Monthly archives: August 2006
All season, the Rockies had one stated goal, repeated as if a mantra by players, coaches, and management alike: to be playing meaningful games in September. It's August 31st. They have failed. They're ten games under .500 and in last place in the NL West. They're no longer even a courtesy mention in the wild card race. They have the fourth-worst record in the National League, in fact. Of course most of the league is clustered between 61 and 65 wins and the Rockies resemble the teams immediately ahead of them -- Milwaukee, Houston, Arizona -- much more closely than the teams below them in the cellar, Washington, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. But being slightly better than the worst teams in the league wasn't the goal. The goal was to play meaningful games in September. Fail. Remember, it's their stated goal, not mine. I just wanted them to win 75 games, which they could still do. They will have to pick up the pace a little bit to accomplish my goal, but their goal is out the window. Which set of standards you hold them to is your choice.
2006 being over, planning for 2007 has begun in earnest. All year we've been writing about the lack of offense at catcher and shortstop and saying, well, at least we have Chris Iannetta and Troy Tulowitzki in the minors. Now we have Iannetta and Tulowitzki in the majors. While officially these callups have been made to improve the young players' chances at breaking camp next spring with the major league team, unofficially, what other options do we have? The Clint Barmes era is over. Yorvit Torrealba is not a long-term solution at catcher. The pitching staff has solidified more rapidly than the organization probably expected. Now if management is too pokey getting the best hitting talent in the system up with the big club to support those pitchers, it'll be back to square one. I don't know about you, but I am sick of square one. Square one sucks. Let's visit some new squares already.
The Post's Tulowitzki article reveals a lot of interesting possibilities for the composition of next year's team. Everybody knows where the Rockies need to get better. Hopefully, Tulowitzki and Iannetta address shortstop and catcher. Right now, the plan for right field is an interesting name: Ian Stewart. Colorado recognizes that Garrett Atkins has emerged as a key building block and won't move him for the world. Stewart despite a tough, injury-plagued year in AA is still on the fast track for the majors. It looks like many outfield innings in the Arizona Fall League are in his immediate future. The Rockies' attempt to turn Ryan Shealy into a corner outfielder were less than a roaring success, but Stewart (6'3", 205) is a bit more outfielderlike than the 6'5", 250-pound Shealy. The biggest unsettled question is in center field. That's where they'll go outside the system, according to the Post. The names dropped by Troy Renck are Eric Byrnes and Coco Crisp. The Rockies already had Byrnes, who is having a Fluke Rule kind of year for Arizona. Crisp is a little more interesting. He's highly likely to become a scapegoat for a letdown year in Boston, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a semi-repeat of the Edgar Renteria situation develop. The Red Sox couldn't wait to get rid of Renteria after being fabulously excited to sign him before the '04 season. He's had a solid year for the Braves for a discount rate thanks to Boston's still shouldering much of his salary burden. Crisp isn't as highly paid but he could be had at a low price in terms of talent since the Red Sox will be eager to rid themselves of him. That is assuming the Rockies front office and Boston's are speaking to each other again after the Kelly Shoppach unpleasantness of last year's trade deadline.
The less said about this Mets series, the better. While the Rockies paradoxically thrived against the superior American League in interleague play, they've cratered against the one team in the NL that could actually compete over in the DH circuit. What a world.
You Can't Spell "Underachievement" Without "Achievement"
Jon Heyman's list of the biggest individual busts in the NL this year features two Colorado players. The first is Clint Barmes, checking in at #22. This is a little silly. The only reason anyone thinks Clint Barmes is any good at all is he managed to get hurt instead of collapsing in the second half last season. This was a brilliant career move on Clint's part. It guaranteed him the starting job for all of this year; had he been healthy enough to prove his true level in '05 Kaz Matsui or an Alex Gonzalez would probably have been the regular shortstop in Denver this season. As it stands, and as Heyman points out, he's just keeping the chair warm for Troy Tulowitzki now.
The other Colorado hitter on the busts list is Todd Helton. This is much more interesting. Heyman ranks Todd at #4, behind only Mark Mulder, Morgan Ensberg, Brian Giles, and Marcus Giles. That is actually four players, but you know those Sports Illustrated writers and their fuzzy math. I might have ranked Brad Lidge above Helton, but the general collapse of the rest of the Astros franchise has relatively diminished the blow of Lidge's strange recession. Heyman has an anonymous scout comment on many of the picks for his list. This is another thing SI seems to do all the time. Why can't they give these guys' names? Who would care? It's a scout! It's like hearing the name of an umpire. It passes right through the mind without registering.
According to "one NL executive" if Helton "was doing anything, the Rockies would be in first place." I think that's probably worth examining, since Colorado seems closer to being relevant than they have in many a year. Helton's VORP is 27.6 right now according to the Baseball Prospectus website. There's a month left so let's round that off to 30. Helton is fourth on the team, by the way, behind Brad Hawpe, Garrett Atkins, and Matt Holliday. That's only looking at the list of hitters. Jason Jennings (51.5) leads the pack by a wide margin. Aaron Cook is second overall (41.0). Jeff Francis (40.1) is himself close to ranking ahead of any Rockies hitters. Making our way back leisurely to the point, Helton isn't doing exactly nothing this year, but he's the seventh-best player on an also-ran team. That's less than his profile and compensation level would lead us to expect. Back in his salad days, Helton could be expected to reliably provide VORPs of 75 or higher. In this season's watered-down NL, numbers like that would make him MVP by a wide margin (Albert Pujols having missed some time to injury). Helton is getting on in years, but a reasonable career curve wouldn't have him lose value this rapidly. If he had Lance Berkman- or Jason Giambi-type numbers this season, a VORP in the high fifties to mid-sixties, would that make the difference between first and last for the Rockies? Our research department informs me that as a rule of thumb, 10 points of VORP equates to 1 additional team win. If Helton was more himself, the Rockies might have an outside shot at .500 and a very good shot at 78 wins...but they probably still wouldn't be a playoff team.
