Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
2006-04-02 15:59
by Mark T.R. Donohue

It's the eve of the Rockies' 2006 season, and as I sit here waiting for the White Sox-Indians game to come on the TV, I'm thinking about the bottom line. 75 wins. That's what I want to see. I don't think it's a lot to ask. I'm willing to accept another developmental season from the Rockies, but this time I want to see some, you know, development. Not a ton. Unlike James Brown, I'm not a greedy man. The Rockies were 67-95 last year, tying the franchise record for futility. This year, I want to see eight more wins, by hook or by crook. And there's a couple of other vexing questions I'd like to see settled.

Management. It requires a leap of faith, but I'm willing to give Dan O'Dowd a pass for the disastrous first four years of his regime. I'm operating under the assumption that the new farm system-building, penny-pinching Dan O'D is a completely different GM, and from the way he contradicts his former self in interviews, he may well be. The farm system definitely is better, and it would be gross and Dodger-like to not give O'Dowd's money kids the chance to prove him right. However, a decision needs to be made this year on Clint Hurdle. He's not a bad guy to have around mentoring the young players, but his handling of the pitching staff and his game management skills are questionable. If the team isn't willing to give him a long-term extension after this season, Hurdle should be shown the door. He has the excuse of not having had any good players on his team for his performance to date, but nothing he's done in his time in Colorado has convinced me that he is the kind of guy who can steer a team in the very difficult transition from 80 to 90 wins. Of course, the only Rockies manager ever to make the playoffs was Don Baylor, so maybe Baseball Between the Numbers is right and managers don't make any difference at all.

#4 hitter. The Rockies have The Guy -- Todd Helton, future Hall of Famer, at your service. Now they need The Other Guy. It could be Matt Holliday, it could be Clint Barmes. It could be Luis "N.R." Gonzalez for all I care. Colorado really needs someone who can consistently drive in runs and protect Helton in the lineup, and someone who can do it convincingly on the road as well as at Coors. The organization really seems to think Holliday is going to be the guy, and I hope for all of their sakes that they're right. But if Holliday doesn't have a breakthrough, All-Star kind of year in 2006, it's time to think about moving him before arbitration and age make his case one of diminishing returns. The Rockies system is noticeably devoid of power-hitting outfield prospects, and one way or another O'Dowd has to find the guys who are going to fill in the lineup around Helton, Ian Stewart, Chris Ianetta, and Troy Tulowitzki in 2008. Trading one or more of the Rockies' blocked first base prospects (Ryan Spilborghs, Ryan Shealy, Joe Koshansky) is another decision that O'Dowd is going to have to make this year.

The rotation. You can tell right away while reading the various 2006 season previews whether a writer knows what he's talking about when it comes to the Rockies or not. If they say something along the lines of, "of course, the Rockies have no pitching still and they never will," put the magazine back on the rack. Colorado arguably had their best starting staff ever last year, and that was with Jamey Wright laboring away all season. Last year, the offense was too terrible for it to be worth considering making a deal for veteran pitching. This year? Well, stranger things have happened, and the NL West is still a pretty poor division. Aaron Cook, Jason Jennings, and Jeff Francis need to stay healthy all year. If they do, they should all have double-digit win totals and the Rockies should continue their inexorable rise up the major league ERA table (27th last year, thank you, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay). For the relentlessly optimistic, imagine what might happen if Byung-Hyun Kim can build on his performance as a starter in 2005 and one of the group of Sun-Woo Kim, Josh Fogg, Zach Day, and Miguel Asencio can somehow muster league-average performance (in a Coors context) from the fifth starter spot. Well, we'd be looking at .500. And I wouldn't be crazy to say a division title as well, since .500 last year equated to winning the NL West. On the other hand, if Jennings struggles, that might mean the end of his Colorado career. If the Rockies were able to trade Joe Kennedy last season for marginally useful players, then Jennings ought to have real value.

The pen. It doesn't really much matter what Jose Mesa, Ray King, Mike DeJean, Tom Martin, and the guys of their ilk might do. That group won't be around when next the Rockies seriously enter a season with the postseason in mind. This is, however, a big year for Brian Fuentes. It's silly for bad teams to sweat much about having star closers, but Fuentes' emergence might dovetail nicely with the Rockies' return to relevance. If ever a pitcher could be said to have "figured out Coors Field," Fuentes is the guy. Colorado won a wild card bid in 1995 around one of the greatest no-name bullpens of all time. If they have the makings of another great, cheap pen around in the system now, then in '07 and '08 there will be money to spend on starters and hitters. Ryan Speier's injury is a letdown, but there's still Scott Dohmann, Manuel Corpas, Chin-Hui Tsao (at midseason), and Ramon Ramirez and Eduardo Sierra to evaluate. Better still, if some of these guys emerge and pitch like Marcos Carvajal and David Cortes did last year, some of the old expensive guys at the top of the depth chart can be flipped for yet still more prospects. Contending teams do tend to get a little hysterical about their bullpens around the trade deadline. And come on, when you think pitching, who doesn't think Colorado?

Attendance. Well, yeah. People aren't going to Rockies games, and there needs to be some sort of positive trend in that department one of these years if we're ever really going to consider contending again. The Rockies' payroll is going to be around $50 million for a few years, but the argument for that -- there's no particular wisdom is overpaying for veteran talent if they're only going to make the difference between 65 wins and 71 -- is a sound one. But if people don't start coming to games, then it's going to be difficult to maintain the team's growing core of young talent and impossible to add the missing pieces left after the farm system pays its dividends. If the team does get better, and they ought to, will enough of Denver still be paying attention that Coors ticket sales will tick a little bit upward? Just a little bit? Obviously, they'll pack the joint for tote bag night. (August 11th, against the Cubs. Mark your calendars).

National awareness. It would be nice if the Rockies entered the national conversation just a little bit in the coming year. It can't help the team's free agent recruiting efforts much that their highlights don't make the TV shows, their players besides Helton don't have All-Star arguments, and for a decade national analysts have simply parroted an outdated party line about pitching at altitude whenever the conversation turns to the Colorado club. Look, Texas has a goofy hitters' park too. Are they forever to be excluded from discussions of contention? The tools are out there for baseball writers to intelligently discuss what truly ails the Rockies, but before anyone's going to pick them up, the team has to win enough games to push on to the very periphery of people's radar screens. The Brewers are more broke than we are, and yet they're a hip pick to make The Leap this year. Why couldn't that be the Rockies in two years? Let's start inching our way towards respectability now, meaning minimzing the number of Jamey Carroll ABs, cutting bait sooner rather than later on pitchers who clearly can't get hitters out, and not playing small ball in the early innings at the most absurd offensive incubator major league baseball has ever seen. Conventional wisdom in baseball is hard to shake. We're going to have to meet these people more than halfway.

If taking a step backwards in 2006 to go two steps forward in 2007 is necessary, I can live with it. If trading Jennings or Holliday for real prospects (meaning, not the guys the Rockies got in the Shawn Chacon and Preston Wilson deals last year) happens, I'm willing to waive my 75-win requirement. But if the roster stays more or less the same the whole year round, save a veteran reliever flip or two, then 75 is the number to which I'm adhering. Simply managing to not be ghastly in April and May like last year would make it all possible.

I don't know where I'm sitting for Opening Day yet, but if you see a tall thin guy in a purple Helton jersey with a red beard and glasses, that's probably me. Say hello.

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