The Snake Eating Its Tail: BP Checks in on the Rockies' Farm System
by Mark T.R. Donohue
I have to be in the right kind of mood to read Baseball Prospectus stuff, you feel me? Mostly I follow along with what they are trying to do, but every now and then they come roaring at you with all of these statistical acronyms and Latin names for medical conditions you'd only heard before on "House" episodes. Sometimes BP gives me an unpleasant feeling recalling my one and only multivariable calculus class, where after intense tutoring and hours of fevered study I managed to muster a glowing 17% on the first exam before mercifully being allowed to drop out. I accept that there are a lot of baseball writers a lot smarter than I, but I don't need to be reminded of it every day. So the point is I only check in at the BP site a couple times a week, meaning I inevitably get behind and try to catch up on too much stuff all at once, which only adds to the math flashback effect.
Still, I have a subscription to their premium service and so should you. Their yearly preseason projections and sortable stats database would be worth it on their own, not to mention the consistently witty and urbane writing, a great deal of which manages to get its point across wholly without menacing spreadsheets. Baseball Prospectus ran its list of the top ten Rockies prospects last week, and you have to like what they have to say. (Yes, this is premium content. Go back a few sentences.)
They're very, very positive about Chris Iannetta. The following should be music to the ears of anyone even the least familiar with the "offense" Colorado has generated from the catcher position the last few years: "Very good on-base skills...barring any unforeseen circumstances, Iannetta will be the Rockies' starting catcher next year, and remain in the position for quite some time." Neat! Future Shock columnist Kevin Goldstein also thinks that A-ball centerfielder Dexter Fowler is even more of a prospect than the Rockies themselves do. Goldstein isn't sure that any of Colorado's major starting pitching projects won't have to switch to the bullpen before they get to the big club, but that's true of almost all very young arms. Organizationally blocked position players Ian Stewart and Joe Koshansky have big seasons ahead; both are going to have to become outfielders or become trade bait a la Ryan Shealy last year.
On the whole, the Baseball Prospectus take on the Rockies' farm system is slightly more optimistic than my own. Dan O'Dowd has indeed done a marvelous job building the franchise's player development infrastructure, particularly given that Colorado completely blew off the minor leagues for its first decade of existence. Of course, from here on out, you can either become the A's, constantly bringing in young players who are rarin' to go and fill the holes left by departing free agents, or the Royals, where all the top-five picks and compensation-rounders in the world can't hope to fill the ever-gaping maw of big-market talent drain. The trouble is that for the time being, what you see on the current major-league roster is all you're going to get. Unless Stewart and/or Koshansky gets used to their new gloves in a bleedin' hurry or Ubaldo Jimenez finds a sudden handle on his complementary pitches, the 2007 Rockies are not going to ride their midseason callups to the playoffs like last year's Dodgers or 2005's Braves. The Colorado farm system may be strong overall, but it is rather short on immediate contributors (discounting the guys who are already here). This is especially true for the positions at which the Rockies have the most need: center field, second base, starting pitcher.
What this all means is it's going to be a high-wire balancing act for O'Dowd and Clint Hurdle to keep their jobs as the team's first crop of post-Helton homegrown stars reaches free agency and gets their opportunity to angle for the Monopoly-money contracts that very many franchises that aren't Colorado throw around with impunity these days. Unless the Rockies suddenly decide that they want to play with the big boys, Matt Holliday and Jason Jennings are going to go, sooner or later, and I don't know where the middle-of-the-order bat and #1 starter are going to come from to replace them. By the time Fowler and Jimenez and Franklin Morales and Shane Lindsay are ready, are Jennings and Holliday going to be already memories while Garrett Atkins and Aaron Cook prepare to walk? O'Dowd either needs to make brilliant trades, on the level of the Mark Mulder/Danny Haren deal, or pay somebody, sometime, what he's actually worth to all of the real teams. A white-knuckle, no-margin-for-error mixture of both is the best path (it's certainly what Billy Beane would do), and if you believe the party line from the last few rebuilding seasons, the grand scheme is to have this next group of prospects join a team already in contention, not to generate another round of false hope.
So yeah. Could be bumpy. With the way teams with even the faintest hope for winning years (and some that don't have any, I'm looking at you, Baltimore) are currently scratching, clawing, and eye-gouging for pitching talent, O'Dowd would be too hasty if he unilaterally announced Jason Jennings isn't getting traded, no matter what. The same goes for Holliday, really. $100 million for Carlos Lee? Sure, why not. But you can't trade these guys just for the sake of trading them, either. With the current penciled-in roster, the Rockies look extremely similar to last year's 76-win team, and they can't afford to tread water now more than ever. Flipping Jennings with no even replacement-level options available to take his place in the rotation would almost certainly doom the Rockies to another fourth-place finish. Ditto Holliday and a power bat for the middle of the order.