What Was Wrong With
Current team: California Angels
Position: Infield, Outfield
How did the Rockies get rid of him? Traded for outfielder Kimera Bartee, July 13, 2001 (Now playing for the Long Island Ducks).
How has he done since leaving? Figgins, who may be the fastest man in baseball, is the starting center fielder for the Angels, but has played 6 positions and is hitting .297, second in triples with 14, and 4th in stolen bases with 25.
The 2004 Rockies
Mostly due to price considerations, Rockies management decided to get rid of 3/4 of their infield after the 2003 season. In so doing, they dumped good second and third basemen (Ronnie Belliard and Chris Stynes) and a potential All Star shortstop (Juan Uribe). Belliard will be starting with the Cleveland Indians, Uribe with the Chicago White Sox, and Stynes at third for the Pirates.
Todd Helton remains a fixture and continuing bright spot at first for the Rockies in his eighth season in 2004. In 2003, Todd missed winning the batting championship by less than one hit, while remaining one of the best fielding first sackers in the big league. In fact, FoxSports.com said Helton is "far and away the best defensive first baseman in the game" and second overall behind the Card's amazing Albert Pujols. Todd's only weakness is his lack of speed, which he compensates for with excellent reads in the field and superior instincts on the base paths. Only the Phillies and Cardinals can lay claim to having comparable first basemen in the National League.
Rockies' Manager Clint Hurdle will probably wait until the last game of the Spring to pick his Opening Day starter at second base, and even then it will probably be a platoon position throughout the season. So far in Spring Training, the Rockies have tried (2003 stats in Parenthesis) Luis Gonzalez, Damian Jackson, Aaron Miles(.304, 11HR, 50RBI in minors), and Bengi Gil with Jackson having the most success with the bat. Denny Hocking() will probably play there before the season is over. Veterans Hocking (11 years), Gil and Jackson (8 years each) have never been regular second basemen on any level, but are actually shortstops converted to utility men, mainly due to their lack of offensive production. Hocking is the most highly regarded by scouts as a fielder, but is firmly ensconced in the lower echelon.
Benji Gil (.192, 1HR, 9RBI) was once prized as the regular shortstop of the Texas Rangers and was considered to be an excellent fielder. He has shown flashes of power and would probably hit for average at Coors Field if he can lay off bad pitches. He played in the World Series in 2002 with the Angels and hit .667 in the postseason, plays all 4 infield positions and is known as a scrapper. Of the three veterans, he would probably help the team the most. Unfortunately, he is probably the most valuable player to other teams, too, and will be traded by the end of Spring.
Luis Gonzales (.318 AA Akron) is not the famous Arizona DiamondBacks outfielder, but an infielder selected from Cleveland in the Rule 5 draft, which means he has to remain on the Rockies roster for the entire season or he goes back to the Indians. He has made several spectacular fielding plays at shortstop during Spring Training, is hitting over .300 and has shown some power, with 2 homeruns as of 3/24. Late bulletin (3/23): Indications are that the Rockies brain trust has decided Gonzalez does not fit in their plans despite his excellent showing, and will offer him back to the Indians in the next few days. Later bulletin (3/25): There may be some hope for Gonzalez, yet, as the deteriorating outfield picture may force the Rockies to start Hocking and/or Jackson in the outfield, possibly making room for Luis.
Damian Jackson (.261, 1HR, 13RBI) may be the most exciting of the lot, due to his great speed. Last year he stole 16 bases in a part time role with the Red Sox and has a career high of 34 in 133 games with the San Diego Padres in 1999. He is under a minor league contact on the Colorado Springs roster. Manager Clint Hurdle likes Jackson because he can also play center field, which may be necessary due to the injury to Preston Wilson. In late-breaking news (3/28) the Rockies released Jackson, giving the starting job to Aaron Miles.
Aaron Miles came over from the White Sox in the Juan Uribe trade. The 27-year old shows some promise as a hitter, but has little power or speed and hasn't shown much in the field. That said, the Rockies management are so afraid of being criticized for the bad trade that they will start him anyway.
Vinnie Castilla returns to the Rockies after a 4 year absence to re-take his position at 3rd. He still seems to have the instincts, reactions, and anticipation in the field that make him an excellent fielder, which makes the keystone corner one of the few places the Rockies could be better than in 2003. He seems to have lost a lot of pop at the plate, but some of it may come back with his return to friendly Coors Field. His stamina will be tested, however, because his backup, Garret Atkins has been a liability with the glove, and of the other utility players, only Gil has the arm and instincts to play third regularly.
The biggest decline in performance in 2004 will probably be at shortstop, particularly if Uribe develops into the star most scouts said he would. Royce Clayton, the projected starter, is only average in the field and a minus with the bat. Clint Barnes isn't much better, probably worse in the field and slightly better at bat. Together, they give Colorado the weakest shortstop in the National League, if not the Majors. Barnes is now out of the picture entirely, since the Rockies sent him down to AAA Colorado Springs Tuesday (3/23). Fortunately, Luis Gonzalez has been playing shortstop a lot in the spring, with spectacular results both in the field and at the plate. If the Rockies have the guts and brains to play him there, it could revitalize the whole team.
