This season, the trade of Matt Holliday, acquisition of Jason Marquis, and maturation of their younger players give the Rockies a depth on both sides of the ball that they have never before enjoyed in their 16-year history. That depth will be tested early, as Jeff Francis underwent shoulder surgery and is out for the year. Less severe injuries to Tulowitzki (back), Hawpe (hamstring), Garrett Atkins (Hip), and Taylor Buchholz (elbow) could make the first week of the April rough, but don't threaten the entire season.
Going player-for-player, the Rockies don't appear much improved this season, but examining them position-by-position reveals that they can expect more from almost every spot on the field.
Chris Iannetta, for example, becomes the starting catcher this season. His OPS was more than 200 points higher than ex-platoonmate Yorvit Torrealba's, and Rockie pitchers appeared to enjoy throwing to Iannetta more (4.61 CERA to 5.13). Torrealba is superior at fielding bunts and throwing out baserunners, but those aspects of catcher defense are less important when you play half of your games at Coors Field.
Todd Helton may not be the player he once was, but he certainly isn't the player he was last season. Playing just half the season, Helton could only manage a slugging average of .388. His career mark is .574 and he had never before dipped below .476. His .264 batting average also broke a streak of ten consecutive .300 or better seasons from this career .328 hitter. For whatever reason, when Garrett Atkins shifted over to first base to replace Helton, he could only compile a .722 OPS there. In total, Rockies first basemen combined for a .751 OPS last year. Why they chose not to utilize Joe Koshansky, who went .300/31/121 in Triple-A last year, remains a mystery. The point is, they can do far better this season.
Second base, on the other hand, figures to be more of a status quo. Clint Barmes and Jeff Baker will once again split time there, barring a late spring trade of Baker. Where they were nearly identical hitters last year, Barmes is clearly the superior fielder, as Baker is a natural third baseman. But Baker is two years younger and had a PrOPS of .807 to Barmes' .740, so this figures to be more of an offense/defense based platoon in '09.
Baker would also be the team's tertiary option at third base behind Atkins and Ian Stewart. A former 10th overall draft pick, Stewart boasts an .897 career minor league OPS and managed a .788 mark in the majors at the age of 23. He could start at the hot corner for many teams, but will be relegated to super-sub status with Garrett Atkins still in the picture. Atkins has been plummeting since his fantastic 2006 campaign, and is a candidate to be traded this summer whether he rediscovers his stroke or not. In any case, the Rockies have too many options here to not see some production.
There is only one option at shortstop, and that is Troy Tulowitzki. He batted .327 in 226 at-bats since finally getting healthy at the end of July (and had hit .166 in the 151 at-bats before that). It's also no coincidence that Rockies pitchers had a 4.93 ERA before the All-Star break and 4.53 thereafter. He is the biggest key to the Rockies' season. If healthy, he transforms the Rockies' unspectacular pitching staff into a solid unit and probably gives the Rockies the fifth-best offensive shortstop in the game.
Indeed, it was Tulowitzki and not Matt Holliday that made the Rockies special in 2007. Colorado has always been able to plug in mediocre players into their outfield and turn them into superstars (See Dante Bichette, Ellis Burks, Jeffrey Hammonds, Todd Hollandsworth, and others). In fact, Holliday had never hit in the minors (.776 OPS), hasn't hit away from Colorado (.803 OPS) and is a complete product of Coors Field (1.068 OPS). How Billy Beane was duped into surrendering three good young players for a $13.5 million burden is beyond me. The move will also subdue Holliday's free agent contract after this season, as his secret will be out.
Carlos Gonzalez, one of the Holliday trio, is going to hit for mammoth power in Colorado someday. But he is only 23, and the Rockies are incredibly deep in their outfield, so Gonzalez may not make his impact this year. Seth Smith (.885 minor league OPS) and Ryan Spilborghs (.840 major league OPS) figure to be the main combatants for Holliday's left field spot, with Ian Stewart and the Hollandswortheque Matt Murton also in the mix. Whatever they come up with isn't going to match Holliday's 34 batting runs from last season, but it won't be as far off as many people think.
Brad Hawpe looks to take over as the big bopper in the middle of the Rockies' lineup, but even if they just get a full season of last year's rate stats, it will be a plus. Hawpe actually turns 30 this year and has suffered both hand and hamstring injuries this spring, so he is hardly a sure bet. He's also a disaster with the glove, which makes the club's choice of centerfielder all the more paramount.
Dexter Fowler would be the correct choice. The 23-year old boasts a .394 on-base percentage and 101 stolen bases in 334 minor league games, plus a .431 OBP at Double-A last year. He managed a Plus/Minus rating of +2 in just 49.2 major league innings, while Ryan Spilborghs, the other option in center, had a mark of -7 in 130.2 innings last year. Carlos Gonzalez came in at +6/528.2 with Oakland, but Fowler is needed for his leadoff hitter skills as well as his defense. Gonzalez is one of few players who could realistically fall short of Willy Taveras' .299 OBP mark out of the leadoff spot last year.
