Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Sweeping Up the Ashes
2008-09-22 12:33
by Mark T.R. Donohue

As another ignominious Rockies season screeches to a halt, it's hard not for me to feel miserable -- more so than usual. Not only did Colorado completely waste 2008, including a career year from Aaron Cook and another tick towards the free agency clock on Matt Holliday, I wasted it too. I barely made it to any games and I mostly only caught the last few innings of games on TV when I had enough energy to do so. Rockies management put little to no effort into this season, so I didn't give much back.

Colorado never even sniffed contention in a division that's even worse than it was last year. That's pretty embarrassing. I was embarrassed to be a Rockies fan this spring, as they rolled out of spring training with a rotation mostly unfit to be pitching in the big leagues and made no effort to correct this oversight at the trade deadline. The attitude around Coors Field's office block seemed to be, "We have their money already," with regard to the fans, and the product on the field reflected it. How depressing.

Anyway, in a week or so I can put aside being a Rockies fan until the end of the playoffs and just enjoy being a baseball fan again. I've gone through this process many times before last year, so I think I should slip into it fairly easily again. I got a hilariously gloomy voice mail from my father, 25 years in as a Cubs fan -- "Well, they won the division. Two-time champs. I wish the pitching rotation was better. I guess I hope the White Sox hang on too." I guess it was only funny if you heard his tone of voice, but it had me in stiches.

I'm really pulling for Milwaukee to save themselves at the last minute, as the Mets' poor play is giving them a chance to do. I'm not exactly rooting for New York to collapse for the second season in a row, but on the other hand it would be nice to see more than one "small market" club in the playoffs. You can look at the Brewers' situation now and relate, as a Rockies fan -- it must be terrifying to be clinging on for dear life in a pennant race while Jeff Suppan is taking the ball every fifth day.

The Brewers' and the Rockies' rotation struggles have me reflecting again -- where is the elusive "league average" starter these days, and what is his true market value? If you look at guys like Paul Byrd and Jarrod Washburn, it's about $10 million a year. Not such a bargain -- or is it? If I had ten million bucks to spare, I quite happily would have given it to the Rockies to subsidize a no-de la or -de los starter policy this season. Also no sixty-year-old Cubans.

Youthful starters who are major-league quality and still under team control for years to come are, obviously, the most valuable and scarce commodity in baseball today. That's why the Rockies have often been guilty of wishful thinking with their young'ns -- Chin-Hui Tsao was rushed to the majors, got hurt and never recovered, Shawn Chacon was jerked from one inappropriate role to another until his value was finally destroyed and he was traded for peanuts, Franklin Morales and Ubaldo Jimenez have been playing two or three levels above their development stage for two years. And the Rockies trade Jason Jennings, a guy who had proven his ability to win and hang in games at Coors, basically for Jason Hirsh -- an extreme flyball pitcher who was as likely to get along at altitude as Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia. In their desperation they're shoving round pegs into square holes, or at the very least incompletely rounded pegs into perfectly round holes.

Weirdly they continue to be blind to some better options -- I beat it into the ground almost as much as I dis Willy Taveras, but why exactly doesn't Taylor Buchholz get the chance to start, given that he has three more legitimate major-league pitches than about half the guys the Rockies have started this year? Colorado has down the notion that it may take particular, hard-to-identify skills to succeed as a starter at Coors Field, but it's only executing half of the deal. You can bring in pitchers who have failed elsewhere, like Josh Fogg, cheap but you have to pay a bit of a premium once you've identified them to keep them from leaving. Constantly cycling in rookies and veterans playing for their first time with the Rockies is a volatile plan for contending. Would the Rockies be better off now if they'd kept Jennings and Fogg, at market prices? Well, Jennings has been an injury disaster since he left Denver, but there was no way for the Rockies (or the Astros) to predict that. Fogg is no superstar now nor has he ever been, but Rockies fans will remember how in the first half of 2007 he kept the team in games and every now and then threw a complete gem just when least expected. Colorado had no veterans with such upside potential this season.

Whether the Brewers or the Red Sox or one of the other $100 million teams wins the big one this year, I don't expect Colorado's behavior to change any next season. The short-sighted management group is convinced that last season's massive fluke was an unambiguous signal that they're doing everything properly. Sure, assuming the NL West stays historically down for several more years and they just happen to win 21 out of 22 again one of these years.

It's painful. Then again, we will probably see things just as unlikely happen in the playoff games that are to come, and other teams benefiting from the weird whims of the gods of baseball. It just isn't us this time. That's life, but it sucks still.

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