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Rox GM Dan O'Dowd has found the playoff formula.

For every year they spend at altitude, baseball players and newspaper writers lose a couple of IQ points. But don't let that stand in the way of a reckless prediction: The Colorado Rockies will return to the playoffs this year. That's right, Cracker Jack. Despite a shrinking payroll, the absence of a first-rate catcher and a general manager who changes his players more often than his underwear, the Rockies will finally get the hang of Alexander Cartwright's difficult game in the tenth year of their existence, and they'll give the rest of the National League fits. Not even the thin air is going to do much harm.

How will this happen? And why? I'll get to that in a moment. First, some unhappy, but instructive, recent history.

When Rockies management opened an artery last year and bled almost $170 million for free-agent pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, the last thing the home team expected was another nosedive into the cellar. Alas, the two ex-World Series starters combined for just 23 Rockies wins in 2001; the club sank into a permanent funk by late July, and the Coors Field faithful began vanishing in droves by mid-August. Meanwhile, general manager Dan O'Dowd's tireless roster-tinkering continued apace. During his two-year watch, the Rockies have had more facelifts than Joan Rivers. You could fill a small-town phone book with the players who have come and gone, from Dante Bichette to Stan Belinda, from Ron Gant to Tom Goodwin, from Jeffrey Hammonds to Brian Hunter to Butch Huskey. And that only gets us to the letter H. Anyone who can recall outfielder Cliff Brumbaugh's fourteen games with the Rockies last year, or Kimera Bartee's fifteen at-bats, should get a medal for paying attention -- or see a psychiatrist.

To put it bluntly: O'Dowd's rotisserie-league frenzies have borne little fruit -- so far. The allegedly fast-moving, sharp-fielding, strike-zone-conscious Rockies of 2000 were no more productive than the homer-crazy Blake Street Bombers of old, and they were dismantled mid-season. But the allegedly pitching-rich, veteran-led Rockies of 2001 weren't any good, either, so O'Dowd took them apart, too. He sent shortstop Neifi Perez packing and gave up his only veteran catcher, Brent Mayne, for a pair of soon-to-be-ex-Rockies named Sal Fasano and Mac Suzuki. Later, number-three starter Pedro Astacio also got his walking papers, along with solid third baseman Jeff Cirillo.

By season's end, the Colorado clubhouse had once more descended into chaos and bewilderment. The fans had no idea what nameless stranger would emerge from the dugout to play left field, and only a few hardcore lunatics up in the Rockpile could identify the masked man squatting behind the plate.

You think things will improve when the last-place Colorado Rockies cut player payroll from $65 million to $51 million this season? Are the chances good for unseating the world-champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the tough National League West? Are the Atlanta Braves, who just added slugger Gary Sheffield to a powerful lineup, worried about facing Colorado in the post-season? Do the Rockies have the faintest hope of contending?

Well, yes!

For one thing, O'Dowd and manager Buddy Bell finally have the players they want-- minus, say, a catcher like Mike Piazza and a third-sacker like Pie Traynor. After numerous explosions in the lab, the club seems to have cooked up its best mix ever of power and finesse, experience and youth. Branch Rickey, the old Brooklyn Dodgers pooh-bah, once said that he preferred "the errors of enthusiasm to the complacency of wisdom" (really, he did), and Bell and O'Dowd may be about to cash in on their high spirits.

The four stars who form the Rockies' nucleus -- and take home nearly two-thirds of the payroll -- are superb by any standard. Left-fielder Larry Walker is a perennial All Star with three league batting titles (including last year's) to his name, a stellar defensive player who avoided injury last season, playing 142 games. At 35, he's got a few good years left. First baseman Todd Helton won the batting crown in 2000 and hit 49 homers and drove in 146 runs last year. He's just 28, and his long-term contract promises he'll be a solid-gold fixture in Denver for a decade. The aforementioned Messrs. Hampton (14-13) and Neagle (9-8) were the most disappointing elements of a dreadful 2001 club, but they are the kind of gifted, hard-nosed veterans who can adjust to the treacheries of pitching at Coors Field: If they don't fine-tune and win eighteen games apiece in their second seasons here, maybe no one can. In any event, they'll earn every penny of their combined $15.5 million in salary.

The other 21 players on the roster may be driving used Chevys, but they can play. The remaining three starters will come from a suprisingly strong field of seven that includes injury comebackers Shawn Chacon, Pete Harnisch and Scott Elarton, longtime Rockies striver John Thomson (who's overdue for a breakout season) and youngster Jason Jennings. Any club would be delighted to cherry-pick at such height in spring training; O'Dowd's the whiz who planted the tree. "There will be a lot of competition for those spots," Bell said last week. "And that's a very good place for us to be."

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