Spring Training 1: Colorado Rockies

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So I was going to review the hilariously bad Captain America movie for my final post of the weekend, but after looking at Cap’s future and reviewing the series’ latest issue, I’m a little Capped out at the moment. So instead, I’m going to start my Spring Training series, in which I’ll be taking a look at various MLB teams going into the upcoming season. The series might be looking at just some of my favorite teams, or some of the most interesting ones, or maybe I’ll get so ambitious as to actually review all 30 teams. We still have about a month and a half until the season starts, so it’s possible (albeit highly unlikely). Most likely, I’ll pick one team from each division for an in-depth look, then do a shorter overall preview.

But for now, let’s kick things off with a look at my second favorite team, the Colorado Rockies.

A Look Back

The 2009 Season

The Rockies finished 92-70 in 2009, placing second in the NL West, three games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. Colorado captured the NL Wild Card, but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Philadelphia Phillies, who went on to the World Series. But that only tells part of the story for the Rockies, who started very slowly but became the best team in baseball over the last four months of the season, posting a blistering 74-42 record after Jim Tracy became manager.

The Offseason

The Rockies had a fairly quiet offseason, as long-time general manager Dan O’Dowd felt confident enough in his team’s young nucleus that no big splashes were necessary. They let third/first baseman Garrett Atkins go; he eventually signed with Orioles, and I wish him the best in reviving his struggling career. Also gone is Yorvit Torrealba, a good teammate but an easily replaced catcher, who sat around a long time this offseason, linked to the Giants, Rangers, and Mets before finally signing with the Padres.

The Rockies re-signed Jason Giambi, an extremely valuable pinch hitter who is apparently a great clubhouse presence. They signed Miguel Olivo to replace Torrealba as the backup catcher. Perhaps most significantly, they signed starting catcher Chris Ianetta, closer Huston Street, and set-up man Rafael Betancourt to extensions. Colorado did a minor league deal with pitcher Tim Redding to provide some rotation depth, signed Melvin Mora for infield depth, and for some reason, even took a flyer on a minor league deal for Paul Lo Duca.

The Team

Catcher

The Rockies have a good young catcher in Ianetta, though they’re still waiting to see just how good. Ianetta hit 16 home runs in fewer than 300 at-bats last year, but managed just a .228 batting average and rode the bench for lengthy stints in favor of the even lighter-hitting Torrealba. He’s worked out hard in the offseason, though, and I expect him to show improvement in his age 27 season. He’ll never hit for great average, but there’s no reason he can’t get up into the .255-.260 range while hitting maybe 25 HRs. Olivo, who had a career year with 23 HRs in 390 at-bats last year for Kansas City, will take over Torrealba’s role as Ianetta’s platoon mate, but I concur with the general assessment that Ianetta will get a bigger bulk of starts this year, instead of the near 50-50 split he’d shared with Torrealba. He and Olivo are fairly similar, in that both can hit for nice power but poor average; the main difference is Olivo has never learned to take a walk. Those two combined could net the Rockies 30-35 home runs from the catcher position, which would easily be one of the best in baseball. 

First Base

Same story here as it’s been for the past 13 seasons: Todd Helton. Helton certainly doesn’t have the power he used to, but he recovered from an injury-plagued 2008 disaster season to hit .325 with a .416 OBP last year — not bad for any 35/36-year old. His defense has dropped off a tick from his Gold Glove days, but he’s still a plus defender. He’s also still the team leader, helping develop Troy Tulowitzki and the next generation of Rockies superstars. His numbers won’t be flashy anymore, but he’s still a solid, reliable presence.

Helton’s main backup at first is the aforementioned Giambi, whose defense is atrocious, but whose bat still has some life in it. If Helton were to go down for an extended period of time, Tracy would probably start Mora some at first, or at third and move Ian Stewart to first, to avoid too much of Giambi’s defense.

