The Rockies are probably the most difficult organization to run in baseball, simply because of the conditions in Denver. People always make a big deal about the park effects of Coors field, but people seldom realize how crippling playing at Coors is for the Rockies franchise. Coors provides a home field advantage to the Rockies in a way. The outfield is huge, and the Rockies can fill it with quick fielders that can cover a lot of ground. Furthermore, Rockies pitchers are used to the effects that the thin air has on pitches. They can adjust better to the conditions than guys that pitch there once a year. Also, the Rockies have compiled a pitching staff full of sinkerball pitchers and sidearmers, pitchers that have more marginal success than others in Coors. But, in the long run, Coors Field always wears down the Rockies, and is anything but an advantage to the organization.
Here are the problems with the thin air at Coors: (1) No pitcher will voluntarily sign there. It is career suicide. (2) The pitchers that do pitch at Coors have to throw too many pitches each game, as so many more balls that are put in play are hits at Coors. Also, many of the pitches are thrown with runners on base, and are most stressful pitches than those thrown with no one on base. Starters cannot last as long into games, and the bullpen eventually faces too much of a burden, so it too wears out. (3) Breaking balls do not break at Coors. Pitchers essentially become one or two-pitch pitchers. They are hit very hard as a result. The sinkerballers that the Rox usually develop are more successful at Coors, but get hit hard on the road. (4) Pitchers do not recover as well in the thin air. Because of the lack of oxygen and the greater stress on the arm, each pitcher requires more time before he can pitch again. (5) The worn out pitchers and hitters have trouble adjusting to parks where the balls does break. In summary, the Rox face huge hurdles to becoming a good baseball team. The 2006 Rox will not make much noise in the NL West because the organization is yet to find a solution to the hurdles.
The Pitching: It’s tough to say whether the pitching staff is just not good or a victim of circumstances. One thing is for sure, though; the Rox pitching staff will post a very high team ERA in 2006. The Rox’s rotation is a predictable spectacle of sinkerball and sidearm pitchers. The most promising of the pitchers is young Jeff Francis, who was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball coming into last year, when he posted a 5.68 ERA and 70/128 BB/K ratio in 183.2 innings. The weird thing is that Francis’s ERA was noticeably higher on the road than it was at home, 4.88 vs. 6.40. Francis may be a perfect example of how the Rockies can build a team that can compete at home, but which get annihilated on the road. Expect Francis to improve, but he very well may wear down like all his those before him have.
Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook, Sun-Woo Kim, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Zach Day will get most of the remaining starts. When you combine Jennings, Cook, and Day, you get a walk to strikeout ratio of about 1/1. That’s awful. Somehow though, Cook and Jennings have had success pitching at Coors with their stuff. Day is a newcomer to the team and an extreme groundball pitcher. He, too, could be successful at Coors. On the road though, none of these guys are good because they just do not have control or strikeout abilities. The two Kmi both also have lower ERAs at home than on the road. This rotation is built for Coors field. I’ll give Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd credit for this cheap and efficient rotation. However, these guys are bad on the road and have trouble staying fresh and making all their starts. There is just no way to keep the team ERA down.
The bullpen similarly features an array of thunder from down under. Brian Fuentes had a great season for the Rox last year. A 2.91 ERA on this team is incredible. He is about the only guy on the team that can strike out more than a guy an inning. The Rox signed Jose Mesa, another extreme groundball pitcher, this winter. This is about the only team that makes sense to sign Mesa. In addition, the Rox acquired Ray King. King is still a very good bullpen arm. The Rox should be good in the late innings at Coors. Of course, the bullpen is going to be needed much earlier than the 7th inning in most games. Chin-Hui Tsao was a former big prospect of the Rox. He had shoulder surgery last year and is expected to be ready for 2006. His status took a huge hit with the injury, though he is still a weird-throwing Taiwanese pitcher, so he will be given a ton of chances to stay in Colorado. The Rox have so many Asian pitchers because Asian pitchers tend to have goofy deliveries that keep the ball down. They are a good fit for Denver. Ryan Speier and other weird throwers finish out the bullpen. Like the rotation, the bullpen is about the best you can expect in Denver. The problem, of course, is that these guys are going to wear out and be ineffective on the road, where they will be expected to strike guys out and completely prevent runs, rather than limit them.
