What happened to the 2007 Rockies?

Where Have You Gone Matt Holiday?
by Jim Silva

    The high point of the Colorado Rockies history, so far, was when Matt Holliday slid face-first into home plate, and came up bloody, in the 163rd game of the 2007 season, to propel the team into the playoffs. They had just won their 90th game, the most wins up to that point in franchise history,  and still their second highest win total. They had a superstar shortstop in Troy Tulowitzki who was 22, and a young core of position players, like Tulo, Brad Hawpe, Garret Atkins, and Matt Holliday who were all between 22 and 28, and young pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez, Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Manny Corpas, Jeremy Affeldt, and Franklin Morales, who were all between 21 and 28 themselves. It looked like the post-season run was the start of a new era for the franchise. There have been eight seasons since Holliday’s dash home against the Padres, and the team has only had two winnings seasons and one playoff appearance since then. Tulowitzki is gone, as is everyone else from the team – no surprise in this time of quick roster turnover. So what happened to that promising 2007 Rockies’ club?
    Let’s use WAR (Wins Above Replacement) since the value is calculated for position players and pitchers. It is probably a hammer, rather than a pocket knife, but it will give us an idea of where the 16 wins went between the 2007 Rockies and the 2008 Rockies.
    Chris Iannetta took over the lion’s share of the catching duties from Yorvit Torrealba in 2008. Iannetta was 25 and put up 3.1 WAR to Torrealba’s -0.6. The previous year, the catching tandem had put up 0.9 and 0.3 WAR (Torrealba and Iannetta respectively), so the 2008 catching position was an improvement. The rest of the infield looked nothing like its 2007 self.
    Todd Helton, the closest to a household name on the Rockies turned 34 in 2008 and started to show his age, playing only 83 games due to injuries and posting a 1.0 WAR season, his first sub-2.0 WAR in a full season in his career. That was a substantial drop from his 2007 mark of 4.4. When he was out, the position was primarily manned by Garret Atkins and Jeff Baker who posted WARs of -0.3 and 0.4, numbers that include their time at other positions. Atkins had been the primary third baseman in 2007, in spite of his horror film glove work, and had earned 0.3 WAR (2.9 offensive WAR and -2.4 defensive WAR). With Helton down, and the Rockies tiring of Atkins mockery of defense at third, they moved Atkins to first to cover for Helton and put 22 year old rookie, Ian Stewart at third base. Stewart put up a respectable 1.4 WAR season in 304 plate appearances, so you could argue that third was a bit of an upgrade – about 1.0 WAR – while production at first fell off a cliff.
    Kaz Matsui and Troy Tulowitzki combined for 10.2 WAR in 2007 covering the middle of the infield, with Matsui putting up 3.4 WAR and Tulo amassing 6.8 WAR. It was Matsui’s only season with the Rockies and the fans were livid when the Rockies allowed him to sign with the Astros as a free agent. He was one of those players who is often called a spark plug, and the fans had fallen in love. The Rockies replaced him with Clint Barmes, Jeff Baker, Jonathan Herrera, Omar Quintanilla, and Jayson Nix. To complicate things further, Tulo only managed 101 games, as the 23 year old succumbed to injuries – a prelude to a common theme in his career. The young shortstop wasn’t producing at the same rate as his 2007 self when he was on the field posting 0.8 WAR when he wasn’t on the disabled list. Barmes and a few of the other middle infielders covered short in Tulo’s absence. The middle infield, previously the source of excellent offense and defense in 2007, was a mess in 2008. Barmes put up 2.4 WAR splitting time between second and shortstop, Baker and Herrera each put of 0.4 WAR, and Quintanilla posted a 0.5 WAR season.
    Matt Holliday, the hero of the 2007 late season run, put up an almost identical year in 2008 in terms of WAR with 5.8 as an encore to his 6.0 WAR from 2007. The rest of the outfield hadn’t exactly been a source of joy in 2007, but it got worse in 2008. The adequate centerfield picture from 2007 featured 25 year old Wily Taveras and Ryan Spilborghs splitting time with each putting up a 1.1 WAR season. Neither put up stellar defensive numbers – negative defensive WAR from both men – but both contributed something offensively – Spilborghs put up a  .299/.363/.485 slash line, while Taveras managed a .320/.367/.382 slash line of his own. Spilborghs drew walks and hit some home runs, while Taveras hit for a high average, drew only 21 walks in 408 plate appearances, and slugged an anemic .382. In 2008, both of their games collapsed with Taveras contributing 0.0 WAR and Spilborghs adding 0.1 WAR. Taveras added a few more walks, but his batting average drop of 69 points destroyed his offensive value. Spilborghs put up another good offensive season, but was again a bust defensively (1.4 offensive WAR and -1.5 defensive WAR).
    In right field, Brad Hawpe contributed power (25 home runs) and the ability to get on base (.381 OBP) to post a 2.8 offensive WAR season, which would have worked out great had he been a designated hitter. Unfortunately for the Rockies, he contributed -3.4 WAR in right field wiping out his offensive value, for an overall WAR of 0.0. It wasn’t that Hawpe was dropping fly balls in right – the culprit was his shocking lack of range. He just wasn’t getting to balls that most right fielders were catching. His range in 2007 was 1.83 per nine innings as compared to a league average of 2.18. In 2008 it was even worse. Hawpe’s range was 1.50 with league average coming in at 2.12. That represents a substantial number of outs that Hawpe was turning into hits – a little more than one every other game. Over 162 games that really adds up, and it is hard to contribute enough offensively to make up for that kind of statue-like defensive. From 2007 to 2008, the Rockies saw a drop in WAR from their everyday right fielder from 1.5 to 0.0.
    At almost every position, the starters experienced regression. Defensively, the Rockies went from first in the league in fewest number of errors and fielding percentage to 6th and 5th respectively. Their offense went from 2nd in the NL in runs scored to 8th. Their non-pitcher OPS+ dropped from 104 to 96 – in other words they went from slightly better than league average to slightly worse than league average after adjusting for the park differences. Clearly the guys who weren’t pitching had some hand in derailing the club, but what about the pitchers?
    The 2007 rotation consisted mainly of Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Josh Fogg, Jason Hirsch, and a combination of 5th starters, with the most promising being Ubaldo Jimenez. Fogg and Hirsch were there to eat innings – the former was out of baseball three years later and Hirsch would not appear in the majors again after 2008 – but the other three were being counted on as the backbone of the Rockies starting five for now, and for years to come. Cook put up six consecutive seasons in Colorado with ERA+s above 100, making him one of the most successful starting pitchers in Rockies’ history. Francis was considered the ace of the rotation, but only managed two seasons where his ERA+ bested 100. Jimenez was probably the most spectacular arm in the rotation. From his rookie season (when he was 22) through his age 26 season his ERA+ was above 100. In 2010 he almost became the first Rockies pitcher to win 20 games falling one short, and putting together an ERA of 2.88 – unheard of for a starting pitcher in Coors Field.
    Francis earned 3.9 WAR in 2007, Cook added 2.2, Fogg and Hirsch were each right around 1.0, and the combination of Jimenez and Rodrigo Lopez (who chipped in 14 starts), added 1.8 WAR to the mix. In 2008 there was a bit of a shakeup in the rotation – Hirsh went down early with a shoulder injury, Fogg left to pitch for the Reds. Francis fell off and only put up 1.5 WAR, but Cook won 16 games and jumped to 4.3 WAR. Jorge De La Rosa took Fogg’s spot and contributed 1.0 WAR essentially matching Fogg’s 2007 output. Mark Redman, Geldon Rusch, and Livan Hernandez made a mess of one rotation spot with WARs of -0.8, -1.2, and -1.2 respectively. Ubaldo Jimenez started his run of good pitching for the Rockies putting up a 3.8 WAR season as a 24 year old. There was a drop off in one rotation spot, but for the most part the starters pulled their weight.
    Manny Corpas had been a revelation in 2007, supplanting closer Brian Fuentes and nailing down 19 saves while compiling an ERA of 2.08 for a 2.9 WAR season. The Rockies bullpen had depth and versatility. Fuentes saved 20 games himself with a 3.08 ERA, contributing 1.1 WAR. They could also run out Jeremy Affeldt, Latroy Hawkins, Matt Herges, and Franklin Morales – all of whom posted WARs of over 1.0. The bullpen was the Rockies’ secret weapon that became not-so-secret during the off-season when writers were looking for the cause of the Rockies’ 14 game improvement. So did the pen collapse in 2008 dragging the Rockies down with them?
    The 2007 relief corps was one of the best the Rockies ever managed to field. 2008 saw Manny Corpas regress – a WAR of 0.8 – but Brian Fuentes picked up the slack with a WAR of 2.1. Jeremy Affeldt was replaced by Jason Grilli who put together a 1.4 WAR season. Taylor Buchholz went from a 0.9 WAR 2007 to a 2.0 WAR 2008. Herges and Morales both dropped off with WARs around 0.0. Ryan Speier and Luis Vizcaino pitched in 86 games between them and put up 0.7 and 0.1 WAR seasons respectively. The bullpen was not bad, but they certainly weren’t nearly as deep nor nearly as dependable as they had been in 2007.
    It is easy to blame the pitching in Colorado when things go south, but really it was more the offense and defense that dropped off. The Rockies’ pitching almost never looks very good when you look at raw stats because they play half their games in the launching pad of Coors Field. The pen wasn’t “lights out” in 2008, but it featured a good closer, and two good setup men. The rotation was solid. Tulo and Helton’s lost seasons, the loss of Matsui, and the inevitable glove failures of Atkins and Hawpe were what brought the Rockies down. Atkins and Hawpe were both excellent trade bait after 2007 and Matsui could have been signed to play second – he went to Houston for $5.5 million which is less than what he made for the Mets the season before joining Colorado. The failure of the Rockies’ management to try to improve after a great season was probably caused by failing to look at what the stats really showed. Hawpe and Atkins weren’t stars. Is it a coincidence that the Rockies best defensive team ever was also the most successful team ever? Defense actually matters; especially, it would seem, in a ballpark as huge as Coors field. This isn’t the last time you will hear that on Red Seam Dreams.

