Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Monthly archives: August 2008


Don't Get Sucked In!
2008-08-28 21:38
by Mark T.R. Donohue

The Rockies didn't play tonight, so for once I get to feel guilt-free about missing their game. It's a good thing for Denver they were out of town this week, since from all reports I've heard the entire stretch of I-25 from Coors Field to Invesco has been locked down for the convention. Livan Hernandez did indeed lose last night, although he didn't pitch all that badly. The Rockies ran into the buzzsaw that is Tim Lincecum, whose starts alone down the stretch could indirectly decide the division. If the Dodgers manage to (ahem) dodge Lincecum in their six remaining games against San Francisco, and the Diamondbacks can't in their seven, that could be the difference right there. If you miss Lincecum on the schedule, there's a fairly good chance you're going to sweep the Giants.

I went out on the town last night, something I do extremely infrequently, and I was quite surprised by how many people I ran into who asked me if I knew the Rockies were only 5 1/2 back (which they were at the time, Arizona having lost and the Colorado-San Francisco game having not been completed). Perhaps I have been overstating the degree to which the wave of Rockies enthusiasm which appeared out of whole cloth last September has dissipated. Also, it might just be that my friends all know I'm a Rockies blogger. I hope it's the former.

Trouble is -- I've written the Rockies off already this year. Granted, I did so last season too (in April) and that turned out well. But just because a one in a million bet actually paid off in 2007 doesn't mean that the underlying analyis was wrong. Colorado didn't really have enough starting pitching to be a playoff team last year, as evidenced by the results in the World Series, and they sure don't have enough last year. I know enough about probability to know that dice don't have memory. Just because the Rockies made an improbable comeback last season doesn't make them any more likely to make an even more unlikely one this season. Unlikely in the sense not that they're further back than they were last season, or that there's more teams ahead of them. In fact neither of those statements are true. But the underlying stats in '07, particularly run differential, indicated that the Rockies had been underperforming relative to their true ability level for almost the whole year. This year's team has gotten somewhat worse offensively and substantially worse on the mound, and their firmly negative run differential represents this.

For a Rockies team that isn't as good as last year's to make another out-of-left-field run would be Johnny Van Der Meer improbable. It would be Mike Brown returning interceptions for OT touchdowns in two consecutive games improbable. Don't count on it, is what I'm saying. But you can keep asking me, because I'd rather be talking pessimistically about the Rockies than not talking about them at all.

It's Fun to Think About How Bad It Could Get
2008-08-27 12:57
by Mark T.R. Donohue

You know what came in the mail yesterday? Playoff ticket order forms! You have to give the Rockies' evil, greedy management some credit -- that takes chutzpah. It's true that the club is somehow only six games back in the division. Last year on August 27th, they were 6 1/2 back, and you know what happened after that. But that team was above .500, had a healthy positive run differential, and three-fifths of a functioning rotation. This team has won some more games lately, part of a soft second-half schedule that was much noted in midseason reviews. But: Livan Hernandez is starting again tonight.

The good news for Rockies pitching is that Jeff Francis is off the disabled list and looking something like his old self again, if only against the atrocious Giants. After a season of misery there's nothing wrong with the team taking a little hope out of a recent run of 9 wins in 11 games. Of course, all but two of the wins came against the Giants, Nationals, and Reds, all of whom are wretched.

The widening division between the teams that are trying to win and the teams that are just in it to shove fat revenue-sharing checks under their mattresses is something that's been troubling me a lot lately. Because of last year's fluke run, the current regime in Denver is going to be in place for a while. They can always point to that one year, if anyone asks why it is that ticket prices at Coors Field continuously go up and the payroll holds fixed.

For several years now, the "competitive imbalance" argument has been more smoke than fire. It's true that the gap in revenues from large-market teams to small-market keeps getting bigger and bigger. But, for the past 15 years or so, since the last strike, there's been a counterweight at work. That's the age-old tendency of baseball organizations to succumb to patronage, cronyism, and nepotism. For every hundred-million dollar championship machine like the late-90's Yankees, there was a handful of teams with way more money than brains. The A-Rod Rangers. The Mets, usually. The Orioles, perennially. Even this year there's a $115 million Mariners team dead on target for 100 losses.

But it seems like things are trending the other way. The obvious current example is the Cubs, who have been a big market team forever but were last regularly competitive in the 1900's. Following the model of the Mets, who are following the model of the Red Sox, who are following the model of the Yankees, upper management in Chicago has decided to make winning a priority. That means for all of these teams that waiting around seven or eight years to figure out that a general manager or field manager isn't getting the job done is no longer a habit. It also means that recognition of sunk costs, long a difficult concept for big league GM's to absorb, is standard business practice these days. If a guy making $10 million is hitting .200, he used to just keep playing. Now he rides the bench, gets cut, or develops a convenient injury. There aren't too many teams left that construct their lineup cards based on player salaries -- pretty much just the Dodgers now.