The Lineup: The Rockies have one of the whitest lineups in baseball. Unfortunately, most of these white boys cannot hit. The Rockies have a limitless amount of 26-year-old rookies that lack power. Because the outfielders are all in their mid-20’s, they are still somewhat fast, an absolute must for playing the outfield in Denver. However, they do not have much upside. In my opinion, the Rockies have the most replacement level players in baseball. While the Rox will never have a great pitching staff, I think the team could still compete if it could put together a dominating lineup both at and away from Coors field. This means more guys like Jason Bay, and less guys like Cory Sullivan.
Sullivan, Brad Hawpe, and Matt Holliday will man the Rox outfield and be backed up by Jorge Piedra. Sullivan, Hawpe, and Piedra are all 26 years old with about a year of major league experience. None are impressive. None have power. None have good raw on-base skills. None will post a .700+ OPS outside of Coors Field. These guys are bad hitters in the primes of their careers. This is bad news for Rox fans. Matt Holliday is a year younger than the other three and actually has a little bit of power. He hit 19 home runs last year. Unfortunately, he too is not a great hitter. He is better than the other four, but that isn’t saying much. At home last year, Holliday posted a 1.002 OPS. On the road, his OPS was .729. The road marks indicate the quality of hitter Holliday is. People should not be fooled into thinking he is good. Imagine what numbers Bobby Abreu could compile in Coors. Outfield is the most improvable part of the Rox. Pick up a Matt Stairs and let him post a 1.200 OPS at Coors. What about Branyan? I should give my disclaimer here: I will still have a Rockies outfielder on most of my fantasy teams and will platoon him on home days. If the Rox would just get an outfielder that could hit home runs, I would take my platoon-Coors-players strategy all the way to the bank. Do you remember what Preston Wilson, a terrible hitter, managed to do at Coors? Fantasy goldmine! Maybe next year.
In my opinion, the Rox infield was simply atrocious last year. People are so blinded by Rox infielders’ seemingly respectable batting averages that they completely ignore lack of plate discipline, power, and inability to hit for average away from Coors Field. Aaron Miles (who luckily is gone now), Garrett Atkins, Clint Barmes, and Luis A. Gonzalez refuse to take a walk. Together they walked about once every 20 at bats in 2005. Their batting averages were below .300, meaning below average for Rockies players. And, they combined to hit about 40 home runs, another below-average mark for four players playing in Coors Field. The remaining three players also are all 26. Yes, that is old for players with just one year of experience. This is indicative of the lack of real prospects these players are. No upside to these guys, including Barmes. The Rox just cannot win with a lineup like this. Again, though, because of age and inexperience, they all figure to be better in 2006. But, the lack of plate discipline and power does not bode well. Though these guys will make their way onto my fantasy teams too, I am unimpressed by them all.
I don’t even want to talk about how bad the catchers played last year. J.D. Closser was a really good prospect a few years ago, and I still like him. Last year, he batted .219. That is disgustingly low for even a pitcher hitting in Colorado. The thing about Closser I like is that he is one of only two players on the team that can draw a walk and take pitches. Taking pitches is an even more valuable asset for the Rockies given how pitchers wear down in Colorado. I expect him to bounce back nicely this year, as he managed to hit for average in the minors, though it was always in hitter-friendly parks. Unfortunately, he is going to lose a lot of playing time to players with inferior potential. This is a damn shame for a rebuilding team like the Rox.