Here's the lesson I think we should draw from Heyman's busts article: nobody expected anyone on the Rockies to be good, so how could anyone have expected the team as a whole to be good? It's easy to look at the standings and see Colorado just a few squandered opportunities away from contention, but that's true of most teams that aren't Kansas City. The only guy who's really letting the Rockies down in 2006 is Todd Helton, and that's a little scary. As the BP print edition warned this spring, it's better to trade a guy too early than too late, and Colorado may have reached the point where there's no way to divest themselves of Helton and his ludicrous contract. I have gone on the record many times as saying that a Helton even in the decline phase of his career was worth keeping around, given that his contract is a sunk cost at this point, but I had no inkling that his decline phase was going to have such a precipitous slope. I don't want to get into this too much right now because it's severely depressing and there's still a month of games to stiffen our upper lips for and suffer through positively. Of course, the Marlins are mounting a wild card run with a payroll that is less than Helton's salary for this season, so maybe the Rockies can just live with an albatross at first and build a young winner around him for $30 million or so. They've paid more for less in the past.
The research department and I would like to point out something that became abundantly clear while scanning this season's VORP tables: there is no more underrated player in baseball right now than Milwaukee's Bill Hall. Thank you, that is all.
I don't read the local sports pages very much. They're not very good. It doesn't go much further beyond that. It is true that I hate the Broncos, which both of the Denver dailies cover with the breathless enthusiasm of a summer intern. Those cut-blocking, 'roid-injecting, Raider-baiting freaks can go straight to hell as far as I'm concerned. But before this becomes one of my patented rants about how much I detest the baffling popularity of American professional football, for which there will be plenty of time in the offseason, let's get back to the main idea of this post, which is a Bernie Lincicome column from today's Rocky Mountain News.
Bernie is mourning the end of the Rockies' season, much like I have done for the last week. But his rhetorical device is so generic that it could be run in any of 50 other papers about any of 20 other baseball teams with a few minor name substitutions. It's clear from Lincicome's piece that he has barely watched the Rockies this season. There's more about things that happened to other teams -- the White Sox, Blue Jays, and Marlins -- than specific details about Colorado's club. It's true that the Rockies wound up disappointing again in 2006. But it's not the same old story. The character of the team is changing, gradually, and the season hasn't been a total wash. The print media in Denver is divided between the beat writers, Renck and Ringolsby, who are shameless organization men, and columnists like Lincicome and Jim Armstrong who haven't watched a Rockies game all the way through in four or five years and get all of their baseball news from watching "Pardon the Interruption." Which would explain why the only observations Bernie seems to have that apply specifically to 2006 as opposed to any other also-ran Rockies season are the two stories that somehow registered on the national sporting consciousness. The Christian thing and the humidor thing. By all means, let's reinforce the idea that there is nothing to Colorado baseball besides group prayer and soggy baseballs.
Lincicome takes a gratuitous shot at Garrett Atkins. Had he been watching the games, he might have noticed that Atkins has surprisingly become the team's most steady run-producer. He halfway praises Matt Holliday, looking up his average (it's good) without noticing the discrepancy between Holliday's overall stats and his situational ones. He doesn't mention Todd Helton's play at all. Do you think it's a bit of a big story that the Rockies' $16 million man has become a fair #2 hitter in what ought to be the late prime of his career? Well, no, you would have had to have been watching the games to notice that. Lincicome mentions Kaz Matsui (who has barely played) and Ray King (who's actually been okay) because they are veterans who have played for more famous teams. He mentions Choo Freeman because he has a funny name. He name-checks Brad Hawpe and Cory Sullivan without making any qualitative assessments of their performances (indeed, besides the swipe at Atkins' defense, he doesn't have any constructive criticism to offer any of the Rockies' players, although he does make fun of Clint Hurdle's nose). This is to prove that he does scan the box scores once or twice a week.
