Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Rockies Offseason

Believe it or not, Spring Training starts in a mere two weeks, which means this is a great time to start scrying the Colorado Rockies chances in 2010. They had a slow offseason, you could say, managing to make no trades and adding only two new free agents, but they were certainly "in the conversation" on a number of bigger deals, the biggest of which was a potential trade for Florida's Dan Uggla (a former All-Star second baseman).

Coming off a 92-win season, the Rockies probably didn't need to make major upgrades - especially because the talent to do so really wasn't readily available - but baseball is a tricky game, and it remains to be seen whether the Rockies failure to bolster a mediocre offense will come back to haunt them in the 2010 season.

Before frisking the roster, let's hit some nuts and bolts.* Gone are:
3B/1B - Garrett Atkins, who signed with Baltimore
P - Josh Fogg, who went to the Mets
P - Jose Contreras, who went to Philadelphia
P - Matt Herges, joining the Kansas City Royals
P - Jason Marquis, who left for the nation's capital and the Nationals. His career streak of playoff appearances (his team has made the playoffs every year of his career) is likely to end.
Also gone, but as yet unsigned are:
P - Alan Embree
P - Joe Beimel
C - Yorvit Torrealba

* I'm going to use WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to assess player value. Don't like it? Too bad. It's not a be-all-end-all, but it's just about the best statistic out there right now. Best, you say? How, you say? Because it actually tells you how much a player contributes to his team's success. I won't justify it here; just go to fangraphs and read their lengthy explanation.

WAR tells us that Marquis was worth 3.8 Wins last year, which is a pretty solid season. While his performance involved a whole lot of luck - meaning he was unlikely to be as good this year - he's still a useful player, and his production will definitely be missed.

None of the other pitchers on their ways out were of much consequence (WARs ranging from -0.1 to +0.2, or, in essence, "replacement level," meaning we could just call up a AAA pitcher and get the same production). For the most part, the exiting pitchers are old in baseball years, and certainly not worth investing in except as added depth.

Garrett Atkins, as you may recall, had an atrocious 2009, posting a line of .226/.308/.342 (that's Batting Average, OBP, and SLG). Simply put, ugly, and worth a terrifying -0.4 WAR. That's right, Atkins actually cost the Rockies half-a-game in 2009 (though it sure felt like more than that) compared to some readily available AAA third baseman. Perhaps more to the point, Ian Stewart was worth 1.2 WAR, which is why he was the starter for much of the season.

Yorvit has always been a hard-working, excited player, but he's reaching the end of his usefulness, and I'm glad the Rockies had the wisdom to let him go. At 0.8 WAR he was not useless, but almost all of that value comes from a .291 batting average that he is not likely to sustain. Simply put, catchers decline early and quickly, and Torrealba is at that age. His 2 homers last year was his fewest since his rookie year in 2002. Contrast Chris Iannetta's 16 HR, and excellent (given his limited playing time) 2.0 WAR, and you can see why Yorvit was considered expendable. Hopefully Iannetta will be the full-time starter this year, but that brings us to the new additions.

The Rockies have added:
C - Miguel Olivo, previously of the Royals
P - Tim Redding, from the Mets

They have also resigned Giambi, Betancourt, and Rincon. More on those later.

The Olivo signing is puzzling to me, mainly because he's Iannetta without the walks. He hit 23 homers and punched up a WAR of 2.2 last season, but had a paltry .292 OBP. Yeah, you read that right, his OBP was about the same as Torrealba's batting average. Olivo is, simply put, allergic to drawing walks, which means, for all his power, he makes a whole lot of outs. Since the object of baseball is, in essence, not to make outs, this is a bad thing. Nevertheless, Olivo has his uses, an if Tracy discovers them (and doesn't fall in love with a "power bat" that is, really, not much more powerful than Iannetta's), Olivo is a good signing.

Redding, who the Rockies are bringing in on a minor league deal, is essentially a minor league pitcher. As a close follower of the Rockies, Redding's name has come up every offseason for the last four years are so, which means it's not surprising he's finally found his way to Colorado. The question is, can Bob Apodaca work his magic on Redding's mediocre arm? The Rockies - and this is a good strategy - have picked up a whole lot of cheap, cast-off pitchers in the past, with a whole lot of busts that, fortunately, didn't cost the team much. Occasionally, however, Apodaca has resurrected a career (see Jason Hammel and Jorge de la Rosa), so it's hard to fault the Rockies for bringing in a pitcher for league minimum - or less - and seeing if he can cut it.

As for the resignings, Betancourt was excellent in relief last season, and his signing is a good one. Giambi came cheap, and will play primarily a bench role, so his signing also makes sense. Don't expect him to reproduce his awesome 2009 stretch run (small sample sizes and all), but a dangerous bat off the bench is always valuable.

Last season the Rockies led all of Major League Baseball with 23.6 WAR from their pitching staff. It's easy to forget at Coors Field that pitching numbers get inflated and misleading, so don't fool yourself. The Rockies can pitch, and most of the staff is returning. Losing Marquis hurts, of course, but Jeff Francis will be back and, hopefully, will return to his 2007 form (when he racked up 4.1 WAR). As long as Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Hammel, Jorge de la Rosa, and Aaron Cook all stay healthy as well, there's no reason to believe that, top to bottom, the Rockies won't have the best rotation in the NL West (at least) again this season. Add in Huston Street and Mr. Betancourt, and you've got the makings of an outstanding pitching staff.

The offense, however, is another story. Again, hitting numbers get inflated at Coors, and the Rockies are never quite as good offensively as they seem. Their 18.7 WAR last year was passable, but not nearly good enough for a team trying to break through to the upper echelons of the baseball world. Unfortunately, Miguel Olivo's not going to improve the offense that much. Fortunately, a full season of Ian Stewart at third, along with continued strong play from Tulowitzki, Helton, Iannetta, and Carlos Gonzalez will make the offense comparable to last years. That's not enough to make the Rockies better than Philadelphia, but it might be enough to win the West.

The most important thing the Rockies can do this season, however, is to free Seth Smith. I made the point last year, and I'll make it again (and again, until something happens). Brad Hawpe is a butcher in the field, Smith is actually pretty solid. Brad Hawpe cannot hit left-handed pitching. Seth Smith can (or at least, he has when he's been asked to throughout his minor league career; the Rockies haven't given him much of a chance).

All in all, in much less playing time, Smith posted 2.7 WAR last year to Hawpe's 1.3. The difference, it turns out, is almost all because of defense. Brad Hawpe is - no joke - the worst fielder in Major League Baseball. He can throw, sure, but he can't run, he takes awful routes to balls, he slides on easy catches, he stays up on balls he should slide for, he misplays the ball off the wall, and so on. The outfield at Coors is unforgiving to even the best fielders, and Hawpe is certainly not that.

The best option for the Rockies is and has been to trade Hawpe for either pitching or a better second baseman (Barmes is a more than capable fielder, but cannot hit a lick). If he is on the roster, however, there's no excuse for playing him over Seth Smith. An outfield of Smith, Fowler, and Gonzalez, over the course of the season, will probably post 2 or 3 more wins than one consisting of Gonzalez, Fowler, and Hawpe. That may not seem like much, but 2 or 3 wins can be the difference between first place and third in a division like the NL West. Here's hoping the Rockies do the right thing and free Seth Smith.

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