Five questions: Colorado Rockiesby David Wade
March 20, 2012
Last season many a baseball pundit figured the Colorado Rockies had the type of team that could win the National League West title. In the first month of the season, things in Colorado seemed to be going as planned and the the Rockies finished April with a 17-8 record. Unfortunately, the starting pitching fell apart, and their most important offensive players missed some time due to injuries. This led management to a shift in strategy.
The beginning of the reformation period for the Rockies can be traced back to when they traded Ubaldo Jimenez to the Cleveland Indians last summer. The movement began to take shape when the Rockies started unloading several players via trade during the offseason. Ty Wigginton, Chris Iannetta, Ian Stewart, and Huston Street were all shipped off for young players. The result was a stockpiling of prized recruits while leveling out a payroll that had climbed steadily since 2006. The payroll seems now to have found a ceiling around 85 million dollars or so.
Attendance at Colorado games has also gone up since 2006, while the Rockies have alternated good seasons and bad until this past year. Faced with a team falling short of expectations, general manager Dan O'Dowd started looking for pieces he felt would fix some of the team's biggest problems. Pitching at Coors Field can be difficult, and with injuries putting a strain on his rotation, O'Dowd targeted some veterans who could throw strikes and eat up a lot of innings.
At the same time, the trades of veterans like Jimenez, Iannetta, and others brought in a lot of young pitchers with big upside. One or two of those young players may even slot into the rotation. O'Dowd also signed a few players via the free agent market to fill in holes in the lineup. Whether these moves will show dividends for the Rockies as early as this season may come down in part to how they answer these five questions.
Will character help the Rockies win?
From the outside, it looked as though Colorado was dealing players they either thought were getting expensive or where failing to live up to expectations. Then, without being too specific about which players he felt were not measuring up, O'Dowd told The Denver Post that his plans for 2012 and beyond have centered around a goal of improving the character of his team. The implication with that directive is that he feels, at least in part, that the poor record from last season had more to do with his players' hearts than with their ability. This was addressed over at ESPN's The Sweetspot, where Dave Schoenfield questioned not only O'Dowd's decision to makeover the team's character, but also whether such a makeover would make any difference in wins and losses.
Character is a desirable trait, to be sure. Given two players of equal ability, every general manager would probably pick the player he felt possessed the best work ethic, character, and any number of other desirable personality traits. Unfortunately, those traits can't easily be quantified. Therefore, the Rockies must hope that their efforts to identify players who fit that mold were accurate.
They must also hope, even if they've been fortunate enough to correctly identify said players, that adding them will actually make the Rockies a better team. Otherwise, they will have simply assembled a group of nice guys that are no better than average baseball players. At the end of the season, and perhaps more realistically after several seasons have passed, we'll be better suited to judge the merits of Colorado's current plan.
Can the pitching staff be an asset instead of a liability?
Going into last season, Colorado had Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa at the top of their rotation. Jimenez had used a blistering start to the 2010 season to reach the All-Star game and finished the season 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA. In the second half of the 2009 season, De La Rosa looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball. He couldn't follow it up in 2010, as he missed a couple of months with an injured finger. But, he'd shown that when healthy he could average a strikeout per inning.
Of course, De La Rosa couldn't stay healthy, and the early optimism surrounding the Rockies rotation quickly turned to disappointment as De La Rosa tore a ligament in his elbow and ace pitcher Jimenez was shipped off. And so what appeared to be stable turned volatile and as a result the Colorado staff combined for nearly the worst ERA in the National League last year.
The Rockies don't have any aces with the track record of Jimenez. They don't have any clear cut breakout candidates like De La Rosa. What they do have is young and promising talent that is supported by a few veterans who could help rack up innings. The Jimenez trade to Cleveland last summer netted that club's first round picks from 2009 and 2010. Those picks, Alex White and Drew Pomeranz, will compete for spots in the rotation during spring training. Pomeranz may be more likely to win a spot and his development could help Colorado improve on last season's disappointing numbers.
Pomeranz has two above average pitches, but like most young guys, needs to be able to rely on his changeup to feature more diversity and keep hitters off balance. His curveball may be a perfect candidate for THT's Dispatch section, which highlights pitch movement using Pitch F/X. It's perfect because his curveball is not only interesting because of its effectiveness.
Pomeranz' out pitch is a spiked curve that the lefty claims to "flick" at release. This is unique because many who use the spike curve throw it with more of a normal curveball motion. For them, spiking their finger is done to get the ball deeper into their hand and help them get more spin. For Pomeranz, it's one that batters have as hard of a time hitting as he has explaining it. Regardless of how he throws it, it is very effective and he figures to miss a lot of bats in spite of his inexperience.
