Five questions: Colorado Rockies

How much does $237.5 million buy you in today’s economy?

Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, that’s what. Both players saw their stock as baseball players rise to meteoric levels.

In 2010, Tulowitzki won his first Gold Glove award. Baseball Info Solutions gave him its Fielding Bible Award. He didn’t captivate the world just with his glove. He garnered much of his attention from his Ruthian September, in which he hit 15 home runs and had 40 RBI. Only Babe Ruth himself had a better singular month than Tulo.

The beautiful thing about him is that he is just 26 years old, and he plays a stellar shortstop. Health permitting, he should be considered the best overall shortstop in baseball. If you look at his 10-year $157.75 million contract, one should think that the Rockies got an incredible bargain on such a magnificently gifted athlete. He always will face doubters who question his ability to stay healthy, but he will never face doubters of his talents and abilities. His signing gives the Rocks a name they can build their franchise around. Denver isn’t a huge edifice of baseball, but the foresight and fortitude to find the cash to lock down a superstar of Tulowitzki’s caliber should be applauded, especially in a market dominated by the Northeast.

Don’t fall asleep on Gonzalez. Just recently George Karl of the Denver Nuggets, of all places, compared the “smoothness” of CarGo to that of the great Roberto Clemente. Where Karl errs in that comparison is that Gonzalez hit 34 home runs in 2010. Clemente’s career high for a single season was 29. Another possible difference is in that oh-so-lovely stolen base department. Gonzalez stole 26 bases in 2010; Clemente never swiped more than 12 in a single season. The batting average compares nicely. Gonzalez hit .336 last year, and Clemente was a career .317 hitter.

I don’t think anyone believes that Gonzalez will conclude his career with a comparable career average. The “smoothness” that Karl is referencing may be most noticed in the defense of Gonzalez, the 2010 Gold Glove winning left fielder. Clemente finished his career with 12 Gold Gloves mining the right side of the outfield. He was arguably the greatest fielding right fielder of all time. Gonzalez should hope that he will one day be that good. The Rockies have invested $80 million over the next seven years on the hopes that Gonzalez will be nearly as good as Clemente.

I believe that as the life of these contracts becomes more and more intertwined with the Rockies’ ability to operate, they will have a negative impact on Colorado’s ability to fill the gaps. Pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez‘ value should continue to rise, and managing the payroll beyond the three stars will prove very difficult in a city like Denver. I hope the Rockies have more of a plan than putting all their cash in a super-talented, injury-prone shortstop and a free-swinging yet equally gifted, youthful outfielder.

Who’s going to close games when Huston Street gets hurt?

Only seven current closers have more career saves than Street. He has proven himself as valuable an entity to Colorado as any other player on the roster. Street had pro scouts salivating as he won College World Series MVP honors while playing for Texas. He would then wow us in 2005 when he won the American League Rookie of the Year award as a member of the Oakland Athletics. His skills are evident as you watch his low 90s fastball tail through the zone. He pitches with great poise and often can overpower hitters. In 2009, he saved 35 of 37 games in which he closed.

Last season was a different story. He had a late start while dealing with a multitude of injuries. We saw his ERA creep back up to 3.61. Over his six-year career he has spent over 160 days on the disabled list. He is now the prototypical health risk at just 27 years old.

The Rockies must concern themselves with how to prepare for a possible stretch of time without their talented closer. As we examine their roster, there’s Franklin Morales who has notched 10 career saves and has the stuff to close. But what he has in skills, he will always screw up in his command of his pitches. He has never really been as successful as most thought he could be when he and Jimenez burst onto the scene in 2007.

What about Matt Lindstrom? Well he has 43 saves scattered over the past three years, including 23 last year as a member of the Houston Astros. Most would assume that the signing of Lindstrom was Plan B to Street.

I know the Rockies don’t put much importance in my opinion, but I hope I’m not the only one who sees the potential of Rafael Betancourt. I know he’s 35, but he doesn’t walk anybody and strikes out well more than a batter an inning (89 Ks in 62 innings pitched last year). If I’m the manager and I’m looking over this list of relievers. I would always stop on Betancourt. He has the skills to be Street’s understudy. Let’s hope there’s no need for such a job, but Betancourt should be more than capable.

Are the Rockies still fun even with a humidor?

