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2007 Team Preview: Colorado Rockies

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2006 W-L: 76-86 (4th place)

2006 Pythag: 81-81

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:

LaTroy Hawkins, Willy Taveras, Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz, Brian Lawrence, Rodrigo Lopez, Javy Lopez, John Mabry, Dave Veres, Danny Graves

Going:

Luis Gonzalez, Danny Ardoin, J.D. Closser, Jason Jennings, Jose Mesa, Ray King, Scott Dohmann

The Rockies In a Nutshell:

You could make the argument that the Rockies are a team on the cusp of competing: if you trust the 81-81 pythagorean record over the 76-86 real thing, they are only a handful of wins away from being in the thick of the NL West race.  But while there will be improvements on the field in 2007, it's possible that the Rockies didn't add a single above-average player.  More youngsters graduating from a solid farm system will help, but probably not this year.

Offense:

That five-game difference between the actual record and pythagorean record could be put at the feet of the offense: while Colorado batters hit 270/341/433 overall, their OBP was under 300 from the seventh inning on.  In other words, they weren't pulling out a lot of close games with late inning heroics.

I have no idea whether that's luck, or if they bring out the super-humidor balls during the seventh inning stretch. I suspect it's luck, and that it won't beset the Rockies for a second year in a row.  If it does...well, you heard the super-humidor theory here first.

In six of eight defensive spots, the Rockies had solid offensive contributions.  The other two--catcher and shortstop--were just plain awful.  Colorado catchers combined for a 223/294/356 line, which is considerably worse than Chris Iannetta's MLE line of 282/359/448.  (By the way, given that he compiled some of those stats in Double-A, that's an incredible translated line.)  Simply plugging Iannetta into the lineup--even if there are growing pains--will be a huge boost.

Shortstop should also be repaired by a prospect.  Last year, Clint Barmes got 500 plate appearances despite having an OPS of 7.  (I'm kidding: it was really 599.  Still comically bad, though.)  Troy Tulowitzki, the heir apparent, didn't hit any better in his brief audition, but he did manage a 250/308/388 translated line in Tulsa.  Improve on that a little bit, and Rox go from horrible to average at their weakest offensive position.

The other notable personnel change is the arrival of Willy Taveras in center field.  He doesn't have the starting job locked up, but it's safe to assume that Rockies fans can expect plenty of bunt attempts and an OPS+ in the seventies.  Taveras really ought to be a fourth outfielder, which is about the kind of production the Rockies got from center field last year, too.

Making things interesting, several Colorado hitters had career years in 2006, even with the decrease in Coors Field run scoring.  More important than a modest improvement at shortstop will be the degree to which Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday, and Jamey Carroll retain their '06 gains.  Yes, I know, one of those things is not like the others.  Carroll can't possibly hit .300 again (can he?), while Atkins and Holliday are hitting their primes.  

I figure that the change in center will be a wash, Todd Helton will hit about like he did last year (I know, that's worthy of a whole article in itself), that Carroll's return to earth will cancel out the improvement at shortstop, that one of Atkins or Holliday will match his '06 production, and the other one will come back to earth, cancelling out the benefit of having Iannetta behind the plate.  That's a long ugly sentence, but the point is simple: the Rockies offense shouldn't change that much, John Mabry or no John Mabry.  (You thought I'd forgotten about John Mabry, didn't you?)

Starting Rotation

Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis are one of the best 1-2 punches the Rockies have ever had atop their rotation.  Then again, there isn't a whole lot of competition in the annals of Colorado baseball.  It's unclear just how much of Francis's improvement in 2006 came from the new run environment in Coors, or his development.  I've also rooted for the guy, so I hope it's the latter.

Behind the front two, the Rockies have replaced Jason Jennings with...a whole bunch of guys who probably aren't as good as Jennings right now.  He was traded to the Astros for Taveras, Jason Hirsh, and Taylor Buchholz, and it's possible that both Hirsh and Buchholz will see time in the rotation at some point during the season.  Hirsh struggled in nine starts with Houston last year, but is a quality prospect and could easily turn out to be one of Colorado's top five starters this year.

