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February 28, 2004

2004 Colorado Rockies Preview

(Published at the Batters Box, 28 Feb 2004)

The bloom is off the rose.

Fans once packed Mile High Stadium and Coors Field regardless of how well the Rockies played, but too many years of mediocrity have driven them away. Attendance has fallen for an astonishing seven consecutive seasons, and season tickets sales have fallen from 34,000 to 16,000 in five short years. With the Broncos, Avalanche and even the usually awful Nuggets offering competitive products, the Rockies find themselves at the bottom of the local sports heap in terms of quality and buzz.

GM Dan O’Dowd and company certainly didn’t create any buzz this winter. Still burdened by the catastrophic signings of Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle as well as other contracts granted before the “market correction? 2002-2003, Colorado will pay $51 million to just five players (Helton, Wilson, Johnson, Neagle, Walker) this season and roughly the same amount next season. Colorado didn’t sign any marquee free agents this winter and probably won’t until after 2005 when the contracts of all but Todd Helton disappear. Jeromy Burnitz and familiar face Vinny Castilla top the list of free agents signed to help the team tread water while prospects develop.

Where are these prospects, anyway? The everyday lineup belies an organization supposedly building for the future. In the everyday lineup, only Aaron Miles (27) and Preston Wilson (29) are on the right side of 30, and neither is a product of the system. Even the bench is old. The starting rotation consists of Jason Jennings and four huge question marks. Yet none among Aaron Cook, Chin-Hui Tsao, Garrett Atkins and Clint Barmes is expected to break camp with the big-league club without a tremendous spring. Fellow prospect Rene Reyes just turned 26 and is fighting for a backup role in the outfield.

Is there hope? ESPN and Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers definitely thinks so. He picks Colorado as the team most likely to imitate the Marlins’ chumps-to-champs 2003. Rogers correctly observes that a weaker NL West is ripe for the taking, and Colorado did finish win four fewer games than their Pythagorean record would indicate. But he also championed the virtues of Royce Clayton, Vinny Castilla, Jeff Fassero, and Scott Elarton, among others. Rogers claimed pitchers would have to “challenge? Clayton batting in front of Todd Helton, and he approvingly noted Fassero’s ground ball-inducing capabilities. To quote Dave Barry: I swear I am not making this up.

Others have discussed how Coors Field will revitalize the careers of Castilla, Burnitz, Clayton, et al. While true from a personal standpoint, such park-driven statistical improvement means nothing in terms of helping the team. When Colorado hosts Los Angeles, Dodger batters also get to hit in Coors Field. Colorado’s game-day opponents also will play 81 games at Coors Field. It’s a wash.

Winning is a function of talent, not park, and throughout most of their history, the Rockies just haven’t been very good. Even during the heyday of the Blake Street Bombers, dreadful batters like Neifi Perez, Kirk Manwaring, and Mike Lansing larded the Rockie lineup.

Sadly, for Rockies fans, this year is no different. Colorado just isn’t very good. Not only should they miss the ninety wins Phil Rogers thinks is within reach, they would do very well just to reach .500. In my gloomy opinion, yet another season of 72-75 wins awaits the dwindling Rockie faithful.


SS Mark Bellhorn, 2B Ronnie Belliard, 2B/3B Brett Butler, C Bobby Estalella, RP Jose Jimenez, 3B Greg Norton, SP Darren Oliver, OF Jay Payton, RP Justin Speier, 3B Chris Stynes, SS Juan Uribe


OF Jeromy Burnitz, 3B Vinny Castilla, SP Travis Driskill, SS Royce Clayton, SP Shawn Estes, P Jeff Fassero, IF Benji Gil, C Todd Greene, IF Denny Hocking, UT Damian Jackson, SP Joe Kennedy, 2B Aaron Miles, RP Vladimir Nunez, SP Brian Tollberg, RP Turk Wendell, RP Matt White


“I don't see ages; I see awareness… You can deliberate their skill level, but you can't deliberate their characters.? -- Dan O’Dowd

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, is praise of character the last refuge of a desperate general manager? Character is fine, as far as it goes. No doubt it gives some players an edge, but isn’t that edge already reflected in past performance? Veteran players with good character aren’t suddenly going to improve just because they have character. It’s circular logic.

In truth, Dan O’Dowd has little choice but to extol character. A few oppressive contracts combined with falling revenues resulted in a drastically curtailed free-agent budget, leaving O’Dowd unable to acquire any top-notch talent. O’Dowd seems to have created a new paradigm for franchise success every year in the hope that something will work. This year, at the Major League level, the plan involves a partial return of the homers-or-bust approach. The plan also involves bringing in a huge number of NRIs and praying that some perform at the far-right end of the bell curve. The organization also has rededicated itself to player development, something it must do in acknowledging that Colorado is a mid-market club.