All right, let's look the big issue right in the face. I complain all the time about the Rockies not getting enough press coverage, even in their own fair home city. Am I talking out of both sides of my mouth when I slam a columnist for lowering himself to write a few paragraphs about the local nine even while the local eleven is preparing itself for the all-important final week of the NFL preseason? No, I'm not. There's a difference between simply writing about the Rockies and writing substantively about them. That's the reason this page exists. The MLB's flyover teams do not lack passionate, informed fans. There are people who are intensely involved in Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball. Not a lot of people, and probably not any people whom I would wish to meet without an armed escort, but they exist. It's the nature of the game. But as sure as water flows downhill writing talent goes to where the money is, and the money goes to where the most interest lies, and let's call a spade a spade: the interest does not lie in Colorado Rockies baseball. If you're a veteran sports columnist and you take a job in Denver, you have to know to which side of the bread you want to allot the majority of your butter. There's a pecking order here and it goes Broncos, Broncos, Broncos, Avs, CU football, the Nuggets, every other college sport in the state, high school football, the Rockies, the rest of high school sports, and then time permitting the Rapids (the MLS: providing ego boosts for unloved franchises in other team sports for over 10 years). But you know what, Mr. Lincicome? We don't want your charity. If you don't care about the Rockies, don't write about them. The vast majority of your readership has already absorbed the tired old CW on the team, shut them utterly out of their lives, and moved on. Those people who really care about the team have found other sources to get frank, critical, but still true-fan optimistic coverage of the Rockies. Hopefully they come here. That may mean we'll never see 1/100,000 of the readership that Dodger Thoughts gets, but we're not in this for the notoriety. Frankly, I don't know what we're in this for anymore. But quitters we ain't.
Danny Ardoin, probably the single most-ridiculed player in the Rockies organization on this here website, was designated for assignment last night. His roster spot will be filled by Chris "Hopefully Not the Next J.D. Closser" Iannetta. The future is now!
What will become of Ardoin depends on whether he managed to learn the secret backup catchers' handshake on this (inexplicably extended) stay in the big leagues. If another team expresses interest, Colorado will probably let them have him. Otherwise, it's back to the minors. Farewell, Danny. Boy, could you not hit.
Maybe We'll Never Win Again
The word of the day is "smoke." It applies to what the Rockies' playoff chances have gone up in, what the Brewers and Mets did to Colorado on this road trip, and what this week has made me deeply wish I hadn't quit. The Mets and Brewers are teams known for their powerhouse lineups, not their deep pitching staffs. The Rockies' bats were invisible until the game this afternoon, when the pitching finally gave out. It's been brutal. If you're a Rockies fan, you know, and I really don't think we need to dwell on it.
So if current trends hold, the Rockies are going to finish in last place in the National League West. Again. By a narrower margin than last year, but who really remembers things like that? I have been considering for the past few days as the Colorado hitting attack serially flopped in every imaginable run-creating situation whether I am angry at the Rockies organization for not seizing the season. The National League is terrible in 2006. Every bad thing that was written about Colorado's division in 2005 could easily be applied to the entire league this season. The Mets, who are the going-away favorites to claim the NL pennant, are a deeply flawed team that would scratch to be a wild-card contender in this year's AL or indeed most leagues most years. None of the other teams in the National League, with the exception of the schizoid Dodgers, really even deserve to be make the playoffs. St. Louis and Cincinnati scare no one. Philadelphia tried to raise the white flag and the league sank to its level. The defending champion Astros are a nonentity. The Diamondbacks, Padres, and Brewers are profoundly mediocre teams elevated to fringe contender status by the utter lack of anything resembling a real upper class. It's been a weird year.
The weirdest thing, of course, is that Rockies pitching has arrived. Fourteen years as an MLB franchise was all it took. The Rockies lead the circuit in starters' ERA, still. Our research department finally managed to get a pro analyst to acknowledge this in a BP chat earlier today. Well, "acknowledge" in the sense that Nate Silver posted the question. His answer, actually, wasn't: "We analysts are going to have to do a lot of long and hard thinking about how to handle Coors park effects this year. Having not done that thinking yet, I'm really uncomfortable providing any definitive answers about Rockies performance." Which is kind of a lazy dodge given that Colorado is still near the top of the table in road ERA, starters' and overall. It's nice having pitching. It's nicer still having pitching and hitting, but this is where I'm getting to my point. I don't blame Dan O'Dowd for not spending big money on free agent hitting last offseason.
There was no way of knowing that a) the Rockies' pitching staff would be both effective and almost completely healthy and b) the National League would be watered-down to an almost unheard-of degree. I rag on teams for spending lots of money to win 75 games all of the time. The Rockies didn't spend any money and will win that many or in the neighborhood, and retain the flexibility to re-sign any number of players who are still on the growth half of their career curve. What free agents would they have signed anyway? A return engagement of Preston Wilson? He sure panned out well in Houston. Jacque Jones? Bleah. It was a bad market, teams were wildly overpaying for platoon hitters and middle relievers, and as I wrote at the time, Colorado did well to not get sucked into it. Jose Mesa, Josh Fogg, and Byung-Hyun Kim were all worthwhile signings. The Jamey Carroll purchase was highway robbery. The Yorvit Torrealba trade, in the long run, I think will work out well for the team. I let O'Dowd have it for swapping Shawn Chacon for Yankee chaff last year, a deal that looked even worse when Chac was lights-out for New York down the stretch, but reassess the deal now. Chacon predictably washed out in his second Yankee season and Ramon Ramirez has become one of the young stars of Colorado's mongrel bullpen. The only major trade the Rockies made during this season, back when they still looked like they sort of had a shot, is one with smart middle-term benefits as well. Jeremy Affeldt: Colorado reliever is a much more enticing proposition than Affeldt: Kansas City starter, and Ryan Shealy was going nowhere in this organization and deserved richly to go to one where he would have ample chances to become a regular. If Denny Bautista ever does anything in a Colorado uniform, bonus.
