Five Questions: Colorado Rockies

This season will mark the 10-year anniversary of the first — and thus far only — Colorado Rockies playoff team. In 1995 the Rockies rode the big bats of Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla, and Dante Bichette (a group of hitters collectively known as the Blake Street Bombers) and an unknown pitching staff to the National League Wild Card. The team took a game from the eventual World Series champion Atlanta Braves and were leading late in every game of the Division Series before losing in four games.

The franchise was an amazing success. The team was selling out its new stadium every game and everyone wanted to use the Rockies — and not their expansion brother Florida Marlins — as a model on how to begin a franchise. How quickly things change. Ten years later, it’s the Marlins who have a World Series title (two in fact), and Coors Field is no longer a hot spot in Denver. The Rockies appear trapped in mediocrity in a category with the likes of the Royals, Devil Rays, and Pirates.

It would be nice if the question was whether or not the 2005 Rockies can make the playoffs in the 10-year anniversary of their last appearance in October. But since competition for the West and the wild card seems far-fetched, the more important consideration is whether the team’s new bunch of young prospects will form a group of players who are capable of leading a revival of baseball in the Rocky Mountain region.

1. Are these kids going to be any good?

Any discussion of the kids who make up Generation R — the Rockies new marketing campaign that attempts to convince Rockies fans that we have something to look forward to this season — begins with left-handed starting pitcher Jeff Francis. Last year’s Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, Francis will begin the 2005 season as the Rockies third starter. In 2004, he started the season for the Rockies Double-A team in Tulsa in the Texas League.

Managers in the Texas League named him the league’s Best Pitcher after he went 13-1 with a 1.98 ERA for the Drillers, striking out 147 and walking just 22. Opponents batted .180 against him. He continued his dominance after jumping to the Triple-A level, going 3-2 with a 2.85 ERA with Colorado Springs Sky Sox, with a 49-7 strikeout-walk ratio. After a shaky start to September, Francis looked dominating in his final two starts of the season.

Offensively, the Rockies will start six players with less than 145 games experience. One of the lone bright spots to the 2004 Rockies campaign was the performance of Matt Holliday, who was called up to the big-league club last April. Although he started slowly, going 0-for-7 with a walk, Holliday quickly turned it around and had a blazing rest of April, finishing the month at .375/.444/.675.

Truthfully, even with the hot April, Holiday could have probably used some more time in the minor leagues, as he finished the year at .290/.349/.488. A particular concern for Holliday will be if he can improve on his terrible road numbers where he hit .240/.287/.367. On the plus side, Holliday is only 25 and figures to improve over the next couple of years.

There is a lot of discussion in Rockies circles of their “catcher of the future” J.D. Closser, who in 2002 was a seemingly harmless throw-in in the deal which sent reliever Mike Myers to Arizona for Jack Cust. Closser, a switch-hitter, was called up in August and in 124 plate appearances hit .319/.364/.398 with a strikeout to walk ratio of more than 3.5-to-1.

His numbers were more impressive at Colorado Springs, where he put up a .299/.384/.440 line with a very respectable 1.1-to-1 K/BB ratio. The Rockies expect Closser to show a good bat, but they are worried about his defense. Closser threw out just five of 24 would-be base stealers in his short stint with the Rockies last season and this spring has allowed a plethora of passed balls.

The final member of “Gen-R” who deserves specific note is this year’s starting third baseman Garrett Atkins, who has the dubious task of replacing Vinny Castilla, a fan favorite, former Blake Street Bomber, and last year’s RBI leader. Atkins has a golden bat and he won the 2005 Pacific Coast League batting title, hitting .366 in Colorado Springs with an impressive 1.012 OPS.

Expect good numbers from Atkins; just be worried about his defense. A converted first basemen — the Rockies have a guy named Todd Helton entrenched at first — Atkins has a very raw glove and will make his fair share of errors.

2. Will Todd Helton see anything to hit?

Before saying a thing on this question I must mention that it is absolutely ridiculous that anyone would ever imply that Helton is “on the juice.” Helton is as pure of a hitter as there is in the game today, and his true skill is obscured by an unfair view that he is only a great hitter because of Coors Field. He’s a career .298/.395/.526 hitter on the road.

Anyway, the question of whether Helton, a career .339/.432/.616 hitter overall, will see anything to hit depends heavily on which Preston Wilson the Rockies get this year. Will it be the 2003 version where Wilson played in 155 games and hit .282/.343/.537 with 36 homers and a league leading 141 RBIs or will it be the 2004 version that played only 58 games hitting .248/.315/.391 with only six homers and 29 RBIs?