2016 Padres Catchers and Infielders – Strength or Weakness?

More Alexei, Less Alexi
By Hugh Rothman
The Padres catching situation stands as follows: Derek Norris will be the starter, backed up by Austin Hedges and/or newly acquired Christian Bethancourt. Norris and Hedges manned the position last season too, taking over for Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera in 2014.
In 2014, the Padres were below average (and sometimes waaaay below average) at every position… except catcher. That was the one shining positional beacon in the stinking sewage that passed for an offense that year. Grandal and Rivera combined for a 4.4 WAR (wins above replacement) in 2014 so they clearly were not the problem. However, it was decided by general manager  A.J. Preller that both players needed to be sacrificed in order to improve the rest of the offense in 2015. Grandal helped net the Padres Matt Kemp from the LA Dodgers, and Rivera was a minor piece in helping the Padres acquire Wil Myers from the Tampa Rays. The Padres also acquired their new starting catcher Derek Norris from the Oakland A’s for injury-prone 3rd starter Jesse Hahn. After all the wheeling and dealing, the Padres somehow managed to hold on to one of their top prospects in Austin Hedges, and he eventually became the backup.
The end result: Norris and Hedges combined for a 2.3 WAR in 2015. That’s still not bad. The problem is that 2.5 WAR came from Norris, and -0.2 WAR came from Hedges. In other words, the Padres would benefit from a better backup catcher, but resolving that issue isn’t so easy.
Why?  Because Austin Hedges is an amazing catcher. He was a 2nd round pick and immediately showed an otherworldly aptitude for the catching position. Pitchers adore throwing to him. His arm is so strong (chorus: how strong is it?), he can throw a pea through a battleship if so desired. There are lots of glowing defensive stats about Hedges, but it would be easiest to look at just one overall defensive measurement, DRS (defensive runs saved). Hedges had a DRS of 6 despite being the backup. If he had played the whole season, his DRS would be 21 (per Baseball-Reference.com), which is pretty unreal. The starter Derek Norris had a decent year defensively, with a DRS of 3, which is still above average. Hedges’ mark of 6 in less than a third of the playing time that Norris got is a testament to his stupendous defensive prowess.
Unfortunately, Hedges can’t hit.
He couldn’t hit in double-A. He couldn’t hit in triple-A. He really, really can’t hit in the majors. Whatever defensive benefits he brings to the table he more than gives back with his hitting: .168/.215/.248 (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage) in 137 at bats is simply terrible and the kind of production that cannot be tolerated by any self-respecting baseball franchise. Hedges is only 23 years old, so maybe there is some growth potential, but he is very far away from being even remotely productive as a hitter. Perhaps this is the reason that former Atlanta Braves prospect Christian Bethancourt was acquired.
Bethancourt, a former top-10 prospect of the Braves, is himself a youngster at age 24. His defense isn’t as good as Hedges (whose is?); his DRS last season was very close to 0, meaning he is about average defensively. His hitting is a tiny bit better than Hedges’ (he hit .200/.225/.290 last season in 155 at bats). However, that’s certainly not very impressive. Bethancourt showed a bit more hitting acumen in the minors than Hedges, but not much more. In short, Bethancourt is not much of an upgrade offensively, and a significant downgrade defensively. The Padres are clearly hoping that at least one of them takes a big step forward offensively this season whether in triple-A or the majors, and they are probably hoping that it is Hedges who is the one who takes that step, because that would give them a catcher who can win games with his defense alone – if only his hitting was just moderately acceptable.
In the meantime, the starter is Derek Norris, who had a decent year. The knock on Norris has always been his defense. What A’s fan doesn’t remember the Royals stealing 7 bases on Norris during the 2015 wild-card game, which undoubtedly contributed to the A’s eventually losing that game. But, as previously mentioned, Norris had an above-average DRS last season, including throwing out 34% of would-be base stealers, which was better than the league average rate of 28%. Norris contributed enough offensively to put him in the upper echelon of NL catchers, and this will be his age 27 season, so there could be some further growth, both offensively and defensively.
If Hedges and/or Bethancourt can grow just a bit more offensively, and Norris remains reasonably healthy, catching won’t be a problem the Padres need to worry about in 2016. Instead, they can worry about other spots on the diamond, like the infield for example… or not?
The Padres infield was, not to belabor the point, an unmitigated disaster in 2014, so Preller went right to work to fix it. His big move: He acquired Will Middlebrooks to play 3B in place of Chase Headley. That was it! First baseman Yonder Alonzo remained, as did second baseman Jedd Gyorko, and shortstop Alexi Amarista also stayed put as the replacement for the toxic waste dump formerly known as Everth Cabrera. Ok, so Preller did decide to sign defensive stalwart Clint Barmes to back up Amarista, but otherwise… that was it! In hindsight, it appears that the Padres could have used a bit more help in the infield, although there were some pleasant surprises.
At first base however, Yonder Alonzo was not a surprise whatsoever. He did exactly what he always does: draw some walks, hit for far less power than is acceptable for a starting major league first baseman, and get hurt. In the end, Alonzo contributed a 1.1 WAR for the season, which is pretty meh, but not disastrous. Still, Preller had seen enough and decided to finally terminate the Alonzo Experience by shipping him to the Oakland A’s (a team that appreciates players who can draw a walk). The Padres will instead give the first base job to last year’s center fielder (in name only) Wil Myers. Imagine, if you will, John Kruk playing centerfield. It would be entertaining, and quite hilarious, unless you were a Padres pitcher. Wil Myers wasn’t quite that bad, but he was pretty bad; a -6 DRS, which, if he had stayed in centerfield the entire year, would have become a -15 DRS. That would have been among the worst marks in baseball. Clearly, Myers was completely miscast as a center fielder, so the Padres decided to move him to first base instead; a very understandable decision. Myers was at one time a top 10 prospect and had a dynamic rookie campaign. Even last year, when he could play, Myers hit reasonably well. Unfortunately, the injury bug hit Myers hard, which is yet another reason to move him to first base. If Myers can stay healthy, he is a decent enough athlete to play first base capably and should improve upon his .253/.336/.427 numbers from last season. Myers is just 25 years old, so better times should be coming for him.
2015 began innocently enough with second base being manned by Jedd Gyorko. In 2013, Gyorko excited Padres fans by leading the team with 23 homers, which impressed the club enough to give him a sweet five year deal. Gyorko responded to this vote of confidence by completely laying an egg in 2014. In preparation for 2015, Gyorko reportedly had worked very hard to improve his swing and his confidence, blah, blah, blah… and the result was something in between 2013 and 2014: a .247/.297/.397 line including 16 homers, in 458 at bats. Not very good, even for a second baseman, although if Gyorko’s defense was good, that might be an acceptable result. Alas, Gyorko’s defense is not good. The Padres recognized this and decided to anoint one of their former first round picks, Cory Spangenberg, as the new solution at second base mid-year, and had the brilliant idea of moving Gyorko from second base to shortstop! The end result was about what one would expect: Gyorko’s defense was below average at second base, and significantly below average at shortstop. This offseason, the Padres finally cut bait on Gyorko and traded him to the Cardinals. Spangenberg will be the starting second baseman in 2016.
Cory Spangenberg was the Padres’ first round pick in 2011 (10th pick overall). He quickly showed a good batting eye and solid hitting skills in the minors, with above average speed, and below average power. Last season, he showed enough to allow the Padres to entrust their second base position to Spangenberg and he didn’t disappoint, hitting .272/.339/.399 in 303 at bats and playing league average defense. If he can get that on base and slugging percentage just a bit higher, Spangenberg will become a fine asset for the team. The second base position in the National League is not exactly teeming with great players right now. Spangenberg compares favorably with Neil Walker, who was thought of highly enough by the Mets to trade for him in his last season before free agency. Spangenberg had a higher batting average and on-base percentage than Walker, and trailed him in slugging percentage but not by much. Spangenberg will be an improvement over Gyorko, both offensively and defensively in 2016.
Alexi Amarista began the 2015 season at shortstop even though he is woefully miscast as a starter at any position. Amarista’s best quality is that he can play anywhere and not look ridiculous. He can hit about as well as a 24th or 25th man on a baseball squad should hit. He should never get more than 150 at bats in any season. Nevertheless, there he was on opening day playing shortstop and providing next to nil at the plate. In the end, the Padres received a nice .207/.257/.287 poke in the eye for their troubles at the position. Installing Gyorko at shortstop in the latter part of the season was more desperation than solution-based thinking at that point, but what option did they have. It is inconceivable that the Padres didn’t find a better shortstop option than Amarista to start the season. Preller didn’t make the same mistake in 2016, signing Alexei Ramirez to man the position this year.
Ramirez is now 34 years old and just trying to hang on. His defense at shortstop has been above average for most of his career, but it’s starting to slip (his DRS was slightly below 0 the last two years). Similarly, his offense had been pretty decent for a shortstop most of his career, but that is starting to slip too, and last year, his OBP was under .300. Still, Ramirez has been generally steady and durable throughout his career, and a bounce-back from his subpar season last year is possible. More likely, Ramirez will struggle to be average, and the Padres will try something else in 2017. Ramirez is about as stop-gappy a stop-gap as one can imagine in this scenario. The Padres are just hoping to plug a hole for now. What is a real shame is that the Padres had a top shortstop prospect just last year, in Trea Turner, before trading him to Washington in one of their many whirlwind trade flurries. Turner will soon be the Nationals shortstop and he’ll be a good one. The Padres sure could use someone like that… oops!
At third base, the aforementioned Will Middlebrooks began the year manning the hot corner, and he showed his power well enough. Unfortunately, Middlebrooks couldn’t keep his average to an acceptable level. Utility player Yangervis Solarte, acquired from the Yankees in 2014 in the Chase Headley deal, began to play more and more at third base and before anyone knew it, he wrested the job from Middlebrooks and everyone else and claimed it for his very own. Solarte hit .270/.320/.428 in 571 at bats and played solid defense, like one would expect from a defense-first utility player. His 2.2 WAR was 3rd on the team. He was a pleasant surprise, but one the Padres will gladly accept. The starting job is his for the foreseeable future, plus, he has a really cool name!
In summary, the Padres look to be slightly above average at catcher, improved at first base, second base, and third base, and hopefully shortstop too. They will likely be above league average at second base and third base, and hope that Wil Myers can at least provide league-average first base production. Ramirez will probably be a below-average shortstop, but the team is hoping that his offensive and defensive production will still be a significant improvement over their 2015 options. Most of the solutions quietly came from in house with the low-cost exception of Ramirez at shortstop (because the Padres needed *something* there). Outfield… well, that will be more of a challenge to resolve.

The Rockies bullpen for 2016 – it’s better than you think. No, really!