Second Base

This is one of the biggest question marks for the Rockies, as it appears they will start the season with Clint Barmes, who hit 23 HRs last year, but was incredibly streaky and finished with a .245 average (.734 OPS). He’s a nice defender, but I think he is better suited in the super utility role that he occupied much of last year. Mora was signed as insurance both for Barmes at second and Ian Stewart at third, both of whom, especially Barmes, the Rockies have some justifiable concerns about. But Mora is 38 and nothing special on offense or defense anymore. If a change does need to be made, I think Tracy might play Mora at his more natural position of third, and move Stewart back to second.

The more intriguing option, though, is starting Eric Young Jr. at second. EYJ already has a lot of fans very excited after his call-up last year — despite the fact that he didn’t play just great. But his father was a successful big leaguer, and Jr. is fast as hell, one of the speediest guys in the game. The problem is, he’s a very light hitter right now, so it’s unclear that his bat would be any better than Barmes’. Also unclear is whether he can handle second defensively; his glove probably plays better in the outfield, but his bat isn’t strong to get much playing time in an already crowded Colorado OF. So he’s an exciting prospect, but one who might not have a spot yet. He could stick with the Rockies as a bench player and pinch runner, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him go back to AAA for some more seasoning.

Shortstop

We go from one of the biggest concerns to the least. If there’s one area where the Rocks are set, it’s shortstop, where young superstar Troy Tulowitzki is morphing into a perennial MVP candidate. After a slow start, Tulo went on an unbelievable tear in the second half last year, finishing with 32 home runs and slugging .552. But as strong as his offense is, his D is at least as good, if not better. The guy was absolutely robbed by not getting the Gold Glove last year. Tulo will play the entire regular season at age 25, so he probably still has room to grow, too. I definitely see him as a top-5 finisher in the MVP this year. Barmes is really his only backup, as I doubt Mora has the range to play short, unless it’s in a real pinch. Omar Quintanilla might still be around, but let’s hope we don’t find out.

Third Base

Ian Stewart will start the year at third, and you could certainly do worse. He hit 25 home runs as a 25-year-old last year in just over 400 ABs, and could develop into a plus defender despite moving from second to third. His .228 BA was awful, and will be a significant liability if he can’t improve it. However, he’s young, and he had some bad luck on BABIP last year. I think he gets past .250 this year, with the ability to hit a .375 OBP and approach 30 HRs — a pretty strong output for a young third baseman.

Mora is the main backup, after starting at third for the Orioles for years. He’s pretty “meh,” but if you look at third-base backups around the league, he’s actually probably one of the better ones around.

Outfield

This should be another area of major strength for the Rockies, as they combine an established starter with lots of young talent. Right fielder Brad Hawpe will probably begin the season as the only incumbent from a year ago to remain a starter. Carlos Gonzalez will probably start in left, with Dexter Fowler likely nailing down center field, as long as he can hit enough in spring training. Providing depth galoore are Seth Smith, Ryan Spilborghs, and Eric Young Jr., all of whom could be full-time players for other teams.

Hawpe had a great first half last year and finished with a nice line of 23-86-.286. However, that doesn’t show his streakiness — he hit .240 after the All-Star break and couldn’t be counted on at all going down the stretch. And yet, he’s almost certain to be a free agent after this season; he has a $10 million team option for 2011, but there’s no way the Rockies pick it up. So maybe the motivation of getting a big contract will spur him to a big, more consistent year; if not, then the Rockies have plenty of back-up plans.

Gonzalez (a key chip in the Matt Holliday trade) might have the highest upside of the young outfielders, and he looked great after his call-up last year, belting 13 home runs in 89 games as a rookie. However, he’s still just 24, and he’s going to have more bumps in the road than we saw last year. Last year’s .320 batting average after the All-Star break is unrealistic for now, and will drop some as pitchers figure him out, but he could still go 20-30 while hitting .280 and playing good defense. I’ll take that in a heartbeat.

