2013 Preview: Colorado Rockies

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Colorado Rockies.

The Big Question: Can the Rockies dig themselves out of last place?

The Rockies went 64-98 last season, posting their worst record in franchise history. There were no shortage of contributing factors, as their best player, Troy Tulowitzki, was limited to 47 games due to groin surgery and the starting rotation was a complete and utter disaster.

Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio each missed time due to injury and were largely non-factors. Jeremy Guthrie struggled after coming over from the Orioles and was eventually traded to the Royals. Jamie Moyer resembled a batting practice pitcher before being released. With the season circling the drain, the Rockies moved to an unconventional four-man rotation, complete with 75-pitch limits and piggyback relievers. Whether you want to blame the talent, the process, or some combination of the two, the experiment just didn’t work. The Rockies finished with the highest ERA in the majors at 5.22. They will return to a more conventional five-man rotation this season, though the piggyback relievers are expected to stick around.

This offseason brought a significant change in the dugout, as Jim Tracy resigned amid reports that he wasn’t comfortable with the dynamic of director of major league operations Bill Geivett having an office in the clubhouse. Following a lengthy manager search in which the likes of Jason Giambi and Matt Williams were considered, the Rockies settled on first-time manager Walt Weiss and gave him a one-year deal. It was a pretty surprising choice, as Weiss has no pro experience as a manager or coach. He was the head varsity baseball coach at a Denver-area high school last year. Quite a change of pace.

While there is a new manager in Colorado, the roster is pretty close to what we saw going into last year. And so, the Rockies are hoping that improved health will lead to better results. And they should, at least on paper. Getting full seasons out of Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer could make a major impact for the middle of the lineup. I’m just not convinced that they’ll stay healthy. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they won’t. Chacin, De La Rosa and Nicasio should all be upgrades for the rotation, but there’s not an ace in that bunch. Jeff Francis hardly inspires much confidence at this point and 24-year-old Drew Pomeranz is a wild card. Oh, and pitching in Coors Field remains one of the toughest tasks in the sport. In short, digging out of last place will be a challenge.

What else is going on?

  • There were some silver linings in an otherwise miserable year, as Dexter Fowler posted career-highs across the board while Wilin Rosario and Josh Rutledge emerged as potential impact players. While Rosario still needs a lot of work behind the plate, the 24-year-old batted .270 with 28 home runs, 71 RBI and an .843 OPS in 117 games. Rutledge helped fill in for Tulowitzki during the second half and batted .274 with eight home runs, seven stolen bases and a .775 OPS. Plate discipline is a weakness for the 23-year-old, but he’s expected to start at second base this season.
  • The Rockies could soon have another exciting young player to add to the mix, as prospect Nolan Arenado is currently pushing Chris Nelson for the starting third base job. The soon-to-be 22-year-old saw his stock drop a bit after he produced an underwhelming .285/.337/.428 batting line with Double-A Tulsa last year, but he’s capable of better and has enjoyed an excellent spring. While the Rockies haven’t made a final decision yet, the smart money is that he’ll begin the season in the minors and make his major league debut in mid-June.
  • Todd Helton is entering what will likely be his final season in the big leagues. The 39-year-old has a history of back issues and is coming off hip and knee surgeries, so he figures to get plenty of regular rest in his 17th season. It will be interesting to see how he’ll be viewed by Hall of Fame voters down the road, as he owns a superb .320/.419/.545 lifetime batting line. Only 19 players have a higher career on-base percentage. However, he owes a lot of his success to playing in Coors Field, so it will be tough for him to get much respect. Larry Walker has had a hard enough time, even though he didn’t spend his entire career in Colorado.
  • The biggest move the Rockies made this offseason was acquiring right-hander Wilton Lopez from the Astros. This was only after the Phillies nearly acquired Lopez, but reportedly backed out over concerns about his elbow. Still, with elite command and a 2.64 ERA over the past three seasons, he has a chance to be a solid set-up man in front of veteran right-hander Rafael Betancourt. But he may be a luxury for a team with a questionable rotation.