The Pen is Mightier…Than Last Year’s Pen
by Jim Silva

    Some nails, a fresh coat of paint, et viola – the Rockies have a new and improved bullpen. The new “secret” in baseball that everyone knows, appears to be that you can win by putting together a strong bullpen. The Royals did it, or so it seemed. So this off-season the Rockies stayed out of the starting pitcher free agent market and instead acquired some low cost, old guys who are former closers, then traded a starting left-fielder, Corey Dickerson, for a bona-fide, hard-throwing, young beast-man closer in Jake McGee. Did they do enough, and will it matter? What rebuilding team spends assets on a premier closer? News flash – the Rockies don’t want to be seen as a rebuilding team. Their actions show that they believe they are at the end of a rebuild and ready to start playing with the big boys, hence the trade for a closer.
    Jake McGee is a big lefty who tosses projectiles with celerity – the 95 to 98 mile an hour kind of celerity that scares the crap out of hitters – he nailed Chase Headley in the chin last season – an experience that would have caused most mortals not named Chase Headley to take an online accounting course, and retire from baseball. In spite of that slip, McGee has excellent control walking 2.0 and 1.9 hitters per nine innings in each of the last two seasons. Last season was a struggle for McGee from a health standpoint. He started late after recovering from having his elbow scoped, then missed time at the end of the year with a torn meniscus in his knee. He has already had Tommy John surgery (2008) and returned from that throwing hard. He mowed down 11.4 and 11.6 batters per nine innings in each of the last two seasons. McGee instantly becomes the closer for Colorado taking over from John Axford, who is now in the A’s pen. McGee was more commonly used as a setup guy and co-closer with the Rays, but unless he has a chance encounter with Bigfoot or is implanted with alien technology, he won’t suddenly fall apart with the new designation.
    McGee isn’t the only pitcher sporting a flame-thrower in the Rockies’ pen next season. Jairo Diaz can touch 100 with his fastball – and talk about scary – for most of his career he hasn’t been certain of the pitch’s destination once it left his hand. Finally, for a 21 game stretch at the end of last season, something worked. Whatever tweaks the Rockies, and pitching coach Steve Foster talked Diaz into trying, worked and Diaz kept his walks per nine innings to 2.8 while maintaining a strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine innings. It is reasonable to believe that Diaz would have been tried at closer had the Rockies not acquired McGee. How they use him now will be dictated by his control and manager Walt Weiss’ trust in the rest of Diaz’ pen-pals.
    Adam Ottavino was killing it in April of last season. In 10 appearances (10.33 innings) the tall righty stuck out 11.3 batters per nine innings while only walking 1.7. Both numbers were trending in the right direction for each of the last three seasons. Ottavino was looking like he might steal the closer’s job until his elbow went boom, and he got to experience Tommy John surgery. It is unclear how soon he will return – likely at some point in the first half of 2016 – and how good he will be when he returns. If he comes back close to where he was when he left, then the Rockies have three tough, hard-throwers to finish games. Part of the reason the Rockies had the worst bullpen in all of baseball (and football – you know – if they had bullpens too), was the loss of Ottavino. Getting him back, and adding McGee and a full season of Diaz will change the Rockies fortunes when they have a lead going into the 7th.
    The Rockies started their off-season with two signings that left some in the baseball world scratching their heads. For $3 million, the Rockies got 37 year old Chad Qualls, and for another $4.5 million, they picked up 33 year old Jason Motte. Qualls is as consistent as a reliever gets.  He gets about 60% of the batters he faces to beat the ball into the ground then run cussing toward first base. He strikes out somewhere between 7.5 and 8.5 batters per nine innings and walks about 2.3 per nine innings, although the last two seasons have seen his walk rate drop below two. It is a common refrain that pitchers who induce a lot of ground balls have the most success in Colorado. Qualls gives the Rockies bullpen depth, a groundball machine, and less meaningfully – a guy who used to be a closer back in 2011. Even though Qualls is 37, he remains consistent and should be able to handle the challenge of Coors Field. If he can’t, at least he was relatively inexpensive and might be a piece they can flip for a middling prospect at the trade deadline.
    Jason Motte was also a closer once, and has a formidable, dark beard that makes him look like the dwarf, Gimli. I’m not sure if Motte is a skilled miner or can wield a battle axe, but as a relief pitcher he was fearsome, shooting flames with his speed ball of doom and slider of Nimgar. Sadly, our hero was felled by Lord Thomas of John, and he hasn’t been the same since. Not all pitchers bounce back from Tommy John surgery in a year, but last season ended early for Motte with shoulder pain so it wouldn’t be wise to count on him for any heroics. That said, if he comes back to a touch more than where he was before he was shut down last season, he will give the Rockies a serviceable bullpen arm, and shorten the game for the starting pitchers. In the meantime, it is reasonable to expect the 3 to 1 strikeout to walk rate that he put up last season in Wrigley. His 3.61 FIP (ERA independent of fielding), and his league average park-adjusted ERA from last season would have been quite useful for the Rockies last year. If that’s all they get, then they should be content. It’s not like they are paying him to be the one ring to rule them all.
    At the time the Rockies signed Boone Logan, he was just coming off two seasons with the Yankees where he was a monster, striking out more than 11 batters per nine innings with FIPs in the threes and hits per nine in the sevens. He also did two things that should have given the Rockies the jibblies at his signing. He walked a bunch of guys, 3.67 and 3.82 per nine innings in 2012 and 2013 respectively, and let batters launch the ball toward space at a high rate to become a souvenir on the other side of the fence – 1.0 and 1.6 home runs per nine in the same time span. So when Logan came to Colorado for his first Coors Field experience and compiled a 6.84 ERA, gave up 2.2 home runs per nine innings, and walked 4.0 men per nine innings of work, the Blake Street faithful shouldn’t have been too surprised. Ugly numbers – but he also struck out 11.5 hitters per nine innings, so it looked like the beast was in there, but confused. Last year, the world went back to spinning closer to its normal direction for Boone. Still pumping a mid-90’s fastball, he again struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings but managed to keep the ball in the park, allowing only 0.9 long balls per nine innings. The walks continued to plague him as he allowed 4.3 men to amble to first base unperturbed. Logan looked a lot like the guy the Rockies thought they’d signed, as his FIP plummeted from 5.13 to 3.62, matching his FIPs from his days in the Bronx – 3.67 in 2012 and 3.82 in 2013. So if that’s what the Rockies wanted, then that is exactly what they got. His hits allowed per nine innings were up from his New York days, but that is to be expected in Coors Field. Logan faced almost exactly the same number of righties as he did lefties even though lefties put up an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .602, while righties waxed him at a rate of .909. With the improved bullpen depth, Walt Weiss might consider using Logan as a lefty specialist to maximize his value.
    25 year old Scott Oberg had pitched a total of 107.67 innings professionally coming into 2015. In all of those innings pitching in short relief, he had allowed a total of seven home runs. Last season, pitching at AAA and in the majors, Oberg gave up 10 home runs in 66.33 innings. Until last season he had never allowed more than 7.2 hits per nine innings – last season he allowed 15.8 in a short stay in AAA and 8.9 in the majors. The righty has posted ever-shifting peripherals with a strikeout to walk rate at all of his stops in the following order: 4.83, 2.26, 3.50, 5.50, and in his major league audition that lasted 58.33 innings his rate was 1.42. For many young pitchers there is an extended break-in period as they get used to how their pitches work at altitude and what adjustments they have to make to succeed in Denver. Looking at Oberg’s season by month, his home run rate dropped off in the last two months and his other stats improved as well. He gave up only two home runs to the last 120 batters he faced – none to the last 50. If the decreased home run rate holds then maybe Oberg will turn into a useful piece in a veteran bullpen. If not, he will get a chance to make himself useful while toiling for the Isotopes of Albuquerque.
    Another arm that the Rockies will likely put to use in their pen is Justin Miller. Last season, he was one of the more useful arms to pitch in relief. Like almost everyone in the Rockies pen, Miller throws hard – up to the mid-90’s. Not a ground ball pitcher, Miller still kept the ball in the park allowing only two home runs in 33.3 innings pitched. He put up a spectacular strikeout rate, fanning 10.3 batters per nine innings. His control was solid and he just didn’t allow batters to get hits, with a walk rate of 3.0 per nine innings, and a hits per nine innings mark of 5.7. His FIP was a spectacular 2.65, but the question is can he repeat his 2015 numbers or even come close? Interestingly his numbers look remarkably similar to his 2014 minor league numbers so perhaps this is a sign of things to come. Miller has never started a professional game so the Rockies are unlikely to be able to stretch him out, but in short stints he can contribute to the new, deep Rockies pen.
    There are a lot of ifs for the 2016 season, but the pen will undoubtedly be better. With the improved starting pitching and the improved pen, the Rockies won’t suffer death by horrible pitching again this season.

What does the Rockies starting rotation look like for 2016?

