Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Another Reason to Be Optimistic
2006-01-03 10:25
by Mark T.R. Donohue

It would be facile to say whichever team improves the most in the NL West next year will be the one that avoids injury. Every team in baseball deals with injuries, and when your division features mostly teams built around players in their late thirties and J.D. Drew to boot, the observation goes from unoriginal to laughably obvious. The Rockies, however, were a really young team last year, yet lost seemingly every imaginable major contributor to injury at one point or another. This probably won't happen again. Right?

Todd Helton was actually out from July 26th to August 10th, but his play for the entire first half was uncharacteristic. Helton slugged .373 in April and .389 in June. The reported injury was a muscle strain, but something had to have been bothering him for months. Colorado actually fared rather well (8-6) while he was gone, thanks to Ryan Shealy, who had a .344/.429/.492 line in 61 '05 at-bats as a first baseman. Conveniently, the one position where the Rockies have excellent depth is the one filled by an All-Star whose contract runs to the end of time. Early reports say Shealy looks great in left field, though. If the 2006 Rockies are going to threaten .500 or contend for a playoff spot (which in their division amounts to the same thing), they need a full season of the Todd Helton of yore. Either that, or they need Helton to sit more often if he can't play every game at 100%, because Shealy is ready. At the very least they can DH Todd some when the interleague away games come around.

Clint Barmes, the bright shining star of Dan O'Dowd's youth movement, predictably was lost to injury June 6th and did not return until September. (Well, the part about falling down the stairs carrying venison was unpredictable. But the injury itself, a broken collarbone, you totally saw coming.) While it would be ridiculous to say Barmes would have maintained his line as of June (.329/.371/.516) for the entire season, take a look at the guys who filled his shoes. Desi Relaford got most of the starts in Barmes' absence and rang up a .149/.237/.223 line. After the Jay Witasick/Joe Kennedy trade, Omar Quintanilla was .230/.281/.248 as a shortstop. Luis Gonzalez hit well at short (.328/.359/.443) but thanks to the Aaron Miles injury, he was needed over at second. The Anderson Machado and Eddy Garabito experiments mercifully went nowhere. According to BP, the Rockies lost a 17.3 VORP guy in Barmes and replaced him with a -3.3 (Relaford) and a -7.0 (Quintanilla). That's a big swing.

Not all injuries to starters are bad things. Aaron Miles went out from May 26th to June 28th with a rib injury and immediately made the Rockies better in his absence (until Barmes got hurt, anyway). This finally opened the door for Gonzalez, who should have had the position in the first place. As a second baseman Luis hit .289/.333/.411 to Miles' .289/.311/.359 and in total VORP it was Gonzalez 14.4, Miles 1.5 even with Miles having 38 more at-bats. Oddly, both Garabito and Relaford hit much better as second basemen than they did as shortstops. Chalk it up to small sample size and leave it at that.

Are we done? Not hardly! Matt Holliday broke a finger and was out June 10th to July 19th. Holliday's VORP: 37.4. His replacements were Dustan Mohr (1.8) and Cory Sullivan (12.7). Brad Hawpe pulled a hamstring and was out from July 10th to September 2nd, giving yet still more playing time to the hopeless Mohr. Also briefly in the mix were Eric Byrnes (-3.1 VORP for Colorado) and Larry Bigbie (-3.9). Very quietly, Jorge Piedra made a strong claim for the fourth outfielder's job; his total season line was .313/.371/.563, good for an eighth-among-Rockies-hitters 12.0 VORP. Piedra was actually better on the season than Hawpe (8.0). Unfortunately, they both bat lefty so there's no chance of platooning them. I've suggested before that it might not be a bad idea to give Piedra, who can play a bit of center, some starts there on the road, where Cory Sullivan's defensive skills are less useful and his lack of pop is more exposed. The best news for Clint Hurdle is that Mohr, Byrnes, and Bigbie are all long gone.

The pitching staff is harder to assess. Jason Jennings missed a lot of time, and Chin-Hui Tsao missed practically the whole season, but neither was much of a loss. Aaron Cook's recovery from a preexisting condition delayed his 2005 debut until the end of July. It would have been nice to have Cook and his power sinker around for the whole year. It was the really the offense that took it on the chin from the injury bug in 2005, as the Rockies' pitching staff honestly didn't have much to lose. The core of the bullpen (Brian Fuentes, Mike DeJean, David Cortes, Jay Witasick until he got traded) stayed healthy, but annoyingly, so did Jamey Wright.

Sometimes teams lose because they're very young, and sometimes teams lose because too many guys get hurt, but I imagine it's fairly uncommon for both to happen to one franchise in one calendar year. If Colorado "shocks the world" in 2006 by winning 80 games, it won't be due to the additions of Ray King and Yorvit Torrealba, it'll be because guys like Holliday, Barmes, Hawpe, and (especially) Helton managed to stay on the field.

2006-01-03 14:40:43
1.   Matt in Colorado Springs
The Rockies were young and bad last year, but they wound up looking worse than they actually were with all the injuries. After the terrible start they actually played decent ball (by NL West standards) last year.

The NL West is about as winnable of a division as there is, maybe the stars will align and there will be some meaningful games at Coors Field next year.

Probably not, but "hope springs eternal".

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