By general blogger acclaim the Rockies "won" the Jason Jennings trade, and when you break down the contract years attached to the players involved, I guess that's broadly true. Jennings might well sign an extension in Houston, but judging by the way his agent hardballed Colorado, he won't come cheaply. As things now stand his contract is up at the end of 2007. None of the guys the Rockies got have even reached arbitration. 2007 will be Willy Taveras's third full year in the majors, Taylor Buchholz's second, and Jason Hirsh's first. (For the first and probably last time, we'll mention that Miguel Asencio was technically included in this deal. If he has any impact for Houston or anyone else in the majors next season, I owe you a Coke.)
But I think that the Jennings trade means more to the Rockies than the sum total of the performance of all the players involved over the lengths of their current contracts. 2007 is a big year for Colorado. Charlie Monfort has already announced that Clint Hurdle and Dan O'Dowd's jobs are on the line if the team does not show improvement. The NL West looks set to go through one more relatively weak season before Los Angeles and Arizona's young talent kicks into high gear. With Jennings on board, a reasonable argument could have been constructed for Colorado snaking a division title. Not a likely argument, maybe, but a reasonable one. You just start by supposing that the pitching rotation would be as good as it was in 2006. Since it would likely have been the same five guys (Jennings, Byung-Hyun Kim, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, and Josh Fogg), that wouldn't be so crazy. Fogg and Kim might be due for a little regression, but Cook and Francis are young enough to still be on the upswing. And Jennings you would expect to be consistently good, as he has been for his entire healthy Rockies career. Then you hope the offense gets a lot better and the bullpen doesn't tank down the stretch like it did last year. It's a lot to ask, but it's not completely implausible.
Jennings had a VORP of 50.8 last year, the highest on the Rockies' pitching staff and indeed one of the highest in the majors. A lot of his value comes from the high number of innings he will log, but don't believe all these dismissive reports about his being "only" a third or fourth starter. Which rotations are these that have three better starters than Jason Jennings? The Rockies are going to have a very difficult time replacing Jennings. Jason Hirsh is a big-deal prospect, but he's not going to be a 50 VORP player in his first full year in the bigs. Besides, there is absolutely no telling whether Hirsh will be one of the multitude of pitchers who simply can't make the adjustment to Coors Field. Buchholz, whose best pitch is his curve, is an even likelier candidate for Mike Hampton syndrome.
The Rockies aren't going to win next year with their Cook-Francis-Kim-Hirsh-probably Fogg rotation. Maybe they'll win, I dunno, 78 games. The team isn't going to grip the imagination of the greater Denver area, and once again, 74 of 81 home games will be played in front of 30,000 empty seats. By the time Jason Hirsh develops into something (assuming he ever does), Aaron Cook will be leaving and Matt Holliday and Brian Fuentes will be distant memories.
If the Rockies don't win, they can't pay to keep the players they develop. If they won't pay to keep the players they develop, they won't win. And around we go again. It's very disturbing to me that Jason Jennings, unquestionably the most successful pitcher the Colorado organization has ever developed, didn't wish to stay and Colorado couldn't or wouldn't go the extra mile to retain him. What does Jennings' desire to leave say about the state of the Rockies franchise? Maybe this is an isolated incident of a guy who was just determined to get out. Maybe it's not the harbinger of a new, even more frustrating era of Rockies baseball where instead of just not having any good players we can't keep the good players we do have.
Look at what the A's did with Barry Zito. They knew he was leaving. They kept him, and they got further in the playoffs than they had since 1990. The draft picks they're going to get when Zito signs somewhere else probably won't provide as good a haul as Taveras/Buchholz/Hirsh, but then again, they got to the ALCS. That's pretty good. That'll sell some '07 season tickets, plus the tickets they already got to sell for the playoffs, plus it probably didn't hurt with the planning for that new stadium they're building. (Yes, in Fremont, but that's something to make fun of at a later date.) It's no sure thing that hanging on to Jennings would have punched the Rockies' dance card for the 2007 postseason, but it's a much surer thing that sending him out of town ensures the Rockies will once again be also-rans. The Jennings trade might be a good business decision, but baseball is about more than business. As a Rockies fan, my heart is sinking that I'm in for a couple more years of waiting for...what exactly?