Offseason decisions: the rebuilding Rockies

One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.

Here at The Hardball Times, we’ve taken some time the past few weeks to look at every major league team and tried to pinpoint the major problems facing each franchise as they build for the 2012 season and beyond. Along the way we’ve tried to predict what organizational direction each team may take, while writers have also thrown in some suggestions regarding roster construction and the trade market.

As we fix our gaze on the subject of this entry—the Colorado Rockies—the outline of their plan has already come into focus. They are overhauling the roster.

The Rockies’ plans toward building for the coming years began halfway through this past season. At the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, Colorado found a trade partner willing to give up some of its top prospects in exchange for Rockies frontline starter Ubaldo Jimenez. That partner was the Cleveland Indians, who had parlayed a fast start to the 2011 season into a surprising spot in the battle for the division title in the American League Central.

Once Indians minor leaguer Drew Pomeranz hit his one-year anniversary of signing with Cleveland, he became the piece that completed the swap in which the Rockies also obtained Alex White, Joe Gardner and Matt McBride. Pomeranz was the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft and has top-of-the-rotation potential. However, Jimenez had already posted top-of-the-rotation results and did not carry a particularly burdensome contract.

The trade left many wondering if the Rockies were afraid that Jimenez’s health would not hold up. Although he was coming off a fantastic 2010 season, Jimenez’s velocity was down a bit to start the 2011 season, and he initially posted poor numbers before improving toward the middle of the season.

Others wondered if the Rockies were not only punting the remainder of the 2011 seasons, but the 2012 campaign as well. Management contended that it had in fact made the move with the near future in mind. However, since Jorge de la Rosa went down with an elbow ligament injury that required Tommy John surgery, it seems the reality is the Colorado front office is trying to build a team for a year or two down the road.

And so, with that precedent either set in stone or emergent from the decisions made during a season that ended with a 73-89 record, Colorado has continued to be active on the trade market this offseason. The Rockies have unloaded some salary and stockpiled some prospects.

First to go was Ty Wigginton to Philadelphia for a player to be named later or cash. Then they sent catcher Chris Iannetta to the Angels for Tyler Chatwood. About a week later, they sent Huston Street (and most of his $8 million contract) to San Diego.

A few days after that, the Rockies dealt a player to be named later, who became Daniel Turpen, for Minnesota Twins starter Kevin Slowey. Colorado general manager Dan O’Dowd said the organization is targeting “strike throwers.”

With Slowey, the Rockies certainly get that, as he has had one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in baseball the past few years. Slowey does not post a great ratio due to an abundance of strikeouts but instead relies on exceptional control, which limits his walks issued.

While keeping opponents off the bases is always a good idea, and a goal further necessitated by playing at Coors, Slowey is also a pronounced flyball pitcher and will probably give up a ton of homers. He also has had some injuries of late, and while Slowey projects as a good guy to eat a lot of innings, he’ll obviously need to be healthy to follow through.

Finally, the Rockies traded third baseman Ian Stewart and pitcher Casey Weathers to the Chicago Cubs for Tyler Colvin and minor league infielder DJ LeMahieu. Colvin has shown some pop in the past, but he is reluctant to take a walk and hasn’t looked the same since he was impaled by a shard from a broken bat in 2010. Stewart also has shown promise, but Colorado management grew weary of his high strikeout totals.

The Rockies probably are still looking for more pitching. They were rumored at times to be in pursuit of Edinson Volquez, and while they missed their chance on him, they may still have interest in other potential targets such as Jair Jurrjens or Jonathon Niese. Houston pitcher Wandy Rodriguez‘s name often comes up as a possibility for teams in need of pitching, as well.

With that flurry of trades, it looked for a while like Colorado might not be very active in the free agent market—at least not in regard to hitters. When the Rockies moved Street, it cleared some money off the budget, and for a while it looked like they might make a play for a veteran starting pitcher like Hiroki Kuroda, Jeff Francis or Kevin Millwood.

First, Colorado signed Ramon Hernandez to restock the catcher position following the Iannetta trade, which is somewhat understandable. But then they spent big on utility player and former Minnesota Twin Michael Cuddyer. Colorado signed Cuddyer to a three-year contract that averages a little over $10 million per year.

Cuddyer is a pretty good hitter, and his career OPS of .794 probably will get a boost from playing his home games at Coors Field. However, he will be 33 years old to start the season and is considered a below-average defender at several positions.

Furthermore, Colorado has a serviceable outfielder in Seth Smith (who will now likely be trade bait), and his presence and team-friendly contract mean the Cuddyer signing is not as much of a bad decision as it is a completely unnecessary one.

Unless the team will continue to pursue free agents and spend more money than many believe it will, it’s hard to understand why the Rockies spent so much for a hitter when the starting rotation was the stated target for improvement.

The trades they have made have focused on pitching, and there are arms to get excited about in Pomeranz, Chatwood and White. It’s just surprising that Colorado management saw Cuddyer as a better fit than someone like Kuroda or, as they wrote over at Hardball Talk, Edwin Jackson.

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