Tyler Chatwood is another young starter who may pitch his way into the rotation, but it's veteran Jeremy Guthrie whom the Rockies general manager hopes will be an example for the new guys and could fulfill the need for a steady starter to rack up 200 innings. Colorado management also hopes Jhoulys Chacin will take a step forward after a promising start to last season.
Will the lineup cause people to question the altitude?
Todd Helton is the incumbent first baseman. He is 37 this season, but as last year shows, he can still get on base. His 2011 line of .302/.385/.466 shows that he can still provide the lineup with plenty of value. But, that value is diminished a bit by his lack of power in relation to other first basemen around the league. Helton has topped out at about 15 home runs per season the past few years, a statistic that is made a little more remarkable considering his home ballpark. The forecasting system here at the The Hardball Times has Helton pegged for another steady year and a line of .280/.364/.408. Unfortunately, it also calls for him to only hit 11 home runs this season.
At third base, the Rockies will try to fix a position that produced at among the worst levels in Major League Baseball in 2011. The solution, at least as long as he can stay healthy, appears to be Casey Blake. Going with Helton at first and Blake at third gives the Rockies one of the least potent corner combinations in baseball. Blake, like Helton, probably tops out at around 15 home runs these days. Unlike Helton, Blake's on-base percentage doesn't go very far in making up for his lack of power.
In the outfield, Michael Cuddyer was also picked up via free agency. He is another guy who may have a hard time reaching 20 home runs, even in Colorado. His career best total came in 2009, when he hit 32 big flies with the Twins. While his new home may provide an ideal location for a late-career power boost, Cuddyer will play this season as a 33 year old and is certainly no guarantee to bring tons of power to the team. With Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies do have a couple of players with significant power. The only concern with those two is their health and Colorado's ability to keep them on the field.
Colorado does have a couple of things going for them. First, the park they play in helps all their hitters, even the aging ones who are losing bat speed. Plus, they scored the second most runs in the National League last year and didn't really hit all that many home runs to do it then. Instead, they used the base on balls to their advantage, finishing second in the league in that category, which in turn carried them to a third place finish in on-base percentage.
Going with Ramon Hernandez instead of Iannetta may hurt them in that regard a little, but Dexter Fowler, Tulo, Helton, and Gonzalez should all continue to get on base enough to make the offense at least above average. There just may not be as many fireworks as Rockies fans are used to seeing.
Will the back end of the bullpen be a strength or a weakness?
O'Dowd moved Street, the team's successful closer, mostly to get out of most of the 8 million dollar obligation for 2012. Primary setup man Rafael Betancourt will likely hold the closer's job. He has shined in his time in Colorado, posting a 3.00 ERA and 0.907 WHIP since he came from over from Cleveland. Matt Belisle has been a workhorse out of the pen, the past two seasons especially, where he pitched 92 innings in 2010 before following up with 72 last year. However, beyond those two things become a little murky.
Matt Lindstrom, a steady performer for the Rockies last season, was a piece in the Guthrie trade and will pitch for the Orioles in 2012. Guthrie seems to be one of a couple guys who are a lock for the rotation while the rest of the slots will be filled in the coming weeks. That's important for the bullpen because several guys who miss the cut as a starter may earn spots in the 'pen. Last year the bullpen as a whole was not a strength. With the Rockies possibly leaning on some young and inexperienced starters, the bullpen will have to step up or this season may end up about the same as last.
Can they hang in the West?
We can't count them out completely, because we all counted Arizona out at this time last year and they are defending a division title this season. Colorado has the luxury of starting, in Tulo and Cargo, two of the most complete players in the league. Further, they play in a ballpark that might help hide some of their offensive shortcomings if some aging veterans can post decent power numbers for just one more year.
But the reality is that if their offense somehow doesn't fall back a little from last year, the pitching will have a hard time improving even on last season's poor numbers. It's not that there isn't talent there. Pomeranz and White are big-time prospects who may eventually form the top of the rotation. But that time won't likely come as quickly as this season. The eternal Jamie Moyer may make a great story this season, but it's hard to see him anchoring a starting group that will likely struggle.
As for the good news, De La Rosa should return from injury sometime around June and he is the kind of guy who could make a difference. While it will probably not be enough to get them over the top this season, perhaps Colorado can use this year to groom their younger players. If some of them pan out, and if the character guys can make an appreciable difference, we may have a different answer to this question next season.
David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.