By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (68-94) - Fourth Place (NL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: INF - Alfredo Amezaga; OF - Dustan Mohr; SP - Darren Oliver; INF - Desi Relaford
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: OF - Jeromy Burnitz; 3B - Vinny Castilla; SS - Royce Clayton; SP - Shawn Estes; SP - Denny Neagle; RP - Steve Reed; OF - Mark Sweeney
PROJECTED LINEUP: Aaron Miles (2B); Clint Barmes (SS); Todd Helton (1B); Preston Wilson (CF); Matt Holliday (LF); Garrett Atkins (3B); Brad Hawpe (RF); J.D. Closser (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Joe Kennedy (LHP); Jason Jennings (RHP); Jeff Francis (LHP); Shawn Chacon (RHP); Jamey Wright (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Chin-hui Tsao (RHP)
MANAGER: Clint Hurdle
The 68-94 record by the Rockies last year was the worst for the club since their inaugural season (67-95) in 1993. However, the bottom could fall out in 2005 for what looks to be the youngest team in the majors. Colorado did next to nothing to improve in the offseason, and lost outfielder Jeromy Burnitz, third baseman Vinny Castilla, shortstop Royce Clayton, and pitcher Shawn Estes to free agency. The hitting standouts are gone except for centerfielder Preston Wilson and first baseman Todd Helton.
Among the young players figuring to take the field everyday for manager Clint Hurdle are four rookies - third baseman Garrett Atkins (25), shortstop Clint Barmes (26), rightfielder Brad Hawpe (25) and catcher J.D. Closser (25).
The weight of the pitching staff is squarely on the shoulders of lefthander Joe Kennedy and fifth-year man Jason Jennings, while 24-year-old Jeff Francis will also be thrust into the rotation. The Rockies have another dilemma in the bullpen, as 23-year-old righty Chin-hui Tsao has little experience closing games, and in fact has pitched in only 19 games in his major league career.
A fabulous line drive hitter, Helton has taken full advantage of playing in a park known for offense during his career. The 31-year-old is a career .377 hitter at Coors Field and is at .339 overall in his first eight seasons. What he's done since 1998 is amazing. Not only hasn't he been on the disabled list, but his lowest batting average since then is .315. Last year his .469 on-base percentage was second only to Barry Bonds.
Switch-hitting second baseman Aaron Miles sprained the MCL in his left knee in the early portion of spring training, but should be fine for the start of the season as Colorado's lead-off hitter. Miles has actually been weak as the No. 1 guy in the lineup, as last year his OBP was .328 when hitting lead-off.
By hitting second in the lineup, Barmes will be under pressure to perform not only defensively, but to get the club on the scoreboard. Barmes' OBP was .376 last year at Colorado Springs, but when he reached the parent club that slipped to .320. He'll likely perform well in replacing Royce Clayton, who is now playing for the Diamondbacks.
Atkins' defensive skills are solid, which will help him in his official rookie season. The right-handed hitter's .357 average in only 15 games last year was enough reason to give him a shot at the hot corner.
By the end of this season Closser may be known as one of the better defensive catchers in the majors. The Beech Grove, IN product should work more on his time with the bat, as he walked only six times following 113 official at-bats.
Wilson is considered the crown jewel of the outfield, but he's surrounded by younger talent in Hawpe and Matt Holliday (25). While Helton is considered the elder statesman of the team, Wilson (30) isn't far off. Following his career-high 36-homer, 141-RBI performance in 2003, Wilson's 2004 campaign was limited to only 58 games due to a nagging knee injury. He stole 36 bases in 2000, but those numbers have declined dramatically since, and because of the off-season surgery to his left knee and him hitting fourth in the lineup, he's not expected to test the knee that much early on.
Holliday's first season in the majors was a success in left field, even though his season finished nearly three weeks early due to a sprained elbow ligament. He then had surgery during the offseason to repair a nerve problem in his right foot. Despite a .253 average in the minors in 2003, the Rockies moved him to the major league level in 2004 and Holliday responded well with a .290 average. He can also steal a base once in a while.
