A Whole New Ballgame?

Patrick Merewether

Adherents of the long view can rattle on all they like about the grueling 162-game schedule and the notions that the real fight begins in late summer and authentic quality shows in October. Fact is, the Colorado Rockies' reconstructed brain trust will learn a great deal about its reconstructed baseball team before most fans get around to wiping the opening-day mustard off their shirtfronts. Or setting their season tickets ablaze in the parking lot.

Consider the rigors of April 2000. The Rockies -- if we may call that band of strangers shagging flies down in Tucson by so familiar a name -- open the season with three games in Atlanta, where the defending National League champions will come at them with the blue-chip law firm of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. These fellows almost never lose a case, especially against Colorado. But should they need help in final arguments (aka the bottom of the ninth), at least they won't get it from eminent civil-rights attorney John Rocker. This champion of the oppressed has been suspended until May 1 for his thickheaded comments about minorities, gays, New York subway passengers and anyone else you can think of. The Braves probably won't need him against the Rox. Meanwhile, a former Rockies hero, Andres Galarraga, will also be out to show up his old mates after a year away from the diamond to undergo cancer therapy. If the Big Cat doesn't hit a home run or two in the opening series, the baseball gods are snoozing.

We're betting that the locals will look a little bruised by the time they move on to Miami for a three-game set against the Florida Marlins. At first glance the Fish still look fried, but their stock of talented young pitchers is the envy of the league, so the visitors had better lace up their hitting shoes.

Colorado doesn't play at home until April 10, when their opponent will be Cincinnati. After falling one win short of the playoffs last fall, the surprising Reds didn't do much in the way of off-season improvement except to -- let's see here -- pick up some guy named Griffey to play center field. And hit cleanup. And add about 900 horsepower to the revitalized Big Red Machine. After demanding freedom from Seattle, Junior signed a nine-year deal with his hometown club for $116.5 million, a bargain-basement figure in the eyes of baseball's new generation of plutocrats. As a free agent in 2001, the game's best player would likely have raked in $30 million more. But then, why quibble over a few bucks when your father is your new team's manager-in-waiting and everyone in town is inviting you over for a nice bowl of three-way chili?

Anyway, Griffey and company will be playing their first away games against the Rockies, and the 29-year-old slugger won't mind a bit if he hits a couple of high-altitude heaters into the right-field bleachers, just to show the folks back in Cincy that he means business in road grays, too. By the way, the big guy standing next to Junior over in left field will be the newly acquired Dante Bichette. He was the most popular Rockie in the team's short history and a slugger of some note. Now he is Exhibit A of the brand-new, untested Roxian Theory that power can be sacrificed for speed, finesse and on-base percentage at homer-happy Coors Field. Time will tell, but one thing is likely: Whatever Ken Griffey Jr. doesn't know about friction coefficients attendant to baseballs struck at 5,280 feet, Professor Bichette will explain to him here in early April. If the two of them, in league with brawny Reds first baseman Sean Casey, don't hit half a dozen homers while visiting Denver, many local hotdog eaters and beer swillers will be surprised.

Did we mention that after Cincinnati, the St. Louis Cardinals come to town for four days? That's akin to fighting Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield on successive nights. Naturally, St. Louis will be bringing along its huge drawing Card, Mark McGwire. Last time we looked, Big Mac was a pretty fair home-run hitter at any altitude.

These formidable tests will get the Rockies through April 16. Then, as luck would have it, they visit Arizona to face another 1999 playoff team -- and Randy Johnson's 580-mile-per-hour fastball.

Whaddya think? Won't brand-new general manager Dan O'Dowd and brand-new field manager Buddy Bell have a pretty good read on their brand-new Rockies by then? Won't the fans? But for now, it can't hurt to review the enormous changes the club has undergone since finishing dead last in the National League West last year and catapulting manager Jim Leyland and his smoldering Marlboro into sudden retirement.

In the last five months, O'Dowd has been busier than an FBI agent at Connie Corleone's wedding. Since the forced resignation of original GM Bob Gebhard, Dealin' Dan has made six trades that have brought the team thirteen new faces. He's also signed five free agents, claimed one player off waivers and, for all we know, started negotiating with Babe Ruth's ghost. On opening day, Colorado fans will recognize the Rockies' right-fielder (perennial All-Star Larry Walker), the first baseman (splendid Todd Helton) and the shortstop (Neifi Perez), but almost everyone else will be a stranger. "I just hope all the jerseys come with names on them," O'Dowd told the New York Times last week. The opening-day roster could have as many as eighteen new players.  