Speed is the major problem for the Rockies Infield. Helton, Castilla, Hocking, and Charles Johnson might not be able to win a foot race with former Cleveland and Detroit star Rocco Colavito, whose running speed was once compared to a tree. A lot of balls are going to skip through gaps in the infield, which spells disaster in Denver.
Add to that the fact that both middle infield positions will be platooned, at least while the season is young, which is not conductive to crisp double plays, not to mention consistency on cut-offs, coverage and positioning. Rockies fans can expect to see the same kind of confusion that has been the norm since 1993. How many championship teams can you name that used mediocre platoon players at short and second? Don't say the Angels, because even though David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy are not superstars, they are still several levels ahead of any of these guys.
If you listen to the local press, the Rockies appear to have one of the best outfields in Baseball, both from an offensive and defensive standpoint. Unfortunately, injuries to Larry Walker and Preston Wilson could leave Colorado in the opposite position.
According to the Sporting News Scouting Guide, Walker is the best outfielder on the Colorado roster, but only ranks 31st in Baseball, with a score of 7.7. The best is Barry Bonds, with a 10.0 score (kind of hard to believe, given his lack of effort in the field). The scouting report on Larry is that his skills have declined to the point that he "had trouble with even average breaking stuff", "is no longer the base stealing threat he once was", and his "arm is now only average". Everyone is hoping that Walker's off-season conditioning program will revitalize his career, but he has barely played in the Spring before aggravating an old groin injury, so the future does not look good.
The aforementioned Scouting Guide rates Preston Wilson 37th with a 7.5 rating, commenting: "good arm, but not always dependable". Jeromy Burnitz comes in at 49, with a 6.8 rating, but at least they credit him with a "strong and accurate arm".
Walker (), Wilson (), and Burnitz () would make a formidable hitting threesome if they all performed at their highest level. Unfortunately, Walker will start the season on the DL until at least April 10th and Wilson hasn't played a single Spring Major League game yet, due to injury. Burnitz will probably start in right field, where, fortunately, he has the most experience. As we noted previously, ("Burnitz not a good fit") the proposition of Burnitz playing left field in Coors field is pretty scary.
So, at least right field is set for the season, with Burnitz being an adequate replacement for Walker, both offensively and defensively.
If Wilson goes on the DL, the Rocks have no legitimate center fielder, other than Choo Freeman and Jeff Salazar, both of whom spent last year at the AA level, to take his place. Damian Jackson would be the best alternative, due to his great speed and at least some experience, having played 38 games there last year with the Red Sox. But, the rumors persistently indicate that Jackson is on his way out, so one of the guys playing there in the Spring may be starting in the regular season: Freeman, J Salazar, Jorge Piedra, or Denny Hocking. As of Sunday, March 28, Preston Wilson will be starting the season, having played his first spring game in which he also homered and showed no ill-effects of the injuries that have plagued him since the end of last season. The current rumors indicated Freeman, Piedra and Salazar will go to AAA Colorado Springs, Hocking will stick with Rockies.
With Burnitz playing in right, Kit Pellow, Mark Sweeney, Brad Hawpe, Matt Holliday and Rene Reyes are the candidates for left field, unless a deal is made quickly. Pellow is leading the team in RBI this spring and will probably start in Left until he plays himself out of it. Sweeney will probably stick as a late inning pinch hitter and backup for Helton. Reyes has impressed in the Spring and could stick. There doesn't appear to be room for Holliday or Hawpe, but they will play for the Rockies sometime this year. Pellow will be the starter, with Reyes backing him up.
What looked like a strong point is now a nightmare. Without the big bats of Walker and Wilson the Rockies are a last place team. None of their replacements appear likely to put up the kind of numbers offensively that can support a move in the standings. With very little experience in left or center, play will not be crisp, to say the least, especially at Coors. Look for opponents to run with reckless abandon to test the talent and experience of the subs. Also, expect misjudged fly balls, throws to the wrong base, near collisions - in short, the traditional Rockies way of playing baseball with an altitude instead of aptitude.
The catching will be handled by Charles Johnson and Todd Greene. The Rockies always seem to find good catchers, but they never seem to keep them for long. Hopefully, these two will last out the year. Unfortunately, both are right-handed hitters, so there is no offensive advantage of playing one or the other. Neither is a great defensive catcher, though Johnson once was - now he is criticized for his inability to handle low pitches and for his declining ability to throw out runners. In addition, last year he played extremely tentatively, to put it mildly, costing the Rockies several runs by failing to block the plate. Both catchers have demonstrated great power in the past, with Greene hitting 34, 35, and 40 homeruns in minor league seasons, but never putting together a big year in the majors. Both players worked hard in the off-season and appear to be in good enough shape to at least provide solid, if not spectacular performances both offensively and defensively. If Greene gets off to a good start, he could have a monster year, particularly because he is versatile enough to play first base and left field if Hurdle wants to keep his bat in the lineup.
