Colorado Rockies season preview: Young guys, really old guys and two stars
Yeah, the Colorado Rockies don't have an "elite starting pitcher." They don't have a "guy who has played third base in the majors before." They don't have a "reliable fourth outfielder." You know what the Rockies do have? A bunch of old guys! Also, they have some youngins' they're relying on and two legitimate stars. The Rockies' official slogan for the 2012 season, which gets underway on the road versus the Houston Astros later today, is "The Year of the Fan," but it should be "The Good, the Old and the Green."
Under the "Good" umbrella are sub-categories. In the "Guaranteed to be good unless they get injured category" fall Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, who are both in what should be their hitting-the-shit-out-of-the-baseball primes at 27 and 26, respectively.
Tulo finished in the top eight in National League MVP voting in each of the last three seasons, and if you don't think he's the best defensive shortstop in the league, we have a hastily fashioned prison shank with your kidney's name on it.
CarGo got off to a slow start last year and battled nagging injuries, yet he still put up solid numbers. The addition of free agent Michael Cuddyer in right field will allow Gonzalez to play almost exclusively in left field rather than all three outfield positions like he did last year, when he went crashing into walls in center. Fangraphs has all sorts of nerdy and scientific projections which you can dig deep into, or you can just know they're pretty much all projecting Badass for CarGo.
Unfortunately, those are the only two players the Rockies have in the "Guaranteed to be good" category. But they do have several others under the "Probably good" heading.
In addition to solidifying the outfield, Cuddyer provides a solid bat and veteran steadiness. He was an All-Star for the Minnesota Twins last year and could see a nice bump in his production hitting at altitude. And while it might seem like fans are ready to give up on Dexter Fowler, he's still only 26-years-old, and despite being sent down to triple-A last year and even exploring the idea of giving up switch-hitting, he went .288/.381/.498 in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage after the All-Star break.
Fowler has reportedly been practicing with veteran Todd Helton to add a leg-kick to his swing for more consistent timing. (If you want to have any optimism about Fowler, do not look at his spring training numbers, because they are equally comical and horrifying.) He's also been working on his first-step quickness so he can steal more bases -- you know, like a fast lead-off hitter should.
Here's the main problem for the Rockies season, besides the tons of old guys thing: They have only one pitcher who falls into the "Probably good," category. And to say that Jeremy Guthrie will probably be good depends on a fairly liberal definition.
He comes to Colorado after losing seventeen games in two of his last three season in Baltimore. Guthrie posted a 1.34 WHIP (Walks and hits per inning pitched) last year, while the best pitchers in the league are at one or below. He also struck out about five batters per nine innings -- one per inning is a stellar rate.
But Guthrie has thrown 200 or more innings in each of the last three seasons, and in two of the last three years he's posted a WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which measures a player's value in wins above a replacement level player, over four -- a borderline All-Star number. Eating up tons of innings has huge value for the Rockies because altitude tends to turn pitchers into limp-armed rag dolls over time. Also, constantly pitching against the Yankees and Red Sox lineups was like Guthrie picking a fight with a biker gang. In contrast, going against the Giants and Padres lineups will be like picking on the chess club.
The good news from the pitching staff? The Rockies can label almost their entire bullpen as "Probably good." Closer Rafael Betancourt was dominant after taking over the closer role last year, striking batters out at a rate of ten per nine innings. Young lefty setup man Rex Brothers throws pure fire and in his 48 games last year he struck out thirteen batters per nine innings.
Matt Belisle is simply reliable and the rest of the bullpen is stocked with guys like Esmil Rodgers, who has the stuff to be a starter but has never found the consistency needed.
General Manager Dan O'Dowd employed an interesting strategy this off-season, signing a bunch of old farts just a couple years after going all Michael Jackson and surrounding himself with a bunch of kids. But it was intentional. O'Dowd felt last year's team was mentally soft and he needed an infusion of gray to steady the team when shit hits the fan.
Now he has Todd Helton (38), Marco Scutaro (36), and Ramon Hernandez (35) in the everyday lineup. Jason Giambi completes the oldest first-base duo in the history of history at 41, and occupying the fifth spot in the rotation is comically old Jamie Moyer (forty-fucking-nine).