Helton, who has an amazing eye and a great bat, draws walks and scares pitchers who smartly don’t want him to beat them. Over the past five years, Helton has drawn around 100 walks per season and in 2004 that number climbed to 127, 21 of which were intentional passes.

Even if he does see something to hit, will Helton be able to plate any runs? Before the 2004 season, Helton said, “It’s not going to do any good if I am coming up with two outs and nobody on.” Last year, Colorado’s No. 1 and No. 2 hitters combined for a .327 OPS and Helton, despite batting .347 and slugging .620, only plated 96 runners.

Sadly, I expect Wilson to be closer to his 2004 version and that Aaron Miles and Clint Barmes will struggle as young players tend to do, making it likely that Helton will see a plethora of intentional walks/pitch-around at-bats with decreased runs, homers, and RBIs.

3. Will the 2005 version of the bullpen be as much of a disaster as it was in 2004?

Last year was brutal for the Rockies pen, which set single-season records for blown saves (34) and relief loses (39). The poster child for their futility was one-year experimental closer Shawn Chacon.

Before 2004, Chacon looked like he had the stuff to be a good 9th inning guy with a hard curve and an electric fastball. The conclusion was clearly wrong. Chacon, who somehow saved 35 games in 2004, had an ERA over 7, allowed two runners per inning, walked one of every six batters he faced, and blew nine saves.

I’m a fairly forgiving fan and I stuck with Chacon in August last year. My opinion changed Aug. 4 at Coors Field. I was watching the Rockies play a very exciting game with the then Wild Card leading Chicago Cubs. The teams exchanged the lead several times with the Rockies taking the lead 8-6.

Everything changed in the eighth inning. Chacon entered with two outs in the eighth, with runners on first and third. In four pitches, the game was 11-8. Chacon’s first pitch was wild and a runner scored from third; 8-7. His second pitch was a hard single to center; runners on second and third with two outs.

Chacon’s third pitch was a Sammy Sosa home run to deep center; 10-8. Chacon’s final pitch was a homer to right; 11-8. The crowd, split between Rockies and Cubs fans, booed Chacon off the field and that performance exemplified the Rockies bullpen in 2004.

Will things be better in 2005? It all depends on how reliever Chin-hui Tsao evolves into a big league closer. After the failed conversion of starter Chacon last year, excuse me if I’m skeptical of converting another starter for the role this year. The 24-year-old Tsao was the Rockies’ top prospect for many years but he has been slowed by injuries and the team is hoping that moving him to the pen gives him a chance to excel and stay healthy.

Tsao’s blazing fastball and hard slider look to be closer material. He will need to work on trusting his slider coming out of the bullpen. Scouts report that when he pitches in relief he tends to avoid his best pitch and rely on a fastball/changeup combo.

Another concern with Tsao in spring training is that he’s having some arm troubles. An MRI of Tsao’s shoulder revealed tendonitis in his rotator cuff, but no structural damage. A red flag should go up on any pitcher experiencing arm trouble who has Tommy John surgery in his past.

The rest of the bullpen is in flux. The most experienced reliever is left-hander Brian Fuentes, who pitched better last year than his 5.64 ERA would indicate. He doesn’t throw that hard, but his strange delivery style makes him tough to hit. The other guys are made up of hard-throwing unknowns, retreads from other teams, and rookies looking for a big shot. It is really anybody’s guess as to how things will turn out.

The Rockies made headlines Wednesday by trading with the Red Sox for reliever Byung-Hyun Kim. Famed for blowing back-to-back games on ninth-inning home runs in the 2001 World Series, Kim is a shell of his former self. He’s lost velocity and doesn’t have as much movement on his fastballs. Working against him in Colorado’s thin air is that he’s a fly-ball pitcher. I don’t fault the Rockies for taking a shot on him, but I don’t expect success in the pen or to see him as a closer.

4. Do the Rockies have the most promising starting rotation in their history?

I’ve seen this in some Rockies coverage this spring and honestly it makes me laugh. The most promising rotation was in 2001 when Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle joined the team.

I do, however, think the Rockies have maybe figured out how to defeat — or rather, live with — the monster that is Coors Field and pitching at it. Instead of searching for high priced, big name pitchers who are not familiar with pitching in altitude on a regular basis (see Hampton, Neagle, and the late Darryl Kile), they have begun developing from within. I have already spoken at length about Francis, who is the latest of the home-grown pitchers to arrive at Coors Field.