Chuck and Duck?
by Jim Silva

    The talk in Colorado every off-season is about whether or not the Rockies will have enough pitching to compete. Interestingly, baseball talk shows, like MLB radio, often mention that the Rockies can’t sign a free agent pitcher because pitchers universally see pitching in Coors Field as career death. It’s been a long time since the Rockies signed a top-notch free agent starting pitcher. If you have lived in the Rocky Mountain area long enough then you probably remember the signing of Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle in an attempt to buy a starting rotation. If you remember that, then you’re unlikely to have forgotten how horribly it turned out – but was it really that bad?        
    In 2001, Mike Hampton pitched a good half season, making the All Star team, but then he allowed a .953 OPS (on-base plus slugging) for the second half, basically turning everyone he faced into Willie Mays (Mays had a career .941 OPS). His second (and last) season in Colorado was even worse as his ERA jumped from 5.41 to 6.15. Ok, so Hampton didn’t work out. The undersized lefty (he is 5’10) walked a decent number of guys before he got to Coors field – 4.1 per nine innings for the Mets in 2000 – and that didn’t change in Colorado. He also wasn’t the kind of pitcher to limit the number of hits he gave up, although that number increased with the Rockies, especially during his second season. What changed the most was the number of home runs that he allowed. Since his rookie season, Hampton had kept his home runs allowed per nine innings under 1.0. In fact, in the two seasons before coming to Denver, he posted home run rates of 0.5 and 0.4. His two seasons pitching at altitude saw those numbers jump to 1.4 in 2001, and 1.2 in 2002. Combine that with the walks, and you have a pitching stew that tastes like the bottom of your shoe. It probably should not have been a surprise that Hampton wouldn’t work out based on what he brought to the table.
    Denny Neagle signed the same year as Hampton, making quite a splash for the young team. Neagle had pitched for five teams by the time he made his way to the Mile High City, making the All Star team twice and garnering votes for the Cy Young twice (finishing 8th and 3rd). Unlike Hampton, Neagle gave up home runs at his previous stops like a guy –  well – like a guy who gave up a lot of home runs. For his career he averaged 1.2 long balls per nine innings, allowing 1.9 per nine in 1999 and giving up 31 home runs in 2000.  His walk rates were better than Hampton’s over his career – 2.8 per nine innings for Neagle and 3.6 per nine for Hampton. Still, who thought it would work to bring a guy into Coors Field – a notorious launching pad – who gave up home runs at a rate of more than one a game? And yet it did, for the most part. Neagle’s FIP (his ERA if you remove events he can’t control, like fielding) was 5.63 and 4.90 in the two seasons before he arrived in Colorado, and in his first two seasons with the Rockies it was 4.81 and 5.00. He blew out his elbow and was done pitching the next season, but for two years Neagle gave the Rockies exactly what his most recent stats said he would.
    It’s one thing for pitchers to shun contract offers from the Rockies for fear that their ERA will balloon and they will be unable to find a job after a stint in Colorado. It is quite another for the Rockies to be gun shy about signing free agent pitchers because of the belief that it won’t work out. Rockies management would never say out loud that they are afraid to sign free agent pitchers, so this might just be one of those things that sports talk guys invent to have something to talk about to fill 24 hours of baseball talk. It just seems that a team that struggles so much with pitching would always be in the conversation for starting pitchers during free agent season, and you just don’t hear them being in the mix for the big guys. This off-season the Rockies signed two guys for their bullpen and traded for another, but were not prominently mentioned in the discussions for the high or even mid-profile starting pitchers who were on the market. At some point the Rockies will either need to develop quality starting pitchers, trade for them, or sign them as free agents.
    The Rockies have gone the way of development for a few seasons now, and have a few arms who have put in their time in the minors and are ready to try their hand at pitching at over 5000 feet. There are also a couple of kids in process who look like they could be really good eventually. In 2016 though, the rotation is likely to be anchored by a guy who moved around a lot before he succeeded, and came up in another system – Jorge De La Rosa. The last three seasons, De La Rosa has crafted ERA+s (park adjusted earned run average relative to the league) of 112, 139, and 134, where 100 is what you would expect from a league-average pitcher. He has now achieved that six times in Colorado, making him one of the few pitchers who can claim to have succeeded long-term pitching in the thin, mountain air. Since returning from Tommy John Surgery in 2012, the 6’1 lefty from Monterrey, Mexico has reduced his walk rate with three seasons of 3.3, 3.3, and 3.9 – all under his career rate of 4.1 free passes per game. He has notched at least 26 starts in each of the three seasons post-surgery, and should hit that mark again if he can remain healthy. 32 starts for De La Rosa doesn’t mean 200+ innings – it never has. In his two 32-start seasons he has hit right around 185 innings. You will see a trend here, as De La Rosa led the team in innings pitched in 2015 with 149. If he hits his projection next season, he will amass around 170 innings pitched. If De La Rosa throws 170 innings he will help out the bullpen, and hopefully not lead the team again as he is 34.
    Behind the consistent De La Rosa, there are a lot of questions. Chad Bettis is likely to make 30 starts for the Rockies and if he manages even a little growth, it will give the Coloradans one of the better 1-2 punches at the top of the rotation that they’ve had in a few years. Bettis made eight starts in the minors before coming up to stay. He made 20 more starts for the Rockies from that point on. Bettis stayed healthy last season, and finally showed success in the majors posting an ERA+ of 110. Like De La Rosa, Chad walks about three per nine, and allows about a home run a game. The two hurlers also have similar strikeout per nine innings numbers with both men sitting in the seven to eight range. What Bettis doesn’t have is history, as 2015 was his first major league season with positive value. His splits – first half of the season versus second half – look like he was getting better as the season wore on (his ERA actually was better in the second half – 4.91 in the first half versus 3.18 in the second half), implying that his 2015 numbers weren’t a fluke, but a display of actual growth. Bettis is 26 so he could be just what the Rockies need – a young, controllable starting pitcher.
    Jonathan Gray is a 6’4 righty, who throws hard – his peak fastball comes in around 97.4 MPH according to Baseball Prospectus – surfaced late last season and put up decent peripheral stats, like his 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.1 walks per nine innings. He also kept his home runs per nine a tick under 1.0 (.9), and his peripherals for the big club were in line with what he did in AAA. Not everything came up roses for Gray as he gave up five and a half runs per game for an ERA+ of 85, but learning to pitch in the majors at Coors Field is as hard as it gets. The Rockies should be happy with his first effort for the parent club, and be patient with the results. This season the Rockies will look for him to improve upon his debut, and hope he works 170-plus innings to help them stabilize their rotation.
    After those three, it gets pretty dicey. If Eddie Butler grabs the 4th spot and hangs onto it, that will be a good sign for the Rockies, because Butler was on track to be a rotation stalwart before shoulder injuries ruined his 2014 season. Last year, his numbers looked more like 2014 than his stellar climb to AA in 2013. Butler posted strikeouts per nine innings above 8.0 at each stop in 2013 while cranking out mid-90’s fastballs. 2014 and 2015 saw that strikeout number fall to just above 5.0 in the minors, and a sickly 1.7 with the parent club. Butler’s walk rates were solid in 2013, including walks per nine innings of 2.8 at the high A level, and 2.0 in AA. Last season that number bumped up to 3.6 in AAA and 3.9 in the majors. Butler seemed lost all season, but at 24 the Rockies hope he can come all the way back from injury and find his command. Nobody can succeed in the big leagues when they only strike out two more men than they walk (44 strikeouts to 42 walks in 2015). He is only 25 so there is some time, but he needs to come at least part of the way back this season to remain in the Rockies’ plans.
    Tyler Chatwood is now 26, and the last time he threw a baseball in anger in a major league park he was 24 and trying to build on a previous solid campaign in the majors. Ulnar collateral ligaments are bastards, and few people know that like Chatwood, who has had his replaced twice. The procedure known as Tommy John surgery has become commonplace for pitchers, and is almost a developmental milestone these days. There are now many pitchers in the majors who have had the procedure and have experienced success post-surgery. What teams are starting to see now are pitchers who have had the surgery twice. This is relatively new territory, and it is unknown how much mileage pitchers can get from round two of elbow reconstruction. Chatwood came over from the Angels in 2011 for catcher, Chris Iannetta, and at 22 started 12 games for the Rockies. The following season, Chatwood proved himself up to the challenge of pitching at altitude, posting an ERA+ of 142 in 20 starts. In 2014 Tyler only managed four starts before returning to the surgeon. It was a devastating blow for the Rockies, who it seemed had found a solid, mid-rotation youngster whom they could control for years to come. Chatwood had shown good growth each year.
Season
WHIP (hits + walks/innings
Strikeout to walk ratio
Strikeouts per 9 innings
2011
1.669
1.04
4.7
2012
1.655
1.24
5.7
2013
1.428
1.61
5.3
2014
1.208
2.50
7.5

