2011 Colorado Rockies: A top-heavy roster could make it difficult to really contend

2010 Record: 83-79, 3rd NL West
2010 Prediction: 79-83, 4th NL West
Diff: 4
2011 Prediction: 3rd NL West

Impact Player: SS Troy Tulowitzki
Impact Pitcher: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
Best Reliever: RHP Huston Street
Top Prospect: LHP Tyler Matzek

General Manager: Dan O’Dowd
Manager: Jim Tracy

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Matt Lindstrom, 2B/3B Jose Lopez, C Jose Morales, INF Ty Wigginton, RHP Felipe Paulino

Significant Departures:
C Miguel Olivo, 2B Clint Barmes, 3B Melvin Mora, OF Jay Payton, LHP Jeff Francis, RHP Manny Corpas, LHP Joe Beimel, RHP Manny Delcarmen, RHP Octavio Dotel

On September 18th, 2010, the Rockies were 82-66 and just a game out of first in the NL West when they hit a brick wall.  They won just one of their final 14 games and finished a mediocre 83-79, nine full games out of first.  The Rockies have proven themselves to be a streaky team, but usually the good end of the streak gets them into the playoffs rather than keeping them out.

The question going into 2011 is which team is the real Rockies?  The 82-66 team, or the 83-79 team?  Colorado was also a really bad road team in 2011 posting a phenomenal .642 record at home, but a .383 record on the road.  The team’s pitching was consistent on all fronts, but all of the prominent Rockies’ position players were terrible away from Coors Field.  It’s at least reasonable that that will even out a little in 2011 even if they are still a significantly better home team.

The Rockies’ front office is also making some perplexing decisions by dedicating a lot of money to a few players and extending players like Troy Tulowitzki even though they were already under contract until 2014.  It’ll be interesting to see if these bold moves end up paying off or weighing down the franchise going forward.
Starting Pitching
Ubaldo Jimenez asserted himself as a true ace pitcher last season compiling an impressive 2.88 ERA, 3.10 FIP and 221.2 innings pitched.  It was the best single season pitching performance in the history of the franchise and Jimenez was in Cy Young talks all year long.  Most impressive was his ability to keep the ball in the park, especially in Coors Field where he allowed just four homeruns in 101.2 innings of work.  Numbers such as that may not stay that low, but Jimenez is still a legitimate number one pitcher.  He struggled in the second-half, however, after one of the best first halves in recent memory.

Beyond him there are some questions.  Jorge de la Rosa was re-signed to a two-year, $21.5-million contract with a player option for a third year that could make the contract worth three-years and $31.5-million.  de la Rosa bounced around for years between the Brewers, Royals, and Rockies before finally breaking out in 2009 with 16 wins.  Unfortunately, he had a mediocre 4.38 ERA and only slightly better 3.91 FIP.  Last season, he made only 20 starts and saw his FIP balloon to 4.30.  This contract could end up being a big mistake for Colorado.  He probably isn’t a legitimate number-two pitcher on a contending team.

Jhoulys Chacin has shown flashes of brilliance and had a 3.28 ERA and 3.54 FIP striking out over a batter an inning last season for the Rockies.  He may end up having a better season than de la Rosa, but at just 23-years-old could see a slight regression that often comes with a young pitcher.

Jason Hammel will be the number four guy to start the year after a decent 2010.  Hammel displays solid command with a BB/9 rate of 2.26 over the last two seasons.  His ERA last season was a rough-looking 4.81, but his FIP was substantially better at 3.70.  The Rockies could do much worse than Hammel at the back end of their rotation.

Aaron Cook was looking to rebound after an injury-plagued 2010 season that saw him post a 4.54 FIP in just 127.2 innings of work, but not only has he experienced some shoulder tightness this spring, but he slammed a finger on his pitching hand in a door at his residence on March 11th and has not pitched since because of the resulting broken finger.  If Cook eventually gets healthy and pitches this season, the Rockies’ rotation looks much better.  Without him, Colorado will turn to either Esmil Rogers or non-roster invitees John Maine and Claudio Vargas.

Felipe Paulino was acquired in an offseason trade with the Astros for long-time Rocky Clint Barmes, but the team has decided to move him to the bullpen; a move that Paulino has apparently taken well to.
Speaking of the bullpen, the Rockies unit looks like it could be one of the better ones in the National League.  Huston Street may not be an elite closer, but he’s consistent and reliable.  He posted a 3.61 ERA and an impressive 3.37 FIP last year and continued to show great control with a 2.09 BB/9 rate.

Matt Belisle was finally given a definitive role for the first time in his career and he responded by having a career-year.  Belisle had 12 decisions (which means nothing except that he was trusted with a lot of high leverage, game-deciding situations) and had a terrific 2.68 FIP mainly due to a surreal 5.69 K/BB ratio.

Joining Belisle in setup if left-hander Rafael Betancourt.  If Belisle’s K/BB ratio was surreal, Betancourt’s was stupefying at 11.13.  The 36-year-old averaged 12.85 K/9 and posted a 2.49 FIP to go along with a decent 3.61 ERA in 2010.

Unsatisfied with three good relievers at the back of the bullpen (or perhaps worried that Belisle will turn into a pumpkin), the Rockies traded for former Astros and Marlins closer Matt Lindstrom.  Lindstrom has an electric arm and had 23 saves in Houston last year.  His 4.39 ERA was a tad high, but his FIP was a little better at 3.81.  His stuff has historically been much better than his numbers indicate so Lindstrom could break out at any point.  If he doesn’t, the Rockies should have the depth to cover up their mistake.