I don’t know if Clint Hurdle is a good manager, but he doesn’t appear to be a bad one. Players reacted approvingly to him when he replaced Buddy Bell in 2002, and he has received generally favorable reviews despite the team’s sub-.500 record during his tenure. Hurdle doesn’t insert himself into the game very often compared to most NL managers, calling a relatively low number of bunts, intentional walks and pitchouts. Since Colorado scores in bunches at home and frequently trails on the road, his laissez faire attitude helps the team. He also has handled his pitchers with great cautiousness, never allowing anyone to throw more than 116 pitches last year and accumulating the fewest Pitcher Abuse Points of any team in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus. How he might handle a better staff in a neutral environment is anybody’s guess.

This winter, the team’s owners extended the contracts of O’Dowd and Hurdle through the 2006 season.


"It's not going to do any good if I am coming up with two outs and nobody on."
-- Todd Helton

You'll get used to it, Todd. Here’s the batting order:

Aaron Miles *
Royce Clayton
Todd Helton
Larry Walker
Preston Wilson
Jeromy Burnitz
Vinny Castilla
Charles Johnson
Pitcher / #9 hitter

* Statistics for Miles are from AAA Charlotte.

Johnson produced about as severe a home-road split as can be imagined, channeling Jorge Posada at home (.980 OPS) and Brandon Inge on the road (.560 OPS). Johnson has never hit much for average, but Colorado will happily take his 20 homers out of the #8 spot. He remains a solid defensive catcher, throwing out 42% of baserunners and ranking 12th in Defensive Win Shares among the 30 with the most innings. Colorado will less-than-happily pay him $9 million in each of the next two seasons.

Forget about the home park: Todd Helton really is all that and a bag of chips. He sports a career line of .294/.385/.523 on the road, all the more impressive if, as some analysts have opined, playing in Coors creates a "hangover effect" leading to unusually poor performance away from home. With proper support he could win the Triple Crown. He won’t receive that support this year, but he will continue to carry the offense on his back. Also a fine defensive first baseman.

Colorado badly needs newly acquired Aaron Miles to succeed, both as a second baseman and as a leadoff hitter. In 2002, he won the AA Southern League MVP. The following year, Miles batted a solid .304/.351/.445 in his first season in AAA. Unfortunately, he accomplished these feats during the ages of 25 and 26, respectively. Now 27, he has all of 12 Major League plate appearances to his credit. Miles hits for average and raps doubles but has little home-run power, doesn’t walk that much and uses his speed rather injudiciously. Nevertheless, with Colorado’s leadoff hitters emerging straight out of the Ninth Circle of Hell in 2003 (NL-worst .298 OBP), Miles needs only to be mediocre to offer improvement in this area. If he fails, 2B duties fall (precipitously) to Damian Jackson.

Vinny Castilla should kiss the grass of Coors Field every day and thank it for his financial security. The ultimate thin-air player, Castilla has batted .340/.380/.623 in Denver, .258/.298/.427 everywhere else. For $2.1 million (all but $500,000 deferred), Colorado is betting that Castilla can repeat the OPS+ of 101 he posted in 2003 instead of the wretched 70 he averaged from 1999-2002, all the while conjuring misty water-colored memories of the Blake Street Bombers of yore. That’s a heck of a longshot, but regardless, Castilla almost can’t help but to offer substantial improvement over last year’s 3B Chris Stynes. His arrival banishes prospect Garrett Atkins to another season in Colorado Springs.

Ostensible shortstop-of-the-future Clint Barmes batted only .276/.316/.394 in hitter-friendly Colorado Springs, so O’Dowd had to sign a warm body for the position. Barely meeting that modest criterion is new shortstop and out machine Royce Clayton. Clayton has batted terribly for four years running and in 2003 produced an OPS of .634, his worst in ten years. Yet because the team lacks traditional top-of-the-order hitters, Clayton will bat second and may occasionally lead off for the Rockies. Mr. Helton, I feel your pain. Clayton does offer a good glove. He also should be well rested: he lost his starting job to Bill Hall in Milwaukee last September and was waived with extreme prejudice by Chicago the year before.

Justifiably uninterested in paying off 31-year-old Jay Payton for his career year, O’Dowd signed Jeromy Burnitz to a one-year deal. Once a feared hitter, Burnitz completely lost his mojo in 2002 and recovered about half of it last year. Strangely, he has lost patience as he’s aged, declining in walks over the last four years from 99 to 80 to 58 to just 35. Unless he regains form, he (like Castilla) will depend mostly on home runs to generate offense. Burnitz is nothing special defensively.