The table shows that Chatwood was striking out more batters, showing better control, and allowing fewer base-runners every season. If he can pick up where he left off – and again there is evidence that many pitchers have come all the way back from Tommy John surgery – then he could be a mainstay in the Rockies’ rotation, holding down the 2nd or 3rd spot. He will likely need some time to build his innings up, but counting on him for 160 innings this season is not a crazy dream.
    Several humans made starts for the Rockies last season, some of whom will be looking to do so again this season. David Hale, Jordan Lyles, Chris Rusin, and Tyler Matzek are the most likely candidates to garner starts in 2016, with Tyler Andersen representing the dark horse candidate. Hale is 28 and has posted decent peripherals – 7.0 k’s and 2.3 walks per nine innings last year in Colorado – but hung a 6.09 ERA on his stat sheet too, probably because of his WHIP of 1.468, and his home runs per nine innings of 1.6. Looking at his minor league numbers, it is hard to get a grip on what to expect. There are years with too many walks, other years giving up too many hits, and he got torched last season in Albuquerque. If the reduction in walks is real, and he can figure out how to hold onto the good peripherals while getting his home run rate closer to 1.0, then the Rockies might have something, although that is a lot of ifs.
    Matzek has some serious control problems, to the point where he can’t pitch effectively in any role at this point. That is a huge disappointment for the Rockies who got a solid 2014 in the rotation from the 24 year old. In 2014 Matzek, a 2009 first round pick, posted a 4.05 ERA for the Rockies, while reducing his walks per nine innings to 3.4 in 19 starts. Matzek is a big guy at 6’3, 230 who should be able to handle a substantial workload, so when he completely unravelled last season, the Rockies must have wrung their hands. Matzek has battled control issues for his entire career, but had made progress until the 2015 collapse. If the now-25 year old can get on top of his mechanics or whatever it is that caused him to lose the plate last year, then the Rockies have another solid, and possibly spectacular, starting pitcher. When he is on, Matzek strikes out batters by the truck-load, pumping mid 90’s fastballs with ease.
    Chris Rusin was a waiver wire pick up from the Cubs in 2014. Chicago was right about waiving him as he is eminently hittable. What he does, that the Rockies desperately needed last year, is eat innings, making 22 starts and notching 131.67 innings. He also kept his walk numbers down under 3.0 per nine innings. His ERA+ was 88 – not bad considering he gave up 11.6 hits and 1.3 long balls per nine innings. He is a good guy to have at AAA, because he can keep you from burning through the bullpen if other, more talented pitchers get hurt.
    Colorado was counting on Jordan Lyles to contribute innings last season, but the 24 year old only made 10 starts before emigrating to the disabled list with a season-ending toe injury. Lyles had made at least 22 starts each of the previous seasons – something the Rockies could have used desperately last year. He has yet to have a park adjusted ERA above 100 and some of his peripherals are moving in the wrong direction, so even though he is only 24 you have to wonder if he is ever going to become effective at anything other than eating innings. His walk rate has increased every season in the majors while his strikeout rate has trended downward at the same time. One positive note has been his home run rate per nine innings, which has dropped every season from 1.3 in 2011 to 0.4 in his 10 starts last year. If he can return to the form he showed in 2014 and maybe improve a tick, he could become a usable starter (damning with faint praise!). The injury was to his toe, not his arm, so as long as the toe healed there is no reason to expect that he won’t get back to where he left off – except for maybe some of those ominous peripherals! He is one guy on the Rockies who will be pulling for anyone other than Jose Reyes to play shortstop, because Lyles gives up a lot of ground balls.
    Spring training and the health of many Rockies pitchers, including his own, will decide whether Tyler Andersen will make the jump from AA to the majors in 2016. Andersen was a first round pick in 2011, and at 26 has performed well at every stop in the minors. The issue with Mr. Andersen has been health. The 6’4 lefty has made 20 starts in a season only twice and missed all of 2015, but also has never had a WHIP over 1.15, nor an ERA above 3.25. When he can pitch he does it quite well. All of his peripherals are excellent from his career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.5 to 1, to his home run rate – 18 in 328 innings. What Andersen hasn’t done is pitch at altitude. The Rockies AAA club is in Albuquerque at an elevation comparable to Denver’s. It is likely that Andersen would have pitched there at some point last season had he not suffered an elbow injury, so the true test will come next season. If he can maintain his excellent numbers – park translated of course – as he moves closer to heaven (and the International Space Station), then the Rockies could very well have a new top of the rotation pitcher on their club.
    It isn’t as bleak as it seems for the Rockies starting pitching, although the health dice have to come up in their favor a lot for them to have a decent rotation. It is always a gamble to predict good times for anyone pitching in Colorado, but the Rockies starting pitching will almost definitely be better than it was last season and could become a strength if the young first round picks can grab jobs and stay healthy. Look for a rotation of De La Rosa, Bettis, Chatwood, Lyles, and Andersen or possibly Butler, to be the best group top to bottom that the Rockies have run out there in several years. If, on the other hand, Hale and Rusin steal 20 to 30 of those starts, then the Rockies are in serious trouble.

A Tribute To Tony Phillips

RIP Tony Phillips: Greatest Utility Player Ever?
by Hugh Rothman
Tony Phillips, a major league ballplayer whose career spanned 18 years (1982-1999), passed away on Friday, Feb. 19th. He was one of my all-time favorite players. He was so valuable to the teams he played for, not only just because he was a really good player, but because he could help fill a hole on any team wherever needed. Was Phillips perhaps the greatest utility player of all time? He certainly has a great argument.
First of all, what defines a “utility player” anyway? When one thinks of a utility player, one would likely conjure up a picture of a player who can play multiple positions, but isn’t good enough, either offensively or defensively, to start at any of them. If the player was good enough, then of course he would simply be installed as the starter at the available position.
Tony Phillips certainly meets the first criteria: he could (and did) play every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher. He played over 100 games at 2B, SS, 3B, RF, and LF, and 97 at CF. His best position was 2B, but he was no slouch anywhere on the field. As for the second criteria, well, Phillips doesn’t quite fit: the problem was that he was too good a player to truly be classified as a utility player. There were several years when he was the best player on his team, and certainly most years he was better than some of the other starters. Essentially, if Tony Phillips was on your team, you could immediately write him in as a “starter”… somewhere. Every team has holes, but with Phillips, no matter where the hole was, Phillips would fill it. Need a third baseman? Tony Phillips can play there. Uh oh, your second baseman got hurt and is out for the year and you have a decent third base option in the minors, but no second base option available whatsoever. No problem! Tony Phillips can just slide over to second without a hitch. That is so invaluable to a team!
During his long career, Phillips had some truly great years. His 1993 in Detroit, in which he compiled a .443 OBP on the basis of a .313 BA and 132 walks, stands as his best season: a value of 5.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). However, he had four other seasons with a WAR above 3.7, an all-star level performance.  Sadly, Phillips never made a single all star team, but one only needs to look at the 1996 Angels to see how much he could mean to a team. The Angels went 78-67 in a strike-shortened year in 1995 with Tony Phillips (one of his best years), but slipped to 70-91 in 1996 with essentially the same team… minus Tony Phillips.
Perhaps my favorite Tony Phillips year, however, was his last one: his 1999 Oakland A’s season. In that year, Phillips hit .244/.362/.433 in 484 plate appearances, which contributed a solid 2.2 WAR to the team. That’s nice in itself, but Phillips did this while playing every position on the diamond during that year (except pitcher and catcher). There simply has been no player in history who has provided this level of value *and* versatility. And also so very underrated: Phillips 50.8 career WAR is higher than any player not elected to the Hall of Fame!
RIP Tony Phillips. Calling him a utility player may be selling him short, but if he was, he was one of the greatest. It’s not easy to define exactly what he was, except that he was extremely valuable, and there may not be another like him for a very long time.

