Nearly 20 years ago the Rockies could do no wrong. If the team lost 14-20 the stands would still be full the next day. Mile High was packed with rabid fans and a few years later when Coors Field opened up the franchise had to add a third deck to the right field bleachers to accommodate the intense love for the team displayed by its fans at the turnstiles.
(Wow…we are approaching 20 years of major league baseball in Denver! Seems like just yesterday all the hub-bub around the “CR” on the Rockies ball cap was that it was somehow gang related. With the new found requirement for sinker ball pitchers and the humidor we are just as likely to see a 3-2 game at Coors as a 12-10 contest. Long gone are the Blake Street Bombers and Generation R. The franchise has a no-hitter – the New York Mets don’t even have one of those! – and apparently the shock from signing big long term deals with Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle have worn off as the Rockies inked Tulo and CarGo last year and paid good money for Michael Cuddyer this year. But somehow Dan O’Dowd and his awful record are still here after 11 full MLB seasons.)
The fan base in Denver (and for many of the states surrounding Colorado) expects more from the team. The attendance on Sunday September 16th, 2007 was just over 19,000; far less than the 50,000 seat capacity at Coors Field. There were two major happenings at Coors Field that day: 1. Todd Helton hit his 300th home run and 2. it was the start of the streak that led the Rockies all the way to the World Series in 2007. Up until that point in the season the Rockies were awful and the attendance reflected that. In 1995 the Rockies could have been awful and the team still sold out.
Rockies fans expect more. Gone is the blind love for the team and now there are expectations.
On Monday Logan addressed what was wrong with the Rockies and all signs point to O’Dowd (and Jim Tracy). What is right with the Rockies? Can fans be optimistic going into 2012? Here are five reasons to get your hopes up for the coming season.
1. Production at third base: The Rockies recently signed Casey Blake to play third base for the team in 2012. Blake will be old in 2012 (38) and he only played in 63 games in 2011, but he played in at least 139 games in the four prior seasons and averaged about 18 home runs a year. He plays OK defense, nothing spectacular and not poorly. Being that he is a veteran, if not the very definition of “veteran”, means Jim Tracy will stick with him through thick and thin.
In 2010 Blake was worth over three wins more than an average third basemen and in 2009 he was worth nearly six more wins. A lot can change in a few years, especially for a guy nearing 40, but even if he is worth two wins more than a replacement player that is better than the combined -1.5 wins the Rockies received from third base in 2011 (last in all of baseball).
Ian Stewart might finally live up to his potential in a new environment with a new manager and maybe the Rockies look bad for trading him this off season, but that is neither here nor there; Stewart was plain awful for the Rockies in 2011. While we would like to put blame on others Stewart was the one ultimately at the plate swinging and missing…a lot. Ty Wigginton was not the answer either; he had more holes in his glove than a Jerry Sandusky alibi. Blake should, at the very least, give the team stability at the position in an everyday player and he is a player whose bat will perform.
2. Pitching: Answer: Jhoulys Chacin, Jason Hammel, Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook, Juan Nicasio, Esmil Rogers, Jorge De La Rosa, Kevin Millwood, Alex White, Clayton Mortensen, Drew Pomeranz and Greg Reynolds. Question: Name the pitchers who made at least one start for the Rockies in 2011.
That is 12 starting pitchers for the Rockies in 2011. The Rockies only had one pitcher make more than 30 starts in 2011 and to give perspective: in 2009, the last time the Rockies made the playoffs, the team had four pitchers make more than 30 starts and a fifth make 27 starts. Pitching is thin in baseball and if a team needs to use 12 different starters it is not going to be a good season.
In baseball there are ebbs and flows to a season; hitters get cold, then hot, pitchers get hurt and sometimes they are not. It is a way of life across 162 games. De La Rosa needed Tommy John surgery, Nicasio was hit in the head with a batted ball, Jimenez was traded, Millwood picked up off of the trash heap and countless other factors, some within Tracy’s control, some not, blew up the pitching staff. With all the bad luck last year the Rockies are due for some good luck.
Nicasio is looking like he will miraculously be ready to pitch in Spring Training, all accounts say that De La Rosa is on track to be ready to pitch in June and possibly even May and while Kevin Slowey isn’t a front of the rotation starter he should be good for 160 innings next year. The Rockies are due for some good luck on the pitching front and some consistency in the rotation and I think 2012 will be a year in which they find that consistency.
From a guy who loves to look at stats to evaluate a team or player comes this thought: the Rockies are due for some good luck.