Possibly the best defensive outfielder on the team, Hawpe has honed his skills nicely playing 42 games last season for Colorado. He's expected to be used in the lineup against right-handed starters, while Dustan Mohr will platoon when opponents use southpaws on the mound. Hawpe belongs hitting at the bottom of the order, as evidenced by his .248 average last year. Mohr hit .274 last year for the Giants.
Just two years ago, Kennedy suffered through an agonizing 3-12 mark and a hefty 6.13 ERA in Tampa Bay. The lefty rebounded nicely last year, going 9-7 with a staggering 3.66 ERA, which was actually low for a pitcher who has to endure Coors Field. In fact, Kennedy's ERA in Denver was 3.59 and opposing hitters batted .263 against him at Coors Field. Sidelined by a shoulder problem for part of last season, Kennedy will aim to reach double-digit victories for the first time in his career.
In 2002, Jennings captured the hearts of Denver with the honor of NL Rookie of the Year. Following that 16-win season, Jennings' ERA has climbed sharply - from 4.52 to 5.11 to 5.51 last season. On the positive side, he logged a career-best 201 innings last year and has been known as a durable starter. His 101 walks last season was fourth-highest in the National League.
A first-round selection of the Rockies in 2002, Francis has earned the right for the No. 3 job based not only how he's performed in spring training, but his past dominance of minor league hitters. The lefthander struck out 49 hitters in 41 innings at Triple-A Colorado Springs last year. At Double-A Tulsa, he was even more dominant, going 13-1 with a 1.98 ERA, striking out 147 hitters in 113.2 innings. Upon his promotion to the Rockies, he was a respectable 3-2 with a 5.15 ERA in seven starts. Francis has excellent command of his pitches, but don't be surprised to see the Rockies limit his innings since young pitchers have a tendency to want to be king of the hill too early.
Despite 35 saves last year, the Rockies have a good reason why they're moving Shawn Chacon from the closer's spot to the rotation. His 1-9 record and 7.11 ERA was ridiculous, one year after he logged 11 victories as a starter. The righthander may not last long on the parent club if he continues to struggle.
Entering his 10th major league season, righthander Jamey Wright looks to have locked up the final spot in the rotation. His 4.12 ERA last season was respectable, and if he can give the Rockies five or six quality innings each night it'll be a bonus.
Was it a mistake moving Tsao from a starter to a closer? Only time will tell, but with injury problems limited him to 10 games last season, and already he's had tightness in his shoulder and he could be sidelined for the start of the season. Lefthander Brian Fuentes could be thrust into the closing role if Tsao falters, while fellow southpaw Matt Merricks and righty Scott Dohmann will work as the set-up men. Fuentes' ERA leaped from 2.75 in 2003 to 5.64 last season. Righthander Allan Simpson has worked to improve his control after walking 20 batters in just 39 innings last year. Veteran Darren Oliver will work in long relief, while Aaron Cook will likely work his way onto the roster as a spot rotation guy, as he started 16 games last year.
Cory Sullivan will give the Rockies two left-handed hitting outfielders, as he's likely to back-up Wilson in center. Sullivan, who has yet to play at the major league level in the regular season, was hitting close to .400 late in spring training. Veteran Todd Greene will back-up Closser and will be used off the bench for extra power. Desi Relaford gives Hurdle more options since he can play several infield spots and also be an emergency outfielder. Luis Gonzalez played five different positions last year, but could use better discipline at the plate. Alfredo Amezaga can also be used for defensive purposes on the left side of the infield.
Call it Colorado carnage. A last-place finish appears in the offing in the NL West, as Hurdle's pitchers will be pounded. However, it'll be interesting to watch the development of the young players, especially Hawpe, Barmes, Atkins and Closser, to see what offensive skills they have in a hitter's park. Also, keep tabs on Helton, as the five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner returns after finishing second in the NL in batting the last two seasons.