Who will patrol the Rockies’ outfield in 2016?

When Is a Gold Glove Worth Its Weight in Gold?
by Jim Silva

    The Rockies outfield is big. By “big” I mean spacious, not inhabited by large humans, although I can’t speak to what goes on there at night. They have more fair territory than any ballpark in the majors – .18 acres larger than the average park. It is almost a third of an acre bigger than Fenway (according to Cork Gaines on Business Insider’s website). Outfielders in Coors Field have a lot of ground to cover. Perhaps Rockies’ outfielders should be allowed to play using roofless golf carts, or hover boards just to make it fair. So the question is, should the Rockies pay more attention to outfield defense than other teams who play in wee bandboxes? And that other question that you were just thinking – can a stellar group of defensive outfielders plying their trade in Coors Field have a significant impact on the pitching staff – more of an impact than a similar outfield playing in Fenway (the smallest park in the majors by area), for example? I don’t have the tools to answer either of these questions definitively, but the logic test seems to say that yes, a great defensive outfield should have a greater impact playing in Colorado than anywhere else AND the pitchers would very likely incur a significant benefit from superior fly-chasers. While it is tempting to fill the lineup with big, beefy dudes who can hit the ball very, very far and just hope for the best when they put their gloves on, logic dictates that the Rockies need to pay a lot of attention to outfield defense. Good outfield defense will make it easier for their young pitchers to develop because they won’t get shellacked quite as often, and their pitchers are more likely to stay healthy because the improved defense will decrease their pitch counts. Again, tough to prove, but let’s assume that having the biggest park in the majors means you need to have outfielders who can cover a lot of ground, especially in center-field. Keep that in mind as we explore the 2016 Rockies outfield.
    The Rockies’ center-fielder last season, and most likely in 2016, is Charlie Blackmon. “Chuck Nazty” is fast, as evidenced by his 84 career stolen bases and 76% success rate when he attempts to steal. He went 43 for 56 last season – 77%. He has some power and hits for average, as evidenced by his 17 home runs to go along with a slash line of .287/.347/.450 last season. His offensive numbers the last two seasons have been pretty similar, except for this year’s increase in triples (from three in 2014 to nine in 2015) and a smaller increase in walks from 31 to 46 in the same time frame. Blackmon almost always bats in the leadoff spot, so the extra walks help. A .347 on-base percentage is serviceable from a leadoff hitter, but not star level.
    But how does Blackmon fare defensively? I compared his range factor per nine innings last season to the league average for other center-fielders. It is a simplistic stat that adds putouts and assists, and then divides them by innings played. Blackmon’s range factor per 9 innings last season was 2.35. That means that he averages a combination of 2.35 putouts and assists per game. By comparison, the average center-fielder in the NL put up a range factor of 2.41 – a touch better than Chuck’s numbers. Looking at Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Blackmon actually cost the Rockies 7 runs with his glove, so using those two numbers to look at Blackmon’s defensive work makes him look a bit below average. To put Blackmon’s defensive numbers into perspective, perhaps a bit unfairly, let’s compare him to Kevin Keirmaier, the center-fielder for the Rays. Let’s look at the same two statistics, range factor per nine innings and DRS. Kiermaier put up a range factor of 3.26 in Tropicana Field (and the other parks he visited – most likely including National Parks). That’s a big edge over Blackmon who again posted a 2.35 range factor. That’s an extra play a game for the whole season. It’s Kiermaier’s DRS that really puts Blackmon’s season in perspective. The Ray’s center-fielder saved his team 42 runs last season – that’s 49 more than Blackmon. If you use the rule of thumb that 10 runs is a game, Kiermaier won the Rays five games with his glove as compared to Blackmon. That’s huge. The unfair part of the comparison is that I compared Blackmon to the best centerfielder in the game. Not many pitchers would like to be compared to Clayton Kershaw.
    What the comparison does is point out a mistake the Rockies are making – focusing on offense at the cost of defense at a position they desperately need to be a stellar defensive spot. I understand that there are not a lot of Kevin Kiermaiers out there – his season was the best in terms of DRS of any player at any position in the 10 years that John Dewan and his crew have been measuring it. You would, however, expect that the Rockies would run someone out to center-field every year who finished with positive defensive numbers considering how much they have struggled with pitching, and how important center-field defense is to supporting pitchers.
    The Rockies seemingly put themselves in a position of outfield wealth this off-season when they signed Gerardo Parra to a four year deal – the fourth year being an option year. Parra has consistently been one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball posting DRS numbers of 13, 14, 9, and a whopping 37 from 2010 through 2013. The last two seasons have been very un-Parra-like as he has posted DRS score of 0 and -10. The Rockies are banking on a return of the old Gerardo on defense. They just traded starting left-fielder Corey Dickerson for closer Jake McGee, ensuring a starting job for Parra, who is 28. The question is where will they play him now that they have him? If the Rockies are truly expecting his defensive numbers to jump back up to the level they were at through 2013, then it would make sense to move Blackmon to left and install Parra in center. If the Rockies don’t believe that he is a Gold Glove defender (he won the award in 2011 and 2013) then why did they sign him for four years?
    Looking at career numbers, it is clear that Parra is the superior defender, in spite of last season. Offensively, Parra had his best season ever putting up a slash line of .291/.328/.452 for the season split between two teams – very similar to Charlie Blackmon’s season. Parra doesn’t walk much – 28 times last season, and strikes out about as often as Blackmon, about 100 times a season for the last two years. So really, Blackmon and Parra will probably put up similar numbers on offense with Parra besting Blackmon with the glove, meaning you have to start them both – Parra in center and Blackmon in left most likely.
    That leaves right-field. Last season, Carlos Gonzalez was the right-fielder for 151 games. He and Nolan Arenado are the faces of the franchise since Troy Tulowitzki was traded, and he has won three Gold Gloves in the outfield. Last season he was finally healthy enough to come to the plate 608 times, the second highest total of his career. His fragile health is the reason the Rockies are considering moving him from right field to first this season. Assuming they don’t, Cargo is the right-fielder. Honestly he is not a Gold Glove outfielder – last season his DRS was 5, which is solid. Put him in the outfield with Blackmon and Parra and you have a good, not great, defensive outfield, although improved over last season’s outfield, as the now traded Corey Dickerson, who put up a DRS of -6, will be replaced by Gerardo Parra.
    Offensively, there is no outfielder on the Rockies major league squad or at AAA who can contribute anything close to what Cargo can, but neither can they field a first baseman who can hit like Cargo. Kyle Parker cleared waivers and was recently sent back to AAA – nobody claimed him – after an uninspiring 2015. Parker hit like a pitcher, with a .179 batting average and .311 slugging in 112 plate appearances. He is better than that, but disappointingly for a 2010 first round pick, not a major league regular. Brandon Barnes logged a lot of playing time because of Corey Dickerson’s injuries, but that didn’t go well for the Rockies. Barnes makes a lot of outs. Last season he posted an on-base percentage plus slugging (OPS) of.655 which is pretty awful for a left-fielder. Barnes’ season was an improvement offensively, including his first on-base percentage above .300 (.314). Barnes is most likely a 5th outfielder or AAA option on a good team. He is an average to slightly below-average glove in all three outfield spots and has a wee bit of power. That leaves two options to replace Gonzalez in the outfield – Mark Reynolds and Ben Paulsen. Neither man is much of an outfielder and both have significant offensive limitations. Reynolds is a power-hitting, out-making, strikeout machine, while Paulsen is a nice fourth outfielder/backup 1st baseman who is not a championship level starter at any position.
    There is not really a good answer for the Rockies until some of their young outfielders, particularly David Dahl and Raimel Tapia get past AA. There is still time for Colorado to sign a low cost, short-term free agent to hold the spot warm at 1st base or in left, until the youngsters get there. Most likely the Rockies will have an easier time finding a 1st baseman – there are rumors about a Pedro Alvarez deal – than an outfielder, who can beat what the Rockies have. That would leave Paulsen as a strong bench player, and keep Barnes riding pine until someone gets injured. That said, you can expect the Rockies to stick Cargo back in right and cross their fingers. If they keep Cargo in right-field, employ a flotilla of sports medicine experts, and move Parra to center, shifting Chuck Nazty and his tats to left field then we can test the theory of improved outfield defense helping Rockies pitching (which it will, dammit!).