I can't speak for every Rockies fan, but I feel OK about this season, even at this its darkest juncture. The team is better than it was, and the franchise is healthier than perhaps it's ever been. It would have helped the team immensely if they'd fulfilled their long-held goal of "playing meaningful games in September," since most casual-fan Denverites have still yet to learn the charms of this core of Rockies players, but in a way, I am a little pleased that the Rockies are still kind of a private thing for me and a handful of other headcases. Next spring, we won't sound so crazy talking about winning records and wild cards and Cy Young Jeff Francis...assuming O'Dowd performs the same shoestring budget repair job on the offense as he did so adroitly on the rotation and bullpen between April '05 and today '06.
That's the only word for the weekend, really. The Rockies got swept by the Mets, the alleged only good team in the National League, in three games that were at no point close. Every year we hope vainly that this will be the season the Yankees miss the playoffs, and they creamed the Red Sox in five straight. The Neifi Perez era came to an end in Chicago. What a bummer, man.
I don't know if other Rockies fans share this impression, but it seemed to me listening to the radio and TV broadcast teams during the Mets series that this was the point where they gave up on the playoffs for this season. Colorado fell back into last place, six games under .500, but it was less a numerical thing than a spiritual thing. They just don't have the feel of a playoff team, as it seems I have been saying for weeks. But a late charge could get them to 80 wins, which would be an accomplishment of sorts. Granted, they have to play the Mets again, but the rest of the schedule down the stretch is pretty light, mostly games in the division plus the Cubs, Braves, and Nationals. Yes, the NL West has really ravaged the Rockies this year...perhaps the familiarity with the Rockies' serviceable but not dominant rotation breeds offensive success. More likely, other pitchers in the division have figured out how to shut down Colorado's utterly ineffective offense.
Here's another thing to look for as another unremarkable season of Rockies baseball putters to a close: the team has a fairly good chance to finish with the best overall ERA in the majors. That's pretty incredible. At the moment they're #1 in ERA for starters by a fairly significant margin (4.11 to the Dodgers' 4.25) and they trail the leaders in overall ERA, those very Mets, by a mere 4.09 to 4.05. Forthcoming series against the Cubs, Padres, and Giants will offer excellent opportunities to rocket into the lead. Wouldn't that be something? The Rockies, leading the league in ERA? The Colorado Rockies? There would be an offseason trivia question for the ages. It does remind us all of how much of a shame it is that this team has no hitting at all. Brad Hawpe and Matt Holliday failed to consolidate on good first halves. Todd Helton hasn't been himself all summer -- I suspect we may learn in the winter that like last year, Todd hasn't been fully healthy for much of the season. Clint Barmes hasn't done much. Really, the one guy who has exceeded all expectations is a fellow I suspected would have lost his job to a minor leaguer by now, Garrett Atkins. Atkins, who had brutal home-road splits last year, has proved the team's most consistent run producer this season. What's more, he's hit better away from Coors: .310/.384/.544 vs. .301/.377/.502. The Rockies suddenly have an embarrassment of riches in the system at third base, something they hopefully will be able to convert into more swag than they got while resolving their logjam at first base. Not that I am dissing Jeremy Affeldt, who has been quite good and throws a curveball that might be the second-most-fun-to-watch pitch thrown by a Colorado hurler after Brian Fuentes' slider.
The Rockies need another middle-of-the-order hitter if they wish to contend next year. The obvious spot that calls out for improvement is right field, since the price associated with a real-deal power-hitting center fielder is higher than this decade's Colorado franchise can traditionally afford. There are basically no outfield prospects in the system, so it's up to Dan O'Dowd to find his guy and get him. The bullpen and the rotation should continue to be strengths next year. Upgrades at fourth and fifth starter would be nice, but every team could be saying that, and Josh Fogg and Byung-Hyun Kim have really been all you could have asked of them in '06. A full healthy season from Yorvit Torrealba might improve the catcher situation. Barmes probably won't be as bad next year as he was the whole first half this season. Probably. Todd Helton has had two down years in a row, but he's hardly a relic. Holliday is reasonably priced for one more season. If O'Dowd really wanted to go for the gusto he could bring in a good-hitting second baseman and play Jamey Carroll at short, but this is Team Incremental Improvement nowadays. Anyways, there is no evidence to suggest that Carroll's unbelievable 2006 performance is repeatable. There is also no evidence to suggest that it isn't. Before this season, he never got to play, so who knows? After this year, though, it is certain that if the Rockies let him go Clint Hurdle would have an even bigger conniption fit than Frank Robinson had when the Nationals dealt him to Colorado.
So, to summarize, pitching good, offense bad. It's a new feeling for Rockies fans, but it beats the pitching bad, offense bad paradigm of the last several seasons. Can we get some hitters? We ought to be able to do so. Huge, prime-of-their-career free agents are certainly out of the question given the team's budget and the quantity of talent that's a year or less away from being ready in the farm system, but slugging corner outfield types are not too difficult to come across. A really smart GM ought to be able to find a platoon combination that could do quite nicely. Anything is better than the current group of Rockies "platoon" outfielders like Choo Freeman and Cory Sullivan who can't hit righties or lefties.