The anchor of the Rockies rotation (I hesitate to use the term ace) is 2002 Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings. That year, Jennings went 16-8 with a 4.52 ERA. Since then, he has averaged fewer than 12 wins and has a two-year ERA of 5.32. On a positive note, he has pitched over 180 innings each of his first three full seasons.

Jennings, who has a new contract and is only 26, could improve to his 2002 numbers. On a more realistic note, Rockies fans should hope for a lower ERA and similar win/loss totals. It is likely that the Rockies offense will be inconsistent at home and anemic away from Coors.

Following Jennings is the only non-homegrown starter who will break camp with the Rockies in the starting rotation. Joe Kennedy, who they acquired in a trade with the Devil Rays last season, put together one of the better seasons for a starting pitcher in Coors Field history.

While he only won nine games (he missed about a month with an injury), he posted a 3.66 ERA becoming the first Rockies pitcher in their history to qualify for the ERA title and finish with an ERA below 4.00. It is unlikely that Kennedy, 25, will repeat his numbers from last year but if he is relatively close, Rockies fans should be overjoyed.

Francis was discussed in length above. I’ll just say that against all reason, I expect great things from the kid. I saw him pitch last September and was floored by his performance.

After Francis, the Rockies turn to last year’s failed closer and 2003’s All-Star starting pitcher, Chacon. Chacon has good stuff, his main drawback, and what ultimately led to his move to closer last year, was a propensity to get injured.

He’s a pitcher the Rockies were hoping to move in the off-season and if he struggles early, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him moved to the bullpen (gasp!) or let go. He’s really a placeholder in the rotation for Aaron Cook or a prospect in the minors.

Finally, rounding out the rotation is former Rockies’ prospect and subsequent journeyman Jamey Wright. There’s little positive to say about Wright. He doesn’t have a good strikeout to walk ratio, he allows a lot of hits, and he tends to get frustrated easily.

The shocking thing about him last year was that even with those drawbacks he looked pretty good, posting a 4.12 ERA in 13 starts in the Rockies. The one thing he does fairly well is keep the ball on the ground, which is a good thing for a pitcher in Colorado. If he can pitch 150 innings with an ERA around 5, fans should be happy.

Waiting in the wings is Cook, who looked impressive at times last year but lost the last month or so of his season when he was hospitalized after a game with blood clots in his lungs.

The rotation has lots of promise but there needs to be some caution. Pitchers tend to have occasional good years as a starter in Colorado, but it is very seldom (in fact I can’t remember it ever occurring) where a pitcher strings together more than one good campaign.

5. What can fans expect of the Rockies this year?

Not much, except development for the future. There is no way that I see this team within 10 games of first at the All-Star break, even in an NL West with a weakened Dodger team and an injured Barry Bonds.

The Rockies are looking to 2006. That’s when some of the horrendous contracts (Hampton especially) come off the books and the team will get a bit more financial flexibility. Therefore, a great 2005 campaign isn’t about wins, it is about development for 2006 and would include some or all of the following things:

  • Francis showing flashes of the brilliance he’s shown at the minor league level and competing for the NL Rookie of the Year award.
  • Atkins and Closser putting up impressive offensive numbers while learning to field their positions better at the major league level.
  • Wilson staying healthy, providing protection for Todd Helton, and putting on a good first half show. Hopefully, one of the haves (the Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals, Cubs) trades for Wilson at the All-Star break, netting the team a good prospect in return.
  • Helton attacking Wayne Hagin at the first meeting between the Rockies and Cardinals this year. Seriously, Helton putting up 35 homers, 120 RBI, 100 runs, and an average around .340 and starting to feel comfortable with his new team.
  • Tsao filling the closer roll and growing into it, making the team and fans comfortable seeing him in a tight game in the ninth inning.
  • One of the Rockies starters (probably Jennings or Kennedy) developing in a legitimate 15 win, 4.00 ERA type guy.
  • Ian Stewart, currently playing third base in Double-A ball and Baseball America’s number four prospect, moving slowly up to Colorado Springs and continuing to develop and hit the cover off the ball.
  • Rockies fans not getting deterred by 10 years without a playoff appearance and really 10 years without a legitimate shot at a playoff appearance and sticking with the team. Denver’s amazing summer weather should help keep people in the stands, along the fact that the Rockies basically give away tickets to Coors Field.
  • The Rockies starting to hit on the road. Won’t happen, but I can dream, can’t I?

The most a rational fan could expect is an exciting baseball season watching players develop and hoping that the Rockies’ plan for success (I think it is number 1,003,345 in the Dan O’Dowd era) mirrors that of the Twins and the Athletics.

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