Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Looking Ahead: Colorado Rockies

2006 W-L Record: 76-86
2006 pW-pL Record: 81-81
Runs Scored: 813 (5th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 812 (13th in NL)
Free Agents: Vinny Castilla, Mike DeJean, Ray King, Jose Mesa

2006 Proj. Lineup:
1B -- Todd Helton
2B -- Jamey Carroll?
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki
3B -- Garrett Atkins
LF -- Matt Holliday
CF -- Cory Sullivan/Jeff Salazar
RF -- Brad Hawpe/Jeff Baker
C -- Chris Iannetta

2006 Proj. Rotation:
Jason Jennings
Jeff Francis
Aaron Cook
Byung-Hyun Kim
Josh Fogg

2006 Proj. Closer: Brian Fuentes

The Good News:
There's been a lot of talk about humidors and suchlike at Coors Field this year. And rightfully so, because Coors Field in 2006 played at its lowest level of offense in history. The Park Factor for offense in Coors Field last season was 107, meaning it was 7% above average in runs scored. This is still high, but it's not nearly as high as the peak years at Coors Field, and represents a big step down from last year's Park Factor of 113. Let's hope this continues, because now we can all delight in the fact that Coors Field is no longer a freak of nature; it's just a hitter's park. It wasn't even the best in the league -- Cincinnati's Park Factor was 108, and Arizona's was also 107. Yes, we're still dealing with a significant hitter's park, but it looks like the days of 130 Park Factors are over. This makes analysis a whole lot easier; we no longer have to consider Coors Field as a park in and of itself.
This means that the impressive performance by the Rockies' offense cannot be easily dismissed. The Rockies ranked 5th in the NL in runs scored last season, and even if we take their ballpark into account, it means that they were probably above-average. And when you consider the young talent they have about to reach the majors, there's even more reason for optimism.
It will probably just be a year or two before the Rockies are fielding an entirely homegrown lineup. Their current third baseman, Garrett Atkins, had an amazingly unlikely year in 2006, hitting 329/409/556. Remember, we can't dismiss this because of Coors; in fact, Atkins hit just as well away from Coors (313/402/531). There is some question as to where the hell this came from. Atkins has put up good offensive numbers before, but they were almost always a product of the parks he was playing in. He'll be 27 next year and is a butcher on defense, so he may not stay at the position, especially considering the players the Rockies have coming up.
Pushing Atkins off the hot corner will be the likes of Jeff Baker and Ian Stewart. Baker has fought through injury problems to post back-to-back respectable seasons between Triple-A Colorado Springs and the majors. In 2005, Baker hit 303/348/513 in Triple-A before a cup of coffee with the big club. This past season, he hit 305/369/508 before his promotion, and an impressive 368/379/825 with the Rockies. Other than his health, plate discipline is Baker's biggest problem; he posted a 47:124 BB:K mark in his combined 2006 stats. His batting average and power look impressive, but how much of this is the friendly thin air, and will it survive he transformati0n of Coors Field? It's looking doubtful that Baker will unseat Atkins, meaning he'll be spend 2007 back on the shuttle between Triple-A and the bigs.
Ian Stewart, on the other hand, has a much brighter future. Not only is he four years younger than Baker, he's shown a stronger skill set across the board. Strikeouts are an issue here, too, but Stewart has shown better defense, power, and patience throughout the minors. The only issue is that Stewart has never played above Double-A. He spent all of 2006 there and was slightly disappointing (268/351/452), this after a 274/353/497 performance in high A-ball the previous year. Long-term, Stewart will inevitably replace Atkins at third, but it's wishful thinking to expect him to start 2007 there.
With all these guys bouncing around third, the logical solution would be to shift someone across the diamond to first. But there resides the human roadblock known as Todd Helton. Helton is still a great defender with a great batting eye (career .430 OBP), but he's also 33 years old and amazingly expensive. The Rockies have Helton signed up through 2011 for an astonishing $85.5 million. As much as they would like to trade him (and they have tried), it's impossible to find a practical way to digest that contract. The Rockies have a fleet of young options to play the infield and outfield corners, and although Helton is still a fine player (302/404/476 in '06, including 266/360/421 on the road), he's going to be more of a hindrance than a help to the team's long-term plans. The grotesque spending spree that resulted in the Helton, Hampton, and Neagle contracts is still being felt in Colorado and, amazingly, their architect, GM Dan O'Dowd, is still in office. Helton has blocked the development of first basemen in the past and currently stands in the way of Joe Koshansky, who hit 284/371/526 at Triple-A and is not realistically capable of playing anywhere else but at first.