As Good As It Gets
The Rockies won again today, continuing their general trend of winning about as often as they lose. If I didn't know any better I would think they were a .500 team. How has it been this year? Well, it's been better than last season. And several of the seasons before that. But Colorado continues to be a day late and dollar short when it comes to seizing the moment. Take that 18-inning game the other night. Not only did the Rockies fail to win a game they had ample opportunities to take from a weak Arizona bullpen, but they also managed to set a Coors Field record for longest game on the same night the Cubs played a two-in-one marathon themselves. You'd think the longest Rockies home game ever would be enough to allow the team to lead the morning highlights shows for the first time all season, but no way. Instead it was a minute on the Cubs and a half-sentence about the poor Rockies, the team the Eastern Time Zone forgot.
It's true that Colorado hasn't lost a series in some time, but the incendiary play of the Dodgers has made earlier excitement about a division crown seem very foolish, and while still mathematically very much in the wild card hunt, the Rockies simply don't have the air of a playoff team, even one in 2006's spectacularly watered-down National League. But...they are going to win more than 75 games. That was all I asked for going into the season. I didn't think the division would repeat its pathetic showing from last season, something that Los Angeles at long last is addressing. The fact that the NL West did look like a ghost division for three-quarters of the season ought not to diminish our opinion of the Rockies, who are improving while spending very little money. If their pitching is this good next year, and why wouldn't it be, they really ought to have no excuse not to invest in a hitter or two. And there's all those young guys coming, or at least that's what they tell us. This is progress, not a blip. I hope.
Rockies 4, Diamondbacks 3
A few thoughts on a huge win which also featured the least interesting bench-clearing incident of the season:
After spending two solid weeks hectoring Clint Hurdle about leaving his starters in games too long, I can't fault him for the decision to go to Jose Mesa in relief of Jeff Francis tonight. With two runners on and a two-run lead, going to the bullpen was the right move. Unfortunately, it didn't work. Eric Byrnes tagged Mesa almost immediately for a three-run homer, and Francis's shutout bid became a looming Colorado loss. Thanks to late-inning heroics by Yorvit Torrealba, Clint Barmes, and Brad Hawpe, the Rockies pulled one out of there. It seems rare indeed that this team scores any runs at all in the seventh through ninth innings, so maybe Mesa's reversion to form was a blessing in disguise. Still, Mesa has been solid the whole season, and Hurdle made the right move. Even had the Rockies gone on to lose the game after the Byrnes homer, I would still be saying so. Really.
I was considering writing a piece about what a huge problem the Rockies franchise is going to have if Todd Helton is going to be a .280 hitter with no power for the remainder of his colossal contract. It pains me to say it, because Helton is my favorite player in the game today and has been the lone bright spot for many years in the baseball wilderness for Colorado, but the difference between Classic Todd (.340, 30 homers) and Todd Lite (.280, 15 homers) is vast indeed. The former is still overpaid at $16 million a year but given that his salary is a sunk cost, isn't a bad player to have to plug into your lineup every day. The latter...well, it doesn't even bear thinking about. "Colossal, disastrous millstone" are the words that come to mind. "Entirely untradeable," too. Well, you know how I was thinking of writing about this? I looked at the calendar and realized it was August. Crisis averted. Todd Helton owns August like Philip Seymour Hoffman owns character acting. His OPS is 1.024 so far on the month. If Helton ever played for the A's in an August, the consequences would be dire and far-reaching. He would hit like .900 and they'd go 27-1. If I didn't love watching Todd play for the Rockies so much, I'd almost want to see that trade go down just to see what would happen.
There were a multitude of examples in the game tonight of why being a major league GM is an impossible job. For all the best-laid plans these guys construct, the teams that take the field never, and I mean never, end up matching the preseason ideal image held in management's exhaustion-fueled fever dreams. Jamey Carroll and Yorvit Torrealba are two guys the Rockies got as afterthoughts, organizational players who were supposed to be cheap and remain upright while more exotic options at their positions blossomed in the farm system. Ditto Eric Byrnes with Arizona. And here it is in mid-August and all three are key contributors for teams that are still very much in the thick of playoff races. Byrnes has arguably been Arizona's most valuable position player this season. If not he's in a dead heat with Johnny Estrada, another guy not necessarily brought on to be a starter for a playoff team. Carroll, as you know, has been indispensible for the Rockies this year. Torrealba despite his late start is rapidly approaching the same status, thanks to his novel knack for getting hits in those vaunted Close and Late situations. Before the season, it wasn't clear what role (if any) awaited this group of players. Now were any of them to get injured their teams would be at a loss to replace them. It's funny how that works.
Don't look now, but the Rockies are hot. They're not Hot like the White Sox or HOT like the A's or HOT!!! like the Dodgers, but baby steps are better than not walking at all. I feel like I've written it a hundred times this season, but the Rockies are not quite ready for prime time. But they're approaching basic cable status. They're not smokin' hot like the ladies in the new CW commercials (Kristin Bell: call me), but regular, approachably good-looking, like the girls on "Freaks and Geeks."
The Rockies really should have swept the weekend series against the Cubs. On Sunday, Chicago pitchers offered up ten walks to Colorado batters, including eight by starter Carlos Marmol, but the Rockies' underused bullpen (that still seems weird to write) couldn't convert the lead that was handed it. The Rockies haven't had a win streak longer than four games all season. There's not enough season left to be satisfied winning two out of three at home against bad teams (and the Cubs are a bad team this year), especially against schmoes like Marmol. I was stretching out my fingers to write a real triumphant sweep post late in the game yesterday and my team couldn't seal the deal. The series against the Cubs makes for 3 of the 4 games all season when Coors Field is full. A sweep would have sent some sort of message to all of the many vague baseball fans in the Denver area who just show up for the annual Kubby Karavan Travelling Medicine Show and Base Ball Exhibition. A message has been sent, but it's the wrong one: we're still not ready for prime time. Please resume hyperventilating about Jay Cutler.