(How is it that I can call Taveras' arrival a key to the Reds' 2009 success and call his departure a key to Colorado's? Well, not only did the White Sox improve by 16 games from 2004 to 2005 with the arrival of Taveras-clone Scott Podsednik, but the Brewers also improved by 24 wins. The Carlos Lee/Scott Podsednik trade was good for both sides. Podsednik himself is actually fighting for the fifth outfielder's spot this spring, so they won't miss Taveras at all if he gets it).
The Colorado Rockies' starting pitching without Jeff Francis promises to be an ugly sight, right? Not so fast, bucko. Francis brought a 4-10 record and 5.01 ERA to the Rockies last year. It won't be so tough for his replacement to improve upon that. Again, Rockies starters had a 4.53 ERA after the All-Star break last year, and Francis only made seven starts after the break himself.
So who had stepped up? Mostly, Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez has a rare combination of strikeout ability (7.8 K/9) and groundball induction (54.4 GB%, 4th-highest in baseball). His control is a concern, but he is basically like Carlos Zambrano was at the same age, only with better stuff, a fitter physique, and a far worse swing than Big Z. Jimenez went 8-3 with a 3.68 ERA in the second half.
One of the three pitchers with a higher GB% than Jimenez last year was teammate Aaron Cook. Cook's career strikeout totals are laughable, but he has managed an ERA+ of 116 for three straight seasons and has fanned 17 in 19 innings so far this spring. With a double play combo of Tulowitzki and Barmes when Jimenez and Cook are starting, the Rockies have the most underrated 1-2 punch in the league.
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After that, it gets a little dicey. #3 starter Jason Marquis fancies himself a sinkerball pitcher as well, but hasn't had a GB% over 50% since 2005. Marquis has experimented with pitching from a new spot on the rubber this spring, and the results have been disastrous. Worst-case scenario, Marquis eats innings, saves the bullpen, and is still more effective than the fifth starters on last year's squad. Best-case scenario, he is the next Josh Fogg: a guy who should get drilled in Colorado but instead has some surprise success (Fogg, incidentally, is back in camp).
As a change of pace from all of these groundball artists, Jorge de la Rosa is pure power, having averaged just under a strikeout per inning last season. He also has control issues, which is why he's the #4 starter. For even more contrast, Greg Smith is a finesse flyball pitcher. That could mean trouble in Coors. However, Smith started 13 games for the Lancaster Jethawks in 2006. The jet stream in their home ballpark makes Coors seem like a pitcher's paradise, yet Smith managed a 9-0 record and 1.64 ERA there. Perhaps the fact that 13.9% of his 2008 flyballs were weak infield pops explains that. He also has a .913 minor league OPS in limited action, and could be a serious offensive threat in that ballpark.
Rockies Fun Fact|
Greg Reynolds was second on the 2008 Rockies with 14 HR allowed despite only tossing 62 innings.
Greg Reynolds and Franklin Morales are both just 23-years old. They were rushed to the majors and stunk up the place last year, but still have promise. Do not forget that Jason Hirsch was an ace in the making prior to his injury-plagued 2008 season. This trio of high upside is great to have on hand, but it's equally great that the team is not relying upon any of them to contribute.
The loss of Brian Fuentes at the back end of the bullpen is as great a loss as Matt Holliday was. Replacing him is great-ERA, poor-save-percentage king Huston Street. Street is just 25, so he could still figure out the Heimlich maneuver and stop himself from choking when it counts. He could also implode in Coors Field. Backing him up is the inconsistent Manny Corpas, a man who does not strike out enough batters to close games.
Jason Grilli and Taylor Buchholz both somehow had earned run averages under 3.00 for Colorado last year. Grilli is obviously a fraud, but Buchholz actually owns a career relief ERA of 2.42 in 122.2 innings thanks to his hard fastball/slow curveball combo. Buchholz could miss most of April with an elbow injury, however. Alan Embree, Ryan Speier, and Glendon Rusch round out this unimpressive depth chart; at least Embree and Rusch give them a left-handed presence out of the pen this year. The team is high on 100-mph Juan Morillo, but his walk totals suggest that he is high himself whilst pitching.
Apart from the questionable bullpen, these Rockies are ready to compete now under nearly any contingency. If Garrett Atkins or Jeff Baker gets traded, it just means more playing time for Ian Stewart. If Seth Smith and Ryan Spilborghs get hurt, Matt Murton and Scott Podsednik could form a serviceable left field platoon. If Jason Marquis or Greg Smith's propensity to put the ball in play gets them into trouble at Coors, perhaps Hirsh, Morales, or Reynolds is ready to step in and succeed. About the only incident these Rockies could not handle is another serious injury to Tulowitzki or the decision to start a corner outfielder like Spilborghs in centerfield.
And even if one of those things were to transpire, the NL West is so suspect that the Rockies might still be in the thick of a three-team heat between themselves, the Dodgers, and the Diamondbacks.