Amid the most sweeping shakeup any team but the Marlins has undergone in years, O'Dowd sent Bichette to Cincinnati and popular third baseman Vinny Castilla to Tampa Bay, putting an end to the Rockies as we once knew them -- a gang of thugs who sought to outlast opponents in a lot of 11-10 and 15-14 games. Last season, Bichette and Castilla accounted for a third of the team's home runs and a quarter of its RBI, and since the two sluggers joined the original Rockies back in 1993, they have hit 403 homers. With these two gone and Galarraga finishing his career in Atlanta, only Walker remains as a reminder of the vaunted Blake Street Bombers. Jeffrey Hammonds, who hit .279 with just seventeen dingers last year with the Reds, is the Rockies' swift new left-fielder, and former Milwaukee Brewer Jeff Cirillo (.326, fifteen homers in 1999) is the new third baseman. Not even Rockies management is expecting them to post the big numbers of their predecessors. The team's new center-fielder, meanwhile, is former Texas Ranger speedster Tom Goodwin, who hit only three home runs last year in 405 at-bats.

So. What in the world was O'Dowd thinking when he sent his sluggers packing? One thing he was thinking of was a Rockies club that managed to reach the playoffs, against Atlanta, in just the third year of its existence but has steadily declined in four subsequent seasons. Instead of sheer power, he reasons, the team needs outfield speed -- never the chunky Bichette's forte -- to cover the huge acreage at Coors Field. It needs more patience at the plate and more base runners. Cirillo, for one, seems to fill that bill: Last year he drew 75 walks (Castilla and Bichette combined for 107) and finished third in the league in hits with 198. He can score from second base on almost any little single.

Clearly, O'Dowd was also thinking about cutting payroll when he started dialing the phone. In 1999, eight Rockies commanded $54 million in salaries; this year, the entire 25-man roster will likely earn about $60 million. The fattest paycheck still goes to Walker, as it should: He was the league MVP in 1997, won consecutive batting titles in 1998 and 1999, and remains one of baseball's most nimble outfielders. If Wyoming-born second baseman Mike Lansing, who was a major disappointment in 1998 and lost most of 1999 to a back injury, can finally put together half as good a season as Walker usually does, the Rockies could improve dramatically.

On the other hand, dare we breathe the word pitching?

In 1999, Leyland's beleaguered staff walked 737 batters -- the most in the 124-year history of the National League. As usual, it also ran up the highest earned-run average in baseball. The starters were so spooked by season's end that no one wanted to take the ball, and the grumbling in the clubhouse was audible. O'Dowd and Bell's solution? A major housecleaning. The pitchers who started more than half the team's games last year are gone -- including the grossly overpaid ex-Houston Astro Darryl Kile, Jamey Wright and Bobby M. Jones. So are relievers Curtis Leskanic and Dave Veres, who appeared in 136 games last year. What O'Dowd hopes and prays he's gotten instead are pitchers who can throw strikes: staff ace Pedro Astacio (a respectable 17-11 last year), Brian Bohanon (12-12) and newcomers Masato Yoshii (12-8), Rolando Arrojo, Scott Karl, Manny Aybar and Jose Jimenez, who pitched a no-hitter for St. Louis last year. The bullpen -- always overworked and underappreciated -- will probably be anchored by veterans Jerry DiPoto and Mike DeJean, along with a crop of newcomers whose names aren't going to get mentioned here because you haven't heard of them anyway. What pitching coach Marcel Lachemann is fervently praying for, though, are two or three starters who can regularly pitch seven or eight innings without getting lit up like a forest fire.

If that happens, even the team's ostensibly mediocre new catchers, Scott Servais and Brent Mayne, might feel like getting a hit once in a while. If they don't, the door might open for 23-year-old Ben Petrick, who hit an astonishing .323 with the Rox when he was called up last September. A much-coveted phenom, Petrick will likely start the season at AAA Colorado Springs, working on defensive skills.  

A month before the season opens, only one thing seems certain about these radically different Rockies: We'll know sooner, rather than later, whether the O'Dowd Plan is worth a damn.

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