Fowler, the switch-hitting center fielder, is another guy I really like. I got to see him live a couple times when he was with the Rockies’ AA team in Tulsa (about two hours from where I live). I have little doubt the guy will be a star, and I think he could become a CF version of Carl Crawford. But while he has 40- to 50-steal speed, his bat is still a little raw. Like Gonzalez, I think there could be some growing pains. The problem is, the Rockies can’t afford for any growing pains to be too acute, as they’re hoping he can bat leadoff; Gonzalez would probably be their second choice if he can’t, with the hope that it doesn’t come to Barmes.

But what the Rockies could lack in consistency, they make up for in options. I’m a big fan of Seth Smith, who I think could be a star himself if given more of a chance. Last year, he hit .293 with 15 homers despite only getting 335 at-bats. This year, in his age 27 season, I think he’d be a borderline All-Star if he played everyday. However, he’s blocked into being a fourth outfielder, for now, by the higher upsides of Gonzalez and Fowler, and the larger contract of Hawpe. If anyone struggles or gets hurt, though, he should be the first man in. Personally, I’d like to see him start over Hawpe, but he’s never played much right field, and I know Tracy wants to give Hawpe every opportunity (even if for no other reason than to make Hawpe more attractive potential trade bait, which is quite possible).

Spilborghs is another good option for Colorado. After three strong years off the bench, he struggled quite a bit last season, managing just a .241 BA in limited time. But he’s better than that number would indicate. And most importantly, he’s the Rockies’ only pure right-handed outfielder, a fact that will ensure him decent chances.

I’ve already talked some about Young Jr., another switch hitter. I don’t see him getting a lot of playing time in this crowded outfield, as Colorado would much rather his glove work out at second base. But with his speed, he should be able to help out in the outfield if needed.

Bench

I’ve mentioned all the main bench guys at their respective positions, but it should be noted that this is an area of significant potential strength for Colorado. I don’t love Mora, and I would have rather seen the Rockies sign Felipe Lopez to be their utility infielder (or sign/trade for a second baseman, so Barmes could resume that role). However, he at least gives them another option in the infield. Giambi has accepted his role as a pinch hitter, and it suits him well. And I’ve already talked about the OF depth, which can also be used for situational hitting. There is a lack of right-handed options off the bench, as the best two options, Giambi and Seth Smith, both hit lefty. So it’ll fall on Spilborghs to have a bounce-back year, and Mora to give some quality at-bats. The Rocks did take a crazy flyer on former big leaguer Jay Payton, on a minor league deal, in hopes he can be another righty option off the bench at some point. If Eric Young Jr. stays with the big league team, he’ll be a great pinch runner, and a possible pinch hitter since he’s a switch hitter.

Starting Pitchers

Historically, this is the group that has always held Colorado back. But the Rockies have a strong defense behind them, and the rotation is developing into a potential strength. Leading the way is Ubaldo Jimenez, who has electric stuff and took a major step forward last year, inducting himself into acehood with a 3.47 ERA and 198 strikeouts. What’s more, his best starts were at Coors Field, traditionally a hitters’ park, where he posted a 3.34 ERA. He’ll need to continue that dominance this year for the Rockies to win. He’s still just 26, so he might even get better. The NL is absolutely loaded with starting pitchers, but a top-5 finish for the Cy Young isn’t impossible.

After Jimenez, there’s less certainly but still some upside. Aaron Cook is a groundball pitcher who’s a good bet to have an ERA around 4 and eat a lot of quality innings. Jeff Francis is the wild card, coming off an injury that caused him to miss all of 2009, not to mention a disastrous 2008 year where his ERA ballooned north of 5. But he’s always been a gritty pitcher, and I think a comeback ERA of 4.25 is realistic, and would be solid for the Rock’s fourth spot.

Perhaps the biggest key to the Rockies’ rotation, though, is Francis’ fellow lefty, Jorge de la Rosa. Expectations were low for de la Rosa last year, but at age 28, he had a bit of a breakout, catching fire the second half to become Colorado’s No. 2 starter down the stretch. People are pretty divided on how much of his success was repeatable, and how much was a mirage. If he keeps his ERA at or below 4, then you’ve got to like the Rockies’ chances.

