With four games to play, the Rockies could finish the year with the best record in the National League... or miss the playoffs entirely. What a strange year this has turned out to be for the NL, only a season after an 83-win pennant champ St. Louis team annoyed parity-haters by winning a World Series they were supposed to lose. I trust you are all familiar enough with my outlook on the Colorado franchise to know that I don't find my team suddenly being one of the extra-frosted few in a box of 16 cupcakes to be a wholly positive development. I want to see championship baseball in Denver, and what I see isn't it. Yet. Remember when the 2005 White Sox stopped by Coors Field on their way to history? There was a rare three-game sweep where I recall one of the teams simply outclassing the other in every phase of the game. The Sox beat the Rockies in a blowout, they beat them in a pitching duel, and they beat them in a back-and-forth bullpen-busting football-score game too. I remember thinking at the time, "Hey, the White Sox are going to win the World Series," one of all too many insightful observations I squandered by not repeating to anyone or writing down anywhere.
You don't have to look any further than last season to find an example of a year when there just weren't any obvious favorites in either league. There won't be a 100-win club in either circuit this year, for what it's worth. Is that bad? No. Just like there's a distinction between mere All-Stars and Hall of Famers (and first-ballot Hall of Famers from regular Hall of Famers), some world champs are more equal than others. '84 Tigers, wire-to-wire dominance. '03 Marlins, not so much. If the Rockies make the playoffs this year, I'm absolutely not going to denigrate their accomplishment even though the Cubs, D-Backs, Phillies, Brewers, Padres, and Mets all look completely terrified to have to play baseball games right now. But, I'm also not going to be having a temporarily down league used as a rationalization for (further) payroll slashes. The Rockies should be trying to build the best baseball team they can. When (if) they reach that goal there shouldn't be a string of qualifiers at the end involving quirky playoff seeds and the Bowl Subdivision.
I'm almost terrified to write anything substantive about the team as it presently stands. I'm not so much afraid that I will jinx the team and then get blamed for it. There aren't enough diehard Rockies fans to really cause much of a ripple. Honestly, I just don't want to have to get angry at myself. It's amazing fun when your team is in a pennant race, even a watered-down, confusingly tiebreakered, sort-of-fake one. (When the wild card Dodgers were playing the division-leading Diamondbacks last week, before the Rockies blew L.A.'s season to smithereens, I gave up trying to figure out whom to root for after a couple of innings and went to lie down somewhere nice and dark with a cold compress on my forehead.) So for my sake and no one else's, watch me tread lightly.
Just saying: Willy Taveras goes out for the season, then the Rockies go on a franchise record-long winning streak. Coincidence? Well, I have probably hated enough on Willy this season enough to last his entire career (not that most of it hasn't already passed), so let's make a less specific conclusion. The "speed at the top" lineup that Clint Hurdle and the Rockies' TV guys loved so, so, so very much isn't the team's best formula for winning. Getting a hitter with some run-creating prowess -- like Troy Tulowitzki -- into the two-hole is much better than going with a guy with Leap Year power (Kaz Matsui). Thanks to Willy's ridiculously high success rate bunting for hits, he had a better year in terms of getting on base than Matsui. Still, I'd rather have Kaz hitting leadoff and Willy... somewhere not on the field because of defensive concerns. As Ryan Spilborghs and Cory Sullivan have been demonstrating in recent games, center fielders are occasionally called upon to throw the baseball (not roll it) back into the infield. In the grand tradition of about a billion other great-speed bad-everything else ballplayers, Willy has a rag arm. He never would have gotten Jeff Kent out at home on that tag-up play Sullivan made on Tuesday night. Matsui on the other hand used to be a great Japanese League shortstop and after a rough transition his first season at the position in New York has adapted beautifully to playing second.
Future Rockies intrigue: Apparently management would like Ian Stewart to try and learn to play second base this fall. That would give the Rockies kind of a lot of guys playing out of position -- Brad Hawpe used to be a first baseman, Garrett Atkins is stretched thin at third, and Colorado still doesn't have a real starting centerfielder -- but think of the power. Think of the power! Every time the Rockies play the Phillies I look at Chase Utley and think, "Sure, all second basemen ought to be hulking, lefthanded hitters who can hit 40 jacks a year." Why not? It's a good idea, right? Ryne Sandberg was a big dude. But on the other hand this plan could mean that the Rockies are going to cheap out on giving Matsui a deal more in line with his true market value. When Colorado acquired him from the Mets, they were so happy to be rid of him that they picked up almost all of what was left on the three-year deal Matsui signed when he first came to the States. Then he signed a one-year deal with the Rockies mostly out of gratitude for giving him the chance to not have to leave MLB with his tail between his legs. After this season? Teams are going to want to him, and the chances are very good most of them will be willing spend more than the Rockies. But, hey, maybe an infield of Atkins-Tulowitzki-Stewart-Helton can hit 200 combined home runs. That would be cool.