Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Series Preview: Arizona
2006-04-02 23:53
by Mark T.R. Donohue

It's quite lovely here in Denver, and promises to remain so for tomorrow's Opening Day game. Not so much in Chicago, though. I left home to go see a concert in Boulder right as the rain was beginning to fall on the White Sox and Indians, and when I returned after midnight the game was just drawing to a close. I saw Jim Thome's homer on the replay, however. That dude can still hit a bit.

It seems like an age has passed since I was last blogging during the regular season. Indeed one has. We have new digs and a new name now, and I won't be able to use the little team hats with my Rockies series previews like I used to when the page was an MLBlog. I assume if you're reading this you probably know what the teams' hats look like. The Diamondbacks' road hat is black with a little snake in the shape of a "D." It's pretty cool, actually, particularly in comparison to their hideous purple-and-green home caps. I don't know what the style gods have against the city of Phoenix, but all the pro teams there have pretty awful uniforms. Maybe I don't have a leg to stand on here, as the Rockies and Nuggets have pretty ugly uniforms themselves. I don't know if the Nuggets have ever played the Suns in a game where Denver has worn those electric blue monstrosities and Phoenix has gone with the solid orange, but the very thought of it is making my eyes hurt a little bit. Let's move on to the baseball, shall we?

If the Rockies are to vault into fourth place in the 2006 NL West, the team they're most likely to pass over is the Arizona Diamondbacks. The D-Backs are still working out the schedule for rotating in all of their scorching hot can't-miss prospects, and their pitching past Opening Day starter Brandon Webb is very, very bad. At the moment the only rookie in the lineup is first baseman Conor Jackson, but Carlos Quentin, Chris Young, and Stephen Drew are pounding on the door. Craig Counsell and Orlando Hudson make for a solid defensive pairing at short and second, although Counsell has shoulder issues and didn't play shortstop at all last year. In the outfield, veterans Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green flank former Rockies centerfielder Eric Byrnes. Chad Tracy played so well last year that Arizona moved Troy Glaus so he could be the everyday third baseman. Johnny Estrada is the catcher. It seems a little strange to say so, but offensively Jackson might already be the surest thing in this lineup. Luis Gonzalez is 38; Shawn Green is Shawn Green. Tracy's huge spike in home runs last year was pretty weird and he'll have to prove he can sustain it. Estrada already resembles one of those mysterious players who can only be effective when playing for the Atlanta Braves. Counsell, Byrnes, and Hudson are not good offensive players, but Hudson at least ought to see a power spike from playing his home games at the Park Formerly Known as BOB.

The Rockies won't be lucky enough to see the Diamondbacks' fourth and fifth starters in this series, but there's plenty more games left against Arizona on the schedule. Just wait. I guess I should save all of my funny Russ Ortiz jokes until he's actually facing Colorado. Curse the luck. As of this writing Claudio Vargas is the fifth starter, although that may not last long. The Rockies will get at least one crack at Ortiz next week when they visit Phoenix for the D-Backs' home opener and two more games. Oh boy, I can't wait. Well, here's who we do face this time around: Brandon Webb (versus Jason Jennings, Monday), Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (versus Aaron Cook, Wednesday), and Miguel Batista (versus Jeff Francis, Thursday). Webb is perhaps the most unique righthanded starter in the game, living and dying with a marvel of a sinker. You just can't hit home runs off of this guy, but you can tag him for singles and doubles, especially if you're lefthanded. Hernandez's real age is as great and unknowable as the number of stars in the sky or sands on a beach, but would anyone be surprised if El Duque predated Castro's rule of Cuba? Or, indeed, the Spanish-American War? The White Sox must have figured that Hernandez had imparted all of the wisdom upon Jose Contreras that he had to impart, because they sent him off in the Javier Vasquez deal without blinking. Arizona doesn't have any fragile young Cuban psyches to be mentored, but maybe El Duque can teach his famous blooper to the bullpen as a collective, because they're certainly not having much luck with their current repertoire of pitches. Miguel Batista is a competent pitcher, but he only threw 72 2/3 innings last year as Toronto's closer, so the D-Backs best keep an eye on his pitch counts.

After Webb, Arizona's starters aren't good bets to work deep into games, and that's a real problem. Here's the bullpen: Jose Valverde (a suitable second-division closer), Greg Aquino, Brandon Lyon, Luis Vizcaino, Jason Grimsley, and Terry Mulholland. Yes, Terry Mulholland, all 43 years of him. They made a late trade of Brad Halsey for former Cubs problem child Juan Cruz, but Cruz despite his strikeout skills is one of those guys who seems best suited for starting, if he's ever going to make it the major leagues at all. Cruz is a little flighty and tends to walk guys left and right anyway. Bring him in with runners on base in a pressure situation, and the negatives seem to outweigh the positives. Arizona had an awful bullpen in 2005, and they're highly unlikely to match the '04/'05 Indians' accomplishment of going from one of the majors' worst relief corps to one of the best. You'd think that playing in a hitters' environment like Chase Field with a rotation that tends to give up its fair share of base hits, the Diamondbacks might have done something about the bullpen besides sign Terry Mulholland, but you'd think wrong. It's a glaring weakness, and more than anything it's what gives us fourth place-or-bust Rockies fans the most hope for this coming season.

I'd feel better about Colorado's chances to sweep this three-game series if Aaron Cook was opposing Webb in the first game. Jason Jennings is a better pitcher than his stats give him credit for, but not that much better, and he's highly unlikely to win a pitcher's duel with Brandon Webb if that's to what it comes down. Then again, if the Rockies keep it close against the starter and then get into the soft underbelly of the Arizona middle relief squad, watch out. Cook ought to thrash El Duque on Wednesday, and as for Thursday's game, it's hard to pick against Jeff Francis at Coors. Would it be too Pollyanna-esque to predict an opening series sweep for our boys, who are coming off of a very upbeat spring campaign? Yeah, I guess it would be. Still, I think the Rockies are better than the Diamondbacks, and ought to win two of three every time at home.

2006-04-03 16:01:51
1.   Ken Arneson
Well, at least Mark's getting his money's worth. Extra innings on opening day...

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