Rounding out the rotation will be Jason Hammel, who was pretty solid most of last season, despite being prone to giving up home runs. Colorado’s rotation depth isn’t sparkling, but they have options if someone gets hurt or struggles. Franklin Morales is a converted starter who is now in the bullpen, and he might be the first man into the rotation if needed. However, the Rocks would like to avoid that, as he’s clearly the top (maybe only) lefty option in the bullpen. So they could also go with Tim Redding, which isn’t a great option, but he was surprisingly decent for the Mets at times last year. Jimmy Gobble is the only other potential starter I can think of, and that’s a hideous thought. I know they’d prefer to keep uber-prospect Christian Friedrich in the minors all year, but we’ll see. So health in the rotation is clearly key to the Rocks’ succes.

Relief Pitchers

The Rockies found some stability in a big way when they traded for Huston Street, who had a rough start to the season, then went on a five-month tear to save 35 games and outperform nearly every reliever in the game. Colorado rewarded him with a three-year deal in the offseason. They also gave a two-year deal to his top set-up man, Rafael Betancourt, who was dominant last year. Morales is the main lefty, and he’s usually solid, though he’ll have a couple rough stretches. Former closer Manny Corpas is also around, though it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll perform after a brutal 2009. Taylor Buchholz will also be back after missing most of 2009 to injury, and if he can pick up where he left off, that’s another strong option as a set-up man. Matt Daley gives some additional depth, and the Rockies took flyers on veterans Juan Rincon and Justin Speier, but shouldn’t need to rely on either one. They also have some internal options in the minors, including another star prospect, Jhoulys Chacin, who could earn a spot in spring training, or be called up later in the year. There are gaps of uncertainty, but I think it’ll be a fairly strong bullpen.

The Result

Divisional Competition

The Rockies have a good team, but they’re in a good division. If they could switch spots with the Cardinals, they’d run away with the NL Central, but the NL West features four teams with legitimate playoff chances. The Dodgers have a line-up of budding stars, but also uncertainty with what they’ll get out of Manny and Russell Martin; they have a great young 1-2 punch in the rotation (Kershaw and Billingsley), but the rest of their starters are weak, thanks to an awful offseason where the team was crippled from doing moves by its owners’, the McCourts’, divorce. The Diamondbacks should have a great three-man rotation (Haren-Webb-Jackson), but an uneasy fourth and fifth, with a line-up that’s a complete toss-up. It might be a make-or-break year for some of the Arizona hitters, and I really don’t know where they’ll land. The Giants have Tim Lincecum, the best pitcher on the planet, leading a nice rotation, but outside of Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, I pretty much hate their lineup. Even the Padres, who should finish fifth, ought not be complete pushovers, with a decent lineup.

In short, all five teams in the NL West have their flaws. The Rockies have question marks in their rotation, but no team in the division feels good about all five of its starting pitchers. They have some potential issues with young hitters struggling, but LA is the only team that can potentially boast as good of a lineup. LA is also the only team with a better bullpen, but the Dodgers’ rotation is probably fourth among the four contenders, and I think that will hold them back.

The Verdict

I’m predicting the Colorado Rockies will win the NL West with 90-95 victories, finishing 2-4 games ahead of the Dodgers, followed by the Giants, Diamondbacks, and Padres. Maybe they’ll win their first-round playoff series, depending on the draw, but I don’t see them in the World Series. The top contenders in the NL will probably be the Cardinals from the Central and the Phillies from the East, and I don’t love the Rockies’ chances in a series against those teams’ rotations. But a division title and their third playoff appearance in four years would be a damn fine season.

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5 Responses to “Spring Training 1: Colorado Rockies”

  1. spiffyithaca Says:

    Was their record under Tracy better than the Yanks record during the same time span?

    I think grabbing Felipe Lopez would have made a lot of sense and given their offseason a pit more pizzaz, we are much agreed. Though I see Felipe Lopez as an everyday player more than a utility player like he’s being treated this offseason. For shame. But yeah, I hate Barmes, so putting him on the bench or in a utility role so FLo could start everyday at 2B would’ve been worth it. They still could do this, too, I suppose. And fuck Melvin Mora. Or just go all in with Eric Young Jr. Him and Fowler could steal 120 bases between them.

