Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Are We Good Yet?
2007-04-23 08:51
by Mark T.R. Donohue

The Rockies were on the verge this weekend of completing their first sweep defeat at home and inspiring a number of soul-searching entries on this site. Even in April, it's hard to look at the NL West standings and see Colorado as the only team under .500, second to last in runs scored and dead last in runs allowed. That's too much like... most other seasons for comfort, and This Season Was Supposed to Be Different. Only it really wasn't. That's what really bothers me about the two-year extensions frivolously given Clint Hurdle and Dan O'Dowd. That removed the last existing condition by which you could truthfully say this Rockies team was under more pressure than the uncompetitive rec league teams the franchise has fielded the last several years. The team is still counting on too many unestablished players to simultaneously see the light. Until Chris Iannetta and Troy Tulowitzki start hitting, the offense is no better than it was in 2006, when it was pretty awful, and counting on Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook to anchor the pitching staff may have been premature. A slow start for Francis might come as a bit of a surprise, but that's countered by the utter shock of Rodrigo Lopez's dazzingly effective first couple chances. I don't see how anyone could have expected that.

Point is, most of the Rockies are doing exactly what you would expect. Their best four hitters have been, you guessed it, their best four hitters, Helton, Holliday, Atkins, and Hawpe. The home runs haven't been there, but that was a problem last year. Clint Hurdle has been kind of tone-deaf about which relievers to use when, plus injuries to Ramon Ramirez, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Lopez have kept him from developing a pattern. But that was a problem last year. What I'm saying is, this is another 75-win team, maybe, and with the pressure off of the brain trust and all of the rookies who are bound to get playing time no matter how bad their slumps get (since there aren't any better options) their chances of underachieving seem better than their chances of winning several more games than their talent dictates they ought to.

This is sad, because as with all teams on the (exceedingly gradual) rise, on isolated days you see everything work as it is supposed to and you wonder why the Rockies can't be that team day in and day out. On Sunday, Jason Hirsh outpitched Greg Maddux, the middle of the lineup was not to be denied, and Manny Corpas and Brian Fuentes faced the minimum in completing the eighth and ninth. It was a crisp, entertaining game well-played by both sides and I felt proud to be accompanied by my father, visiting from Chicago, on a perfect day for baseball at Coors Field. The night before, when my dad also tagged along to the game, I felt like my whole choice of vocation as Rockies blogger was a pathetic sham. How do you get fourteen hits and seven walks and score only three runs?

The Rockies can only win if the three guys in the middle of the lineup all have good games, they get a quality start, and the bullpen functions. Given the law of averages, it's unlikely that the first condition will be met more than two or three times a week. Given the roster of pitchers that O'Dowd has assembled, the second two conditions should come together somewhat less even than that. If you make adjustments for luck and human free will, even the most optimistic projections will tell you that you're going to win somewhat less than half of your games. This is just like the last several years. If you are tired of hearing about this, or if you have somehow convinced yourself that a team with rookies, non-hitters, or Kaz Matsui at every position up the middle and 40% of a settled rotation is any different, it is time for you to pick another team to support. I suggest the Twins.

Me? I may be wrong, but I think the Rockies can and will be competitive in the next three years. However, a winning season this year would be a shock, and I hope that doesn't make me a bad fan for saying so. I think uncritically accepting every stupid decision that Colorado makes and assuming that glory is just around the corner would be the thing to make me a bad fan. Or Tracy Ringolsby. On the other hand there's no use in singing the same old tune April after April. Is this lousy Rockies team pretty similar to the lousy Rockies teams of 2005 and '06? Yes. But it is worlds different from the bad teams of 2000 and '01. One thing you have to accept if you've decided against all logic to become (or remain) a Rockies fan. This franchise is messed up. Everything they could have done wrong their first decade in existence, from stocking the minor league system to choosing the uniform colors, they did wrong. If they were in the sort of market where they could carry an $150 million payroll every year, they might have found a way to fix things more quickly, but they aren't and they haven't and it might be a couple more years still.

