Sunday, May 22, 2011

Defining a Season: 2002-2006

Part three of a series of Rockies-centric posts.
Introduction here.
Part one here.
Part two here.
Part four here

2002 Colorado Rockies: 73-89, 4th place, 25.0 GB

It was during 2002 that a new era of Rockies baseball began with the hiring of Clint Hurdle as manager.  Following a slow start, the Rockies let go of Buddy Bell and replaced him with the former hitting coach, a move that I would not go so far as to say defined the Rockies for the next five seasons, but definitely set a certain tone.  Clint Hurdle's hiring was an indication that the team was changing, trying to get younger and trying to build from within.  While witnessed the disastrous collapses of Neagle and Hampton, Rockies fans in 2002 also watched the first wave of young up-and-comers from the Rockies growing minor league system in Jason Jennings, Juan Uribe, and Juan Pierre.

Defining Player: CF - Juan Pierre

Pierre was an exciting young player in 2002, but despite his impressive speed, he wasn't a particularly good player.  He didn't get on base enough, was not quite a good enough fielder, and was completely without power.  His slash line (.287/.332/.343) left much to be desired, especially playing at Coors Field, and despite his youth it was hard to see him as a centerpiece on a future contender.  Nevertheless, on a team now stuck with aging, mediocre, and largely overpaid players around the diamond, Pierre was a symbol of a different approach, a glimpse of a future of home grown talent.  Beyond being a symbol for a future approach, however, Pierre was also an important part of the post-2002 trade that sent Mike Hampton to the Florida Marlins, meaning he also played a key, if ironic, role in the transition to the home-grown approach.

2003 Colorado Rockies: 74-88, 4th place, 26.5 GB

There was little compelling about baseball in Colorado during the dark-ages of the mid-2000s.  Todd Helton and Larry Walker would quietly put up All-Star numbers year after year, but no one else was particularly compelling.  Sure, the offense hit plenty of homers (the 2003 team had 7 players with 10 or more HR), and the bullpen was usually solid, and the rotation usually at least a little better than it looked, but there were simply too few players good enough to push the team to .500, let alone to contention.

Defining Player: 3B - Chris Stynes

Unless you're a die-hard Rockies fan, you probably have never heard of Stynes.  Even if you're a die-hard, you probably had forgotten about him.  But he was the Rockies starting third baseman for the whole of the 2003 season, punching up a miserable slash line of .255/.335/.413.  Of all the players from the dark ages of Rockies baseball, Stynes is the most mediocre, the most forgettable.  If someone were to ask: why couldn't this team manage to win more than 74 games, you could do worse than answering "Chris Stynes," not because of who he was, but because of what he represented for an organization treading water.

2004 Colorado Rockies: 68-94, 4th place, 25.0 GB

After the 2002 and 2003 seasons, things got worse before they got better.  The 94 losses the Rockies suffered in 2004 was the worst in franchise history since the inaugural season in 1993.  Nevertheless, at the bottom of the proverbial barrel (so far, anyway), there was a scrap of hope.  The new organizational focus on building from within didn't quite start to payoff in 2004, but it did bear its first fruit.

Defining Player: LF - Matt Holliday

Perhaps its not fair to say that Matt Holliday was the defining player of one of the worst seasons in Rockies history, but I still think he fits precisely because it was him - and his generation of minor league teammates - that the organization had changed its philosophy.  As the Rockies floundered throughout the 2004 season, Holliday put up a solid .290/.349/.488 line.  Excellent?  Hardly, but at only 24 Holliday showed promise that none of the other young players the Rockies had developed ever had (since Helton, that is).  Here was a power hitter, an anchor for the lineup to replace the now departed Larry Walker.  Here was, in short, the future.

2005 Colorado Rockies: 67-95, 5th place, 15.0 GB

Things began to come together for the Rockies in 2005.  That's strange to say, given that they finished in last place in the worst division in baseball (as the mere 15 games back indicates, the Padres won the division with an 82-80 record).  However, this was the rookie season for Clint Barmes, Garrett Atkins, and Brad Hawpe.  While none of those players would ever approach Holliday in talent or production, they would all become important pieces to the 2007 World Series team.  And, more importantly, each of them was drafted and developed by the Rockies.  There were growing pains, to be sure, as the 67-95 record indicates, but the future was looking bright.

Defining Player: SP - Jeff Francis

The future was bright not because of the offensive players listed above, important though they would be in 2007.  No, the most important rookie in the '05 season was Francis, the first of so many first-round pitchers the Rockies had drafted to actually make it to the big leagues.  Francis, like the Rockies, was far from impressive in 2005.  His 5.68 ERA was well-deserved, given a SO/BB rate under 2, a fairly high 1.3 HR/9 rate, and a pitch-to-contact approach that is always dangerous in Colorado.  Nevertheless, there were glimpses from Francis (and his young rotation-mate, back from a near-fatal blood clot suffered in 2004, Aaron Cook) that he could tame the Coors Field beast, along with the help of the now operating humdior.

2006 Colorado Rockies: 76-86, tied for 4th place, 12.0 GB

In a still-weak division, the Rockies in 2006 were a team on the brink.  That's easy to say after-the-fact, but the signs were there even at the time.  The core of Helton, Atkins, Holliday, and Hawpe provided enough offense that little else was needed to fill out a contender's lineup.  Meanwhile the top of the rotation, featuring Cook, Francis, and Jason Jennings, was well above-average.  The bullpen remained solid as well, though mostly a collection of cast-offs from other teams (a trend for the Rockies front office).  Though the team finished 10 games under .500, they were really just another year of development from their young players, plus the arrival of a certain shortstop and certain pitcher, away from ending nearly a decade of futility.

Defining Player: 1B - Todd Helton

Though the team as a whole was young, unproven, but about to explode, the 2006 team's shortcomings were defined best by the Helton.  This season looked like the beginning of the end for Todd, the first season in which he would fail to hit 20 home runs, and easily his worst season by batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage in his career.  However, his place here is not merely because he underperformed his talent as the team struggled to a 76-86 season, but because the beginning of his decline underscored the urgency of the next few seasons, and because Helton would, like the rest of the team, have an excellent season in 2007.  On a team of young up-and-comers, a team transitioning from age to youth, from hitting to pitching, Helton was not merely harkening back to old days, but also a reminder that he too was once a young star, an up-and-comer, and that chances to win are sometimes few and far between.  Not for his shortcomings, but because he was for so long the only shining light on a miserable team, does Helton deserve to be remembered as an iconic player not just for the 2006 Rockies, but throughout the early 2000s.

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