Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Hey Gammons -- Stick to the Red Sox and Yankees
2005-05-16 11:59
by Mark T.R. Donohue

ESPN's Peter Gammons, twice voted "best music taste for a man old enough to be my grandfather," has a column up today about this season's disappointments, and the Rockies get a mention. Who expected to the Rockies to do anything? Not me. My expectations for this year were perfectly reasonable: a few of the rookies to be good, Preston Wilson to be traded for anything of value, and the black-with-purple-sleeves look to be consigned to the dustbin of history. So far I think we are off to a good start on all of those fronts.

But let's look at what Gammons has to say, since he's on TV and must therefore be smart. "Can they ever win a mile above sea level in Coors Lite Park?" Yes, they can. Remember my proposed tattoo idea? Colorado has a .560 home winning percentage on the franchise's history. Please don't make me actually go through with this, clueless national sportswriters of America. I dislike needles. Gammons here is just parroting a common misconception, so let's go on to the thrust of his argument, which is apparently that Denver is a black hole from whence no pitching can escape:

"As left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis continues to pitch for the Rockies after a minor-league career that stamped him one of the elite pitching prospects, after seeing him throw 34 pitches in the first inning of a recent game -- when he's a command guy -- makes one wonder how he'll be two years from now. Right-hander Jason Jennings, who is tough as they come and with a sinker seemingly made for Coors, now sees his walk rates constantly climb and will be one of the players -- along with Preston Wilson, Shawn Chacon, and some others -- O'Dowd tries to use to get more future foundation players.

"Mike Hampton had a marvelous career temporarily run off the tracks trying to pitch in Denver. John Thomson was a good pitcher run down by Colorado and is a good pitcher again. Darryl Kile was a classic example. Kile, Kevin Ritz, and Jamey Wright all threw 200 innings as Rockies and were not the same pitchers there. Pedro Astacio threw 637 innings for the Rockies from 1998-2000 and has never been the same.

"'It may be that no pitcher will ever be more than average because of that park,' says one executive. 'Maybe the thing to do is trade Francis for a B.J. Upton or some athletic potential star (like Hanley Ramirez or Felix Pie), build a great team and use veteran starting pitchers.'"

I disagree, for several reasons. First of all, Mike Hampton's career, even setting aside his Rockies years, could hardly be described as "marvelous." He's a notch above-average guy who had one great year in Houston. John Thomson, Darryl Kile? Rotation-fillers, guys who went to teams with good offenses and good bullpens and had facetiously better seasons after leaving Colorado. (Thomson did have a truly horrific 1999 in Colorado, but he was hurt and missed the entire 2000 season subsequently.) Kevin Ritz and Jamey Wright...come on, not even their agents would argue that those guys in their prime were candidates for the starting staffs of good teams.

So why has Colorado never had a really great pitcher? The answer to that question explains why the idea of the anonymous executive in the quote above will never work. Players don't want to sign here, so the Rockies end up with players no one else wants (Chacon, Estes, Stark, and so on). The team hasn't had any luck developing pitchers in the system because for the first decade of Colorado's existence, the farm system was run by blithering idiots. When they weren't drafting sure-miss high school pitchers, they were giving draft picks away with their numerous misguided free agent signings.

If good pitchers aren't going to come to Colorado of their own volition, they're going to have to come out of the farm system or trades. You'd think that a clever GM would be able to get some good pitching on the cheap by trading away guys with Coors-inflated offensive numbers, but in recent years, the Rockies have had their hitters signed to such miserable contracts that they either have to let them play out the string (Vinny Castilla) or pay the bulk of their salaries for other teams (Larry Walker, Charles Johnson). In other words the Colorado Rockies are running one of the worst stockbroking companies in the world -- they persistently buy high and sell low.

This season is supposed to be where this trend changes. What they get for Preston Wilson, and how much money they send out with him, will be the first test case. If they trade for Jorge Julio, as a columnist suggested yesterday, he will bolt in two years, probably before the team is in contention again. If the Rockies were in any sort of position to get Julio a bunch of saves and trade him at midseason '06, it might be a workable move, but you have to win games to get saves. Colorado needs to turn its back on its history and start dealing for the future. Anyone who isn't going to be part of a winning team in (realistically) 2008 can and should go. Does somebody want to overpay for Aaron Miles and his empty .300 average? Done. Someone finds Jamey Wright's road ERA enticing? Help yourself. Offers for Todd Helton should be considered, but he's only 31 and in good health -- O'Dowd shouldn't pull the trigger unless he gets blown away. Helton makes a ton of money, but since the Rockies after this season should be paying practically no one else much more than the minimum, you figure they can absorb it.

I refuse to believe that a great pitcher can't dominate in a Rockies uniform until I see a great pitcher in a Rockies uniform. Francis may or may not be the guy (he pitched pretty well at even-higher-altitude Colorado Springs last year), but it stands to reason you want young pitchers building their craft at Coors rather than veterans forgetting what worked for them in the flatlands. Plus, young pitchers are a whole lot cheaper.

Wow, I guess I kind of went off there. Quickly, then: The Post's Terry Frei thinks this altitude thing is a pretty lame excuse, too. Gloomy days ahead if you're the Rockies, Chin-Hui Tsao (season-ending shoulder surgery?), or one of Clint Barmes' bats. J.D. Closser is on double-secret probation, or words to that effect. Helton was indeed trying to bunt for a hit yesterday. And to close: CANADIAN INVASION!

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