So, as a fan of a team whose owners think they're in a small market, I'm worried. What if all the rich teams get smart? Then the horror stories we've been hearing might really become true.

The opposite of a horror story: Colorado placed Willy Taveras on waivers. The Rockies tried to trade Willy at the deadline, but there was close to zero interest in a leadoff hitter who doesn't get on base. Maybe, just maybe, some team looking for a 25th man for their playoff roster who can steal bases -- hey, Boston, worked for you before -- will end our long regional nightmare. Then of course I'll have to find some other Rockies scrub to pick on relentlessly. Good thing I'll have options.

On Pause
2008-08-22 15:14
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I've been working part-time at an electronics store this summer, mostly in the video game department. There's an XBox 360 demo set up across from my usual register. Yesterday when I got in, someone had loaded up MLB 2K8 and played the first half of the first inning. The sample version of the game only lets you play with the World Series teams, so the whole day long I was looking at Jeff Francis on the mound at Fenway Park, waiting to throw his first pitch to Jacoby Ellsbury. I realize now that Dustin Pedroia, not Ellsbury, led off for the Red Sox in the first game of the World Series last year. But it still was difficult not to find the image poignant.

Like a lot of Rockies fans, I'm still hung up on that brief period between the end of the National League playoffs and the beginning of the World Series when it seemed like Colorado could do no wrong and was going to change the entire face of baseball in Denver. It's hard now not to look at this team, and their management, and imagine it will be a very long time indeed before the Rockies get that close again. In that light it's hard to pay very sincere attention to their current spirited efforts to not finish ten games under .500 again.

I haven't watched much baseball at all the last two weeks, except for the Olympic brand. Did you notice Jayson Nix was on the U.S. team? So that's where he went. I've decided that except when swimming is on (or my girlfriend wants to watch gymnastics) the place to be is on Universal HD, where all the weird sports get an airing. I saw a barnburner of a team handball match the other day, and I won't soon forget the mighty grunts of the women's super-heavyweight powerlifters. I tried to follow a table-tennis match but it was way too fast for me. I'm still hoping to catch some dressage before the games are over, because it still hasn't been satisfactorily explained to me what dressage is.

Every few days I check the Rockies website to see if I'm missing anything, like a waiver trade or a big injury, and I find out that Livan Hernandez is still in the rotation. Then I tune out for another week or so.

After the Olympics are over, I'm sure I'll start becoming interested in baseball again, but the Rockies' season is long over. Time for me to start studying up on the division races, something that I'm a bit behind on this year since the NL West's teams hardly seem aware that they give the best record a spot in the playoffs.

Season Continues, Despite Indicators
2008-08-11 12:46
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I haven't been completely tuned out from Rockies baseball this past week -- I've checked the scores and the standings -- but it has been difficult to conceive of an angle about which to write. I saw where Sports Illustrated bashed Willy Taveras's OBP in print in their magazine, in a blurb about perhaps promoting Dexter Fowler. I don't know about Fowler, yet. Promoting guys too rapidly has brought Colorado mostly heartbreak in the recent past. Besides, I think Clint Barmes has one more comeback in him as a centerfielder.

The team that's benefited most from the Dodgers' surprise acquisition of Manny Ramirez might be the Diamondbacks. They're being encouraged to treat the NL West race at least a little seriously. The Rockies didn't immediately plunge out of the picture in the days after the trade deadline, but nor have they moved any closer and the less season there is left the harder it is to gloss over the double-digit games under .500 and the various gaping wounds in the pitching rotation.

The trade deadline didn't bury the Rockies all at once, but it did again illustrate on how different of a level they are operating than their immediate competition. The Diamondbacks made a deal in the offseason for Dan Haren; the Dodgers reached out and got Ramirez. The Rockies added Luis Vizcaino and Valerio de los Santos. And this week, Livan Hernandez.

Brian Fuentes likely won't make it through waivers but could possibly be traded to a team that claims him. Colorado has probably blown their chance to land a big difference-making prospect this season, but there's still the offseason. Had it not been for 2007 -- and forgetting '07 is a pretty hard feat to manage -- the franchise might still be appearing to make progress, however slow. It would be a good thing if the longest-lasting effect of last year was to shorten everyone's patience going forward, within the organization and without.

Rockies Stand Pat, Get Whacked
2008-08-01 14:36
by Mark T.R. Donohue

What were the indications that the Rockies were "contending" at the trade deadline? Well, they were 11 games under .500 (now 12). They've been outscored, substantially, for the season. Their second-best pitcher and their third-best hitter are both on the DL.

