Five Questions: Colorado Rockies

1. Are the Rockies rebuilding yet again?

How many rebuilding plans have the Rockies had? Too many to count, for sure, at least not without upsetting every baseball fan in the state of Colorado. And it seems like yet again, the Rockies have decided to wait ‘til next year.

They traded staff ace Jason Jennings to the Houston Astros, and shopped Todd Helton to anyone willing to take on his contract. General manager Dan O’Dowd got quite the haul for Jennings, and refused to give Helton away for nothing, but nonetheless the Rockies off-season was not inspiring for fans.

Minus Helton, the Rockies’ core is young: Matt Holliday has replaced Helton as the face of the franchise, Jeff Francis is now the ace in the rotation, and Garrett Atkins had a breakout season last year, hitting .329/.409/.556.

But sometimes young can mean promising, and sometimes it can mean you’re going to have to wait a few years before we turn it around. Of course, Rockies fans have been waiting for a decade, so the real question for them is which of these two outcomes Colorado will see in 2007.

That leads to our next question…

2. Are the prospects ready?

The Rockies will likely start two rookies, and they have a few more on the horizon. The two starters come at key defensive positions, shortstop and catcher.

According to Baseball Prospectus, which tracks minor league defense, neither shortstop Troy Tulowitzki nor catcher Chris Iannetta is a good fielder. Both, however, are supposed to carry big sticks. According to THT’s 2007 Projections, Tulowitzki is projected to be 1.70 wins above replacement (WAR) per 150 games, and Iannetta is projected for 1.67 WAR per 130 (about a full season for a catcher).

Those are both below average, which of course should be expected of two rookies. But on the other hand, they won’t help the Rockies make the playoffs, and partly because the Rockies don’t have any hitters outside of Helton, Atkins, Holliday and Brad Hawpe, they have just a 10% chance of winning the National League West.

What’s worse is that beyond Iannetta and Tulowitzki, the Rockies don’t really have any great prospects on the horizon. Ian Stewart gets a lot of hype after posting .992 OPS in Single-A in 2004, but his OPS in Double-A last year was just .796, and he needs a good season this year to keep his top-prospect label. Stewart is still just 22 (well, he will be April 5), so he still has some time to develop, but right now, I see no reason for the Rockies to count on him.

Colorado’s other big prospect is Franklin Morales, a 21-year-old Venezuelan pitcher. Morales has electric stuff—he throws a mid-90s sinking fastball—but he walked 5.2 batters per nine innings last season, and if he can’t improve his control, Morales will never make it in the major leagues. Again, right now, Morales is of no use to the Colorado Rockies.

In short, the answer to this question is no, the prospects are not ready. Tulowitzki and Iannetta will contribute, but not enough. The rest of the Colorado farm system is thin, and the talent that is there is years away (not to mention that Stewart plays the same position as Atkins). It is unlikely that the Rockies will have a successful season driven by their prospects, though perhaps, that is the only way they can exceed expectations.

3. How will the humidor affect play in Coors Field?

Since the beginning of time—okay, since the Rockies moved into Coors Field—its ballpark has greatly affected Colorado’s success, likely adversely. The Rockies have been a historically good team at home, and generally awful on the road, due to playing in an environment that has increased run scoring by around 40%.

Last year, the story was completely different, as the Coors park factor dropped to 1.15, and the Rockies finally showcased some good pitching. The change is presumed to be the effect of a humidor that houses balls until game time, and was driven by pretty much one cause: Line drives in Coors dropped precipitously.

Between 2003 and 2005, the Rockies and their opponents hit 21% more line drives per batted ball at home than on the road; in 2006, that park factor dropped all the way to .94, and consequently so did the park factor for all hit-types except home runs.

But in reality, the Rockies witnessed a tale of two halves. In the first 81 games of the season, Coors Field had a park factor of just .92—in other words, it played as a pitcher’s park. In the second half of the season, however, the park factor was 1.40, no different from the past few seasons.

In turn, the Rockies’ performance suffered. In the first half of the season, Colorado was slightly above .500 with 42 wins, but in the second half, they won just 34 games. But here’s what is really striking: The Rockies’ winning percentage at home was .526 in the first half, and .558 in the second. Their winning percentage on the road was .512 in the first half, but just .263 in the second half!

It’s clear that the Rockies play better when their ballpark is less extreme, and the hitters don’t have to suffer a “hangover” effect on the road. So I can’t blame the Rockies if they try to turn the humidor up as much as possible to make Coors Field as neutral as possible. I think management noticed what happened in the second half of last season, and will act accordingly, but who knows?

But if you see a lot of runs being scored in Coors next season, I think it’s safe to bet that the Rockies won’t have much success.

4. Are there any bright spots?

Well, I’ve already mentioned Holliday, Hawpe, and Atkins, but I couldn’t go without talking about the top of the Rockies rotation. Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook are probably the best one-two punch the Rockies have ever had, though Roger Bailey and John Thomson in 1997 and Pedro Astacio and Masato Yoshii 2000 could have something to say about that.

Last season, Francis and Cook combined for a 114 ERA+ in well over 400 innings, and they project to be almost as good in 2007 (unlike the other two pairs, which fell apart the year after). Cook and Francis project to be among the 50 best pitchers in the major leagues next season, giving the Rockies a legitimate one-two punch at the top of the rotation. And the best part is that Cook is 28 and Francis just 26, which means both have at least a few more years at or near their peak.

Cook and Francis have both learned to pitch in Coors Field, and the Rockies should take lessons from the two (as well as Jason Jennings) to figure out how exactly a pitcher can be successful in the thin air of Denver. I’ve done some research on the topic, but there’s a lot more to learn. For Colorado, whether or not they could find pitchers who could throw in that environment has always been the difference between winning and losing.

At last, it looks like they’ve found a couple.

5. How much time does Dan O’Dowd have left?

I thought O’Dowd did a pretty good job this offseason, mainly because he got a great deal for Jennings, netting Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz, and Willy Taveras. Hirsh alone was worth it; we project him to be as good Jennings in 2007, and better going forward. Buchholz is not nearly the prospect he was a few years ago, and he struggled as a rookie last season, but at the least he can eat some innings, which is a valuable skill too. Buchholz’s biggest issue is that he doesn’t strike anyone out.

Taveras reminds me a lot of Juan Pierre, who also manned center field for the Rockies earlier this decade. Taveras, 25, projects for a .306/.340/.375 line next season; Pierre hit .305/.361/.373 at the same age. But while he may be even less patient than Pierre, Taveras also plays significantly better defense. In fact, he is projected to be the best-fielding center fielder in baseball next season, 15 runs better than average.

But the Rockies are now going into their eighth season under O’Dowd, and they haven’t been above .500 since his first year in Colorado. O’Dowd has instituted many rebuilding plans, spent a lot of money, and made a lot of mistakes. If the Rockies don’t turn it around in 2007, he might want to start cleaning out his office.

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