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January 28, 2004

Can Of Corn

Rocky Mountain High

by Dayn Perry

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Sometimes I'm easily confused. Watching Jane Campion films makes me feel like a monkey trying to open a coconut. I'm puzzled as to how Napster hopes to achieve substantive market penetration without having Ratt's "Way Cool Junior" on its play list. Oh, and I'm also perplexed by what the Rockies are doing this winter--which is what this little piece of bandwidth is all about.

I've never met Roockies GM Dan O'Dowd, but I know people who have. By all accounts, he's a heady, intellectually curious guy with an open mind. That's why his club's off-season machinations are especially troubling. The Rockies have--rightly, I think--perceived the NL West to be on a down cycle and, ergo, in a winnable condition. But how they've gone about positioning themselves as a contender makes no sense to me.

To wit, Colorado has gone out and signed Jeromy Burnitz, Vinny Castilla, and Royce Clayton. What's more is that they apparently have starting jobs in mind for each member of this nefarious troika.

Burnitz's combined numbers last season were .239/.299/.487--some power but a patently unacceptable OBP for a corner defender. He was playing half his games in Dodger and Shea Stadiums--unaccommodating environs, both--but he'll be 35 two weeks into the 2004 season. Burnitz doesn't profile as a player who will age with Pfeifferian aplomb, and his inability to hit for average in recent seasons means his rate stats as a whole will likely remain below tolerable levels.

And then there's Vinny. Admittedly, he had a remotely passable season in 2003, but at its core it was still, well, remotely passable. Castilla hit .277/.310/.461 and finished fifth in VORP among NL third basemen. We know he's not going to get on base, but it's possible he could hit for decent power. His SLGs since his first dose of Coorsifornication have been .308, .467, .348 and last season's .461. He'll turn 37 before the All-Star break and, given the inconsistency in his power numbers over the last four seasons, is a safe bet only with regard to his insatiable appetite for choking down outs at the plate.

What can I say about Royce Clayton that hasn't already been said? He's got a decent glove (but not outstanding by any measure), but he hasn't had anything resembling a productive season at the plate since Boy Bands were all the rage. He's 34, and, after adjusting for park effects, he'll have trouble slugging .350 or posting a .310 OBP. That's three additions to the lineup that could combine for close to 2,000 plate appearances and make outs 68 to 69 percent of the time.

On the pitching side, the most damaging move may have been performed in-house. I'm talking about the decision to make Shawn Chacon the closer. Lest you think I'm under the illusion that Chacon is an elite younger pitcher, let me say I'm not; I do think he has potential to be a quality third or fourth starter. This goes double for the Rockies, who are mulling over the idea of peopling the back of their rotation with things like Shawn Estes and Jeff Fassero.

Chacon is 26, has solid minor league numbers, and posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of any Colorado pitcher who made at least 10 starts last season. Why bail on him now? I won't get started on how inefficiently the modern closer is deployed, but I will say that drastically ramping down the role of one of your best young pitchers makes sense on no level.

It was also unwise for the Rockies to sidle into that three-way with the Jays and Rockies, which netted them the tatters of Joe Kennedy for Justin Speier, arguably their best reliever last season.

And speaking of Estes and Fassero, it's hard to envision any circumstance under which these two old, battered lefties pass muster in Coors Field. And yet, they're being considered for serious roles on the staff. Fassero in particular inked with Colorado because they were willing to give him an opportunity to start.

In any event, here's how the Colorado lineup will likely stack up this season:

Of these players, Johnson and Clayton both toiled at below replacement level last season. Miles or Jackson at second and Castilla at third are threats to do the same in 2004, given full-time duty. Helton is still an excellent player in every regard, but Walker, while still quite good, is very much in the throes of decline. The upshot is that the Rockies' lineup has just two hitters with on-base skills of any merit. This is a team that's going to have serious problems larding the bases with runners and, hence, serious problems scoring runs in a context-neutral environment.

The rotation, God help them, looks like this:

While I'm very, very high on Tsao, he's dubious bet to perform well in '04. Stark has good minor league credentials but has struggled mightily in his three years of attempting to transition to the highest level. Kennedy, while once a jaw-dropping pitching prospect, is a ghost of his former self. Jennings suffered a notable drop off last season from his fine 2002 season. Cook is in straits similar to that of Stark, and Fassero and Estes are both jokes that aren't funny anymore.

The relief corps looks like a (relative) team strength; Quality performers like Steve Reed, Brian Fuentes and Javier Lopez are all returning. They've also added the vaguely annoying Turk Wendell, who will probably work in situations too critical for his skills at this stage. Even so, if you're going to point to something positive, it's the bullpen.

On balance, however, it's been a brutal offseason for the Rockies. I'm not sure adding the pieces necessary to win the West was tenable, but for their troubles they'll wind up a notably worse team in 2004 than they were in 2003. Suffice it to say, that's not progress. From this vista, the '04 Colorado Rockies look like the worst team in the NL's weakest division.

Panthers 17, Patriots 13.

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