But the real reason that I'm waking up out of a fog of false optimism and realizing that the Rockies were foolish to do nothing at the deadline? Jorge De La Rosa and Kip Wells are on the active roster. They're "contributors." One is still in the rotation, and somehow has made 14 starts this season despite an ERA that now stands at 6.94 after yesterday's shellacking by the Marlins.

The Rockies can't win with useless, BP-fastball throwing tomato cans like De La Rosa and Wells (and Glendon Rusch, and Valerio de los Santos) throwing substantial innings. If Clint Hurdle keeps sending them out there, Colorado will continue to absorb at least one humiliating butt-whomping a week. That costs them wins in games started by pitchers who don't completely suck, because the bullpen has to come in as early as the second inning to clean up the steaming pile.

To be fair, Jeff Francis is injured. You have to find guys to start games somewhere, and what we have is what was available on our budget. Still, suppose in 2009 Francis comes back healthy and as good as he was last year. Aaron Cook should be an All-Star again. Ubaldo Jimenez is rounding the corner. That's a pretty good top three. But where are the Rockies going to find #4 and #5? Franklin Morales? 5.69 ERA in Colorado Springs right now. Jason Hirsh? He wasn't that good when he was healthy, and he's a flyball pitcher. The answer is, most likely, more garbage dredged from the sewer will fill out Colorado's rotation next season. If the three guys who don't completely suck don't get hurt, the Rockies can maybe contend for the wild card if the defense is perfect and the offense can bail out the crappy pitching in the inevitable two or three games a week in which they get hammered. You know, assuming Matt Holliday doesn't get traded and Todd Helton's precipitous decline takes a season off.

Those are too many ifs for me. Maybe the Rockies were wise to hold on to Brian Fuentes, as the market for relievers never seemed to much overheat. But what about Garrett Atkins? He's having a good year, but his numbers are Coors-inflated and his OBP is low. He's got hands of stone at third while Ian Stewart has become a Web Gems regular from the instant Helton got hurt and Atkins shifted over to first. Atkins has trade value. Good starting pitching prospect value, even. Possibly two or three, had the Rockies bundled him with Fuentes or Yorvit Torrealba (made expendable by Chris Iannetta's emergence) in a deal with the right team.

But the deadline has passed. The Rockies are not going to make the playoffs. The Dodgers' acquisition of Manny Ramirez nails the door shut, but it was absurd of us to imagine that they could make a comeback even before that, given the fact that they're climbing uphill in three of every five games they play thanks to the foul starting pitching. So given that the postseason is out of the question, what has Colorado accomplished this year? Cook's great season is about all you have to hold on to, although Cook was quietly pretty great last year too. Ubaldo Jimenez has definitely made positive progress, while Jeff Francis has nosedived and Morales is lost in a fog of walks and home runs. Troy Tulowitzki at best will get back to the point he was at last year by the end of this season. Helton is fading, honorably but irrevocably.

We say it all the time, but I don't know if anyone is listening. The Rockies have to produce their own pitchers. Polished free agents simply will never come to Denver unless they have no other choice, which is why we've got the rogues' gallery of hapless incompetents we have now -- and have had for the first ten brutal years of the franchise's existence. Enough of this already! The insanity must end!

Atkins is obviously the position player the Rockies have who is expendable. How we managed to approach the deadline with absolutely no discussion of his being traded -- and I'm as guilty of this as anyone, having blindly followed the headlines with rumors about Fuentes -- is silly. They can still flip him in the offseason, obviously, but it's at this time and not at the winter meetings that teams get stupid and give away players like Scott Kazmir.

The Rockies cannot sit around and wait for 2007 to happen again. They can't. It would consign us to another 10 years of second-division invisibility. They must constantly be improving, scrambling to collect enough affordable talent to win before their current core gets to free agency. Right now there is no indication that next season is going to be any better than this one. After Fuentes leaves, it could be worse (although if they're completely dead-set against starting him, Taylor Buchholz would be a highly satisfactory choice as replacement closer). I feel like the organization still has fairy dust in their eyes from last season. We all still do a little, even me, and I'm the pessimistic product of an 80's childhood spent following the Cubs and the Red Sox.

So around to the elephant in the room -- Matt Holliday. If Atkins might get a good prospect and an OK one, Holliday ought to bring two great ones and change. He's an MVP candidate and everybody knows he can hit at any altitude at which you set him down. The Rockies apparently weren't even fielding offers this year. Why? I suspect that they think they can re-sign him. I worry that they will continue to hold this attitude until it's too late and Holliday walks. Unlike Fuentes, Holliday is positively worth more than a first-round pick and a sandwich pick. Listen, you don't hire Scott Boras if you want to sign a hometown discount contract.

Yesterday's atrocious loss to Florida was like a bucket of cold water in the face. Good! We need more. The honeymoon is over in Colorado and it's time to get back to work.