The argument used by Kiszla and other Denver sports personalities like him who have set their minds to the idea that the Rockies are hopeless incurables and will remain so without regime change is dangerous. Why? Because it gets them off the hook of having to do their jobs. Mark Kiszla doesn't have to watch any Rockies games to know he's right, he just has to look at their record, see it's below .500, and that saves him from actually having to learn the names of any of the young players or heaven forbid watch a complete Colorado baseball game. That would cut into valuable Broncos draft research time.

Here's my main problem with Kiszla's argument. He writes that "the going rate for a roster stocked with hitters and pitchers who have a realistic shot at a championship is $75 million." Tell that to the A's, Indians, Twins, and Brewers, Mark. All of those teams have spent the last several years developing a young core, identifying and re-signing the players they absolutely couldn't afford to lose and moving the ones who could bring more value in trade. Now the A's and Twins have payrolls right around the $75 million threshold, but the spending came after success on the field, not before it. With the Rockies playing in the unique environment in which they do, and with Denver being a modestly populated and rather isolated MLB city, they need to be absolutely sure that all of the players to whom they commit for the long term are the right ones.

It seemed to me like Jason Jennings was the test case for the new model for the Rockies franchise. Here was a guy they developed in-house who was a starting pitcher, could win at Coors, and didn't have a pitching-related injury his whole time in the majors. The way Colorado tried to spin things after his trade, there was absolutely no way he was going to sign an extension with the Rockies. The way Jennings and his agent explain things, there was absolutely no way the Rockies were going to pay him anything even approaching the going rate for experienced free agent starters. Well, it's too early to tell, but in this case it seems like moving Jennings for the younger, higher-ceilinged Hirsh was the right move. (If something actually useful, say a life-sized Jell-O mold of Gary "The Rat" Gaetti, had been included along in the trade with Hirsh instead of Willy Taveras, it wouldn't be too early to tell, we could go ahead and call the trade for Colorado.) It shouldn't be taken as a defining sign that the Rockies are now and always will be cheap, even though Kiszla sure does and I have tended to lean that way myself from time to time. The test case, it is growing increasingly more obvious, is Matt Holliday. If the Rockies think they can replace Holliday without blinking the way Hirsh has stepped in for Jennings, they're crazy. At the moment Matt is the only dividing line between being merely a mediocre offensive team and a truly wretched one. It's true he's a corner outfielder, not the hardest offensive position on the diamond to field. That ought to work in the Rockies' favor, since most of the funny-money teams have few low-end positions to fill on the defensive spectrum.

Metsblog tossed me a few questions on the subject of the Rockies this weekend in anticipation of their series beginning tonight in New York. You can read my answers here. Tonight Taylor Buchholz, who moves into Rodrigo Lopez's rotation spot, will face John Maine. Tuesday's scheduled starters are Aaron Cook and Orlando Hernandez. Then for Wednesday's day game you got Josh Fogg and Mike Pelfrey, a real barn-burner for sure.

2007-04-23 11:37:34
1.   uess
All in all, a nice little game yesterday. Over and done in 2:11, nearly 30,000 announced attendance. And, once again, Willy the K went 0-for4 with two strikeouts. But he did score a run.

You're right, though: I don't see this kind of game being the rule (oh, except for the Willy the K part).

Also, I think if you check you'll find it was Corpas, not Ramirez, who pitched the eighth.

2007-04-23 12:14:30
2.   LG Denver
Cannot agree with you more regarding the inexplicable contract extensions given to Hurdle and O'Dowd on Opening Day. It DOES remove that added pressure, which as you point out makes this season just like the last few for the Rockies...and that's not a good thing.

I too was at the Saturday night game and frankly was a little surprised, but pleased, to start hearing the 'boo-birds' as early in the game as I did. If the Monforts refuse to put any pressure on anyone with this team, maybe the (remaining) fans will.

By the way, this is my first post, and I just wanted to say you do a nice job with this blog...probably better than the Rockies deserve!

2007-04-23 12:28:49
3.   Mark T.R. Donohue
1 Whoops, and only a few sentences after I made reference to Ramirez's injury. Thanks for catching that.

2 Thank you very much for saying so, and it doesn't hurt that you timed the remark for the morning where my father was visiting and reading my comments over my shoulder.

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