    I really like Iannetta still, and think he can hit .280 easy and reach 20 homers, depending on PT. Olivo’s not a bad back up either. His power in Coors is real intriguing.

    I could see Helton unraveling apart at any time…can Seth Smith play 1B?

    I go back and forth on Tulowitzki every day on whether or not he’s really a top 5-10 fantasy player. He’s clearly the best player on the Rockies for sure, but it’s hard to forget that he was such a bum in the first half last year. He’s clearly a stud, but I don’t know if I would put him in the top 5 of the MVP ballot yet.

    I love CarGo more than you I think, and see 20/20 as his baseline (and predict a 24/32) and could be another Werth/Reynolds big power and speed guy. Fowler showed too many flashes of awesome last year to bench him, but you’re point on Seth Smith is well taken. They have some good depth.

    I worry about their bullpen and rotation, like you. I love Ubaldo (and actually had him last year instead of you lol), but don’t like anyone else. Also, I get your praise of Street, but he did have a 1+ year period of mediocrity that I have a hard time forgetting. Maybe it was just a dead arm phase, but I still have lingering doubts, no matter how stupidly.

    I agree with most all of your stuff here, especially your divisional outlook. Aside from the Padres finishing last, there’s no certainty here. But, I think the D-Backs or Giants could pose a huge threat and take the division (the Giants having Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Bumgarner helps). I’ll say the D-Backs on the back of their young lineup and Webb/Haren/Jackson.

  2. davidry214 Says:

    Touche. Apparently, the Yanks won two more games over that stretch.

    The Rockies signed Mora for $1.3 million. I really can’t imagine Lopez getting much over $2 million at this point, and maybe less. So with more patience, they could have gotten a better backup (and like you, I would have started him over Barmes) for very little more money. Yet I didn’t see any rumors that Colorado was even interested in Flo, who’s really gotten dumped on this offseason. Instead, it came down to Mora and Orlando Cabrera. Of the two, I would take O-Cab’s bat (though he’s clearly dwindling himself), but his defense wouldn’t be any better than Mora’s. But with the money they saved by going Mora (O-Cab signed with the Reds for $3MM), maybe they can make a midseason trade for rotation help, if needed.

    I like Ianetta too, and could easily see him going closer to 25 or even 30 homers. But .280 is a pipe dream. And I’m not too worried about Helton. Sure, there’s some injury risk with any player his age, but he’s been a pretty healthy guy. 2008 was the only year of his career he missed 20 games or more, and also the only year since he was a rookie that he didn’t hit over .300. And he goes into the season without any offseason surgeries or lingering health concerns, so I expect the guy to remain a model of consistency. If I’m wrong, though, I would love to see if Seth Smith can play first (I don’t think he ever has).

    Yeah, top 5 in the MVP might be tough for Tulo given the quality of competition (Pujols, Hanley, Braun, Fielder, Howard, Utley, Zimm, Holliday, maybe Kemp, Upton, or Wright). But I do think he’s ready for full-fledged stardom, including a possible top-10 fantasy year. The entire team struggled terribly the first couple months, so I don’t really blame him for that. And when he’s hot, he puts up Pujols-esque numbers.

    I like CarGo quite a bit; I did say I thought he might end up going 20-30. I just think his average dips below .300. Nor did I say Fowler would necessarily be benched, just that he’s probably going to go through some growing pains. But he already draws a lot of walks for a young speedster, so he’ll become a great leadoff man. If he and CarGo do both take off, that’s a damn fine top of the order.

    Your doubts about Street are well-founded; that was a lengthy rough stretch(es) he had. But he was a RoY winner, so the talent was always there, and last year he seemed (to me) to figure some things back out. I like him.