Okay then. Perhaps we could move someone (preferably Atkins) to the outfield corners? Fat chance. Left field is occupied for the foreseeable future by Matt Holliday. Holliday didn't let the humidor get to his head -- his numbers improved across the board in 2006 from his 2005 season (2005: 307/363/505; 2006: 326/387/586). Although we must still take into account Holliday's dramatic home/road splits -- 373/440/692 in Colorado, 280/333/485 on the road -- he's still one of the most effective offensive players at the position. Debating his relative merits in relation to his ballpark is largely academic; Holliday is swatting the hell out of the ball, and at age 26 isn't going anywhere.
What about right field? This would seem to be a much more likely solution if not for the unlikely 2006 performance by incumbent Brad Hawpe. Hawpe was seen as a good hitter, but mostly a product of Coors Field; certainly not the kind of guy to block a better player. But then Hawpe hit 293/383/515 in 2006. Coors Field? Not at all -- Hawpe somehow hit better on the road (303/395/571, compared to 282/369/454). The big surprise season by this 27-year-old cannot be taken at face value; it's doubtful that this fair hitter suddenly became one of the best right fielders in the league. But you can't take that 2006 performance for granted, and it's more than likely that Hawpe will return as the starting right fielder.
In center field, the Rockies have two candidates for the job, but the difference is that neither man has performed well enough to win it outright. Cory Sullivan held the job in 2006 and showed why he's considered fourth outfielder material; he hit 267/321/402 in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball. Prospect Jeff Salazar was supposed to come in and snatch the job away from Sullivan, but that hasn't happened quite yet. Salazar had great success in the low minors by displaying strong defense and good plate discipline, but then slowed down at the higher levels. Salazar's 2006 in Triple-A may look good -- 265/357/433 -- but it's not so amazing in the thin air of Colorado Springs. Salazar will have to improve his average and hit some more doubles and triples if he wants to win the center fielder's job for good. With Sullivan as his competition, that doesn't look too hard.
The rest of the Rockie infield is also full of young hope. The Colorado faithful got a look at shortstop of the future Troy Tulowitzki in late 2006. Although his time in the bigs was disappointing (240/318/292 in 25 games), the 21-year-old tore through the minor leagues, showing a strong all-around game as well as some power potential that should blossom at Coors. While he may still need some time to adjust to the big leagues (he made the jump after 104 games at Double-A, skipping Triple-A entirely), Tulowitzki is one of the best shortstop prospects in the game.
At second base, the Rockies have a familiar problem: too damn many people. But unlike at the other positions, where they have a list of talented (or vaguely talented) players, the list of potential second baseman is a list of everbody who lost their jobs when the good rookies came to town. Clint Barmes parlayed a good half-season in 2005 into instant fame, despite the fact that a) it was at a still-historic Coors Field and b) he'd never shown any signs of being a good player in the minors, where he'd been rotting since 2000. Both shortcomings became hideously obvious in 2006: Coors underwent a downward shift in offense, Barmes' luck ran out, and everyone noticed that he couldn't quite handle shortstop. That combined with a 220/264/335 hitting line, and Barmes was probably the worst player in baseball to get at least 500 PAs. He'll be in the mix for the second base job next year, out of habit I suppose.
The Rockies can point proudly to the season Jamey Carroll had at second in 2006. The resident Lil' Scrappy Infielder Guy hit an other-worldly 300/377/404 -- well above his career levels of 280/356/362. But for those who think this utility infielder suddenly improved at the age of 32, consider his 219/302/320 batting line away from Coors Field. Don't anoint his head with oil just yet.
The other second base possibility is Kaz Matsui, former New York Met washout obtained in a trade out of desperation. Colorado is friendlier to hitters than Shea Stadium, but no one told Matsui, who hit 267/310/379 with still-forgettable defense. The Rockies do have two young second basemen in Omar Quintanilla and Jayson Nix. Unfortunately, neither has shown signs of being anything but a slightly younger version of Carroll.
The Rockies moved another hot prospect into the everyday lineup in 2006 when they installed Chris Iannetta behind the plate. There was no doubt or competition inherent in this decision -- it was the only no-brainer the Rockies could enjoy. A college hitter out of North Carolina, Iannetta pulverized the minor leagues in barely two years spent in the Colorado system. He moved from Double-A (321/418/622) to Triple-A (351/447/510) to the majors (260/370/390) in 2006, installing himself in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future. Hitter's parks or not, Iannetta is one of the best young catchers in baseball and will give the Rockies a glorious respite from the likes of Danny Ardoin and J.D. Closser.