The one good hitter in the Rockies lineup is Todd Helton. Helton has always taken an extreme amount of walks and had very good numbers away from Coors field. Regardless of Coors, he is an incredible hitter. A career .433 OBP, .607 SLG, and 773/622 BB/K ratio is ridiculous. Helton battled through injuries last year, but he is still only 32 years old. I think he has a few great years left in him. Unfortunately, he is not good for the rebuilding process in Denver. He has 6 years left on a deal that will pay him at least $16.6 million every year. He also has a complete no-trade clause. He isn’t going anywhere. Just as his career is tailing off, any rebuilding effort by the Rox will be taking effect. It is not a good situation, and it was a terrible contract. No player should ever be making $19 million as a 38-year-old. I love Helton, but he is going to cripple this team in the future, that is if the team ever finally rebuilds and spends money wisely.
Outside of Helton, the Rockies have made a good effort of late to avoid costly contract mistakes that have previously plagued this team. In the near future, the team will be free to spend some money. Unfortunately, it needs to improve at just about every position. I honestly believe that the pitching staff antics that the Rox have employed will work for this franchise. Expecting a low ERA is foolish. But, if the staff can continue to be respectable and the front office can build a lineup that can outscore people at and away from Coors, then the Rockies can start to compete. It may take a long time though, as the Rockies farm system is not good enough to make them into a contender anytime soon. The system is probably top 33%, but it is nowhere near as good as divisional rivals, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.
Farm System: This farm system is really tough to judge. Almost all minor league affiliates play in ridiculous hitter havens, including AAA Colorado Springs. Numbers are really skewed. For pitchers, I normally concern myself with walk/strikeout ratio, ERA, and home runs allowed. Those statistics are not as important as ground-ball ratio for Rockies pitchers. An easy way to go about this is to assume the failure of every Rockies pitcher and not call any of them prospect. Still, it is tough to judge Rockies hitters. The Rockies probably have 3 or 4 top-100 prospects. Here are the best:
1) Ian Stewart: 20 3B. Stewart should be a better option than Garrett Atkins or Jeff Baker at third base by 2007. Baker was a former good prospect whose star has significantly faded and Atkins isn’t good. The Rox would be wise to move Stewart along slowly. After a monstrous 2004 campaign in low-A ball, where he hit 30 home runs and posted a .992 OPS at age 19, Stewart struggled in high-A ball in 2005. By struggled I mean 17 home runs and an .850 OPS in a very hitter friendly league, the California League. At age 20, Stewart is still quite a good prospect. How he reacts to AA in 2006 will determine if he is the top-20 prospect I thought he would be or just another Rockies burnout. Anything less than a .900 OPS in the next two stops will be disappointing.
2) Ryan Shealy: 26 1B. Shealy is too big and slow to move to an outfield position in Denver. He is 6’5” and 240 pounds. He is completely blocked by Todd Helton, though he did manage to get 91 AB’s in Colorado last year. He strikes out a bit, but accompanies the strikeouts with good power and a good amount of walks. There is very little not to like about Shealy, besides his age. Obviously, his prospect status is slipping as he wastes more time in the minors. Though he has constantly played in hitters parks, his minor league cumulative OPS is over 1.000. I could see the Rox engineering a prospect-for-prospect trade involving Shealy at some point this season. I think the Rox will give him plenty of opportunities to prove himself in RF first.
3) Shane Lindsay: 20 SP. As much as I hate Rockies pitching prospects, I cannot ignore the fact that Lindsay has 14.44 K/9 in a short minor league career. Even if he is still in A-ball, and walks 4.59 per 9 innings, I love that strikeout rate. Also, Lindsay is Australian. He probably throws from a funny arm angle, a sure sign of opportunity with the big league club.
4) Chris Iannetta: 22 C. Iannetta has great plate discipline and is rumored to be a good defensive catcher. His power appears adequate, but it is really tough to judge both power and his ability to hit for average because of the parks he has played in. Iannetta will start the year in AA.
5) Troy Tulowitzki: 22 SS. Was the 7th overall selection in the 2005 draft. While he does not have much minor league experience yet, I generally like drafting college position players. I am a bit concerned about his plate discipline though after seeing his college numbers. Also, I do not know if he will ever develop plus power or be able to stay at shortstop. I was glad when the Brewers did not pick him, but that does not mean he is still not a good prospect. We’ll see how he reacts to the minors more in 2006.
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