Springtime Storylines: Are the Rockies the best team in the National League?

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Rockies logo.jpgBetween now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of
the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: The Rockies.


The
big question: Are the Rockies the best team in the National League?

I’m going to say no for now, but that they just might be by the end of the season.  A disappointing 2008 and a mad dash to make the playoffs in 2009 causes most people to think of this team as plucky overachievers or something, but the fact is they’re loaded.

Troy Tulowitzki is the best shortstop in baseball, having hit .297/.377/.552 with 32 bombs at age 24. With the exception of Brad Hawpe in right, the Rockies are a pretty fantastic defensive team. Todd Helton is past his days as an elite power hitter, but he is enjoying a nice resurgence as an average/on-base god. Ubaldo Jiminez emerged as an ace last year. They probably have the best bench in the NL. They also have a pair of outfielders in Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler that possess speed and patience, giving them a nice 1-2 combination at the top of the order.

While there are a couple of weaknesses/concerns going into the season (see bullet points below) the Rockies have a deep system from which they can draw new talent either to help the club directly or to trade for some help during the season.

The upshot: there just isn’t much not to like about this team, and I think the chattering classes sleep on their chances at their peril.

So
what
else is
going on?

  • Huston Street’s shoulder problems this spring are one of those causes for concern. Street converted 35-of-37 save opportunities last year and, obviously, the Rockies would be better with him than without him. But let’s not overstate his value either: He missed a big chunk of September
    last year with biceps tendinitis. The Rockies went 18-9 in September.
  • Jeff Francis is back after missing 2009 for shoulder surgery and he’s looking sharp as spring training comes to a close. The Rockies don’t necessarily need Francis to be an ace again to win the division inasmuch as they did just fine without him last year, but if he is back and even moderately effective their rotation is catapulted from merely good to pretty damn good. Jiminez-Francis-Cook-Hammel-De La Rosa? I’d take that.
  • Brad Hawpe and Clint Barmes are the weak links on this club, with Hawpe swooning terribly in the second half last year (and being a defensive liability) and Barmes posting a totally unacceptable .294 OBP.  There are replacements available for Hawpe as the Rockies are loaded with outfielders, but the Rockies may have to convert some of their considerable organizational depth into a second baseman if Barmes continues to struggle, because I’m not really sold on Eric Young, Jr.
  • Scariest thing about this team if you’re the Dodgers, Giants, Padres or Diamondbacks: how young they are. Helton, Barmes and Hawpe are the only regulars over 30 and, as discussed above, Barmes and Hawpe may not be long for the Rockies’ world. I don’t think they’re necessarily a stone cold lock to win the division this year — stuff happens — but I can see them dominating it for the next 3-5 years.

So
how
are they gonna do?

On paper, the Rockies are the best team in the NL West. The only way I see them not edging out the Dodgers is the injury bug flies around Denver.  I won’t get to my awards picks until Monday, but I’m toying with Tulowitzki as my MVP choice in the NL (forgive me Albert).  I don’t expect them to go on tears where they win 21 games in a month like they did last season, but I don’t think they’ll have to either.

Prediction: First place in the NL West and a lot of commentators pretending that they came out of nowhere even though they clearly have not.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.