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Monday, October 08, 2007

The 1990's Expansion Series: Colorado v. Arizona

I'm guessing this is not what Ted Turner was envisioning when TBS purchased the rights to the NLCS (and the rest of the playoffs up to the World Series) prior to the 2007 season. The clubs from two top markets - Chicago and the Philadelphia/Tri-State area - both with strong, loyal followings eliminated in the first four days of postseason play. And, to make matters worse, eliminated by a pair of teams from out west, not from L.A. or San Francisco or Seattle, but from that pesky Mountain Time Zone, separated from the vast majority of the American television-watching baseball-following population by at least an hour, and hundreds of miles of scenic wilderness.

The Diamondbacks, despite accumulating the best record in the National League, had a difficult time drawing fans from Arizona in 2007, much less attention from the coasts. They were 12th in the NL in attendance. The Rockies didn't fair much better. They were 11th. Only the bottom-feeding Reds, Pirates, Marlins, and Nationals had less support than the NL's two best franchises, and they averaged 19 fewer wins. One will notice, however, when the series shifts back to Colorado, that Rockies fans have turned out en masse since their team started its historic late-season run. Coors Field was as loud as any baseball stadium west of the Bronx during the epic one-game playoff between the Rockies and Padres. It will be interesting to see, on the other hand, whether Arizona can fill its ballpark without the thousands of Cubs fans which turned up in Phoenix for the Division Series.

You've probably heard it multiple times now in reference to the Diamondbacks, especially: "This was supposed to be a rebuilding year." The Baby Backs have nine rookies on their postseason roster and fourteen players who are 27-years-old or younger. Their "grizzled" veteran leaders include Eric Byrnes, who at the ripe old age of 31 is in his fifth full season in the majors; Brandon Webb, also in his fifth season, at the age of 28; and Tony Clark, who, at 35, is the D-Backs oldest regular (pinch-hitter Jeff Cirillo is three years older).

What you may not realize is, the Rockies aren't exactly riddled with experience either. They are carrying nine players who weren't alive when Reagan was elected, including seven rookies. Their starters for games two and three of the NLCS will have a combined age less than that of Roger Clemens, and a total of 7 career wins in 24 career starts. Their Ace, Jeff Francis, a baby-faced 26-year-old who undoubtedly still gets carded for beer everywhere outside of Denver, has more innings pitched this season than the rest of the rotation combined (assuming Mark Redman gets the Game 4 nod over Josh Fogg). Only Redman, Latroy Hawkins, and Todd Helton have more than five seasons of major-league experience.

As Dane Cook so astutely predicted in that TBS commercial that has been running through every televised game for the last eight weeks, "The future is now!" Let me introduce you to a few of the Baby Backs and Rookie Rocks.

Stephen Drew - SS

In about a third of a season in 2006, the younger brother of J.D. Drew batted .316 with 25 extra base hits, while playing above average defense at a critical up-the-middle position. That, along with about 148 games worth of minor-league stats that added up to a .299 average with 27 HR and 103 RBI, made the 24-year-old Drew a fantasy favorite prior to the season. In 2007, his defense lived up to expectations, but little else. He hit only .238, slugged a measly .370, and struck out 100 times. While the strikeouts are unlikely to go away, Drew is a much better hitter than these number indicate, and he showed as much in the Division series. Drew batted .500 with a double, a triple, two home runs, four runs scored, and four RBI in three games against the Cubs, while making several slick defensive plays at short. Like his older brother, Drew seems to have more psychological weaknesses, than physical ones. He has the skills to hit even the most dominating pitchers (i.e. Carlos Marmol in Game 1). With renewed confidence to go along with his outstanding talent, Drew is a likely candidate to make some big splashes against Colorado.

Troy Tulowitzki - SS

You've probably already heard a good deal about Tulowitzki, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday the day before the NLCS. He's becoming the fashionable choice for NL Rookie of the Year. He's surpassed Milwaukee's Ryan Braun mainly because of the playoff platform which always gives award contenders a boost. He is, however, by no means an illegitimate candidate. You probably haven't heard all the reasons why. Yes, he batted .291 with an 838 OPS, 104 Runs, 24 HR, and 99 RBI, but Braun nearly equaled or surpassed all of those numbers in 200 fewer plate appearances, so counting offensive stats hardly seems to be to Tulowitzki's advantage. Where the Troy the Tool Box really excelled was in the field. He has the best fielding percentage among shortstops in all of baseball. Better than Omar Vizquel, better than Orlando Cabrera, better than Jimmy Rollins, better even than Derek Jeter (who, by the way, finished 16th among 24 qualifying candidates). He also has the best Range Factor, this by a long shot. Range factor figures the number of assists plus the number of putouts, divided by the number of innings played.

