A Rocky Road
Colorado has struggled to find an identity — and a winning record — since Vinny Castilla’s first incarnation as a Rockie with the Blake Street Bombers.
Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Larry Walker. Ah yes, the Blake Street Bombers. No, I don’t imagine any of these men are Hall of Fame bound, but they represent the glory years for the Colorado Rockies. The days when an expansion team bashed its way to three winning seasons in its first five years and the only playoff appearance (1995) in franchise history.
Since those heady early days, The Rox have finished above .500 exactly once in nine years, and none at all since 2000.
And with a mysteriously ineffective offense, horrid pitching (especially from the pen), and a record of 19-27 ‘ good for dead last in the NL West ‘ the Rockies seem further away from glory than ever. The club began the year winning three of four before sliding into a 15-26 skid. Last night’s win puts the Rockies in position to win a series for the first time since taking two of three from Cincy almost three weeks ago.
There’s a groundswell of impatience brewing in the Mountains, one which could result in a major shakeup of the team starting with the club ownership, heavily criticized for its frugal ways.
So where did this all go wrong?
In 2000, the team won 82 games. Nothing earth shattering, but heavenly compared to last season’s 76 (which was considered progress). That offseason, the Rockies opened their wallets like never before and landed Mike Hampton, one of the top starters in the game, and Denny Neagle. Sure, other big-name starters like Bret Saberhagen and Daryl Kile had flopped in Colorado, but these two ‘ especially Hampton ‘ were going to carry this team to the NLCS. Or maybe not.
Since then, the team has never won more than the 76 games they cobbled out last season. Clearly, the Dan O’Dowd era (hired as GM mid-season 1999) hasn’t exactly been filled with pride. Clint Hurdle, the second manager on O’Dowd’s watch, has a 370-463 mark in six years. The reward for ineptitude? In April, each of them was given a two-year extension. Now, extensions don’t necessarily mean your job is safe anymore, but this is another head-scratching move by Colorado.
Where does that leave this team?
Well, let’s start with what’s gone right. It will be easier that way (sort of anyways; there’s less to say, but it’s harder to find).
- Yes, they are seven games back in the NL West, but with a rubber match against the Diamondbacks tonight followed by three games in San Francisco, Colorado has a glorious opportunity to go right at the teams it’s chasing. Of course, the flipside there is the Rox could find themselves buried after this trip.
- Second baseman Kaz Matsui returned from his back injury this week and paid instant dividends with two doubles and three RBI in his first game off the DL. Unfortunately, Matsui’s return to the two-hole pushes an improving Troy Tulowitzki down to seventh in the order, where his fantasy value isn’t nearly as great.
- Speaking of Tulowitzki, he’s drawing rave reviews from management and his teammates. He’s driven in 20 runs this year ‘ eight of which have either tied the game or put Colorado in front. His power has been slow to develop, but this kid is a good one, and whatever happens with this team has to be considered a key building block.
- Josh Fogg has dropped four straight to fall to 1-5, but he’s looked much more effective in his last few starts. Of course, these good tidings come with a caveat as well, as Fogg has to leave early last night after straining his groin on a bunt attempt. Damn, I love NL baseball, but seeing pitchers get hurt running the bases? That’s depressing. At any rate, Fogg will be re-examined today to determine if he can make his next start.
- Rodrigo Lopez, who looked very solid early this season (no, that’s not a typo), is scheduled to come off the DL next week. He should provide a boost to the rotation, something that will be vital should Fogg’s injury cause him to miss time.
- LaTroy Hawkins has returned from the DL this week. It’s hard to imagine him being any worse than he was before hand, and he won’t be given a set-up gig at first, but he should, in theory, provide a boost to a struggling bullpen that’s collective ERA is over a run higher than the second worst in the NL.
- Speaking of the pen, Jeremy Affeldt has been effectively wild in a set-up role, but I’m not sure how much longer his horrid command will sustain a nice ERA. Manual Corpas has taken over as the main set-up man and he’s been a highlight with a sparkling 2.70 ERA. Finally, Brian Fuentes continues to provide stellar work as the closer thanks to improved control. He’s saved 12 of 13, tying him for fourth in the NL. So the back end of the bullpen is in good hands. It’s just that whole middle relief thing that’s killing the team.
- Aaron Cook’s command has been very weak this season, but with six quality starts in 10 tries, no one is complaining.
- Todd Helton is back. The Rockies almost divested themselves of his massive contract this spring, but couldn’t pull the trigger on a deal with Boston. Although that contact still is cumbersome, how bad would Colorado’s offense look without Helton right now? He and Matt Holliday rank two-three in NL batting and Helton is also in the top five in OBP, walks and OPS. His pop has even returned somewhat with five homers already after just 15 all of last season.
