ROX RX: STRONG ARMS
Let's tear ourselves away from the war in Bosnia and the Tonya Rodham Clinton scandal for a moment to discuss something important--starting pitching.
If your Colorado Rockies are to (dare we whisper it?) contend in the Nouveau National League West this season, their starters will have to throw something smaller than a Rocky Ford melon up to the plate, especially when it's Barry Bonds or Tony Gwynn or David Justice standing in the batter's box. Of all the gaudy numbers the Rox assembled in their amazing debut season, the one that really worries fans and team management is the club's 5.41 earned run average, highest in the major leagues and a blot on the inaugural record not wholly attributable to thin air, deep power alleys or short left-field fences.
Truth is, even for an expansion team, the Rockies had awful pitching last year. Even the Florida Marlins, Colorado's co-expanders, managed a 4.13 ERA, and the execrable New York Mets had a 4.03. And keep this quiet, will ya? The Rox became the first major league team since 1900 not to post a shutout. When visiting NL hitters leaped off the plane at Stapleton and sprinted to the ball yard with a couple of Louisville Sluggers slung over their shoulders, the hometown hurlers should have worn their batting helmets to the mound.
Don't bother poor David Nied--the first player picked in the expansion draft, the promising right-hander from whom fans probably expected way too much--with questions about 1993. Instead, ask shell-shocked Butch Henry, Scott Aldred, Andy Ashby, Bryn Smith, Mo Sanford, Mark Knudson or Gary Wayne. These were among the survivors of the--count 'em--36 pitchers the Rockies brought to spring training last year. Now count 'em out: All fell prey to the unsettling effects of the football and basketball scores in Colorado Rockies baseball games and are no longer with the team. Manager Don Baylor used 136 different lineups and fifteen different starters in 1993, and he's still looking.
Bottom line: By midseason, no Las Vegas bookmaker in his right mind would take a bet on the total runs in a game at Mile High Stadium. The "over" was out.
You could still play the Braves, though. Colorado went 0-13 against Atlanta last year, with a horrendous 7.33 ERA.
Now for the good news.
After packing a record 4,483,350 fans into the Rox' lame-duck ballpark last year, winning a highly respectable 67 games and rolling up an estimated $30 million in first-season profits, the team wisely decided to invest in the future. In the off-season, general manager Bob Gebhard spent $11 million on six free agents, including the Mile High City's new patron saint, first baseman Andres Galarraga. The Big Cat became the first expansion player to win a league batting title by posting a .370 average--highest by a right-handed hitter in the major leagues since a guy named Joe DiMaggio batted .381 in 1939.
Happily, Gebhard and Company also spent a few bucks on pitchers.
You won't find a Greg Maddux or a Roger Clemens lounging around the Colorado clubhouse this year, but ex-Chicago Cub Mike Harkey and former Atlanta set-up man Marvin Freeman probably can't hurt. They also should be effective in brawls: Harkey is 6-5, 235, Freeman 6-7, 222.
With the Cubs last year Harkey was just 10-10 with a 5.26 ERA, but he has good stuff and at 27 his best years probably lie ahead. Freeman fanned 25 batters in 23 2/3 innings of work for the Braves in 1993 while giving up 24 hits. Not great on paper, maybe, but NL hitters consider him one of the toughest middlemen in the league, and he could stop the bleeding in a Colorado bullpen that was brutally overworked in year one.
Of course, these free-agent newcomers won't stand alone on the hill. The Giants may have lit up Rockies rightie Armando Reynoso like a Christmas tree in his first spring training start of 1994, but there was a reason: This was the first winter that Reynoso didn't pitch Mexican ball, so he wasn't sharp. But the rest is bound to do him good as the long major-league season wears on. The fiercely intense Reynoso was a surprising 12-11 (with a 4.00 ERA) after coming up from Colorado Springs last year, but he ran out of gas late. Look for an even better season from him in '94.
Baylor and beleaguered pitching coach Larry Bearnarth are looking at 23 arms in Tucson this spring. But the Rockies' starting rotation--and nothing in the majors rotated quite so furiously last year--is likely to be built around Reynoso, Nied (who got a major-league education and lost 91 days last season with a tear in his right elbow ligament), former Montreal Expo Kent Bottenfield (5-10) and the mysterious Greg Harris. The 30-year-old right-hander came over from cheapskate San Diego in the middle of last season with a 10-9 record under his belt, but the demons of Mile High Stadium soon got inside him. Shocked by his trade and freaked by the thin air, he went 1-8 as a Rockie, and his ERA ballooned to 6.50 from his previous career mark of 2.95. Harris probably will need a major mental rebuilding to be effective in 1994, but he reportedly is working on it. At his best, Harris can be a 15- or 20-game winner.
Aside from pitching, of course, your Colorado Rockies should be even more fun to watch this year than last. The $11 million Gebhard spent on free agents brings superb veteran shortstop Walt Weiss to the club from the Marlins and sets an authentic center-fielder, Ellis Burks, free to roam the vast pastures of Mile High Stadium. The former Bosox and Chisox star hit just seventeen home runs in an injury-plagued year at Chicago last year, but he could whack 30 or more here if he stays healthy.
That brings us to the most intriguing acquisition of all. Howard Johnson, who won a world-championship ring with the Mets in 1986, is not only one of the most dangerous fastball hitters in the game (perhaps ever), but a three-time member of the exclusive 30-30 club (30 home runs, 30 stolen bases). Only three seasons ago, he led the National League in homers and runs batted in, and the switch-hitter's awesome power from the left side of the plate could have fans in the South Stands--excuse me, right-field bleachers--scrambling for souvenirs all season long.
HoJo is 33, and a series of crippling injuries have kept him off the diamond since 1991. Last year he played just 72 games for the hapless Mets and hit only seven home runs, and in Tucson this spring, Baylor's heart jumps into his throat every time Johnson feels a new twinge in his bad back. If the Rockies are to put any heat on the Giants and Dodgers in their new four-team division (the Padres are history), look for HoJo to play a key role in winning those 12-10 and 9-8 games. With any luck, he'll do it: After years of enduring the bickering and back-stabbing in the Mets clubhouse, this star facing his twilight is bound to find Denver a breath of fresh air, and Mile High's inviting fences won't hurt, either.
If the club produces a secret weapon in 1994, Howard Johnson may be it. Of course, the same cloud hangs over all six Rockies free agents. Among them, they have spent 27 stints on the disabled list, and if the club must hold them together with splints and Band-Aids, 1994 could be a disaster.
Meanwhile, imagine the ovation the Big Cat will get on Opening Day. No one expects Galarraga to hit .370 again this year--.290 or .310 will be just fine, thank you. The deepest hope is that the big Venezuelan, now 32 and a national hero in his homeland, once again will avoid the constant injuries that have kept him below Hall of Fame levels. He may even be able to put together another Gold Glove year at first, his own stated goal. If he can just avoid those collisions with second baseman Roberto Mejia. Or, as Harry Caray calls him, Alberto Remia. Or, alternately, Rubindo Sanguilla.
Whatever you call him, whatever you call the rest of the Rox, let's Play Ball!
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