Wilson converted a season of good health and thin air into 36 homers and an NL-best 141 RBI. Batting behind Helton and Walker will afford him the opportunity to repeat those numbers. As a mid-lineup run producer, Wilson doesn’t run so much anymore. Wilson faltered badly in the second half of last season and tore a ligament in his finger at season's end. Hurdle intends to rest him more often in 2004. Win Shares rated him a below-average centerfielder in 2003.

In 2003, the fragile Walker posted his lowest slugging percentage in ten years and lowest batting average since 1990. Has the 37-year-old jumped the shark? Perhaps not. Reportedly, Walker worked out with a strength coach and lost 25 pounds over the winter. Also, his on-base percentage remained in the .420 range and his “disappointing? OPS+ of 124 still bested Wilson and Payton. Walker will miss another 20-30 games but ought to have another solid season in him.


Backup catcher Todd Greene’s contribution to an offense depends entirely on his knack for swatting the ball over the fence. He doesn’t hit for average and his walk rate would mortify Neifi Perez: Greene has ten walks in his last 512 plate appearances. Greene mans the backstop adequately and can sub at first and even in the outfield in a pinch.

Damian Jackson is a respectable bench player. He can play anywhere on the field but catcher and has some speed. But if Miles or Clayton suffer from injury or ineffectiveness, Jackson makes a poor replacement. Non-roster invitees Denny Hocking and Benji Gil will fight for the other backup infield spot. Both have had exactly one fluky season in which they hit capably. Hocking has the advantage with his positional versatility.

Mark Sweeney will be one of Colorado’s extra outfielders and deserves to be the primary pinch hitter. Unlike the rest of the bench, Sweeney has some on-base skills, sporting a career OBP of .343 and a line of .270/.354/.365 as a pinch hitter. 26-year-old Rene Reyes is a veritable child among his Rox brethren but is also getting long in the tooth for a prospect. Reyes has a career .343 batting average in the minors but walks about one-half as often as you’d want. He appears to be one of those guys who must bat .300 to be useful, something he failed to achieve in limited big-league duty last season. He won’t surpass fourth outfielder status this season unless someone gets hurt. Based on his career arc, he’ll need to step it up to ever be anything more than that. 30-year-old catcher, corner infielder and desperation outfielder Kit Pellow also has a chance to make the squad.


"I am excited about our chances and, well, you know, the rotation… Um, what is our rotation?"
-- Charles Johnson

Jason Jennings
Joe Kennedy
Denny Stark
Scott Elarton
Jeff Fassero

Jennings would be a #3 or #4 starter in an average rotation. In Colorado, he’s the man. In 2003, Jennings backslid from his solid rookie season, allowing more hits and walking nearly one more batter per nine innings. He features a mean sinker and does a pretty good job of keeping the ball out of the air and the right-field bleachers considering where he pitches. Jennings stands a good chance to throw 200 innings with a 4.50 ERA, both desperately needed in Colorado.

Is Joe Kennedy really the #2 starter? He’s as good a candidate as any. After two league-average seasons, Kennedy collapsed in 2003, posting a 6.13 ERA and having to pitch in relief for the first time in his professional career. He won’t turn 25 until May and has shown great potential, but Kennedy may not be suited to a career in Denver. Kennedy allows a high proportion of fly balls, hasn’t struck out many batters at the Major League level, and usually relies on a curve ball for those strikeouts. Coors Field is where breaking pitches go to die, often along with the careers of those throwing them.

Stark injured his back in Spring Training last year and never fully recovered, his ERA jumping to 4.00 to 5.84 in just 78 innings. Colorado might be counting on a return to form, but in truth, Stark didn’t really pitch any better in 2002. That year, he offered a grisly 1-1 walk/strikeout ratio and a home run every five innings. He also held batters to a miniscule .216 average on balls in play, and even nonbelievers in DIPS would have to agree that he’s not likely to ever repeat that. An ERA in the mid-fives seems more likely.

A first-round pick ten years ago, Elarton will attempt to complete his return from rotator cuff surgery. He threw 172 pain-free innings in 2003, struggling slightly in Colorado Springs and mightily in Colorado. In 51 big-league innings, he actually pitched much worse than his 6.27 ERA would suggest. It’s unfair to judge him based on that limited sample, but really, there’s not much else to go on. He goes into the spring needing to pitch well to win a job.

Yes, friends, Colorado signed Fassero for his ground ball-inducing capabilities. That these ground balls skitter into the outfield with alarming regularity seems not to have occurred to Rockie management. And what of the balls that do tend skyward? Fassero has allowed an unsightly 26 homers in 145 innings over the last two years. I wish him no ill, but the 41-year-old has pitched dreadfully in recent years and has very little chance of improving his fortune or the team’s.

