Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Rockies 9, Cubs 7
2005-08-22 17:43
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Kind of an interesting game yesterday, even for those of us who didn't catch home runs. It was one of those old-fashioned Coors slugfests that have been less common this year what with the improved Colorado bullpen and diminished Rockies offense. I have no statistical evidence to indicate any sort of phenomenon at work, but have you ever observed that closers sent in to games with the lead but in non-save situations tend to demonstrate breaks in concentration? For example, giving up back-to-back home runs and a triple as Brian Fuentes did with a four-run lead in the ninth?

Besides the homers by Dustan Mohr, Jorge Piedra, Garrett Atkins, and Matt Holliday, the impressive thing about the Rockies on Sunday was the performance of two unheralded recent arrivals in the middle relief corps, Sunny Kim and Randy Williams. As usual the Rockies struck out more and walked less than their competition, but the numbers were closer than they often are. Although the big crowds at Coors this weekend were there in large part to see the Cubbies, it seems to me that the home team gained some converts with Colorado's solid performance in the three-games series. There are a lot of baseball fans in this region. They're all waiting for the Rockies to give them a reason to go wild for them.

It's not going to be next year, as Dan O'Dowd's repeated proclamations regarding "payroll flexibility" (and meaning quite the opposite) indicate. For better or worse, the Rockies team you see next year is going to be much the same guys as you see right now, give or take a journeyman reliever or two. It seems to me as if the Rockies management should have two models in mind as they attempt to appear more respectable in 2006. The first is the '04 Tigers. After a truly miserable 2003 season, Detroit overpaid for Ivan Rodriguez. He didn't turn them into a contending team, but his star power was enough to give the team a veneer of respectability that won back much local goodwill. The other team the Rockies should cast an eye towards is the noncompeting Pirates of recent vintage. While waiting for their farm system to get rebuilt from the ground up, Pittsburgh has had a tendency to sign moderately appealing veteran players to one-year deals. It hasn't had quite the effect on the field that they've hoped, but it has given them some ammunition to flip at midseason to reinforce gaps in the minor-league development program.

While it's not worth the Rockies wasting money and playing time on the Desi Relafords of the world, had Dustan Mohr decided to have a good FIRST half instead of second and Todd Greene not been injured, those guys could have brought in some swag. Bad luck this year shouldn't dissuade O'Dowd from making a few signings next season, particularly at catcher and in the outfield.

Clint Barmes' injury this year could end up having consequences next season as well. Had Clint played out the whole of 2005, the Rockies would have a better idea of his true performance level. They're going to expect him to be an above-average everyday shortstop all year next season, and that may be asking too much. Colorado should be prepared to test Barmes, Omar Quintanilla, and Luis Gonzalez at both short and second in spring training and figure out what works best rather than assuming Clint's early '05 earns him the full-time job at short. As for the outfield, it's Hawpe, Holliday, and who knows. Cory Sullivan has the glove but lacks both power and on-base skills, making him an unappealing starter. The Rockies never really wanted Larry Bigbie and with his recent injury I don't know what the prospects for his return next year will be. Unbelievably, Dustan Mohr may be a guy that Colorado wants back if the price is right. There isn't really anyone else available who leaps readily to mind who can play a bit of center and hit home runs at a respectable clip.

The starting rotation is going to be ghastly. Deal with it. Jeff Francis will hopefully be more consistent than he's been this year but is still awfully young to be counted on as an ace. Jason Jennings will walk tons and strike out no one on his way to being '06's version of Joe Kennedy -- Opening Day starter, gone by the trade deadline. I am deeply pessimistic about Zach Day. If we bring Byung-Hyun back, we'll at least have a fifth starter whom we can count on to be league average most of time and win us a game all by himself every once in a great while. The linchpin is Aaron Cook. If Cook has a solid, healthy year, the Rockies can at least dream of .500. I honestly have no idea whether that will happen or not, but I'm rooting for the guy.

The bullpen will likely be similarly codged together as this year's model, with Brian Fuentes thankfully giving it a trustworthy anchor. I would presume that young guys such as Scott Dohmann and Ryan Speier will play a greater role next year (also a healthy Chin-Hui Tsao, potentially) although with pitching at altitude, you can never be too sure about anything. Marcos Carvajal, most seem to agree, will head to the minors for an apprenticeship as a starter. That's a good idea, seeing as the Rockies need starters much more than middle-inning men. In all likelihood the bullpen will take a slight aggregate step backwards next year, as whatever versions of Mike DeJean and Jay Witasick O'Dowd dredges up in the offseason won't be as good as the ones he lucked into this year.

If the starting pitching becomes incrementally better due to Kennedy and Jamey Wright's happy absences and the bullpen declines slightly due to the law of averages, the 2006 Colorado Rockies will depend on many young guys in the offense taking quantum steps forward to post a better final won-loss record. I imagine they'll be (even) better at home but still awful on the road. Healthier Dodgers and Giants teams (and maybe a returning sub-.500 division champ in San Diego being shamed into spending some money in the offseason) means the division won't likely be as hideous the next time around. The Rockies shouldn't be thinking about the playoffs in 2006 but if they don't work aggressively to position themselves for '07 what's left of the fanbase will have moved on.

A day after I saw Greg Maddux pitch in Denver, my parents were paired in a golf foursome with Brewers pitching coach Mike Maddux (and Milwaukee pitcher Rick Helling) in Wisconsin. Small world. While flipping channels to try and see my highlight from yesterday I noticed that the Sunday evening sports shows in Chicago lead with 10 minutes of White Sox news and 5 minutes on the Cubs. The Denver shows are 18 minutes of Broncos training camp news followed by a single clip from the Rockies game. I haven't been so homesick in a great long while. The Rockies, Nuggets, Avalanche, and Rapids I can learn to embrace. The cut-blocking, Raider-baiting, Clarett-drafting Men of Shanahan, I will sooner die than support.

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