Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2010 Year in Preview: Colorado Rockies

We'll get these done at some point, I swear. As we limp to the end of our previews, I'll take on my new hometown (geographically speaking, obviously not in my heart, although I love going to Coors Field) team, who, at the time I am writing this, have just taken care of the Mets 11-3. Newcomers on the scene in 1993, the Rockies had some early success only a few years into their tenure in the league, as the Blake Street Bombers led them to the playoffs in 1995 amidst monstrous attendance figures (they still hold the single-season record with 4,483,350 fans in the inaugural season). The following years were mediocre to terrible, marked by some of the worst contracts in MLB history (anyone remember Mike Hampton's 8-year, $121MM deal?) After bottoming out at 67-95 in 2005, the Rockies shocked the baseball world with a magical run to the World Series in 2007. They disappointed in 2008, but seem to be back on top of the NL West pile after a great 2009 campaign. They seem to be a lot of people's pick to overtake the Dodgers as division champs this year, and I'd have to agree. With a young superstar in Troy Tulowitzki anchoring a deep lineup and a few fireballers atop the rotation, the Rockies seem poised to contend both now and into the future.

2009 Season: 92-70, 2nd in NL West. Lost 1-3 to the Phillies in the NLDS.

Key Departures:

The Rockies actually saw quite a few regulars leave through trade or free agency. Third baseman Garrett Atkins was non-tendered in December and ended up signing Baltimore, and despite a few excellent years in 2006 and 2007, he saw his production fall off a cliff in fairly limited action in 2009. Atkins always had pretty atrocious home-away splits and owns a -6.3 lifetime UZR/150, so this will make way for Ian Stewart, who has more power and plays much better defense, to receive most of the at-bats. Colorado also declined the 2010 option for catcher Yorvit Torrealba but then reportedly offered him a two-year contract worth $4.5MM; Yorvit apparently thought he was worth a little more than that and stood his ground. The market not apparently being what he wanted, he then ended up being forced to take a one-year $1.25MM deal from division bottom-feeder San Diego, which qualifies as a FAIL in my book. The rotation also lost Jason Marquis and Josh Fogg; I discussed Marquis in my Nats preview, and although he may have pitched a bit over his head last year, he was still a stable veteran presence and a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for the Rockies last year, and his loss is not insignificant, especially with the injury questions surrounding Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis.

Key Additions:

In terms of true additions, there's not a whole lot to report here. After letting Torrealba walk, the Rockies inked former Royal Miguel Olivo to a one-year, $2.5MM deal. Olivo is a black hole of OBP as evidenced by his .279 lifetime mark, but he has some significant pop in his bat, slugging .490 with 23 homers and a .241 ISO last season. Paired with Chris Iannetta (16 HR, .232 ISO in 2009), this gives the Rockies a pretty powerful platoon behind the plate. The only other true addition to the roster was the aging Melvin Mora, who got a one-year, $1.75MM contract. Mora's line plummeted last year to .260/.321/.358, and he won't (or at least shouldn't) see more than pinch hitting duty and spot starts in relief of Ian Stewart at 3B or Clint Barmes at 2B.

Talent En Route:

The Colorado farm system is ranked by most analysts as right in the middle of the pack. There aren't a lot of stud position prospects on the rise, but there are a few high-upside lefty arms that I'll highlight.

Christian Friedrich, LHP - Drafted in 2008, Friedrich spent his first full season in the minors baffling hitters at A and High-A to the tune of a 2.41 ERA with a .215 batting average against and a K/9 of right around 12. Also, and I'm not sure if this would play any different in the minors, but his BABIP was a robust .336, which means that line could have been even better. His fastball only sits in the low 90s, but according to BP, his curveball is his truly special pitch, coming in at 70 on the scouting scale. He should find a place near the top of the rotation at some point, especially as a lefty, and while maybe not bona fide ace material yet, he'll certainly bolster the Rockies pitching staff when he makes it to the bigs.

Tyler Matzek, LHP
- The second of the Rockies' LHP tandem, Matzek is a few years younger than Friedrich, but some think he might have more upside. He's got a little more velocity on his fastball, but features a slider as his out pitch. Like Friedrich, he doesn't have much of a changeup, which is something he'll need to work on. He hasn't played a full season in the minors yet after being drafted in the 1st round in 2009, so it will be interesting to watch his development.

2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook (thanks as always to Cot's Contracts):

The Rockies Opening Day payroll this year is $84MM, which puts them in the upper half of MLB clubs and represents an all-time high. The biggest chunk of this is the $16.6MM going to Todd Helton as he nears the tail end of his monster deal signed in 2003, and the front office did some creative negotiating over the off-season to defer $13MM of the $19MM owed in 2011. Starting in 2014, the Rockies will pay Helton $1.3MM per year for ten years, which might look a little silly on the books (as does the fact that the Mets are still paying Bobby Bonilla) but will give them some more payroll flexibility over the short term. Helton's obviously not worth this kind of money anymore, but he's not without value, and the Rockies gave him a two-year extension for 2012 and 2013 so that he can ostensibly retire wearing purple and black.

After deferring that money, the Rockies only have $50MM committed to the 2011 roster, meaning that we could very well see them be real players in the free agent market next year, although they have the luxury of not having any glaring needs. They hold club options for Jeff Francis, Brad Hawpe and Miguel Olivo - it seems like a no-brainer to pick up Hawpe's option, and I'd imagine what they do with Francis and Olivo will depend on their performance this season. Outside of aging veterans Jason Giambi, the only real free agent question will be Jorge De La Rosa, who, if his first start is any kind of indicator (sample size alert) could be poised for big things this year and thus a bigger payout on the free agent market. Given their payroll flexibility, I'd expect the Rockies to make at least a competitive offer. The other main rotation pieces are signed (including options) for at least a few years, Aaron Cook through 2012, Ubaldo Jimenez through 2013 and Jason Hammel entering his second year of arbitration.

Given the lack of holes elsewhere on the roster (infield is set with Helton, Tulo, Barmes and Stewart, and they have potentially the best fourth and fifth outfielders in the game in Seth Smith and Ryan Spilborghs) I'd look for the Rockies to go after pitching first, and then what they do after that is anyone's guess.

The Future of the Rockies:

In my opinion, the future of the Rockies looks bright. They showed last year that they can challenge the Dodgers for NL West dominance, and as I mentioned I don't see any huge holes to fill in the next few seasons. They have two emerging stars anchoring the rotation in Jimenez and De La Rosa and the second-best shortstop in the game in the middle of their lineup. They have a slew of young, talented (and cost-controlled) outfielders, and when closer Huston Street is healthy, he can be one of the best in the game. Should any needs arise due to underperformance or injury, the front office should have the financial flexibility to be able to adapt through either trade or free agency. Obviously nothing is guaranteed from season to season, but I'd put my money on the Rockies sustaining their success from recent years.

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