For years we, the baseball fandom, have been fed propaganda proclaiming the humidor as the answer to the home run haven of Coors Field. Anyone who has read The Hardball Times Handbook 2011 may have a different feeling. Our boss and essayist Dave Studeman detailed evidence displaying that last year may have actually debunked the theory that a humidor has cured Coors of its propensity for pop.

First, I don’t think most people know what the “humidor” actually is, and how it affects the game in Denver. The humidor is a room within Coors where the baseballs are kept. This room mimics the environment in which the baseballs are made and stored in other locations. Since the air is so thin in the Mile High City, humidity’s effect or lack thereof is the foremost reason most use to explain why balls fly out of there like school children to recess.

Recently Alan Nathan, a physicist, wrote a guest article for Baseball Prospectus on the subject. Apparently, Arizona is considering a humidor for its Chase Field to copy the success of the Coors Field humidor. It is a fascinating read.

One important facet to interpreting the validity of statistics is sample size. For example, if I took the final month of 2010 as my projection basis for evaluating players for 2011, then Tulowitzki would be the best player in the game, followed closely behind by Mike Aviles.

In his evaluation of park factors, Dave Studeman pointed out that we should not place our faith in one year’s worth of data in determining park effects, but he also pointed out that the increase in home runs at Coors Field in 2010 could be signaling several things. Either the data used to anoint the humidor as the answer to home runs didn’t use a large enough sample size (years) to make an accurate determination of its success or that 2010’s 1.50 home run ratio was an aberration, and we can expect a correction soon. Either way the jury must still be out on whether treating baseballs like a Cohiba is really working.

I, for one, enjoy the park factors. I am enamored by the Green Monster at Fenway, the short porch in New York, and the windiness of Chicago. That’s the unpredictability that we love about baseball. Coors Field should embrace its power prowess as all parks should embrace their own unique identities. No other sport has all the different venues that we enjoy in baseball, and because of that, no other sport has the “hallowed grounds” of an epic ballpark.

Is Ubaldo Jimenez a bona fide ace?

Armed with one of the most electrifying fastballs, Jimenez cemented himself early in the 2010 season as a pitcher to watch. I know that when I saw he was pitching on television, I made sure my DVR was recording.

Jimenez throws nearly 100 mph with incredible movement, and that’s just his four-seamer. His two-seamer has equally devastating movement with slightly less speed. According to Fangraphs pitch value index, his fastball registered as the second best in the majors last year with a rating of 30.0. To give you a frame of reference, only 11 other pitchers in the game had a rating higher than 20.0.

His start to the 2010 season was by far the most talked about, especially in the fantasy baseball communities. Every “expert” was staking his claim of finding him first. I will argue that his lackluster control could be blamed on how nasty his stuff is.

He is a 200-plus strikeout pitcher who should pitch another 215-plus innings. His delivery seems effortless while cranking it up in the high 90s. He’s 27 years old and uses his power to get groundball rates in the low 50s. People must remember that he is accomplishing all these feats, humidor or not, in a top three hitter’s park. He is an ace in every sense of the word, and once he gains more control of his filthiness he could be a 20-game winning Cy Young Award winner very soon.

How will the West be won?

The Rockies have all the pieces in place to be successful in 2011. They have three good starters. They play good defense. Their lineup has power, speed and role players, and 2010’s playoff run should give them the confidence to know that the postseason is within reach.

Obviously health will play a major factor, probably more so for the Rockies than other teams in the National League West. Tulowitzki, Ian Stewart and Street must stay healthy for the Rocks to compete against the 2010 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants or the wildly talented Los Angeles Dodgers. I don’t foresee the Padres performing as valiantly as they did in 2010. The Padres will not be able to sneak up on anyone, and the Arizona Diamondbacks are still a few players off from becoming a real contender.

How will the Rockies defeat the Giants? That’s going to be a task. The Giants have lost nothing since last year and welcome Brandon Belt, a future batting champion to their roster. The Rockies will have to have great performances from the back end of the rotation with Jason Hammel and Esmil Rogers and have one of their position players step hisr game up, whether that’s Dexter Fowler or Stewart or more likely Seth Smith.

I think the Rockies match up much better against the Dodgers in both hitting and pitching. Colorado plays better defense and will not be intimidated down the stretch if the action is forced under the lights of Tinseltown.

A fight for a wild card spot is more realistic than an outright win of the NL West. The Giants have too much of everything to bet against at this point. I could see a real battle with Atlanta or Philadelphia into late September. But I think the Rockies can give up their dreams of making it much farther than that. Maybe next year.

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