- How about that leather? Who needs hitting or pitching when you bring the gloves? The Rockies have committed just 19 errors in 45 games ‘ the lowest total in the NL.
- As mentioned, Holliday has been superb. While his numbers aren’t quite as good as his breakout 2006, he still ranks in the top 10 in the NL in slugging, RBI and OPS and is also among the home run leaders.
- Willy Taveras, a key component of the off-season trade that sent Jason Jennings to Houston, has provided a spark and some speed at the top of the lineup. I’m loving his table setting (.375 OBP), but what’s with the stolen base efficiency? This dude swiped 68-of-88 in Houston, but is just 10-for-18 this year. That’s not helping.
- Little ball, baby. The Rox have laid down 23 sac bunts, tied for first in the NL. Something doesn’t seem right with the world when I read that, especially considering they rank 13th in home runs. These clearly aren’t your father’s Rox (or even your older brother’s, for that matter).
- Minor league righty Ubaldo Jimenez hasn’t exactly dominated at Triple-A, but the 23-year-old has looked much better in his last two outings ‘ especially last night when he gave up just three hits over seven innings. He’s put himself in position to be considered should Colorado need rotation help.
Now, for the hard part (only because it involves more typing, but certainly less digging), namely, what’s gone wrong?
- Garrett Atkins, owner of one great season, has fallen off the earth at third base this year. His extra-base hits have dried up and he’s getting on base at just a .310 clip, prompting a demotion to sixth place in the batting order, against righties at least. He could drop even lower if he doesn’t shake this slump soon. Atkins’ job is probably not in jeopardy at this juncture, but if you’re seeking a rationale for the Rockies’ offensive woes, here’s your prime scapegoat. There’s talk that the Angels, seeking third base help, may be interested in him. If it’s true they are offering prospect Brandon Wood, Colorado should jump all over this and make it happen. Offer to swallow some of Atkins’ salary, if that’s what it takes.
- Colorado is dead last in team ERA at 4.91. Of course, even in the Humidor-aided Coors Field, that’s nothing new. But the combination of the worst batting average against (.285) and the lowest K/9 rate (5.5) is a recipe for disaster.
- What makes matters worse is their underperforming offense ‘ and that is a new issue. The good news is that this team has finally gotten rid of those crazy home-road splits, finding somewhat of a balance. The bad news is that just means they are now ineffective offensively both on the road (.252) and at home (.260). With 185 runs for and 241 against, it’s not as if the Rox can say they are playing better than their record indicates. In fact, they’re probably playing a bit worse.
- Catcher Yorvit Torrealba, who looked like he was developing a bit of pop with seven homers in 65 games last year, has failed to homer this season and is slugging just .295 so far. Unfortunately, Chris Iannetta hasn’t exactly proved he’s ready to take over as the main man behind the plate.
- Matsui’s return forced Colorado to send Omar Quintanilla down to the minors even though he had outplayed Jamey Carroll at second in Matsui’s absence. Of course, the Rockies inexplicably gave Carroll a multi-year deal this winter, so you knew he wasn’t going anywhere despite a .180 BA. He’s essentially just a high-paid pinch runner now and that weakens an already ineffective bench.
- As mentioned, the offense is nowhere near firing on all cylinders. Sure, they’re fourth in OBP, but 12th in slugging? Homers? Try 13th. And how about 14th in SB success (thanks, Willy)? It’s the curse of the Humidor, except without the gains in pitching. Fantastic.
- Jeff Baker, who excited the team with a stellar September last year, has fallen off the map. It looked like he may be a major contributor this season; instead, he’s struggling as the fifth outfielder.
- As mentioned, the bullpen work has been shoddy. Ten of the team’s losses have come at the hands of a reliever.
- We’re still waiting on Jeff Francis to develop into a quality starter, but the return of his gopheritis this year is not helping. He’s been far too hittable this season, although in fairness, he’s settled down this month after an ugly April.
- Jason Hirsh, another big part of the Jennings trade, has had his moments and has a chance to be the big-time strikeout pitcher that Colorado seems to have been seeking forever, but he’s also been too generous with the long ball and his control is a factor.
- Looking on the horizon, outfielder Dexter Fowler, arguably the team’s top offensive prospect, has slipped this season, batting just .250 at High-A Modesto after a breakout season in Low-A in 2006.
Obviously, something has got to give in Colorado very soon.
If this team has any designs on turning things around and finishing .500 this year, Colorado needs much better work from the bullpen and its starters, plus it has to find more offensive punch.
Or maybe it just needs to blow the whole thing up and start from scratch.