Colorado Rockies 2011 review: Five keys to the season, and how they led to suckage
Examining the Rockies' season is a lot like an autopsy. Something has gone horribly wrong and now it's time to figure out why. At the beginning of the season the Rockies had very legitimate aspirations of winning their first National League West division title, if not more. The Rockies finished at 73-89, fourth in the division. This is hardly the result the organization hoped for when it shelled out $250 million in contracts before the season.
Let's examine the body.
Before the season, we outlined the top five storylines that would determine how the 2011 campaign unfolded. So let's go back and see how those stories turned out.
5. Starting pitchers not named Jimenez: In March, I wrote of Jimenez: "He's as close to a sure thing as there is pitching at this elevation." And he was, which goes to show you how unpredictable pitchers are at altitude.
Before games started counting, Jimenez was the one pitcher the Rockies didn't have to worry about. He was coming off the best season a Rockies pitcher has ever had. But he produced more questions than the rest of the staff combined -- namely, "What's wrong with him?" and "Will he be traded?" Due to injuries, he started poorly, and by the time he righted himself, the team was all but ready to write off the season.
Since Jimenez was easily the best starting pitcher available on the trade market, and because the Cleveland Indians grossly overrated how close they were to contending, the Rockies were able to nab Cleveland's top two pitching prospects, along with two other minor league players, in exchange for Jimenez.
When the anchor of the staff came lose, it set the entire staff adrift.
As for those other pitchers, their performance probably doomed the season more than any other aspect of the team. Jorge De La Rosa made it until late May before suffering an arm injury that required Tommy John surgery. Recovery from the operation typically takes about a year.
Jhoulys Chacin was a beast through the first three months. He held a sub-3 ERA as late as June 21 and finished at 3.62. But he showed signs of inconsistency, especially with fastball location, through the second half of the year.
Aaron Cook was injured and then awful. Jason Hammel was mainly just awful. He didn't win a game in May and had a 7-plus ERA in both July and August. Rookie Juan Nicasio showed potential, especially at Coors Field, where he posted a 1.98 ERA in seven starts, but was hit by a line drive so brutal it fractured his neck. His future is uncertain.
The Rockies' starting pitching got so bad they brought in Kevin Millwood, who hadn't pitched in the majors this season and led the league in losses last year.
4. Position players not named Tulowitzki and Gonzalez: A huge problem for last year's Rockies was that shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez were almost the only players making an impact for the team. They needed someone, anyone, to step up and shoulder some of the offensive workload.
The assumption that Tulo and Cargo would hold up their end of the bargain was essentially a safe one. Tulowitzki solidified his position as the premier shortstop in the game. He ranked fifth in the NL in WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a number that represents how many wins a player is worth above a replacement player, defined as a Triple-A player ready for the major leagues. He was top ten in the NL in many offensive statistics and could win his second Gold Glove.
Cargo battled injuries and pressure to produce after signing his big contract, but if not for an awful April and a July in which he registered only 38 at-bats, he would have been very close to the numbers he put up last year. With the setbacks, he posted a .295 batting average a .526 slugging percentage and clubbed 26 home runs.
Todd Helton and Chris Iannetta begin and end the list of regular position players who made a meaningful, positive impact on the team. They are the only two players who played the entire year and ranked above replacement level in WAR.
Third base was an especially detrimental void of competence. Ian Stewart had a slugging percentage less than Jason Hammel, a tall, lanky pitcher. Ty Wigginton was serviceable in the sense that he wasn't Stewart, but his power numbers left much to be desired for a position that typically produces it.
Mark Ellis was a pleasant surprise at second base, but he played only 69 games for the Rockies. He hit third in the Rockies lineup on several occasions, which falls under the category of "shit that should never happen." Manager Jim Tracy tried so many different batting orders that Ellis hit in every position of the lineup at some point this year.
3. Loaded Bullpen: The bullpen was viewed as a strength before the season and that held true for the most part. Regulars like Rafael Betancourt, Huston Street, Matt Belisle, Matt Lindstrom and Rex Brothers all registered positive WAR. As evidenced by the Rockies finishing last in the league in quality starts, the pen had to log a lot of innings. Brothers was an exciting call-up and while he took his lumps, he profiles as a future closer and strikes batters out at an impressive rate. Rockies relief pitchers posted a respectable 3.94 ERA and none of them inspire me to make jokes about their incompetence, which is an achievement.
2. Double down on defense: Last year, the Rockies ranked 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency, which is the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs. This year, they ramped it up to twentieth. If this trend continues they will be a good defensive team by 2016. The Rockies were fourth worst in the league in runs allowed per game. Tulowitzki and Helton are the only players who rank as well above average defenders at their position. In 2007 and 2009, when the Rockies made the playoffs, defense was a strength. This year, it was just another area where the team underperformed.
1. Lonely Road: In 2010, the Rockies were a winning team that was awful on the road, racking up a road record of 31-50. This year, the Rockies were a bad team no matter where they played. They posted a losing record at Coors Field for the first time since 2005.
The Rockies improved their road record to a really bad 34-46, rather than the god-awful mark from the year before. The team's home/road splits are about what you would expect -- their OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) was 115 points lower on the road, and all other statistics followed this pattern.
Last year, road woes were the undoing of a good team, but this year it was simply on par with the team's overall bad play.
If you're still reading this and your ability to see isn't hindered by an excessive amount of tears, there is good news -- the season is over. Possibly the most disappointing season in team history has mercifully come to an end.
So what can Rockies fans look forward to next year? Tulo, Cargo, Chacin, maybe Drew Pomeranz and a shitload of question marks.
Pomeranz, the prize of the Jimenez trade, was dominant in the minors this year and largely solid in his limited time in the majors. Save for an embarrassing two-inning outing last Friday, in which he gave up six runs against the Houston Astros, the worst team in baseball, he's been fairly impressive given how young he is and how restricted his pitch count has been. He was also robbed of strength and time on the mound thanks to an emergency appendectomy just days after his first start with the Rockies organization.
If Chacin can find more consistent command of his fastball, he should step into the ace role for this staff. His development is very important. De La Rosa should return around the end of May, but he will not be fully recovered until the end of next season.
Alex White, the other top-tier pitching prospect the Rockies received in exchange for Jimenez, has simply gotten the shit kicked out of him. In seven starts, he has an ERA over eight, a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.76, and has given up twelve home runs. He spent much of the season recovering from a finger injury, so the Rockies hope his performance is a lingering effect from time missed and not a sign that he sucks.
The Rockies would be smart to sign or trade for a veteran pitcher in the offseason. The problem is that no quality pitcher who values his self-esteem would come here as a free agent. The Minnesota Twins' Carl Pavano and the Astros' Wandy Rodriguez are the two names that have been mentioned most frequently.
Another bat to help Tulo and Cargo in the middle of the lineup is also much needed. The Twins' Michael Cuddyer seems to be at the top of the wish list.
It would also be nice if young players who saw time in the majors this season, like Chris Nelson, Wilin Rosario and Charlie Blackmon, contributed next year.
The Rockies need someone to look like a professional at third and second base. They need improved defense, and some offense from the catcher would be a nice bonus. They need to be a .500 team on the road and use their home field advantage.
But most of all, they need pitching. They will never compile a staff with four All-Star caliber pitchers like the Phillies or Giants have, but they need pitchers who can last into the sixth or seventh inning without giving up a touchdown's worth of runs.
If they can't do that, we'll be back at the autopsy table at this time next year, picking apart another disaster.
More from our Baseball archive: "Rockies' Mike Jacobs becomes first U.S. professional athlete to test positive for HGH."
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