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March 8, 2002

The Daily Prospectus

Rocky Mountain High

by Joe Sheehan

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I spent a few hours this morning on the air with Mike Rosen of KOA Radio in Denver. Looking back on the segment--which included Rockies president Kelly McGregor and owner Jerry McMorris--I realize that I probably didn't articulate just how optimistic I am about this team this year. In an NL West with no great team, the Rockies are a good one, and perfectly capable of winning the division.

For one thing, the Rockies weren't nearly as bad as their record last year would indicate. Despite scoring 17 more runs than they allowed, which should have left them around. 500, the Rockies went 73-89. A 7-19 July killed their season and led to the trades of Pedro Astacio and Neifi Perez, moves that will be paying dividends for years to come. After those deals, the Rockies went 28-28, and they return essentially the same roster that played August and September.

I'm excited about the Rockies' core of talented up-the-middle players. Center fielder Juan Pierre, a put-it-in-play--29 strikeouts in 617 at-bats last year--speedster, is in the perfect place for him to succeed. Just 24, there's time for him refine his offensive game, adding the 20 or 30 walks that would make him one of the NL's premier leadoff hitters. He's a capable defender in center field, as good as a player can be in the difficult conditions at altitude.

The Rockies might have the best young double-play combination in the game in Juan Uribe and Jose Ortiz. Both players provide a ton of power, and while neither is a threat to walk 60 times, each will probably be among the league's best hitters at their positions. Defensively, Uribe is the more polished of the two, which says more about Ortiz than Uribe. The Rockies need to be patient, because allowing these two to play together for 1,400 innings will have a tremendous payoff in future seasons.

One of the things the Rockies can do to help themselves is commit to Ben Petrick behind the plate. They've never been happy with his defense, and Petrick did not exactly grab the job last season after the trade of Brent Mayne made him the starter. The Rockies have some good-glove veterans in camp (notably Carlos Hernandez), and will have to resist the temptation to once again bury Petrick.

Rockies' GM Dan O'Dowd has been the NL's version of Dan Duquette for two years now, filling the transactions column in an effort to find the right combination of players for Coors Field. With the young core in place, two of the league's best hitters in Larry Walker‚Äč and Todd Helton, and an expensive front of the rotation, the tinkering might well be over. The team, as currently constructed, is good enough to contend.

The Rockies will benefit from a division in transition. The Diamondbacks are dangerous as long as Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson remain healthy, but expecting them to even match last year's 92 wins is asking a lot. The Dodgers are about nine months from a major rebuilding project, while the Giants look like they always look: a .500ish team with a manager who will make them better than that. The future in the NL West is the Padres, and while they'll be interesting this year, they may still be a year away, as they sort out their pitching and defense.

That leaves an opportunity for the Rox, who look like an 85-win team with decent upside. It should be a fun year in Denver, and one in which all those empty seats at Coors Field are filled again.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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