Here's a move that sends all the wrong signals: the Rockies have signed Vinny Castilla to a minor-league deal. Castilla was released by the Padres, a team even more offensively challenged than Colorado, after hitting worse than many pitchers all season long. Vinny is done. Vinny was done when he left Colorado the first time. Unless the Rockies are attempting to start some sort of mutant Reputation! team in the Springs with Castilla and Kaz Matsui, this move makes zero sense. Garrett Atkins (who hit a four-run home run on Sunday) should be playing every day. Vinny doesn't hit well enough to sub at first and playing him in the outfield would be disastrous. The only possible reason for giving Castilla, who by the way is done, a contract is sentiment, and there is no place for sentiment in big business. I thought the Rockies were over the era of misdirected loyalty to mediocre veterans. I thought they were running a baseball club here, not a Purple Pride theme park. Castilla is done. Disco done. And he wasn't even that good for Colorado in the first place. If Castilla plays in even a single game when the Rockies are still mathematically in playoff contention, I'll...well, I don't know what I'll do. I'll write another, even longer paragraph where I'll call him done eight or nine more times. Because he is. Done. Castilla is.
Next up, Arizona, who like the rest of the division have beguiled Colorado this season. They're certainly not the only team that can make this complaint, but the Rockies would be in great shape if they just didn't have to play the NL West so much. They're 22-28 in the division and and 35-32 otherwise, anchored by a bizarre 11-4 interleague mark. Bizarre because this was the season the AL opened an absolute can of Carnation Instant Whoop-Ass on the NL in interleague play. I don't want the Rockies in the AL however. It would be nice to even out the leagues, and get rid of the gimmicky "pod" system for interleague they have now, but the Astros are the natural choice to move and besides you know if Colorado played full-time in the junior circuit, Vinny Castilla would be the everyday DH. The dude is done.
Ain't nothing in the world perks the ol' offense up better than facing Cubs pitching.
Hooray for Not Losing
It sure beats not winning.
You'd think the Rockies' victory tonight against their nemeses in Los Angeles would spare Clint Hurdle the tongue-lashing he had coming after his mismanagement of Tuesday's game, but you'd be wrong. Clint is hurting the rotation and the bullpen alike with his fixation on running starters out there for the seventh and eighth innings. If Colorado had a consistent problem with starters going deep and the bullpen was running on fumes, it would be one thing. Maybe being manager in Denver so long has broken Clint's brain. That would explain the soul patch, at least. But until a few starts ago Byung-Hyun Kim had basically never pitched seven-plus innings in the big leagues. Now Hurdle wants him to throw a complete game every time out. This is stupid. The Rockies have a lot of talented relief pitchers who are being set up to fail by Hurdle's random usage patterns. In a one-run game against the hottest team in baseball, would it have been the absolute worst thing in the world to bring a reliever after Kim, the fifth starter, pitched six fine innings? No. A lot of things are worse.
The Rockies didn't get burned tonight, even after Manuel Corpas hit the first guy he came on to face, because Corpas, Jeremy Affeldt, and Brian Fuentes got the job done. The Rockies have a lot of guys like this. Who knows what Ramon Ramirez might have done on Tuesday had he come in at the beginning of the inning rather than after Kim gave up the lead. Jose Mesa and Ray King are still Rockies. Remember when Tom Martin was Hurdle's favorite guy in the pen? He's pitched two innings in the month of August.
It's nice to have good starters. You win games with good starters. But it's time to start treating every game like a playoff game. While Kim's pitch count wasn't terribly high the other night, Hurdle needs to start showing as much faith in his bullpen as he does in his rotation. If the Rockies are going to keep the p***o** dream alive, they need the whole seven-man crew sharp. And with the way their offense is performing, they have to protect one-run leads with the tenacity of some sort of really tenacious thing.
58 Lines About 29 Teams
So I had a hunch that the Rockies were going to beat the Dodgers last night, as referenced in yesterday's post. Well, I was wrong. I should have known better. Brad Penny clearly has Colorado's number. Oh, wait, he has Greg Maddux's number. Maybe he has both. In the interest of fostering a spirit of balanced coverage of all the big leagues' outposts, this morning I'm dedicating myself to finding something interesting to say about every team in baseball that isn't the Rockies. With apologies to The Nails:
Fausto's closing days ended quick, man
Mmm, mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm, mmm mmm
A good week in New York, but there's something else, see
Mmm, mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm, mmm mmm
Though I can't believe they've not yet fired the slob
Mmm, mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm, mmm mmm
While it may be true that it's too late for their season to be saved
Important Series! Inform the East Coast
Okay, I may have recently said that you can't talk about the playoffs until your team is over .500. I meant it, I really did. It's like a rule. But you're going to have to indulge me for a second here. Let me first explain why I'm not breaking the rule by using "Rockies" and "wild card" in the same sentence here. It wasn't me who broke the tape, so to speak. Some other guys started talking about teams currently beneath Colorado in the standings making the postseason, and some of their sins of omission galled me such that I figured just this one time I would risk the karmic lashings the baseball gods always parcel out to those who dare flaunt The Rules. Now, I'm not saying that two wrongs make a right. Not at all. I'm just saying I don't have anything else good to write about today, and not posting hours before the biggest series of the year thus far for our heroes would be bad form indeed. There might be another rule involved there. We'll check with the judges.