As noted in the Rocky Mountain News, prospects Chin-Hui Tsao, Aaron Cook and Jason Young will head down the road to Colorado Springs unless they dominate in camp. Adam Bernero, acquired from Detroit last summer, and non-roster invitees Shawn Estes and Brian Tollberg will fight for rotation spots. Bernero, at least, should make the team as a reliever.


Having perused the generally dubious collection of arms in the rotation, would you have expected Colorado to take one of its only reliable starters and reduce his workload by two-thirds? Meet new closer Shawn Chacon. Chacon doesn’t have an exceptional strikeout rate, isn’t a groundball pitcher, and isn’t especially adept at keeping the ball in the park (even adjusting for park). He is reasonably but blandly effective, a latter-day Craig Lefferts.

As for the rest of the bullpen, Colorado hopes to improve on what was already a respectable relief crew in 2003. The team traded Justin Speier to Toronto during the winter, but righty Steve Reed and lefties Brian Fuentes and Javier Lopez remain. Each posted a sub-3.75 ERA last year. Though expecting all three to do so again is too much to ask, overall they should comprise a solid troika of middle relief. Vladimir Nunez, terrible last year but adequate in 2001-2002, ought to win another bullpen spot. Adam Bernero, Turk Wendell, Jeff Tam and others will fight for mop-up roles.


The only homegrown products certain to make the club are Helton, Jennings, and Chacon. Colorado has pitching talent at higher levels, but most of the hitting prospects are at least two years from contributing to the big-league club.

Could help this season:

22-year-old #1 prospect Chin-Hui Tsao has pulverized the minors, posting a 2.57 ERA and striking out 391 batters with just 85 walks in 333 professional innings. Tsao missed most of 2001 with Tommy John surgery, returned with a vengeance in 2002, and skipped AAA to make his big-league debut last July. The first Major League player from Taiwan made two solid starts before faltering, and a hamstring pull limited his fall performance. Barring a knockout spring, Tsao will join Colorado Springs to start the season. Tsao is the #27 prospect in the Majors according to Baseball Prospectus and the only Rockie in the top 50.

Former Stanford standout Jason Young dominated AAA but flopped in a brief tryout in Colorado last September, allowing 8 homers and 43 baserunners in just 21 innings. The 24-year-old will begin the season with the Sky Sox and could return to Denver very soon given the level of talent standing in his way.

Aaron Cook struggled in his first full ML season and may begin the year in AAA. Cook excelled at keeping the ball in the park but allowed a hailstorm of hits and walked more than he struck out. Although Cook just turned 25 and still has time to improve, his minor-league track record indicates a lower upside than Tsao or Young.

24-year-old Lefty Cory Vance’s strikeout rate has dropped precipitously as he’s climbed the ladder: 8.3 per nine innings in high-A, 6.8 in AA, 5.5 in AAA, and 3.8 in the Majors. He doesn’t appear ready yet.

Todd Helton’s presence forced Garrett Atkins to move from first base to third, where he has struggled to achieve defensive competency. Atkins hits for average and shows a fine batting eye but hasn’t developed a home run stroke even in Colorado’s thin air. As of now, his batting skills make for a below-average ML first baseman, so his defensive development is key.

Shortstop Clint Barmes turns 25 in May and hasn’t displayed much hitting prowess at any level. Barmes did lead the PCL in doubles with 35 but otherwise did not impress with a line of .276/.316/.394. That O’Dowd felt Royce Clayton would better serve the Rockies this year speaks ill of Barmes’s future.

Names to watch:

J.D. Closser, C – Colorado acquired Closser for Jack Cust in 2002. Closser is talented but erratic behind the plate and batted a solid .283/.369/.471 for AA Tulsa. In a perfect world, he’ll be ready to replace Charles Johnson in 2005.

Jayson Nix, 2B –A 21-year-old supplemental 1st round pick in 2001 and the younger brother of Ranger Laynce Nix, Jayson popped 21 homers and reached based at a .351 clip in high-A last year.

Ian Stewart 3B – Last year’s 10th pick overall, the 18-year-old 3B torched the rookie Pioneer League to the tune of .317/.401/.558. Several years away.

Jeff Baker, 3B – 22-year old owns the career homer record at Clemson but a wrist injury limited him to 11 dingers in the Sally League.

Jeff Francis, P – Colorado’s 1st round pick in 2002 handled high-A capably last year. The British Columbian tallied a 3.47 ERA with a three-to-one SO/BB ratio as a 22-year-old.

Posted by Lucas at February 28, 2004 12:23 PM