Prediction: Fifth place, NL West.

Bryce Harper is really just a tiny bit better Adam Lind when you think about it

Associated Press
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Tom Boswell of the Washington Post writes about an important matter facing the Washington Nationals over the next year: what to do about Bryce Harper, who is entering his walk year and will be a free agent a little over 12 months from now.

That’s a fine and important question. The Nats do need to decide whether to offer Harper a long term deal, when to offer it and, above all else, how big that deal should be. Should it be $300 million? $400 million? Should it be conventional or unconventional, with opt-outs and such? It’s not every day that a generational talent comes along and it’s even more rare that the generational talent hits free agency at the age of 26, so the decisions facing the Nationals are not easy ones.

Boswell acknowledges that bit of trickiness, but he also, strangely, spends a whole lot of time trying to portray Harper as an ordinary talent. He starts with health, comparing him poorly with Stephen Strasburg, who is ranked 30th in games started over the past five years. In contrast . . .

In those same five years, Harper ranks 90th in games played, just 126 a season, and now he says he should have skipped quite a few more games in 2016 when he had a balky shoulder. That’s almost six weeks out per season.

Nowhere in the column is it mentioned that the several weeks he missed in 2017 was the result of a freak injury in wet conditions and that, despite that, Harper worked his tail off to come back and be ready for the postseason. Not that Boswell doesn’t mention the postseason of course . . .

Harper, for the fourth time, failed to lead his team out of the first round and has career playoff batting average and OPS marks of .215 and .801. By the high standards of right fielders, he’s Mr. Average in October.

I suppose it’s not Boswell’s job to refrain from insulting a player on the team he covers, but he certainly seems hellbent on insulting not only Harper, but our own intelligence via comparisons like this:

In the past five years, in those 126 games, Harper averaged 26 homers, 72 RBI and a .288 average. Over the last nine years, Adam Lind averaged 128 games, 20 homers, 70 RBI and hit .273. That’s selective stat mining. Harper is much better, in part because he walks so much. But Harper and Lind in the same sentence?

“A person can eat delicious chocolate cake or lead paint chips. The chocolate cake is much better, but chocolate cake and lead paint in the same sentence?” I guess Boswell gets points for acknowledging that it was a misleading comparison, but if he thinks it is, why make it in the first place? If you want to eliminate this one as an outlier, cool, because he makes a lot of other comparisons like that in the piece.

This is not necessarily new for Boswell. Here’s something he wrote about Harper in 2014:

Harper has not driven in 60 runs in either of his two seasons. He has only five RBI this year. He’s never had more than 157 runs-plus-RBI. Ryan Zimmerman has had between 163 and 216 six times. Adam LaRoche, no big star, has had 175 or more three times. Fourth outfielder Nate McLouth once had 207. Can we get a grip? Counting their three top starting pitchers, Harper may be the Nats’ seventh-best player. If forced to choose whether Harper or Anthony Rendon would have the better career, I’d think twice. Harper is in a self-conscious, fierce scowl-off with baseball. Rendon dances with it and grins. Baseball loves relaxed.

That was written 16 games into his age-22 season.

I’m not sure what Boswell’s beef with Harper is. I’m not sure why he’s contorting himself to portray him as an ordinary player when he is fairly extraordinary and, most certainly, a special case when it comes to his impending free agency. In his career he already has 26.1 career bWAR, 150 homers, an MVP Award under his belt and, if it wasn’t for that freak injury in August, would have a strong case for a second one. Guy has a career line of .285/.386/.515 and he turned 26 four days ago. He’s younger than Aaron Judge.

My view of things is that players should ignore the media for the most part, but they don’t always do that. Sometimes the hostility or criticism of the local press — especially from the most respected portions of the local press who have the ability to shape fan sentiment — gets to them.

Which is to say that, if this kind of noise keeps up, I wouldn’t be shocked if Harper puts up a line of .340/.480/.650 in 2018 and then walked the hell out of D.C. for New York or Chicago or L.A. or something. Would anyone blame him?