The rotation appears to be set, with the first four starters being Shawn Estes, Jason Jennings, Joe Kennedy, and Scott Elarton. Chin-hui Tsao lost the 5th spot to Denny Stark by a nose. None of these guys had good years in 2003, so if the Rockies are going anywhere, they are going to need 3 or 4 candidates for comeback player of the year from this group. Shawn Estes will pitch opening day in Phoenix.
Also, in order for the Rockies to win, they are going to need their starters to pitch deep into games and hope that their hitters give them a big lead. Otherwise, the over-worked middle relievers will collapse in the second half, which seems to be a Colorado tradition. Steve Reed, Brian Fuentes, and Javy Lopez are fairly dependable middle guys, but Allan Simpson is untested in the Majors. Closer Shawn Chacon never closed a game before this Spring, and is a big question mark, with no contingency plan. Watch for him to do well at the beginning of the year and lull everyone into a false sense of security, only to collapse before the All Star Break.
Dave Krieger Won't Let Stupid Idea Die
In case you have never read Denver's other newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, Sports Columnist Dave Krieger is one reason why you never should. His latest piece, running in the Saturday, March 27th, 2004 issue is titled: "Attitude about altitude leaves Rockies high and dry". Click here to read the original article.
We can save your the trouble of reading his tortured prose, by telling you that it is just another tired re-hash of the B.S. other Denver writers once found intriguing, but have long since given up.
Namely, that the Rockies could improve their woeful record in out of town games by taking batting practice in some kind of artificial environment that would simulate conditions at sea level.
Krieger is only a part-time columnist, so he can't be expected to research anything or even spend any time thinking it through - he just shoots from the lip, so to speak. Here is our analysis:
Krieger's First Fallacy
"Playing in the most hitter-friendly venue in
major league history, the Rocks become accustomed to the conditions and
Unwilling to face the physics, the Rockies
announced the problem was physiological - playing at altitude was tiring
them out. So last year, they made a big deal of changing their workout
habits. The result?
Boston was first at home with a .316 average and twelfth away with a .263 average for a difference of .053 to Colorado's .055, so that "dramatic disparity" is hardly as large as he would have you believe.
The real problem is that the Rockies teams Krieger refers to WERE hitting up to their potential on the road, they were just hitting way over their heads at home. Nearly every team that plays at Coors field hits even better than they do at home, so obviously, the team that plays 81 games a year there is going to have a huge disparity over their road hitting. This is not a problem, it is the huge advantage that the Rockies enjoy. Guys like Krieger will only be happy when the Rockies play as badly at home as they do on the road.
Krieger's Second Fallacy
If the Rockies build an "enormous, pressurized chamber" as suggested by Cliff Neeley of Greeley:
"hitters could take batting practice in sea level conditions so they would be prepared for the road".
OK, even if you assume that this idea would work, exactly when would the chamber be used? If the players use it during home stands, it would throw off their hitting at home, which happens to be about the only thing they have going for them these days. Even Krieger doesn't want to eliminate the home-road disparity by lowering the Rockies' batting average at home, does he?
So, the only time they would be able to use the 3 to 6 million dollar monstrosity would be once they have finished a home stand and are ready to go on the road. But will the schedule allow it? Let's see...
For the first three road trips of 2004 (all times mountain):
Denver game ends around 4 PM, team plays next day at 6 PM in Saint Louis.
Denver game ends around 4 PM Sunday, team plays at 5 PM Tuesday in Montreal.
Denver game ends around 5 PM, team plays next day at 5 PM in Cincinnati.
This points out the ridiculousness of the whole scheme - there is no time for extra batting practice on the first and third road trips, and if they hang around in Denver for extra BP before the Montreal trip, will it do them any good the next day after a long flight? The rest of the season has similar scheduling.
Besides, isn't the batting practice they take in the actual park and environment before the game more valuable than any taken in an artificial environment under artificial lights?
Krieger's false conclusion
"A high school science teacher can show O'Dowd in 20 minutes why the
same pitch will move more in San Francisco than in Denver. Each new roster
O'Dowd assembles has the same problem with that transition.
This is where we come up against the futility of this entire discussion. Just because the ball may curve more at sea level doesn't necessarily support any of Krieger's conclusions. Hitters adjust to pitches quickly, often during a single at bat - we have all seen players fooled by a pitch, only to hit the same pitch hard during the same at bat. The physics do not explain the problem.
The real truth
Quite simply, Coors Field is the greatest hitter's park in the history of baseball. This is partly due to the rarified atmosphere of Denver, and partly because it was designed that way. This fact is undisputed, and has been widely reported and analyzed since baseball began there in 1995.
It also follows that the home team at Coors will have an even greater hitting advantage there than visiting teams, which is why the Rockies are always among the team hitting leaders.
Unfortunately, it also follows that they will not hit as well on the road, and it is absolutely logical that the difference would be the greatest disparity in baseball. So, if the Rockies played their home games in another park, the disparity would be right in line with the average.
The same is true for the woeful won-loss record on the road. The road record is the true indicator of the quality of these teams and their management. You can't judge the Rockies based on their record at Coors Field, where they have the greatest home field advantage in the history of Major League Baseball.
You can, however, judge Dave Krieger on the lameness of this article. He
has no excuse.