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Monday, January 04, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #17: The Colorado Rockies

In the fall of 2007, the Rockies used an eleven-game winning streak and an extraordinary extra-innings win against San Diego in game 163 to surge into the postseason and eventually to the World Series. They had five players with 90 or more RBI - Matt Holliday (137), Brad Hawpe (116), Garrett Atkins (111), Troy Tulowitzki (99), and Todd Helton (91) - and looked like a team built to win for several years to come.

Unfortunately for Colorado, like so many teams who make unexpected journeys deep into October, they had trouble duplicating that success, managing only 74 wins in '08 and beginning '09 by going 18-28, a performance bad enough to lead to the firing of long-time skipper, Clint Hurdle.

To everybody's surprise, soon after Hurdle was dismissed, the Rockies regained their swagger under Jim Tracy and '09 turned out to be the best regular season in the team's history (92 W, .568). They got manhandled by the Phillies in the NLDS, but there is once again optimism among the Coors Field faithful, as the team proved it could win without Matt Holliday.

In recent years, Colorado's front office, led by Dan O'Dowd, has made a consistent commitment to drafting, developing, and retaining their own players, and keeping themselves away from big free agents who haven't proven themselves in the distinctive environs of Colorado, like the ones that hamstrung the team earlier in the decade (Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, most famously). Of the dozen men who got 100 or more at-bats for the Rockies in 2009, only Carlos Gonzalez and Yorvit Torrealba have ever played for another organization (in Gonzalez's case, that tenure was very brief). The starting rotation is also led by two pitchers who are career Rockies: Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook.

So far this offseason, O'Dowd has stuck to his guns. The Rockies offered arbitration to set-up man, Rafael Betancourt, but have otherwise been silent. In the early months of 2010, O'Dowd may look for a part-time catcher and minor bullpen or bench reinforcements, but the Rockies remain convinced that they already have the major pieces necessary to get them back to the promise land. And, with nobody in their division getting noticeably better so far this winter, they can make a pretty convincing case for being the preseason favorite in the NL West.

Free Agents:

Garrett Atkins (30) 3B/1B [Signed w/ Orioles]
Joe Beimel (33) LHRP
Jose Contreras (38) RHRP
Adam Eaton (32) RHSP
Alan Embree (40) LHRP
Josh Fogg (33) RHRP
Jason Giambi (39) PH
Matt Herges (40) RHRP
Jason Marquis (31) RHSP [Signed w/ Nationals]
Matt Murton (28) OF
Joel Peralta (34) RHRP [Signed w/ Nationals]
Juan Rincon (31) RHRP

Arbitration Eligible:

Clint Barmes (31) 2B
Taylor Buchholz (28) RHRP
Jorge De La Rosa (29) LHSP
Jason Hammel (27) RHSP
Chris Iannetta (27) C
Ryan Spilborghs (30) OF
Huston Street (26) RHCL

ETA 2010?:

Jhoulys Chacin (22) RHSP
Samuel Deduno (26) RHSP
Edgmer Escalona (23) RHRP
Shane Lindsay (24) RHRP
Michael McKenry (25) C
Chaz Roe (23) RHSP
Esmil Rogers (24) RHSP
Eric Young (25) 2B/CF

While I think O'Dowd is an exceptionally competent GM, I see one area in which his conservative strategy might prove dangerous. While none of the free agent arms Colorado is losing were among the best pitchers in their bullpen, Alan Embree, Josh Fogg, Joel Peralta, Juan Rincon, Jose Contreras, and Joe Beimel did combine for over 150 innings. Down the stretch Contreras was among the Rockies most dependable relievers.

Colorado does have a nice selection of quality arms coming up through the system, but they will need to depend heavily on Manny Corpas, Franklin Morales, Randy Flores, and Taylor Buchholz, all of whom struggled with either injuries or ineffectiveness in '09. I wouldn't be surprised if O'Dowd finds one more "insurance plan" among the remaining crop of free agents, perhaps an inexpensive veteran like Guillermo Mota or David Weathers, or an return engagement for Contreras or Fogg.