Competing with Hirsh and Buchholz is quite the collection of below-average starters.  Returning from last year's team are Josh Fogg and Byung-Hyun Kim, both of whom at least have the capability to be better than their 5.50ish ERAs last year.  On the other hand, PECOTA thinks Fogg is going to be even worse this year, and that Kim won't get his ERA under 5.00.  (By the way, did you know that BK just turned 28 last month?  Wow.)

The one newcomer virtually guaranteed a rotation spot is Rodrigo Lopez, who the Rockies acquired for a couple of minor league relievers from the Orioles.  Without adjusting his stats, he was no better than Fogg or Kim last year.  But he did pitch in the AL East, and he's only two years removed from a 3.59 ERA in 170 innings in that division.  Now on the wrong side of 30, he'll probably never been an above-average starter again, but he might be Colorado's third-best option to start the season.

Long story short, Clint Hurdle has options, even if they aren't all good ones.  (Brian Lawrence is in the mix, as well, and I haven't the foggiest idea what to expect from him.)  The Jennings trade was a savvy deal, giving them a half-decade of Hirsh for a season of Jennings.  On the other hand, that trade almost undoubtedly makes the Rockies worse in 2007.  If '07 is the year the Rockies solidify their gains and work in Iannetta and Tulowitzki, they were smart to avoid spending big on the rotation; Hirsh is on about the same schedule as the organization's best offensive prospects.

The Bullpen

They'll be without Jose Mesa, but despite Mesa's logic-defying performance last year, I think they'll survive.  The role of "old reliever who has pitched well for a long time, just not consecutively, and probably not this year" goes to LaTroy Hawkins, who has been going steadily downhill since he left Minnesota.

Besides swapping veterans, the Colorado bullpen isn't much changed.  Brian Fuentes will be back, and the Rockies can count on him for another year of striking out more than a batter per inning.  Tom Martin will be back too, and I'm not entirely sure why.

The highlight of this group is a pair of young relievers, Ramon Ramirez and Manuel Corpas.  Either one of them, with another modest step forward, could give the Colorado the flexibility to trade Fuentes before his final year of arbitration.  While PECOTA isn't very optimistic about either one, each of them could easily turn in a better season than Hawkins will.

Filling out the relief corps will likely be Jeremy Affeldt and a swingman.  There's very little in Affeldt's statistical history to represent his great potential; we have the Royals management to thank for that.  Now that he's found a new home and ought to be given an established role, perhaps he'll raise himself all the way to league-average.  Who knows.  Regardless, it'll be awhile before Hurdle will (should, anyway) give him important innings, so his volatility won't affect the fortunes of this team much.

Bullpen are always unpredictable, especially bullpens relying on young players.  By this point, Fuentes, Martin, and Hawkins are known quantities, but Ramirez and Corpas clearly are not.  The performance of those two young relievers will go a long way in determing how successful this unit is.

All Together Now

For better or worse, the Rockies were the only team in the NL West that didn't actively spend this offseason improving their club for 2007.  As I've said, that doesn't make the Jennings deal bad, it just means that it was made with an eye toward 2008 and 2009.  That's probably smart: while Iannetta and Tulowitzki probably will represent an improvement right away, it will be a year or two before they grow into the high expectations set for them.

While the offense will benefit from those young players, the starting rotation will take a step back.  Hurdle will have a much harder managing job on his hands this year--odds are, he won't get 150+ starts from whatever five pitchers he selects for the job, and there will plenty of unappealing options to choose from when one of them has to be replaced.  There's some upside with every one of the starters I've discussed, but not a whole lot for any of them except for Hirsh.

If we assume that last year's woeful late-inning offensive performance was just bad luck, we can put the Rockies down for 80-82 wins next year.  After establishing themselves as a slightly better team, the front office can go and find an impact player or two on next year's free agent market.  Rockies fans, start your wishlists.