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.

Once again, Cy Young votes from the Tampa Bay chapter were interesting

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In 2016, Red Sox starter Rick Porcello narrowly and controversially eked ahead of then-Tigers starter Justin Verlander in Cy Young Award balloting, winning on points 137 to 132. Verlander was not included at all in the top-five of two ballots, both coincidentally belonging to writers from the Tampa Bay chapter, MLB.com’s Bill Chastain and Fred Goodall of the Associated Press. Verlander had more first-place votes than Porcello, but being left out of the top-five on two ballots was the difference maker.

In the aftermath, Verlander’s then-fiancée Kate Upton fired off some angry tweets, as did Justin’s brother Ben.

Verlander was again in the running for the 2018 AL Cy Young Award. He again finished in second place, this time behind Blake Snell of the Rays. Snell had 17 first-place votes and 169 total points to Verlander’s 13 and 154. There weren’t any ballots that made a big difference like in 2016, but there were two odd ballots from the Tampa Bay chapter again.

If a chapter doesn’t have enough eligible voters, a voter from another chapter is chosen to represent that city. This year, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News was a replacement voter along with Mark Didtler, a freelancer for the Associated Press. Both writers voted for Snell in first place, reasonably. But neither writer put Verlander second, less reasonably, putting Corey Kluber there instead. Madden actually had Verlander fourth behind Athletics reliever Blake Treinen. Didtler had Treinen in fifth place. Two other writers had Verlander in third place: George A. King III of the New York Post and Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune. The other 26 had Verlander in first or second place.

Voting Kluber ahead of Verlander doesn’t make any sense, especially we finally live in a world where a pitcher’s win-loss record isn’t valued highly. Kluber had 20 wins to Verlander’s 16 and pitched one more inning. In every other area, Verlander was better. ERA? Verlander led 2.52 to 2.89. Strikeouts? Verlander led 290 to 222. Strikeout rate? Verlander led 34.8% to 26.4%. Opponent batting average? Verlander led .198 to .222. FIP and xFIP? Verlander led both 2.78 and 3.03 to 3.12 and 3.08, respectively. And while Treinen had an excellent year, Verlander pitched 134 more innings, which is significant.

Upton had another tweet for the occasion: