You Can't Spell "Underachievement" Without "Achievement"
by Mark T.R. Donohue
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 Prospectuswebsite. 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.