So I was listening to ESPN radio this morning and the host guys were "breaking down" the NL wild card race with card-carrying baseball expert Buster Olney. Maybe you heard this. Mike Greenberg would read the race leaders, in order: Cincinnati, Arizona, Los Angeles, Colorado, Philadelphia. He'd stop before he got to Houston (4 back) or Atlanta (5 1/2). Then Greenberg, Olney, and Mike Golic talked about every team with an outside shot of making it, including the Braves and Marlins (6 out) except for three NL West teams -- the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Giants. This seemed weird to me. Of course, no one takes the Rockies seriously. Perhaps they shouldn't. The Giants are old and disinterested, and besides national radio guys can only talk about Barry Bonds when discussing San Francisco. People who watch the NL West closely have observed how entirely incidental Bonds has been for the Giants all season, but never mind that.
This has got to bother you if you're a serious baseball fan. The national media, by and large, isn't paying attention at all to half the teams in the race and hasn't all season. When asked to give his opinion on which teams in the crowd were his favorites, Olney didn't pick the teams with the actual best chances to come out on top. He picked the ones about which he had coherent opinions. Imagine the muted trombone adultspeak effect from the "Peanuts" cartoon playing during the following nuggets of conventional wisdom. The Dodgers: "Wah wah wah Ned Colletti wah wah trade deadline wah." Atlanta: "Wah wah division title streak wah wah wah can't count them out." The Reds: "Wah wah wah wah bullpen wah wah." Houston: "Wah wah wah wah RogerClemensrunsupport wash wah wah wah wah." Then, before dedicating the remaining 75% of his segment to some long overdue Red Sox and Yankees updates, Olney actually said (I downloaded the podcast version to be absolutely 100% completely sure) that you couldn't count out the Marlins, for sure, because they had the best starting pitching among the wild card contenders.
NO, THEY DON'T.
NL ERA leaders, starting pitchers only:
I looked this up in a couple of different places because I wanted to make sure it wasn't a terrible joke. Did you know the Rockies had the best starters' ERA in the National League? By a small but significant margin? Why isn't this a huge story? Why aren't the national flacks calling the Rockies dark horse candidates to steal the wild card? Why aren't they talking about the Rockies at all? Well, the same reason they're not talking about Arizona. National baseball guys don't know the names of any of the players on those two teams except for Todd Helton and Luis Gonzalez, and to be sure they're not 100% certain if either is still playing there. This franchise just can't catch a break. Finally, at long last, the Rockies have some pitching, and the response has been snooty accusations of cheating from the stathead crowd and deafening silence from the mainstream baseball media.
Tonight, the Rockies play the Dodgers. It's the first game of a four-game set that is the franchise's most important since I've been living in Colorado. If they can pull out a series victory, no easy task on another one of those California trips that sink them on an annual basis, they'll be above .500. Meaning I can start talking about the playoffs without using east coast media bias as a flimsy pretext. So how about Los Angeles? They lost eight in a row, then they won nine in a row. It's emblematic of the NL West as a whole this year that the Dodger franchise was recently able to weather a losing stretch that set post-relocation futility records only to emerge, unscathed and phoenix-like, as the division favorites once again. The fact of the Dodgers' winning streak bodes well for the chances that some northeastern baseball writers might tune in for the first few innings of this game before going to sleep early to prepare for their morning radio commitments. We might even hear a highlight tomorrow! "The Dodgers' nine-game winning streak was ended last night in Los Angeles." Whether or not they throw in "by the Rockies" after that is not a proposition on which I would care to wager.
Brad Penny vs. Josh Fogg. Start working yourselves into purple frenzies now.
You don't talk about the playoffs until your team is over .500. It's a rule.
It's nice that the Rockies have won three series in a row, including the first of a pivotal road trip, and it's true that they're only three games back in the NL West standings. They're also technically only 2 1/2 games out of the wild card lead, and the teams in front of them aren't exactly imposing (the Reds, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks). But they're two games under .500, and until that is rectified, we're not talking abou the playoffs. Even if the Rockies make the playoffs with a losing record, we're not going to talk about it. It's a rule!
It's disappointing that the Rockies weren't able to finish off the fading Giants for a sweep today, but a loss was almost inevitable after the stirring extra-inning win Saturday. The game today was pretty bland, so let's talk about that game. The relief pitching is back! Yorvit Torrealba didn't have a good day with the bat but he nailed Omar Vizquel trying to steal in the bottom of the eleventh, helping Brian Fuentes add another save to his total. Was I wrong about Jeremy Affeldt? Two appearances is hardly enough to judge, but the pitcher who has turned out in a Rockies uniform looks quite different than the Royals starter of the past few seasons. Some guys are just better off as relievers, and if Affeldt can keep throwing his fastball and his big sweeping curve for strikes, the Rockies bullpen next year could challenge 1995's for the best in Colorado's brief history.