By not offering arbitration to Garrett Atkins, a player who was once at the center of Colorado's offensive plans, the Rockies have committed full force to Ian Stewart as their everyday third baseman. Stewart was very impressive against right-handed pitching in his first full season (20 HR, 823 OPS), but struggled mightily against southpaws (5 HR, 664 OPS). The Rockies may see this as an avenue to free up at-bats for Eric Young, who is currently without an everyday role. Or, they may still be in the market for a right-handed cornerman who can also pinch-hit, somebody like Mark Loretta or Nomar Garciaparra.

It's truly odd to say it, but going into 2010, one of Colorado's strengths is the depth of their rotation. Ubaldo Jimenez hasn't yet reached the notoriety of a Lincecum, a Greinke, or a King Felix, but he belongs among that class of pitchers, a truly dominant Ace still in his mid-twenties. Ubaldo went 15-12 in '09 with a 3.47 ERA and 198 K in 218 IP. Most importantly, he seems to have harnessed his incredibly nasty stuff, dropping his walk rate from 4.7 to 3.5 every nine innings.

Lining up behind Jimenez the Rockies have the reliable veteran, Aaron Cook, who over the last four seasons has averaged 29 starts, 11 wins, and a 4.11 ERA, and the 2009 breakout lefty, Jorge de la Rosa, who went 16-3 for Colorado from June 1st until the end of the season.

The Rockies are also anticipating the return of Jeff Francis, who was considered their ace before injuries cost him much of 2008 and all of 2009. If Francis shows anything resembling his former talent, the Rockies will possess a front four which is among the best in the National League.

The final spot will go to Jason Hammel, at least to begin the year. Hammel was very solid in '09 (10-8, 4.33 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 177 IP), good enough to get first dibs, but he will be pressed to perform by the advancement of young guns like Jhoulys Chacin, Esmil Rogers, and Chaz Roe, all of whom look ready for major-league action. O'Dowd may choose to convert one or more of them into relievers, at least temporarily, as he did with Franklin Morales.

The star of the show in Denver will always be the offense. Even as production has decreased in recent seasons, thanks to the humidifier, Coors Field still consistently ranks among the top three parks for run production. What O'Dowd has improved at over the last few years, however, is putting together lineups which are dangerous in any climate and every stadium. He's still got the hard-swinging flyball specialists like Stewart and Chris Iannetta, but they are combined with speedy slap-hitters like Dexter Fowler and Eric Young, all-fields RBI men like Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe, and, most importantly, five-tool talents like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez.

Especially if Iannetta bounces back from a sub-par '09 campaign that saw him eventually lose the starting role to Torrealba, the Rockies will have a lineup that rivals the depth of those in Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Milwaukee (no lineup in the NL is as complete as Philadelphia's at the moment). And, like each of those teams, they won't be satisfied by anything less than October baseball. No reason why they should be.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Dexter Fowler (S)
LF Carlos Gonzalez (L)
1B Todd Helton (L)
SS Troy Tulowitzki (R)
RF Brad Hawpe (L)
3B Ian Stewart (L)
C Chris Iannetta (R)
2B Clint Barmes (R)
SP Ubaldo Jimenez (R)

SP Jorge de la Rosa (L)
SP Aaron Cook (R)
SP Jeff Francis (L)
SP Jason Hammel (R)

CL Huston Street (R)
SU Rafael Betancourt (R)
SU Taylor Buchholz (R)
MR Manny Corpas (R)
MR Franklin Morales (L)
LOOGY Randy Flores (L)
SWING Jhoulys Chacin (R)

C Michael McKenry (R)
IF Mark Loretta (R) FA
IF/OF Eric Young (S)
OF Seth Smith (L)
OF Ryan Spilborghs (R)

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