An Update on The A’s, Who Can’t Seem To Sit Still!

The A’s Movin’ and Shakin’

by Jim Silva

Well, what do you know – the A’s went and made some more moves before the season started. Yeah, not really a surprise. So let’s take a look at what the moves mean to the A’s 2016 lineup.

The Infield

    In an attempt to make it easier on the A’s PA announcer, Beane/Forst traded Bret Lawrie to the White Sox for two minor league pitchers. There is chatter that says Lawrie was moved because he was a negative clubhouse factor. That move leaves most of the infield picture settled, with Jed Lowrie at second, Marcus Semien at shortstop, and Danny Valencia at third. It isn’t a surprise that someone was moved. Once the A’s acquired Lowrie, the writing was on the wall for Lawrie or Valencia. Lowrie is a known commodity, whereas Lawrie still had some growth left – specifically power potential. It removes a lot of uncertainty in the infield in Oakland, but also means there won’t be much chance for anyone outperforming their projections at second base or third base.
    The other big move the A’s made actually complicates the first base situation even though it doesn’t involve an infielder. Oakland picked up Khris Davis from the Brewers of Milwaukee for two solid prospects – Jacob Nottingham, the catcher Oakland got in the Kazmir trade with the Astros, and Bubba Derby, a 6th round pick last year who put up gaudy strikeout numbers in the lower levels of the A’s farm system in 2015. Davis will be the everyday left-fielder, which will of course shake up the outfield situation – we will get to that in a bit. What it also does is mess with the first base situation. Mark Canha was likely to get a lot of time in left unless Coco Crisp made a remarkable recovery from his chronic neck ailments. Canha also plays first base, so what is likely to happen is that he and Yonder Alonso will fight for playing time. If Alonso suffers an injury and misses significant time (which is a thing for Alonso), then Canha takes over. It will be interesting to see what gets sorted out in spring training. The A’s have a glut of left-fielder/first baseman types who are big question marks. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the health of Coco Crisp, their highest paid player, will determine a lot of personnel moves.

The Outfield

    The acquisition of Khris Davis and his extraneous ‘h’ means that all the intrigue involving Jake Smolinski, and Andrew Lambo is virtually over. Davis hit 21 home runs in 259 plate appearances in the second half of the 2015 season making him the biggest power threat in the A’s lineup. The former Brewer has been an average, to slightly below average, defender in left field for the last three seasons with DRS (defensive runs saved) values of -2, 4, and -6 in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Last season he showed league-average range in left at 1.78 (the league average was 1.79). Davis put up much better walk totals last year than he had in the past, with 44 free passes in 440 plate appearances as opposed to his 2014 totals of 32 walks in 549 plate appearances. Davis swung less often than he had in the past, displaying improved plate discipline. His minor league record shows multiple seasons of OBP’s above .400, so maybe this is Davis finally making the adjustments to major league pitching, possibly explaining his breakout second half of 2015.
    Assuming Coco Crisp stays with the A’s, he will be fighting with Billy Butler for DH time, and with Lambo and Smolinski for an outfield reserve spot. Crisp can play centerfield, which neither Smolinski nor Lambo can manage. Coco can spell Burns in centerfield, or play there for an extended stretch if Burns can’t follow up his rookie breakout with another quality year. A healthy Crisp makes the A’s outfield much deeper, but it makes it unlikely that Smolinski and Lambo both make the team, unless the A’s manage to move Billy Butler or Coco Crisp. Crisp and Butler are owed a lot of money and had poor seasons last year, making a trade unlikely.
    On a sunnier note, Crisp being limited to fewer games in the outfield might mean he and his useful bat make it through the season, which would make the bench deeper. Last season the A’s gave Sam Fuld 325 plate appearances, even though his slash line was .197/.276/.293. Fuld is useful for his glove, but has lost all of his offensive value since coming to Oakland. He has put up back to back seasons with an OPS between .568 and .569 – not the kind of consistency you want from your fourth outfielder. He is the kind of guy you carry if you decide you have room for a 5th outfielder who is a glove-only option, and that doesn’t happen much these days as teams are more likely to carry 13 pitchers, and only 12 position players.

The Starting Rotation

    There is more to come for the A’s this off-season – probably in the next few days – because the A’s designated Sean Nolin for assignment. This means that they have to trade him within 10 days, or hope he clears waivers so they can send him down to AAA to start the season. The team is in this position because they needed to make room on the 40-man roster when they acquired Khris Davis. Nolin is too valuable a piece to just lose for nothing, so we have to assume the A’s have a deal in the works that involves the former Blue Jays’ starting pitcher. The only other possibility is that the A’s are hoping that his mediocre numbers in his six starts last season when he was called up, mixed with his lost time due to injury in 2015, will make teams leery about making a waiver claim on the 6’4” lefty. That seems like a really big gamble to take, so the only logical explanation is that the A’s will be trading him this week. If they were going to expose someone to a waiver claim without a deal in place, Felix Dubront or Aaron Brooks would be better candidates, since losing them wouldn’t represent a hit on the A’s future (or their present, for that matter).

What now?

The A’s got better for next season, this is certain. They just improved their offense, while giving back prospects, including Nottingham, who had just been named the 66th best prospect in baseball. It begs the question: what direction are the A’s going? Davis is under team control for the next four seasons, but that involves arbitration and possibly some huge raises – likely one of the reasons the A’s moved last season’s MVP Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for prospects. Giving up Nottingham might have been the only way the A’s were going to nab a cleanup hitter without losing Franklin Barreto, their top prospect, or Sean Manea, their top pitching prospect. It isn’t what a rebuilding team does though. So do the A’s have enough to make a run in 2016? They have completely rebuilt their major league bullpen, and picked up a cleanup hitter while stabilizing their outfield picture for the next few seasons. They have improved their bench depth and are hoping for health to improve their starting rotation. They do not look like a rebuilding team because clearly they aren’t. This is what it looks like when a small-market team tries to assemble the best roster they can on a shoestring budget so that they can make a run if the pieces all fall into place. The A’s are unlikely to nab a playoff spot in 2016, but they have put themselves in a position to compete, and in poker parlance, they now have a chip and a chair – they are in the game.