level of variance Last year, guys like Castilla, Burnitz, and even Clayton offered at least some measure of certainty. Going into this season, six of the eight ostensible everyday players have less than 145 games of Major League experience. Check out that last column:
# Player Pos Age PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+ Games
1 Aaron Miles -S 2B 28 559 .293 .329 .368 67 142
2 Clint Barmes SS 26 75 .282 .320 .437 80 32
3 Todd Helton - L 1B 31 683 .347 .469 .620 159 1135
4 Preston Wilson CF 30 222 .248 .315 .391 68 809
5 Matt Holliday LF 25 438 .290 .349 .487 98 121
6 Garrett Atkins 3B 25 33 .357 .424 .536 129 40
7 Brad Hawpe - L OF 25 118 .248 .322 .400 72 42
8 J.D. Closser - S CF 25 121 .319 .364 .398 83 36
Last year, Colorado finished second in the NL in average and on-base percentage, third in slugging, and fourth in runs scored. And guess what? Their offense was terrible. Thanks to Coors Field, a Rockie player had to bat .292/.367/.473 just to be average. Colorado batted .275/.345/.455 last year, good for an OPS+ of just 90. Only two NL teams scored fewer runs on the road.
CATCHER - J.D. CLOSSER
In 2002, Closser was a seemingly harmless throw-in to the 2002 deal which sent LOOGY Mike Myers to Arizona for Jack Cust. Closser has exhibited strong but not awe-inspiring performances in three high-minor seasons. He ought to provide an effective replacement to Charles Johnson with more hits but fewer homers.
FIRST BASE - TODD HELTON
The veteran Helton lords over the grim offensive landscape. He is a near-perfect combination of contact, power, and patience, and he gets very little help. As he said before the 2004 season, "It's not going to do any good if I am coming up with two outs and nobody on." Colorado's #1 and #2 hitters combined for a .327 OBP, and Helton plated only 96 runners despite batting .347 and slugging .620.
SECOND BASE - AARON MILES
Aaron Miles, a 27-year-old rookie, enthusiastically donned the mantle of former Rox legend Neifi Perez. Miles defended capably and batted .293 but offered minimal power or patience, resulting in well over 500 at-bats that barely exceed replacement-level. Colorado acquired Miles straight-up for the much younger Juan Uribe, who enjoyed his breakout season with the White Sox.
THIRD BASE - GARRETT ATKINS
After failing his late-season trial run in 2003, Atkins returned to Colorado Springs and produced a line of .366/.434/.578, followed by a nearly identical performance in a brief call-up to Denver. He won't replace Vinny Castilla's 35 homers but has a reasonable chance to surpass him in terms of total production. Atkins is a third baseman in name only and would play first if not for the presence of Helton.
SHORTSTOP - CLINT BARMES
The time is now for Barmes, a 26-year-old whose slow development necessitated last year's signing of Royce Clayton. Barmes batted a career-best .328 and displayed newfound power repeating in Colorado Springs, then acquiited himself in a September call-up. Nevertheless, he's far from a sure thing, and Relaford may end up with the majority of at-bats.
LEFT FIELD - MATT HOLLIDAY
Younger than Barmes, Atkins and Closser, Holliday provided one of the few bright spots in 2004. After repeating AA in 2003, he skipped AAA and provided a competent bat that was desperately needed with the losses of Wilson and Walker. Holliday's uneven minor-league career and dire road numbers (.240/.287/.367) beg the question of whether he can stick as a regular.
CENTER FIELD - PRESTON WILSON
Fresh off an NL-best 141 RBI in 2003, Wilson limped through Spring Training with a knee injury, struggled badly at the plate and missed two-thirds of the season outright. The Rockies would love for another team to assist in paying the $12 million he'll earn, but he'll have to reestablish his fitness and competence first. Wilson is the center fielder by default and would be better suited to a corner.
RIGHT FIELD - BRAD HAWPE
Hawpe announced his big-league debut with authority last May, batting .563/.588/1.000 in his first six games. He batted .191 the rest of the way, but his eye-opening line of .322/.384/.622 at Colorado Springs makes him the putative favorite for right field. Like Atkins, Hawpe moved from first because of Helton and is a defensive maladroit. He'll share the position with Dustan Mohr.
Colorado's bench is a grab-bag of decent youngish talent and veteran presence. They will receive plenty of at-bats. Luis Gonzalez probably would make a better everyday second baseman than Miles, but he'll resume his duties as supersub. He can do anything but pitch and catch. Like Gonzalez, Desi Relaford can play almost anywhere and has the veteran status that ostensibly compensates for his weaker bat. Dustan Mohr and Jorge Piedra make a solid duo of backup outfielders. The righthanded Mohr will start often against lefties despite his significant reverse split, and Piedra could steal at-bats from a slumping Hawpe or Holliday. Catcher Todd Greene will continue to swing for the fences and condescend to draw a walk every month or so. Greg Norton and minor-league stalwart Andy Tracy will fight for a pinch-hitter spot. Colorado is expected to trade or release Charles Johnson before Opening Day.
