Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
How to Get Better
2005-06-13 16:07
by Mark T.R. Donohue

It's amazing how many different ideas there have been over the years about How to Fix the Rockies. It seems the Dan O'Dowd regime has had a different theory every year. It occurred to me, reading some of my old posts today, that I have made a lot of claims without necessarily supplying the reasoning behind them. I don't want to be Chuck LaMar, so I thought I might spend some time rambling about my personal philosophy of baseball and what it has to do with Gen R.

First of all, there's a larger concept I throw around a lot that has specific application to my opinions about Preston Wilson. The words to remember are peak performance. Generally, major league hitters peak around age 28. Pitchers are a little funnier, due to the common occurrence of injuries that cost them a year early in their careers, they can be at their best any time between 28 and 31. Of course, every now and then there are guys like Jamie Moyer or Barry Bonds that just completely blow this theory apart, think of them as the exceptions that prove the rules.

Most of the time, due to arbitration and the savvy nature of player agents, after a guy peaks, teams end up paying for that peak for the rest of their productive years. Salary structure most often ends up with the biggest payouts towards the end of the deal. Wilson is making $12 million in the last year of a 5-year, $45 million deal he signed with Florida after the 2000 season, when he was 25. Florida and Colorado got a pretty good player for the first three years of that contract. In 2003, of course, he hit 36 home runs for the Rockies.

The problem is Wilson is now 30. He doesn't play every day, his defense in center isn't adequate, and he doesn't steal bases. He leads the team in strikeouts despite playing eleven fewer games than the next closest guy. On the road, he's hitting .219/.288/.406. Eight of his eleven homers have come at Coors. Wilson and his agent are going to be negotiating for a new contract for the 2001-03 player, and whoever is foolish enough to sign him is going to get Ron Gant (thanks, similarity scores). If Wilson can't be traded, he will almost certainly sign somewhere else (although the chance of him accepting arbitration is dangerous enough that the Rockies might have to lose some draft picks by not offering it).

Even if Wilson has, let's say, two more good, healthy years (a long shot), the Rockies aren't going to be playoff contenders for three years even if everything breaks their way. Either they sign him to a two- or three-year deal and pay him a lot of money to "contribute" to further last place finishes, or they sign him longer and have an albatross when the team finally is ready to compete and could use some loose money to get the last few missing pieces of a division winner. Just say no to Preston Wilson, kids.

If players in their early 30's are getting paid for what they've done, players in their early 20's are getting paid for what they might do, and that's a lot more affordable. The biggest problem Clint Hurdle is having with the concept of a youth movement is a problem with sample size. Take J.D. Closser. The Rockies have benched Closser in favor of first Todd Greene and then Danny Ardoin because Closser is "lost at the plate." He's hitting .196 in 107 at-bats. 107 at-bats is nothing. If he had six more hits, he'd be hitting .252. Closser hasn't lost himself, as his 19 walks (amazingly, second on the club) indicate. He's just had a run of bad luck. He doesn't need to be send back to the minors, where he's already demonstrated he can hit AAA pitching (.297/.350/.478 last year at the Springs). He needs to play every day, or close to it, and if he's still hitting .196 in September, well, I owe you a cookie. Greene and Ardoin are both on the wrong side of thirty, and have shown clearly what their roles are -- one's a career backup, and one's a career minor leaguer. Closser is 25, and catchers generally peak slightly later than other position players. Benching him now for the sake of winning one or two more games this season is profoundly pointless.

The Rockies are horrible this year. We knew they were going to be horrible before the season started. They have a right to some patience, given O'Dowd's admission and prostration in the face of past sins. But if they're going to play Desi Relaford and Dustan Mohr and Wilson and Danny Ardoin every day, they're genuinely wasting our time. None of those guys are going to be on a winning Rockies team. Closser, Garrett Atkins, Cory Sullivan, Brad Hawpe, Matt Holliday, and Luis Gonzalez might be, so they're the guys that we've got to play.

It's not imperative that the young guys the Rockies play be products of their farm system in particular. It's just important that the young guys be, well, young. Brain Fuentes, who came up in the Mariners' system, is a good example. The Rockies got him cheap, let him play, and he's blossomed into a useful player who's still inexpensive and under thirty. Colorado unfortunately doesn't have a lot of good young players from outside the system, because in order to get other teams' best ready-for-the-majors prospects, you have to send veteran value in return. The Rockies haven't had any veteran values for a long stretch. This year, Wilson, Greene, Relaford, Jay Witasick, or even one of the floundering starters could reverse that trend.

Finally, another thing I hear a lot that annoys me is that pitching and defense win ballgames. Actually, it's a zero-sum game. Visiting team's pitching and defense equals home team's hitting. Therefore, defense equals hitting minus pitching, and (assuming pitching's value is nonzero) hitting is greater than defense. Does that make sense to everyone? It's nice to have guys like Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter who can get to seemingly anything hit their way, or a catcher like Mike Matheny who gobbles up balls in the dirt and controls the running game, but if they can't hit, they shouldn't play. The A's had a lot of success in recent memory by running out a beer league-softball defense behind a rotation that struck guys out like it was going out of style. I'd much sooner see the Rockies sweat over getting pitchers who strike hitters out than good-field, no-hit infielders or tiny little flychasing outfielders. And as for catchers who can throw guys out -- c'mon, it's 2005. Nobody steals bases anymore, except for Scott Podsednik, and he plays in the other league.

Trying to flip-flop the lineup, or call up quadruple-A guys, or overextending a veteran pen guy for the sake of a few wins now is silly. It's rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. This team is going down and it's going down hard. The thing to do is take our medicine, as the '03 Tigers did, figure out who we have who can play (Barmes, Atkins, at least a few of the young outfielders), and what we have to look elsewhere for (pitching, second base, pitching, pitching, pitching).

That's why anybody over 30 on the Rockies' roster is fair game for trade, with the limited exception of Todd Helton. Helton will decline as all older players do, but the decline from Hall of Famer to mere All-Star is much more tolerable than that of decent regular to whining, strikeout-amassing bench player. If anyone wants to send us the next David Wright or Scott Kazmir or Francisco Rodriguez, though, we'd have to think about it.

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