As if that weren't enough good news, the Colorado rotation took to the new Coors Field immediately. All past disappointments were forgotten when Jason Jennings, 2002 NL Rookie of the Year, went from a 5.02 ERA to a 3.78 mark. Although he still suffers from control issues (85 walks in 212 IP), Jennings proved that his breakthrough was at least somewhat legitimate by setting a new career high in strikeouts with 142.
Combining with Jennings was groundball specialist Aaron Cook, who had already shown the ability to succeed at Coors. Cook's low strikeout rate may not seem like an ideal fit for Denver, where balls in play mutate into doubles and homers, but Cook has consistently succeeded with a heavy sinker and the ability to keep the ball on the ground. Even in Denver, it's hard to hit a ground-ball home run.
But the best news was probably the success of young Jeff Francis. Considered one of the best pitching prospects in the game going into 2005, Francis struggled through a difficult season at Coors, posting a 5.68 ERA and a 70:128 BB:K ratio in 183.2 IP. It looked like Coors may have ruined yet another good pitcher. But while his peripherals still bear watching (69:117 BB:K ratio in 2006), he lowered his ERA down to 4.16, a sign of success beyond the change in his playing environment. The return to relative normalcy by Coors Field may be better news to Francis' career than anyone else's.
Behind these three the Rockies were able to get solid innings from Byung-Hyun Kim and Josh Fogg. Despite the fact that their ERAs were near 5.50 (with no 1.30 Park Factor to explain it), they were able to eat up innings and keep the Colorado offense in the game.
As if all of this weren't enough reason to celebrate and yell, "caloo-callay," the Rockies appear to have a top-notch closer who can consistently produce at Coors. Brian Fuentes saved 30 games with a 3.44 ERA and 73 K in 65.1 IP. Despite pitching 286.1 of his 298 career innings at Coors Field, Fuentes has a career 3.62 ERA and a 134:342 BB:K ratio.

The Rockies may have a lot of issues and questions going into 2007, but they're still in fabulous shape. When your problem is having more good players than you have spots in the lineup, you're obviously doing something right. The Colorado youth movement is really starting to pay off, putting the franchise in its best condition in nearly 10 years.

The Bad News:
Really, there isn't a lot to say here. The Rockies may not have the talent to push the Dodgers in 2007 and may, in fact, get stuck behind Arizona and San Diego. But it's really hard to be pessimistic. This franchise appears to be heading into contention, with a strong young lineup and a capable pitching staff. They may have their work cut out for them against the other hot, young teams in their division, but we can finally call the Rockies contenders for the first time since 1995. Let the good times roll.

Offseason Game Plan:
The Rockies are returning all of the important players, losing only a few relief arms to free agency. The bullpen could always use some improvement, but the Rockies need to avoid spending money on overpriced veterans in the 'pen, which is what they've been doing since O'Dowd took over.
While I am optimistic about the Colorado rotation, it's not ironclad by any means. Jennings and Francis look capable of throwing 200+ above-average innings, and Cook isn't far behind them. But if they want to compete with Arizona and Los Angeles, they're going to have to sport something better than a medocre pitching staff. There aren't a lot of options within the system, and it would be folly to drop $60-70 million trying to lure a free agent pitcher to Colorado. But this is the club's biggest problem, and it needs a creative solution if the Rockies want to manage better than a strong 3rd place finish in the coming years.
The starting lineup should be in fine shape, if a bit overstocked. This is the Rockies' biggest advantage: good hitters rendered obsolete by the arrival of young talent. The Rockies are going to have to trade somebody eventually, and I would recommend pushing Atkins and Hawpe right now, when they're coming off what look like career years. You'd be losing a good player who might actually be better than good, but if you can get some pitching, it's worth the risk, especially since you can easily replace them. Look into trading Todd Helton as well, although that seems to be a hopeless proposition at this point.
You've got a lot of good young players, especially hitters. Don't screw it up by going after the next Mike Hampton.

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