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Yes, We Are Still a Rockies Page
2006-09-28 12:20
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Colorado is playing the Dodgers right now in what will be the final home game of the 2006 season. Right before Opening Day, I wrote that I wanted to see the Rockies win 75 games. A win today would put the team at 75-84 with three games remaining in Chicago against the worst team in the National League. A few days ago the research department asked me when I was going to write my evaluation of the team's season. Well, I wanted them to win 75 games. Barring catastrophe, they will do so. So, in the broadest sense, mission accomplished.

I didn't just want to see a raw number when I wrote that article way back at the beginning of the season, however. And I also haven't really written anything about the Rockies here all month, since, let's face it, they have been deeply uninteresting since that ghastly Mets/Milwaukee road trip in the middle of August. I will probably go player-by-player with the team, really get under the surface, after the playoffs are over and I don't have good baseball teams to which to devote my attention. But for right now, let's go back and check the Rockies' progress against the list of season goals I made in April.

I wrote that I was happy with Dan O'Dowd until at least his crop of superkids started playing in the majors and we could see whether they were any good or not. Well, the kids are here. If Colorado disappoints again next year, you'd have to think that it would be curtains for Dealin' Dan. In April I said that Clint Hurdle was a decent developmental manager but he doesn't have the game-managing skills to turn a up-and-comer into a contender. If anything, this season confirmed that. The Rockies had more pieces this year than any team Hurdle has managed before and he wasn't able to to stave off several long losing streaks. He turned great starts into losses by leaving pitchers in too long at least once every two weeks. He changed his mind about preferred bullpen guys with the logic and ephemeral nature of a sixth-grade crush. He bunted as if it was going out of style, which it indeed did, in 1959. Hurdle and O'Dowd will both be back next year. That's the story as of this writing. But if O'Dowd wants to protect his job, it might be wise of him to consider getting a manager who can actively make his team better rather than one who at best isn't making his worse. Next year expectations upon both men will be considerably higher.

I probably jinxed Todd Helton with the confidence I showed in him going into this season. Maybe it's just wishful thinking that given the decline in his production and the majesty of his contract, we are stuck with him for better or worse for the near future and beyond. In 2005, Helton wasn't healthy all year, but began to resemble his old self down the stretch. He ended up with numbers that weren't anywhere near his best but still approached respectability. In 2006, Helton again wasn't healthy, but his faith-restoring hot streak never came. Helton's numbers declined far and beyond what the depressurization of Coors Field baseballs alone could account for, and despite some encouraging progress on the part of some of the Rockies' younger hitters and a miracle season from Jamey Carroll, Colorado's offense couldn't pick up the pitching staff with Todd Lite gumming up the works. Finally demoted to the #2 spot in the lineup, Todd can continue to be a contributor with his bat control and his still-stellar on-base percentage, but paying $18 million a season for a #2 hitter is hardly maximizing the return from your limited resources. At this point we have to treat it as a sunk cost and hope Helton home runs and especially doubles make at least cameo appearances in 2007. So we thought we had Helton to hit #3, but now we don't. The good news is that Matt Holliday and Garrett Atkins have been fantastic this year and both will return for 2007, although Holliday's free agency is looming menacingly. Helton-Holliday-Atkins is a pretty groovy 2-3-4 sequence. It's only the entire rest of the lineup that poses a problem for O'Dowd going forward. Jamey Carroll will not repeat his 2006. Brad Hawpe, Cory Sullivan, Yorvit Torrealba, and Clint Barmes did not do enough at their respective positions to win jobs for 2007. Jeff Baker, Troy Tulowitzki, and Chris Iannetta are the heirs apparent in right, at short, and at catcher. The center field job is still completely up in the air. See, I knew they never should have traded Eric Byrnes.

I wrote in April that if the big three guys in the rotation stayed healthy, Byung-Hyun Kim repeated his '05 numbers, and somebody who didn't suck held down the fifth starter spot, Colorado would finish .500. Well, all of that happened. Josh Fogg didn't suck, Kim was steady, and Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, and Jason Jennings were excellent. Unfortunately the offense barely progressed, thanks to Clint Barmes, Cory Sullivan, and an army of hitless wonder catchers. We know for sure that the important guys will all be back, and as a worst-case scenario returns for Kim and Fogg are both possible and not at all terrifying. The Rockies' starting pitching is very, very good. This has never happened before. I'm not quite sure how to deal with it, really. The vast majority of baseball writers haven't even picked up on it yet. I've read several confused columns on the subject of starting pitching in the National League. Maybe the reason none of those writers were able to come up with a satisfactory conclusion is that they didn't even think to look where the best rotation in the NL is hiding in plain sight -- Denver. There, I said it.

I am a little disappointed that O'Dowd wasn't able to turn another team strength, bullpen depth, into some offensive prospects at the trade deadline. As solid as Jose Mesa and Ray King have been this year, neither should figure majorly in the Rockies' future plans. Smart teams know that you can build a good, even dominant bullpen without spending very much money, and O'Dowd made an excellent move dealing for disgraced former Kansas City starter Jeremy Affeldt, who has been excellent in relief for Colorado. Ramon Ramirez, acquired from the Yankees in last season's much-criticized Shawn Chacon deal, pitched great all season. In fact he was vastly more valuable than Chacon was this year. Closer Brian Fuentes had his ups and downs but he's still a legit All-Star closer and yet another major contributor who is under contract for 2007 at an extremely reasonable dollar figure.

Nothing happened to change the Rockies' two biggest problems this season. Too few people still are going to the games, and nationally the team's profile is lower than the mediocre Nationals and the awful Devil Rays (who at least get to play Boston and New York tons of times every year). Despite their overall improved play, Colorado persistently got beaten up when they faced superior competition. The Mets utterly crushed them, and they continue to be the Dodgers' whipping boys. The at times dominant quality of the Rockies' starting pitching, which ought to have been a huge story, flew completely under the radar thanks to the underwhelming records the Colorado staff compiled (thanks a lot, offense) and the overblown stories about the humidor (thanks a lot, Jeff Cirillo). The other harsh truth applying is that it's often better to have one transcendental pitcher than three very good ones. Cy Young campaigns get attention; the yeoman's work put in all season long by Francis, Cook, and Jennings goes unnoticed except by fantasy geeks in very deep NL-only leagues. Which is too bad. Of course, if the offense can perform at even league-average levels next season any one of the trio, or all three, could easily win 20 games.

In any event, I set my hopes at a reachable level before the season, and my hopes were reached. Let's quote past me: "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." They weren't ghastly in April and May, and if they can just win one of the next four, all my dreams have come true. Except for the one with Kristin Bell in the RFK Stadium cheap seats.

2006-09-28 14:56:20
1.   Kels
Good write up Mark.

I've really enjoyed your stuff all year, thanks.

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