    I don’t know about the D-Backs. I love Upton and the start of the rotation, but the bullpen is weak, and I’m not a fan of the lineup. I think Chris Young and Conor Jackson are burnouts already, and I’ve never been just huge on Stephen Drew (or Adam LaRoche, for that matter). I am intrigued by Miguel Montero, but wish for fantasy purposes that they’d traded Snyder.

    The Giants I like more, for the reasons you mentioned: those pitchers (and while his contract is ridiculous, Zito had a solid year last season). But I go back and forth on Sanchez, and Bumgarner is a rookie, so who knows if he goes the way of Tommy Hanson or Homer Bailey. And their only good hitter, Kung Fu Panda, is already pudgy and showed up to camp even more overweight: I love him, but the guy’s body makes him an injury risk (though I think/hope that won’t flare up for a few more years). And even if Sandoval does stay healthy, who hits cleanup? Aubrey Huff? Gross.

    So yeah, even with the Rockies’ flaws, I like them to take the division. All four teams are very good, but each has some significant holes, and I think Colorado’s are least glaring.

  3. spiffyithaca Says:

    I had heard the opposite about Kung Fu Panda, actually. While he hasn’t slimmed down completely obviously and this article is very tongue in cheek, it’s clear he’s made some effort to lose weight:
    http://sports.yahoo.com/fantasy/blog/roto_arcade/post/Operation-Panda-status-update-The-subject-is-st?urn=fantasy,220537

    I’ll respond to the rest later

  4. davidry214 Says:

    You’re right; as it turns out, even the snippet I read did actually say he lost weight. But it was so not positive that I remembered it incorrectly. Here’s what Buster Olney said:

    “Pablo Sandoval has lost weight, but probably not as much as the Giants would like. I know in talking with Giants folks that they really felt that every time Sandoval was away from his trainer, he put on weight rapidly.”

    A San Francisco Chronicle article said he didn’t look noticeably slimmer and didn’t reach his target weight. So I think there’s actually still some significant cause for concern. Of course, the same concern has always been mentioned about Miguel Cabrera, even Prince Fielder, but neither has missed time yet.

  5. spiffyithaca Says:

    I’m not at all ready to call Chris Young or Conor Jackson burnouts. Conor Jackson had Valley fever or some shit last year. That was completely responsible for his demise. He was a .300 hitter who walked as much as he struck out, had 12 jacks and 10 steals and a .823 OPS the year before that. I think he could do a mini-Aaron Hill style breakout this year, though at 1B/OF, it wouldn’t be as awesome if he did.

    Chris Young is obviously a volatile player at best, but the guy is only 26, and when he was 23/4 hit 32 HR’s and stole 27 bases. He has awesome talent and ability and I still think he’ll at least develop into a Mike Cameron type player (minus the incredible defense, although I have no idea how good Young is out there). When it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for a player to go 30/30 (even if he hits .237), I can’t completely give up hope.

    I know you love Mark Reynolds, even if I don’t.

    LaRoche is a useful hitter, and Arizona’s fun happy ballpark could get him hot early. I feel like one of these years while he’s still in his prime, LaRoche will be more than competent in the first half of the year. And what the hell, BOLD PREDICTION, I say he hits .280 in the first half.

    Kelly Johnson: Another bargain pick up. I think he repeats his 2007/8 years, when he was a .270-.280 hitter, with double digit power and speed ability. More than serviceable at 2B, considering how lean the position is.

    Justin Upton probably is a year or two away from instant MVP consideration, but the guy’s a fucking stud, and could do it this year too.

    I’m not too worried about Chris Snyder, and was shocked when I saw how awesome Montero’s numbers were last year.

    And I’m kinda over Stephen Drew (finally), but he’s still a competent and sometimes All-Star player, even if he is damnably inconsistent.

    So yes, it could go a lot of ways for this young team, but the talent is undeniable and unlike some teams (like the Mariners), there isn’t one absolute sinkhole in their lineup (and if Chris Young falters again, Gerardo Parra was quite good last year), and if they could get another reliable arm in the bullpen, I like their chances to be a surprise NL contender.

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