The MLS All-Star game yesterday was a lot of fun to watch. The concept of having the best players in the U.S. league play against some sort of glamour team from Europe is brilliant. The Americans looked inspired in upsetting EPL champions Chelsea 1-0. If the MLS can keep bringing in big-deal Euro teams, this will be the best All-Star game in American team sports. Not that the competition is steep.
Jeff Cirillo is Still a Dumb Stupid
There's a free article over at Baseball Prospectus that every Rockies fan should read immediately. In it, Joe Sheehan admits (by examining road stats) that the Colorado pitching staff has indeed improved, but he makes a convincing argument that the longer time Coors balls now spend in the humidor is overcorrecting for the altitude effect. Sheehan has written before, and reiterates here, that he believes that nothing should be done differently to baseballs in Denver than anywhere else. As a baseball fan, he likes the existence of unique environments. As a Rockies fan, however, I strongly disagree. I'd really like to see my team in the playoffs one of these years, and the scoring sprees of the Planet Coors of old were doing the Colorado franchise no favors with the psychological and physical toll it was taking on pitchers and hitters wearing purple.
Of course, proving that the humidor is turning Coors into a pitchers' park is one thing. Claiming that the Rockies are using two separate groups of balls, one from the humidor for the visitors and one dry set for the home team's at-bats, is another thing entirely. That's what Jeff Cirillo was trying to pin on his former team, and as the Rockies broadcasters have been pointing out at length during the last two games, it's completely ridiculous. The umpires take the balls directly out of the humidor. There's no possible way the Rockies could cheat in that manner even if they were sleazy enough to try. Which I don't think they are. Doesn't anyone remember two months ago when everyone was talking about the Colorado Clubhouse for Christ?
So, in short, Joe Sheehan is smart, although I disagree with his contention that pre-humidor Coors was in any way, shape, or form good for baseball. (And Cirillo, as an immense number of angry Rockies fans have represented to me over the past few days, is a terrible excuse both for a third baseman and a human being.) Obviously there's never been any major league hitting situation like the one that exists in Denver, and figuring out how to make the park play fair for everyone while still giving the Rockies franchise the same shot at contending that everyone else gets is a work in progress. If Baseball Prospectus really wanted to take it upon themselves to do good works with the studies they've done, they'd start putting some of their really smart math guys on to the question of how long exactly it is the balls need to be stored in the humidor to make the park "fair" enough for their exacting standards. Sheehan points out that calling low-scoring baseball somehow inherently superior to slo-pitch softball slug-a-thons is silly. Well, I'm silly. I like pitching. I like watching starters finish their games themselves. I like watching pros like Chris Capuano and Aaron Cook buzzsaw through lineups faster than it takes to watch the new pirate movie. Heck, I even like watching teams bunt and move runners around, in moderation. There has to be some happy medium where the purists, stat nerds, and even old-line Rockies fans who miss the Blake Street Bombers days can all get their fair share of the kind of baseball they prefer at Coors Field. Maybe the humidor has gone too far. Maybe it hasn't gone too far enough. I don't know, I was a history major. There's got to be some sort of statistical regression BP can run to figure out exactly how long a ball has to stay in the sauna to make games come out "right." I don't think there is a "right," really, and given that the Rockies have cooperated with MLB authorities every step of the way with the development and application of the humidor, for my part I'm over the moon for the status quo. It's not as if Colorado is experiencing a ridiculously unfair advantage at home this year. Far from it. While they've historically always played better at home and far worse on the road than their neutral-field strength would predict, this season things have been vastly more normal. This in itself I think is a good argument for the viewpoint that the humidor is good for baseball and not just for the Rockies or more specifically the Rockies pitchers.
Given what we now know to be true about the humidor's effects -- it's made Coors, if anything, a slight pitchers' park -- we have to look at the seasons guys like Matt Holliday and Garrett Atkins are having in a whole new light. I mean, Rockies fans already know how awesome they are. But look out, rest of the baseball world.
Two Brief Items
Every game that I attend in person, I hope to see some kind of history made. I long for triple plays. I hold my breath until each team has recorded its first hit. When I was living in Chicago I traveled to Milwaukee two nights in a row hoping to see Barry Bonds hit his 700th. (He waited until he got back to San Francisco.) I realize it's highly likely that I've already witnessed the rarest thing I will ever see at a baseball game -- Mark Bellhorn hitting home runs from opposite sides of the plate in a single inning for the Cubs against the Brewers in 2002. But I hold out hope every time I make it to the stadium that something still weirder will happen. I didn't know until I got home and read about it, but the Rockies-Brewers (again with Milwaukee) game I went to on Monday night was the shortest nine-inning game in Coors Field history. So that's pretty cool.
Most of the other trade deadline recap columns I've read haven't even viewed the Rockies-Royals four-player swap as worthy of mentioning. But SI's Tom Verducci called Jeremy Affeldt the second-biggest short-run acquisition of the deadline, after only Bobby Abreu. Well, that's what's great about the Internet, there's so many people writing on it that you're sure to find at least one crazy.
You should, however, immediately lower your opinion of any baseball scribe who calls any team in the NL West besides Colorado the one with the best pitching. The Rockies lost yet another game in which they got an outstanding start yesterday as Josh Fogg went down 1-0 to Dave Bush and the Brewers. And now Jeff Cirillo is squawking about the humidor. Does anybody care what Jeff Cirillo thinks? No. No one does. Shut up, Jeff.
Not trying to win, but at least ticket prices won't rise (again)
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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