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Colorado Rockies Looking for Do-Over from 2008
By Rox Girl from Purple Row.
[ February 19, 2009 at 1:48 AM ] [ ] [ Full Story ]  [ Filed under: Features | Rockies ]
[ Tagged: , ]
The Rockies come into Spring camp with low expectations from many fans, thanks to dealing their best player, Matt Holliday, from an underwhelming 2008 team. However, much as the team headed into 2007 with low expectations after dealing away their best starting pitcher of the season before, the underlying infrastructure of the Rockies may be more stable than fans realize, and the team clearly feels that it should be poised for another season of contention in 2009.
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While no team will openly tell its fans that they don't feel competitive in a given year, there will often be clear roster clues of what point in the success cycle an organization envisions itself. To identify a rebuilding team, you can look for certain traits, not many of which the Rockies seem to possess. What the Rockies do show are signs of an organization that feels they are in a prime position to contend.

One common trait of a rebuilding squad will usually be a mix of relatively young pitching to relatively old position players, such as the Padres will have in 2009, or the Giants had in 2008. This happens as teams search for the young position players that will make up the core of their next contending team by trading their older starting pitchers (you can look at the Padres with Jake Peavy or the Blue Jays with Roy Halladay as examples of this) and filling gaps with washed up veterans signed on the cheap. We can look at this by breaking down the projected principals of the team into four age categories: those that are in the twilight of their career (35 or over on opening day), those that are in the decline of their career (aged 30-34), those in the traditional peak phase (26-29) and those that have yet to reach their peak (26 and under). The Rockies projected pitching staff has only three pitchers not yet in their peak years and only one starting position player, Todd Helton, who qualifies as "old" in baseball terms.

Another hallmark is the use of the 25 man roster to stash away a Rule 5 drafted player or two for the future. Most contending teams could not afford to keep a prospect on the roster for an entire season. When the Rockies chose to fill their 40-man roster prior to this draft in December, the front office sent a clear signal that they expect the current core of players to maintain a competitive level of play even without Matt Holliday.

Finally, the Garrett Atkins/Ian Stewart situation also clearly indicates that the Rockies don't view themselves as sellers, as either Atkins would have long since been traded for prospect level players, or Stewart would be slated for another season of AAA. The team's stated reasons for hanging onto Atkins has been as an insurance policy in case Todd Helton's back fails him again, but with Helton appearing healthy, the Rockies still have made no overture to deal Garrett. At the same time, the team indicates that Stewart will play a prominent role with the big league team. This logjam at third doesn't indicate a lack of planning as some have attested, but rather a desire to have the strongest 25 man roster possible at the risk of alienating players or stunting the development of a major prospect. Teams only make this sort of decision when they have confidence that the reward (a potential playoff appearance) is worth that risk.

So now that we know that the Rockies organization really does feel that they have a solid chance of competing for the NL West this season, what can fans look to this Spring to determine if that interpretation is correct? A good place to start might be to stick in Tucson to compare them directly with the rival that many feel to be the class of the division until Manny Ramirez signs. The Arizona Diamondbacks don't have any advantage over the Rockies position players. In fact, the opposite is probably true, the Rockies also have the better projected bullpen when parks are taken into account.

The one area where Arizona has a clear and distinct advantage is with their top two starting pitchers, Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, but how much of an advantage is that really? If both stay healthy and make all their starts, they would appear in approximately 66 games. The value of two outstanding pitchers such as Webb and Haren over two merely good pitchers such as Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez over those 66 starts amounts to about three wins. The question Rockies fans will want to determine this Spring is whether they think the rest of the team has what it takes to make up that difference. If you look at on base advantages in key position battles, this should be easier to realize than many fans may imagine.

One last key that will determine the team's fate this season will be on defense, which could make Rockies pitchers look even better than their actual talent may have them if it returns to its 2007 level of play rather than the disaster of 2008. If the defense stabilizes somewhat with the return to health of Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton, the Rockies are likely to be in a far better position for 2009 than even many of their own fans may realize.

The Rockies have rolled the dice that the fluke season of the last two years was 2008 and not their miracle Rocktober run of 2007 that many would identify. Watching the two remaining Tucson Spring Training teams side by side will answer whether that's a winning bet or not.

Rox Girl covers the Rockies for Purple Row, SB Nation's Colorado Rockies blog.


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