WTNYJanuary 07, 2004
Rocky Times
By Bryan Smith

Maybe winning in Denver is impossible. Maybe whatever method anyone tries, the Rockies are doomed for failure. Maybe this mess isn't Dan O'Dowd's fault. But one thing that's for sure, one thing that eludes Rockie management, is that it's time for a front office change.

Since expansion built the infamous Coors Field, Denver has three one season where the Rockies finished five games over .500. The Rockies outdid their fellow new team, Florida, in the first three seasons, ultimately winning the Wild Card spot in 1995. But since then, the Marlins have won two world championships, while Colorado has barely smelled .500 baseball. Dan O'Dowd's tried a lot of things, for example, he has tried to outdo Coors Field by paying top dollar for great pitchers like the late Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton, and Denny Neagle. That method didn't work, as that trio's combined performance was a catastrophic 61-81, 5.72ERA.

Well, if curveballs won't curve, then beat 'em with bats, right? O'Dowd has tried that, locking up talents like Larry Walker and Todd Helton to long, expensive deals. Recently, he went after high-priced talents like Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson. But in 2003, if just didn't work...again. The Rockies need someone who will think differently, a new-age type. Whether that means DePodesta, Antonetti, or Gleeman, I don't know. My problems with Dan O'Dowd grew this offseason, during which the Rockies have not recognized fungibility. In Coors Field, hitters are fungible. Walker, Helton, Wilson and Johnson is a great start, but why spend a lot of money on 2B, SS, 3B, and LF? Instead, why not develop Major League ready players for the future?

O'Dowd started the offseason nicely in my mind, dealing weak-hitting, slick fielding shortstop Juan Uribe to the White Sox for 2B Aaron Miles. I've written on Miles in the past on this blog, as he has become one of my favorite players in the minors during recent seasons. I love the idea of a 5-8 second basemen winning International League MVP. I love the idea of a scrappy, blue collar player hitting .322/.369/.450 in AA ('02), and .304/.351/.445 in AAA. Even before that, O'Dowd re-signed Mark Bellhorn to a 490K non-guaranteed contract, a great job recognizing talent for cheap costs. Or so I thought...

After the Miles trade on December 4, I wrote on this blog with confidence that the Rockies would fill their four open slots with Miles (2B), Bellhorn (SS), Garret Atkins (3B), and Rene Reyes (LF). Since then, that idea has slowly deteriorated, to the point where none of those players currently sit first on the depth chart. How could this happen?

December 10- Rockies sign Vinny Castilla to one-year contract
December 16- Rockies trade Mark Bellhorn to Red Sox for PTBNL
December 23- Rockies sign Jeremy Burnitz to one-year contract
January 5- Rockies sign Royce Clayton and Damian Jackson to minor league, non-guaranteed deals

Yuk, my Miles-Bellhorn-Atkins-Reyes thought became Jackson-Clayton-Castilla-Burnitz in a month's time. While the latter group may match my choices in terms of baseball perfomances, my argument comes down to money. Next year, Aaron Miles, Garrett Atkins, and Rene Reyes are eligible for the Major League minimum. Mark Bellhorn will be playing in Beantown for the $490,000 contract Dan O'Dowd signed. Combined, those four players would have cost the Rockies $1.39M. But now, with the plan O'Dowd has created, his 2B/SS/3B/LF foursome will make much more. Castilla is slated to make $2.1M, and Burnitz is guaranteed $1.25M. While Clayton and Jackson aren't guaranteed money, you better believe their contracts have easily reachable incentives. That being said, I'm confident saying that group will make $5M next season, or $3.61M less than my choices. Now, let's go position-by-position, and talk about these players...

The closest battle this Spring Training will be at second base, where it appears Clint Hurdle is going to give Miles a chance. Instead of arguing for Miles, I'll go after Damian Jackson. For instance, in the last five years, only once has Jackson topped a .260 batting average (2003), and only once has he topped a .340OBP (2000). Never has he topped a .380 slugging percentage, and he hasn't played actively since 2001. What upside can the Rockies possibly see in this player, other than 30 meaningless steals? Earl Weaver might be great in Coors Field, because a smart baseball man realizes steals are not a good idea in Coors, just wait for the three-run jimmy-jack.

At shortstop, there is no way Royce Clayton is a better choice than Mark Bellhorn. While the latter struggled horribly last season, remember he hit 27 home runs in 2002, and that wasn't in Coors. As for Clayton, he's hit 27 home runs...in the last three seasons combined. While he's more slick with the glove than Bellhorn, his best OBP in the last four years was .315. Like Jackson, he hasn't sniffed a .400SLG in that time either. The keys in Coors are this: get on base and hit it deep. Jackson and Clayton don't do that, but Miles and Bellhorn can.

Garrett Atkins was the hit of Spring Training last year, hitting .525 in 40AB, including eight extra-base hits. He continued to hit while in AAA, finishing the season with a .319/.382/.481line. While he isn't highly regarded with the glove, the kid can hit. And Hell, if he doesn't, Rockie first-round pick Ian Stewart ain't too far behind. Castilla is probably getting money as payback for his great mid-90s seasons, I mean, his upside isn't much beyond Atkins'. Remember that since 1999, his last season in Denver, Castilla's highest OBP has been .331. He's only one year removed from a disastrous .232/.268/.348 2002 season, and he could definitely retreat back to that form. Why take the chance? That's a $2.1M bet...

As for left field, it's hard to argue against Jeremy Burnitz, who has forty home run potential in Coors. He's had .311 and .299 OBPs the last two seasons though, which is a little less than encouraging. Instead, I would push for Rene Reyes, who might not bring Burnitz's defense, but he'll bring a bat. He did just that in Colorado Springs a year ago, hitting .343 with a .380OBP and a .470SLG. If he doesn't work out, Brad Hawpe and Shin Soo-Choo will be hitting in AAA, so you really can't lose there.

To conclude this decision, I'll go to ZiPS predictions, thanks to Baseball Primer...

Miles: .298/.352/.456
Bellhorn: .244/.362/.411
Atkins: .297/.359/.439
Reyes: .319/.357/.467

Jackson: .276/.343/.371
Clayton: .229/.297/.336
Castilla: .268/.309/.449
Burnitz: .251/.330/.533

I'll be back tomorrow, finishing my argument on the Rox. And kudos to Allan Baird, whom has created a pretty sensational lineup:

1. Aaron Guiel- RF
2. Angel Berroa- SS
3. Juan Gonzalez- LF
4. Carlos Beltran- CF
5. Mike Sweeney- 1B
6. Matt Stairs- DH
7. Benito Santiago- C
8. Joe Randa- 3B
9. Desi Relaford- 2B

Yikes. Let's hope Gleeman's got the Royals in Vegas...