The infield would have been all grey beards minus Tulo, but the team released off-season acquisition Casey Blake because it only has so much money under its insurance policy to cover hip replacement surgeries.
Aside from all that leadership stuff, the Rockies old guys are still pretty good on the field. Nerdy stat alert: Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is a complicated, catch-all stat that best measures a player's overall offensive value. For reference, .316 was the league average last year, .340 is above average and .400 is excellent.
Helton's wOBA last year was .368, Scutaro, who came from Boston and will start at second-base, posted . 343, and Hernandez, formerly of Cincinnati and now the starting catcher, put up .339.
In an ideal world, Moyer is only holding a rotation spot until Jorge De La Rosa returns from Tommy John surgery rehab in June. But in case Moyer gets really drowsy in the middle of night starts, pitches ineffectively or repeatedly yells "Get off my lawn!" at other players, Tyler Chatwood and Guillermo Moscoso are two young starters the Rockies acquired in the off-season. They also competed for the fifth spot in the rotation.
The problem with having so many important players who are primed for decline or injury is that, well, they could very well perform poorly or miss huge chunks of the season. In that case the Rockies will head to the other end of the spectrum and rely on inexperienced young bucks.
The largest hole being plugged with under-qualified youth is third base. This is nothing new to Rockies fans, who are used to a gaping black hole of strikeouts at third base (see Stewart, Ian). Prospects Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco will man the hot corner, but neither is ideal for that spot.
Nelson has spent a little time in each of the past two seasons at the major league level, but hasn't impressed. Once a top prospect, he has never really hit anywhere outside of Colorado Springs, where Moyer could probably hit .270.
Pacheco is an intriguing prospect, but third base might not be his position. He's played all over the diamond, but mostly at catcher and first base. Both players are just keeping the spot warm for Nolan Arenado, who is the top prospect in the organization.
When the outfielders need a day off the Rockies have a wide array of mediocrity in the form of Eric Young Jr., Charlie Blackmon and Tyler Colvin.
And that brings us to the rest of the starting rotation, which is no big deal. The season only hinges on it.
Jhoulys Chacin has been on the cusp of reliably above-average (huge compliment, we know) for two years now. Last year, he showed flashes of excellence, but also saw his strikeout rate drop over two strikeouts per nine innings from the year before. When on his game, he is the ideal pitcher for Coors Field, if such a thing exists. He strikes out a lot of batters and produces a lot of ground balls. He just hasn't accomplished both of those feats in one season yet.
Behind him is Juan Nicasio, who is battling Moyer for coolest story on the team. Nicasio absorbed a line drive last season that broke his neck and left the organization wondering if he would ever pitch again. He's made an amazing comeback and is primed for a potential breakout season. For whatever value you place on spring training games, he has struck out 24 batters in 27 innings this year. He also posted a better than three-to-one strikeout to walk ratio in his thirteen games last year before the neck injury.
Next in the young pitcher line is big lefty Drew Pomeranz. He's the pitcher the Rockies received in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade who was arrested for disturbing the peace, not the one who got a DUI; that was Alex White. Pomeranz was the prize of that trade and was lights out in a brief stint in the minors for the Rockies last year. The Fangraphs projections for Pomeranz are rather favorable, but if the Rockies can get 130 not-awful innings out of him, they would be happy.
Most of the projection systems for the Rockies have them finishing with 80 to 87 wins. If that makes you depressed, know that it's not much less than other teams in the division. There isn't much separation between the first and third place teams. There will also be an extra wild-card spot open this year.
The best case scenario is that Tulo and CarGo go nuts as they did two years ago, the young pitchers come through, the old guys hold up and the Rockies win their first division title in team history.
The worst case scenario is the young guns flare out, the old guys spend excessive time on the disabled list and watching Matlock, the bullpen uncharacteristically blows up and the Rockies finish near or in the basement of the division.
Reality will probably be in the middle somewhere, with Moyer falling asleep in the dugout at least once.
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