3. Second base: Much like starting pitching there were entirely too many players who took a turn at second base in 2011. Mark Ellis, Jose Lopez, Jonathan Herrera, Alfred Amezaga (I forgot about this O’Dowd/Tracy failure…), Eric Young Jr., Jordan Pacheco and Chris Nelson all spent time defensively at second for the Rockies last year.
Second has traditionally been a problem for the Rockies as they have never had the same Opening Day starter at the position two years in a row. Counting backward from 2011: Lopez, Clint Barmes, Stewart, Jayson Nix, Kaz Matsui, Luis Gonzalez, Aaron Miles, Gonzalez, Ronnie Belliard and Jose Ortiz; those are the last 10 Opening Day starters at second base and since Lopez is not on the Rockies anymore it will be another new starter in 2012.
Ellis signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for next year and the rumors are starting to heat up over an EY2 trade. Tracy doesn’t like Herrera or Nelson and I am sure he will find plenty wrong with newly acquired DJ LeMahieu, too. How can second base be a positive?
Last year second base totaled 0.4 WAR for the Rockies and they are due…
Or they will still trade for Martin Prado? As long as I am writing a positive piece on the Rockies I can get wishful, too. Now that Cuddyer is officially a Rockie all reports say that Seth Smith is trade bait. While I don’t think Smith for Prado straight up would ever happen (if O’Dowd can pull that off I would have to change my opinion of him) the Rockies do have the pitching depth to throw in an arm or two to help sweeten the deal just enough to get Prado to Denver. Prado is worth two to three wins over replacement and that would be a huge upgrade at second base.
4. Dexter Fowler: 2012 is his year. I am convinced. I am on my knees praying that Tracy is, too. I believe he and O’Dowd truly do believe in Fowler as his name has surfaced a few times this off season as potential trade bait but it was shot down immediately as the organization believes he is untouchable. This means he is the Rockies centerfielder for 2012 and I think he can deliver.
Fowler will be 26 early next season and entering his prime. He already is a stellar defender and his peak at the plate should make him a player that delivers three or more wins above replacement annually. In 2011, a season in which the Rockies sent him to AAA for 24 games in June, he still delivered a 2.3 WAR according to Baseball-Reference.
Fowler is not going to be a guy who hits 20 home runs or even bats .300 but he has proven that he will draw walks and get on-base (.355 OBA for his career and a .363 mark in ’11). And while Fowler is extremely fast (I don’t think anyone goes first to third faster) he just cannot steal bases. Last year Fowler only stole 12 bags and was caught nine times; a horrid ratio. In his career he has only stolen 52 bases and caught stealing 27 times. He cannot get a good read on pitchers and that is just as important as pure speed when stealing.
Here’s hoping that Tracy puts Fowler at the top of the lineup and leaves him there. Tracy still believes that a leadoff man should steal bases but I am hoping he realizes that a guy who can draw a walk and score from first on a double is more valuable than a guy with a worse on-base average who can steal 20 bases.
5. Corner OF spot opposite CarGo: I was hard and somewhat pessimistic on the Cuddyer signing a few days ago and I still stand behind everything I said in that piece, but I will say this: Cuddyer is more valuable than Seth Smith and Ryan Spilborghs opposite Carlos Gonzalez.
Spilly has not been a positive for the Rockies roster since 2007 when he was worth 2.1 wins over replacement. In the past four seasons he has been worth a total of -2.3 wins for the Rockies. That’s right, he has cost the Rockies over two wins and most of that time was from the bench!
Smith has been very solid for the Rockies posting a WAR of at least 1.0 each of the past three years. Smith’s major drawback is hitting left hand pitching – a problem for quite a bit of the Rockies roster. In 2011 Smith’s OPS was over 300 points lower against left hand pitchers and that is right in line with his career mark. The dude cannot hit southpaws.
The Rockies needed another right hand bat and they got that in Cuddyer. In his career Cuddyer has an OPS of .869 against lefties and slugs close to .500 against them. Offensively he should easily be worth three wins for the Rockies next year. Cuddyer did hit 32 home runs as recently as 2009 and with the vast outfield at Coors and the short porch in left I think he will hit for a good average and hit 25+ home runs with the Rockies next year.
There might be better options than Cuddyer (platoon options) but the Rockies didn’t get that. And while they didn’t get a better option I still think this option is better than what they have tried to employ in recent seasons.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have certainly gotten better this off season with some good acquisitions and the San Francisco Giants will be good again with their pitching, but I do believe the Rockies have gotten better and with some better luck they will increase their win total to close to 80 and put them into contention to compete in the division.