Left-hander Matt Reynolds was very solid in 18 big-league innings last year and will be in competition for the second lefty job with Franklin Morales who had a terrible 6.29 FIP in 28.2 innings last season, but has terrific upside as a reliever.  Righties Paulino, Matt Daley, Edgmer Escalona, and Clay Mortensen are in the hunt for the final bullpen spot.
Miguel Olivo was good for Colorado last season, but the team decided to move on given the depth at the catcher position in the system.

Chris Iannetta was relegated to backup duty for most of last year and was terrible.  He hit just .197, but had a great walk-rate and solid enough power to prevent his WAR rating from falling below zero.  He enters camp in a likely platoon with former Twin Jose Morales who put up similar numbers to Iannetta with less power and better fielder ratings.

The wildcard is Jordan Pacheco who has torn apart pitchers in Spring Training so far; so much so that it looks like he could wiggle his way on to the roster.  Since both Iannetta and Morales are out of options, it could mean one of them will hit the waiver wire before the season starts.

Wilin Rosario is one of the league’s top prospects but he has yet to play a game above AA so expect him to start the year at AAA-Colorado Springs.  If he thrives there, it probably won’t be long before you see him at the major-league level.
Troy Tulowitzki cemented himself as the game’s best shortstop in 2010 posting a .315/.381/.568 slash line and a 6.4 WAR rating despite only playing in 122 games.  For a slugger, he posted a very low strike-out rate in 2010 and Tulo is also one of the premier defensive shortstops in that game with terrific range and a plus throwing arm.

The Rockies are so confident in him that they extended his contract through 2020 when he was already -extended through 2014 in one of the oddest moves by a front office in a long time.  The other concerning thing about Tulowitzki is his home and road splits.  Last year Tulo posted an unreal .339/.403/.631 slash line at Coors Field compared to a .291/.358/.504 line on the road.

At first base is franchise stalwart Todd Helton who had by far his worst season in 2010 and appears to be in full decline.  Coupled with below-average defensive ratings and a dismal .367 slugging percentage, Helton accumulated a 0.4 WAR rating making him just above replacement value.  At 37, there’s little hope that he’ll turn this around.

At the opposite corner, Ian Stewart will look to prove his worth.  He has shown solid power but his hit-tool has been suspect.  If he can bring his average up to the .270 range, Stewart can conceivably be a 30-homerun threat.  He’s still only 26-years-old.

At second base, the Rockies acquired the much maligned Jose Lopez from Seattle where injuries and inconsistencies took their toll.  He was once one of the top young players in the game and very quickly fell off a cliff.  If he can figure stuff out, the trade that nabbed him may turn out to be a huge boon for the organization.

In competition with Lopez are Eric Young Jr., veteran Ty Wigginton and Jonathan Herrera.  Young has yet to show much offensively or defensively at the major league level and could be on his last legs in the organization.  His ability to play leftfield does help his overall value, though.

Wigginton, meanwhile, likely has much more value to the team as a super-utility player with some pop off the bench.  Herrera, like Pacheco is hitting well enough to stick with the team and could split time with Lopez who I still think has the best chance at sticking long-term.

Jason Giambi was brought back on a minor-league deal and should make the team as a pinch-hit specialist who can fill in occasionally at first base.  If Helton gets hurt again, he might be the only other option in the system right now who could step in, which is a scary thought.

Joe Crede is also around on a minor-league deal after missing all of last season with an injury.  He can play the corner infield positions and could fill in occasionally in the outfield as well.
Carlos Gonzalez is expected to play most of his time in leftfield rather than right where he struggled defensively at times in 2010.  There was, however, no struggle in his bat.  Gonzalez was in the MVP discussion all season and finished with a sublime slash line of .336/.376/.598, with 34 homeruns, 26 stolen bases and a 6.0 WAR rating.

His low walk-rate and very high BABIP of .384 may signal a regression forthcoming and his road splits were awful.  Like much of his team, Gonzalez was a totally different hitter on the road.  At home he hit .380/.425/.737 while on the road he was a much more modest .289/.322/.453.

It’s hard to believe that he’s as good as his home numbers or as bad as his road numbers and Coors Field no doubt played a factor, but it’s doubtful that it played that much of one.  Look for those numbers to even out a little and look for a slight regression overall.

In centerfield will likely be Dexter Fowler who could be primed for a breakout after a solid, but not spectacular .260/.347/.410 slash line and a 1.7 WAR rating in 505 plate appearances.  He’s not likely a future All-Star, but he projects to be a solid player.

Rightfield is up for grabs between Seth Smith and Ryan Spilborghs who will likely end up platooning.  Many are predicting that this will be the year Smith breaks out, but at 28, it seems unlikely.  Spilborghs on the other hand, was so bad defensively last year that his decent numbers at the plate were completely cancelled out.

26-year-old Cole Garner tore up AAA last season and could also be in the mix for a roster spot.

Chartastic breakdown.
There are some seriously talented players on this roster capable of carrying the team, which is exactly what they did for most of last year, but ultimately Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Jimenez can’t do it all and some of the role players need to step up if they’re truly going to compete in the NL West in 2011.  Some are saying that the 83 wins the Rockies posted in 2010 was unlucky; I say it was right about where they should have been and expecting a whole lot more from them this year is risky.  They are a very streaky team, however, and with a top-heavy roster they may make a run at any time.
Final Prediction: 85-77, 3rd NL West


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