Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Colorado Rockies' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

Remember when the Colorado Rockies stormed their way into the World Series? If you're a fan of the Rox, just try to keep that memory fresh in your mind as you read the following because it's gonna get plenty rough. When your squad plays in the National League West and its more pragmatic members are already looking to 2010, that means trouble.

Big trouble.

And big trouble is exactly what the Rockies have on their hands. It was gonna be an uphill battle even with Jeff Francis making every start. Now it appears as though he'll make none of them and that's just miserable luck for a team so thin in pitching.

Matt Holliday and Brian Fuentes are gone for seemingly pennies on the dollar, Garrett Atkins appears to be in inexplicable decline, and Brad Hawpe got spiked in the hand during World Baseball Classic prep to add further injury to insult.

On the bright side, the offense features a ton of young talent that might bloom in 2009. In the decrepit NL West, that would have an outside shot at being enough—truly anyone could possibly win the division (except the San Diego Padres).

Here's how Colorado should look on Major League Baseball's Opening Day:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Chris Ianetta
First base—Todd Helton
Second base—Clint Barmes/Ian Stewart
Third base—Garrett Atkins
Shortstop—Troy Tulowitzki
Left field—Seth Smith/Carlos Gonzalez/Jeff Baker
Center field—Ryan Spilboroughs
Right field—Brad Hawpe

Lots of Rockies observers are high on Smith and I don't really get it—he's not incredibly young at 26 and his best stat is a .284 lifetime average in 116 at-bats. Ho-hum. At least Gonzalez is a speed merchant and is a comparable baby at 23. Baker's the oldest of the bunch (27), but he's shown flashes of professional hitting prowess.

Baker's highly versatile so he could figure in the second base plans as well. Scott Podsednik's out there with Matt Murton, but I doubt either will figure significantly.

Starting rotation

Ace—Aaron Cook (R)
Second spot—Ubaldo Jimenez (R)
Third spot—Jason Marquis (R)
Fourth spot—Greg Smith (L)
Fifth spot—Jorge De La Rosa (L)/Franklin Morales (L)

Wow, did that baby take on water in a hurry or what? Honestly, Cook as your ace? Oof. The guy's a nice pitcher and had a relatively amazing year in 2008, but he is NOT a Major League ace. Jimenez is on the right track at 25, but he's a stretch in the number two spot. The rest of the rotation could explode in an eight run inning on a nightly basis.

Throwing those arms into the thin, mile-high air is simply mean; no matter how much the humidor helps matters.


Closer—Huston Street (R)
Set-up—Manny Corpas (R)
Set-up—Jason Grilli (R)
Set-up—Taylor Buchholz (R)
Set-up—Alan Embree (L)

Let's start with the good, which means the hitting.

Colorado has finally seen the light and will hand the catching job, part and parcel, to Chris Ianetta. That's good because (A) it means less Yorvit Torrealba—in fairness he had a decent year in 2008; and (B) Ianetta can rake—in 333 ABs, he hit .264 with 22 doubles, 18 home runs, 50 runs scored, 65 runs batted in, a .390 on-base percentage, and an .895 OPS. Those are pretty gaudy numbers coming from a 26-year-old backstop.

The middle of the infield has some seriously terrifying potential.

We've seen more glimpses from Troy Tulowitzki than from Clint Barmes, but both have shown stretches of torrid offense. Tulo bombed away for 24 homers, 99 RBI, and a .291 average in 2007 before losing almost all of '08 to injuries. And Barmes was the front-runner for Rookie of the Year once upon a time before the injury bug infested his career.

Clint showed signs of a resurrection last year, hitting .290 with 25 doubles, 11 HRs, 47 runs, 44 RBI, a .322 OBP, and a .790 OPS in 393 ABs. Not great, but there's a ray of hope hidden in those numbers.

Ian Stewart is waiting in the wings and has shown potential just like Jeff Baker, Carlos Gonzalez, and Seth Smith. Which is to say, there are a lot of people infatuated with his potential.

Todd Helton is old, but probably still good for a .300 average and 15-20 taters if he can stay healthy. That's an enormous 'if.'

However, all the above guys are secondary to the Ryan Spilboroughs, Brad Hawpe, and Garrett Atkins.

It's those three who must pick up the incredible amount of slack left behind by Matt Holliday. Spilboroughs is the least proven of the group, but his career line is actually pretty nice—in 668 ABs spread over 3+ years, he's hit .302 with 34 doubles, 21 HRs, 104 runs, 109 RBI, a. 374 OBP, and an .840 OPS. Nothing in that line indicates he can put up similar numbers in a full-time capacity, but it's some solace at the very least.

Hawpe got off to a really ragged start last year, but he turned it completely around and finished with a .283 average, 24 doubles, 25 HRs, 69 runs, 85 RBI, a .381 OBP, and an .879 OPS in 488 ABs. If he can duplicate those numbers, I'm sure Colorado would be please. If he can pad them a little? All the better.

The real question mark is Atkins. His '08 campaign looks rosy in a vacuum—a .286 average, 32 doubles, 21 HRs, 86 runs, 99 RBI, a .328 OBP, and a .780 OPS. However, those numbers amount to a second consecutive year in decline and an acceleration in that direction.

Furthermore, Atkins struggles mightily (he loses 100 points off his average) when the Rox go on the road. None of these are goods signs, especially now that he's gonna be expected to help alleviate the added pressure of a Holliday-less lineup.

Not great for the good news is it?

Trust me—that was the good news. The pitching staff is a disaster; there's no other way to put it.

I covered the pertinent parts of the starting rotation above so let's just skip to the bullpen, where the picture is no nicer.

If you're a believer in Huston Street and the resilience of Manny Corpas, the Rockies' bullpen might be in soft focus. Reliable innings from those two guys makes the situation tenable.

I'm not a believer. In either of them.

The rest of the relievers are underwhelming. Taylor Buchholz put up nice innings last year as did Jason Grilli. But middle relievers are the definition of unpredictable—one good year might very well mean two or three terrible ones are in the pipeline. Even if those two are settling in for a little consistent burn, they're not blowing any opposing hitters out of the batter's box.

Alan Embree is okay, but that's your only southpaw coming from the 'pen? I guess they've got an extra lefty in competition for the rotation so that means an extra lefty in the bullpen, but none of those three would give me much comfort.

Toss the whole morass into the figurative sharks awaiting at Coors Field and 2009 looks grim for Colorado fans, even in the NL West.

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