Ubaldo Jimenez - SP

It's one of the overlooked postseason storylines: Ubaldo Jimenez, age 23, who in his last outing gave up only three hits over 6+ innings against the powerful Phillies in their home ballpark. Jimenez has the nasty stuff - a power fastball and a sharp overhand curveball - which can help a young, largely unknown pitcher rise to the occasion in October (i.e. Josh Beckett in 2003 or Justin Verlander last year). Jimenez has even less experience than those examples, having only reached the bigs as of July 19. His overall numbers (4-4, 4.28) are modest enough, but he's hitting his stride at just the right time. On the last scheduled day of the regular season, in a game the Rockies had to win in order to force a one-game playoff with the Padres, Jimenez through 6 1/3 innings, allowing only one hit and striking out ten. The opponent? The Arizona Diamondbacks.

Chris Young - CF

I sang his praises prior to the Division Series and he blasted a pair of key homers. Young is probably not ever going to be a prototypical lead-off hitter, however, he showed some ability to adapt during the second half. In exactly the same number of plate appearance he drew nearly twice as many walks (raising his OBP from .277 to .314), hit for a slightly better average (.242, as compared to .233), stole twice as many bases (18), and, most importantly, didn't compromise his strength, which is, quite literally, strength. He hit 13 HR prior to the All-Star break, and 19 after (raising his SLG% from .427 to .509). Young has awesome power. At 24, he has the chance to unfurl a Prince Fielder-esque blitzkrieg during his sophomore season in 2008, especially if he continues to show improved plate discipline. If Augie Ojeda continues to get on base from the bottom of the order and Drew stays hot in the two-hole, Colorado's pitchers will have to pitch more aggressively to Young (many teams have exploited him outside the strike zone) and his assault could start earlier. We could see some very impressive Coors Field moonshots.

Micah Owings - SP

The D-Backs hoped beyond hope for the return of the Big Unit of old, back in the desert for 2007. And, for a few weeks at least, it looked like their risk was going to pay off. In ten starts, Randy Johnson went 4-3 with a respectable 3.81 ERA, including a stretch of four consecutive wins across five starts during which he averaged six innings, four hits, one earned run, and nine strikeouts per outing. Alas, his back had failed him by the beginning of July and he could not manage a second-half comeback. Many doubted that a surprising Arizona ballclub could rebound from losing their #2 starter. However, the D-Backs turned to another man of imposing stature. Micah Owings is a 6'5", 225 lb. 25-year-old who, like teammate Livan Hernandez, believes that National League pitchers are allowed to bat for a reason, and it isn't so that their opponent has an easy out. Besides racking up a 3.02 ERA and a .195 OAVG in the season's final two months, Owings hit a staggering .483 with seven doubles, three homers, and eleven RBIs in 27 at-bats. The rookie finished the season with a respectable 8-8 record and a 4.30 ERA in over 150 innings. Nothing jaw-dropping, but also no small feat. As Arizona's Game 4 starter, he draws a favorable match-up against either Mark Redman or Josh Fogg, and he gets to swing his big stick in the thin mountain air. In a game which could turn into a high-scoring affair, look for Owings to give his team a solid outing. He finished the season on a 15 inning scoreless streak.

Manny Corpas - CL

From June 22nd to July 1, Colorado's closer-in-residence, Brian Fuentes, who had saved 81 games since the beginning of 2005, gave up ten earned runs in 3 1/3 innings, took four losses (imagine how much easier Colorado's road to the playoffs might have been!), and was promptly placed on the disabled list. 24-year-old rookie Manny Corpas, who had been excelling in a set-up role, took Fuentes' place, permanently (Fuentes has pitched well as a set-up man since returning). Since then, including the Division Series, Corpas has converted 22 saves in 23 chances, won two games in relief, and compiled a 1.28 ERA with a .191 Opponent's Average in 41 games. The Rockies are 36-5 (.878) in games he's made an appearance since becoming the closer. Compare that to, say, Trevor Hoffman (50-11, .820), Mariano Rivera (54-13, .806), and Jonathan Papelbon (50-9, .847) and you begin to see just how special Manny Corpas has been.

Jose Valverde - CL

As good as Corpas has been, Valverde's been better. The Diamondbacks have been trying to install the 6'4", 250 lb. Valverde as their closer since he was 23, in 2003. In '06 he got off to an outstanding start, at one point converting twelve saves in succession, before the wheels fell off. During one fourteen game stretch in May and June he had a 15.07 ERA and a .408 OAVG. He was demoted, as one might expect. He returned in the middle of August as a different pitcher. Since August 15, 2006, Jose Valverde has converted 52 saves (in 60 chances), stuck out 108 batters (in 86 innings), posted a 2.40 ERA, a .191 OAVG, and a 1.05 WHIP. His 47 saves during the 2007 regular season led the major leagues. The team which he converted the most saves against? Colorado. 7 times.

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