Fans won't have Shawn Estes and Jeff Fassero to kick around any more. Unless Darren Oliver claws his way onto the roster, 30-year-old Jamey Wright will be the rotation's elder statesman. The 2004 Stats:
Player Age GS ERA ERA+ IP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
Jason Jennings 26 33 5.51 92 201 10.8 1.2 4.5 6.0
Joe Kennedy - L 26 27 3.66 138 162 9.0 0.9 3.7 6.5
Shawn Chacon 27 0 7.11 71 63 10.1 1.7 7.4 7.4
Jamey Wright 30 14 4.12 123 79 9.4 0.9 5.1 4.7
Jeff Francis - L 24 7 5.15 98 37 10.3 2.0 3.2 7.8
Jennings has backslid for two years running since a fine 2002 that rightfully earned him Rookie of the Year honors. He did provide a respectable 4.60 ERA after a catastrophic opening month in which he surrendered 36 runs in six starts. Unlike several high-priced free agents, Jennings has maintained his health and sanity pitching in a low-g environment, and for that Colorado inked him to a two-year deal. If he stops walking a batter every other inning he'll help his team immensely.
Washed out in Tampa at the tender age of 24, Kennedy rebounded to become the first Rockie starter ever to qualify for the ERA title with a sub-4.00 ERA. His peripheral stats indicate he wasn't quite that effective, but by and large he kept the ball in the park and on the ground. Colorado pitchers have a long and storied history of fleeting success, so even one more quality season from Kennedy is by no means a certainty. Send some luck his way.
Back into the rotation goes Chacon, fresh off his soul-destroying tenure as a closer. He allowed two baserunners per inning, walked one of every six batters faced, and generally pitched about twelve levels below replacement. In the process, he somehow saved 35 games. Chacon has pitched reasonably well in two of three seasons as a starter but has yet to stay healthy enough to qualify for an ERA title.
Wright has pitched at roughly a league-average level during five seasons in Colorado despite walking more than he's struck out. How does he do it? By keeping the ball in the park? A low hit rate? Voodoo? Well, no, he really doesn't do anything well except keep the ball on the ground most of the time, and that seems enough to maintain a career. Colorado would gladly take 180 innings and a 5.25 ERA.
In 346 minor-league innings, Francis allowed only 22 homers. He has surrendered eight in his first 36 Major-League innings. Actually, Coors Field can't take the blame for this, as Francis surrendered five of those eight homers in a pair of jittery starts at Atlanta and San Francisco. Still, the unsettling question for O'Dowd and company is whether to add "Colorado pitching prospect" to the land of make-believe along with unicorns, mermaids, and civil political discourse. The 24-year-old Francis may be the Rockies' best pitching prospect ever. He has allowed fewer than seven hits per nine runners and sports a 5/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors. If he doesn't pan out, who will?
Darren Oliver hasn't posted a league-average ERA since 1999, but a solid camp could land him in the rotation. 1997 2nd-round pick Aaron Cook pitched successfully, albeit with terrifying peripherals, before being sidelined with blood clots in his lungs. He could return by June.
With the word "closer" reduced to an epithet after Chacon's 2004, Colorado enters the season without one. Colorado set Major-League records with 34 blown saves and 39 losses. So, let's say there's room for improvement.
Brian Fuentes has the best track record of success in Colorado though with minimal closing experience. He doesn't throw hard or induce grounders, seemingly a bad idea in Denver, yet his weird delivery results in a high strikeout rate. He pitched better last year than his 5.64 ERA would indicate. Chin-Hui Tsao may have the inside track on the closer's job. The club moved the former top rotation prospect to the bullpen out of concern for his shoulder. Tsao features a repertoire of blazing fastball and hard slider that makes him a more conventional closer candidate. Scott Dohmann is another converted starter who debuted successfully last year and will pitch in high-leverage situations this season. Dohmann let the ball take flight and allowed eight homers in just 46 innings but otherwise pitched well enough to minimize the damage.
Those three could pitch in any bullpen in the Majors. Beyond them, the cast becomes motley. Eddie Gaillard returns from Japan after three years as a top closer. Unforturnately, he pitched there for five years, and the last two weren't pretty. Aaron Taylor comes over from Seattle and will get another shot as a Major-League pitcher. For the last three years, Taylor has mowed down batters in AA and AAA only to fail utterly in brief big-league trials. He is fully recoevered from shoulder surgery. Relief prospect Ryan Speier laid waste to Texas League hitters last year (33 hits allowed in 62 innings) and might make the squad despite no AAA experience. Javier Lopez, who pitched well for Colorado in 2003 but collapsed last season, Allan Simpson, Vlad Nunez, and journeyman David Cortes will fight for the remaining spots.
Last year, my computer told me that St. Louis would be the class of the NL Central, and I chose not to believe. This year, it tells me the Rockies will win 71 games. I think that's the upside, and my computer is taunting me for last year's impudence.
Not one aspect of this team inspires confidence. They features an offense filled with prospects and guys who just happen to be young, dubious defense at third and throughout the outfield, a mediocre rotation and a shaky bullpen. The upside to Colorado's plan for 2005 is monetary savings and quickly learning who can play. The downside is discovering they can't, and there's no safety net. This team could be scary-bad, and in a worst-case scenario they could become fifth division-era club to lose 110 games.
Acknowledging my computer's superior intellect, I'll go with a win total in the upper sixties and a last-place finish.