2005 Team Preview: Colorado Rockies

by Keith Glab

2004 Record: 68-94 (4th Place)
2004 Runs Scored: 833
2004 Runs Allowed: 923
Expected 2004 Record: 73-89

Most Colorado seasons begin with people asking, "just how much are those new veterans’ numbers going to be inflated by Coors Field?" This year, Dustan Mohr is the only veteran (if you can call him that) acquired by General Manager Dan O’Dowd. Most of the new faces on offense this year will be comprised of home-grown players that have already proven that they can take advantage of high-altitudes at Colorado Springs: catcher J.D. Closser, shortstop Clint Barmes, third sacker Garrett Atkins, and outfielder Brad Hawpe.

But finding hitters to succeed at high altitudes is easy; finding Jeff Francis was hard. Here’s a pitcher who dominated every level of the Minor Leagues, and did not experience any setbacks at AAA Colorado Springs. The Rockies are finally developing some exciting young players, and they are being given every chance to prove themselves.

Here is a position-by-position analysis of the Coors Crew:

Catcher

2004 Starters: Charles Johnson, Todd Greene

Projected 2005 Starters: J.D. Closser, Johnson

For once, the Rockies got a lot of offense out of their catchers. But gone are the days when Charles Johnson was considered an elite catcher (20% CS in ’04), and Todd Greene is just pathetic behind the dish. Now, switch-hitting J.D. Closser appears to be the complete package, apart from questions about his maturity. He allows Greene to concentrate on pinch-hitting and Dan O’Dowd to convince CJ to accept a trade.

First Base

2004 Starter: Todd Helton

Projected 2005 Starter: Helton

You know, Todd Helton has a career .920 OPS away from Coors Field. It’s time for people to concede that he’s one of the best first basemen in the game today, both offensively and defensively.

Second Base

2004 Starters: Aaron Miles, Luis A. Gonzalez

Projected 2005 Starters: Miles, Gonzalez

Both of these players performed better against righties last year, making it difficult for Clint Hurdle to platoon them. But while both players compiled similar batting averages, Gonzalez is younger and has more power. He did almost nothing on the road, but at least he took advantage of his home ballpark, whereas Miles could only muster a pathetic .387 SLG in Coors.

Third Base

2004 Starter: Vinny Castilla

Projected 2005 Starter: Garrett Atkins

Castilla really led the league in RBIs only because he had on-base maniac Todd Helton (.469 OBP) hitting directly in front of him. His .867 OPS looks like crap compared to the 1.012 that Atkins posted in AAA. I’m not sure that the Rockies suffer much from this exchange.

Shortstop

2004 Starter: Royce Clayton

Projected 2005 Starter: Clint Barmes

Again, what have the Rockies lost? Clayton couldn’t manage a .400 SLG as a Rockie, and even wound up laying down 24 sacrifice bunts. Barmes is a young player with excellent Minor League numbers and 5-tool skills. You make the call.

Outfield

2004 Starters: Preston Wilson, Matt Holiday, Jeremy Burnitz, Larry Walker

Projected 2005 Starters: Wilson, Holliday, Dustan Mohr, Brad Hawpe

People worry about the loss of Walker decimating the Rockies’ offense. He’s phenomenal, but he only had 104 at bats for them last year. Burnitz put up some fine numbers in Colorado, but nothing that is terribly unlikely to be matched by either Mohr or Hawpe. If Preston Wilson is healthy and puts up numbers like he did in 2003, this becomes a fine outfield.

Pitching

2004 Front Three Starters: Joe Kennedy, Jason Jennings, Shawn Estes

Projected 2005 Front Three: Kennedy, Jennings, Jeff Francis

Jeff Francis is the future of the franchise. After two rough starts, he went 3-0 with a 2.34 ERA for the Big League club. Even if Jeff doesn’t put up the eye-popping numbers of his Minor League days, he’s bound to be more effective than Estes (5.84 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 30 HR). Expect Kennedy to continue to amaze at Coors (3.66 ERA), but also for Jennings to continue with his control troubles (101 BB).

Other 2004 Starters: Jamey Wright, Aaron Cook, Jeff Fassero

Other Possible 2005 Starters: Wright, Cook, Shawn Chacon

Wright and Cook both posted good ERAs for Coors, but their K/BB ratios foreshadow disappointing seasons ahead. It’s hard to believe that Chacon could be so much worse as a reliever than he was as a starter. We’ll see how last year’s disastrous stint affects his confidence in his old role. Once again, pitching depth is the Rockies’ biggest concern.

2004 Top Relievers: Chacon, Steve Reed, Scott Dohmann, Tim Harikkala, Brian Fuentes

Projected 2005 Top Relievers: Chin-Hui Tsao, Dohmann, Fuentes, Allan Simpson

These front four actually look pretty solid for Colorado, and none of them could possibly be as bad as Chacon was last year. Tsao might do particularly well as a closer, since he’ll only need his fastball and excellent slider to succeed. For most teams, a steady front four is enough, but with Colorado starting pitchers unable to go deep into games due to thin air and high pitch counts, some more no-name middle relievers are going to have to step up and pitch decently.

Final Word:

Finally, the Rockies have a plan, and it happens to be a mighty good one: Develop players from within, and give them a season at Colorado Springs to acclimate to mile-high conditions. Bring these players to the majors, and give them ample time to prove their merit. They have made almost universally good decisions, going with young, cheap players who largely look to be at least as effective as those whom they have replaced. Moving Tsao to closer and Chacon back to starter are both sound moves, as is keeping Helton and Wilson over Burnitz and Walker, among their expensive players. Second base is the only position where their decision of Miles as starter should be questioned.

But although Colorado is moving in the right direction, they had a lot of ground to make up. The Rockies are still a year or two away from serious contention, but certainly not as bad as people think. They’re expected to wind up in the cellar in ’05, but a couple of breaks might push them ahead of Arizona, or even San Francisco.