Before We Watch the Playoffs, Let's Talk Rockies Some More
by Mark T.R. Donohue
Was "not finishing alone in last place" a goal this season? The Rockies wrapped up the string winning two of three against the pathetic Cubs, finishing 76-86. That's better than last year, one more than our targeted goal, and even with the Diamondbacks' record. The Giants wound up half a game ahead of Colorado and Arizona, and that's only because Houston's loss on Sunday rescued them from having to fly to St. Louis for a makeup game. Can you imagine that? Thinking another disappointing, dreary season is finally over then having to hot-foot across half the country to face a team that has a tremendous incentive to win? In my reality, San Francisco played and lost that game, and the Rockies finished the season tied for third. And last, but let's accentuate the positive today.
Is it better to be really bad and interesting, or merely below average and dull? From a writer's standpoint, last year was a much more exciting season. There was the Barmes thing. There was the ongoing Denny Neagle story. The Rockies' roster had a lot more players who were easy targets and richly deserving of our contempt, like Desi Relaford and Dustan Mohr. Shawn Chacon pitched well and couldn't win while Joe Kennedy and Jamey Wright just didn't win. A constant stream of hysterically bad relief pitchers arrived at regular intervals. Jose Acevedo, Randy Williams, Dan Miceli, Bobby Seay, Matt Anderson...those were the days. Those blog posts wrote themselves, I tell you. Jayson Stark's huge recap of this season only mentions the Rockies once.
Here's the catch. Going from a 65-win club to a 75-win team is easy, as far as those things go. It's not difficult to recognize when a player like Wright or Danny Ardoin is as bad as they were in 2005. And it's not the most difficult thing in the world replacing a player who is actively making your team worse with one who only fails to make it very much better. The biggest change the Rockies made between last year and this year is ridding themselves of Chacon, Wright, and Kennedy and replacing them with Josh Fogg and full seasons from Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook. The offense could have barely improved at all, which it didn't, and the team would have made a minor leap from pushovers to a team that can beat you if you're not careful, especially if you are Washington, which it did. Now comes the really hard part. Replacing obviously terrible players with average ones is easy; finding the above-average players to supplant those average dudes is really, really hard.
So, just spitballing for a second before I commit myself to dedicating to my full attention to the MLB postseason, here's two things the Rockies should think about doing that would be bold and might make the process go faster. First of all, they should contact the Boston Red Sox as soon as possible about Coco Crisp. Crisp was a disappointment in Boston this year, and will likely be ushered out as one of several scapegoats for a trying Red Sox season. Crisp's only sin was not being Johnny Damon and he's likely to have a bounceback year once released from the pressure-filled Boston environment, much as Edgar Renteria did this season for the Braves. Crisp is signed for an eminently reasonable $5 million a year through 2009. Those will be his age 27, 28, and 29 seasons; to put it another way, his peak. He plays center field, the Rockies' most gaping position of need. Crisp isn't an OBP guy but he is a high percentage base stealer who puts the ball in play. Clint Hurdle would love him. He's a lot like Juan Pierre, except his prime is ahead of him. Even though Boston will be desperate to deal, Crisp's highly desirable contract status will keep his price substantial. If I were the Rockies, I would offer Brian Fuentes. I love Brian Fuentes, I really do, but his contract is up after next season, his ability to retire righthanders seems to be recessing, and his value is as high right now as it's ever going to be. Boston is moving Jonathan Papelbon into the rotation and the pressure will be on for Theo Epstein to acquire a Proven Closer. Fuentes has that mantle, and that makes his value for a team that faces the constant public scrutiny that the Red Sox do higher than his value here in Colorado. The Rockies need an everyday centerfielder more than they need a relief pitcher who is only going to throw 65 innings a year, no matter how well he throws in those 65 innings.
The other thing Dan O'Dowd should do is call the Anaheim Angels and start selling hard on Todd Helton. It may be too late, but the Angels fit the mold of a team who might reach on Helton perfectly. They have a high payroll, they expect to contend every year, and their offense let them down time and time again last season. The Angels are used to having an underproducing, hugely overpaid first baseman, having sent Darin Erstad out to that position for years. They also very enthusiastically pursued Paul Konerko last offseason. Helton is a better hitter than Erstad and a better defender than Konerko, and if you squint hard enough he might look like sufficient lineup protection for Vladimir Guerrero. Certainly the difference in batting approaches between the two would give the Angels' broadcast guys a go-to subject for years to come. Helton is as good a team guy as they make and has been the face of the Rockies franchise during many lean years, but it isn't his fault that Colorado first offered him a contract he would have been insane to pass up and then immediately following decided that that was all the money they would be spending for the rest of this decade. Helton makes about $18 million a year and the Rockies payroll looks to be between $45 and $50 million per year over the length of that contract. It doesn't take an economist to tell you that that isn't a lot of wiggle room. If a trade patterned after the Jim Thome deal from Philadelphia to the White Sox last year can be worked out, that could give Colorado eight to ten extra million dollars to work with next season and beyond. However O'Dowd wants to spend that money -- extending Matt Holliday or Jason Jennings, upgrading the back of the rotation, building humidors for the other 15 National League teams -- it'd be better for the team than how it's planned to be spent now.