December 2, 2005
Baseball Prospectus readership knows Brian Fuentes is not actually the heartbeat of the Rockies, despite being the team's All-Star rep in July. Todd Helton is still that guy, despite the nation's seeming disregard for his talent. Helton posted some violent splits in 2005: he was a zero against lefties, but he also turned around a poor start with a Herculean finish. Helton bottomed out on June 16 at .252/.383/.387, but then hit .373/.492/.648 over his last 355 plate appearances. Of course, few realized what was happening, because it takes several months to rectify a disappointing start into typical Todd Helton numbers. Save the first two and a half months, Helton hadn't hit this well since his peak 2000-2001 years.
Given what the Rockies are paying Helton, they certainly can't afford any deterioration of skills anytime soon. Next year his salary really kicks into high gear; Colorado has guaranteed Helton an average of nearly $18 million over the next six years. By the end, he'll be 38. Helton may opt out of his remaining contract after 2007, when he might have to decide between winning and sticking around to collect his $73.5 million.
The Rockies actually have quite a bit of depth at the infield and outfield corners. Players like Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe, Jorge Piedra and Ryan Shealy are all pushing for playing time in left and right field. Oddly, all four were born within nine months of each other.
Holliday was the Rockies' second best hitter by VORP in 2005. But he smells like another Coors Field phenomenon: 1002 OPS at home, 729 on the road. He's not a bad player to have around, but to impress with those numbers Holliday would have to be about five years younger. To consider him the linchpin of any outfield would be a mistake.
Hawpe's season as the primary right fielder was a big letdown. PECOTA saw abundant power in Hawpe last winter, but it never came--his isolated power was just .141, far below even the 10th percentile forecast. The Rockies even stuck with a rigid platoon for the lefty-hitting Hawpe, but to no avail. Dustan Mohr upheld his end of the rightfield platoon, smacking around southpaws at a .274/.349/.558 clip (it was 153 at-bats against right-handers that ruined his overall numbers). Now Mohr is a free agent, and Shealy is a good bet to replace him in platoon if the Rockies stay in-house. Much like Hawpe, Shealy is a natural first basemen forced to the outfield, who hit well in Triple-A Colorado Springs at age 25. They form a decent combo to cover right field, but with limited upside. It's unlikely either would go apewire on the league, much less sustain it for the next several years.
George Stone, better known as Jorge Piedra (and unfortunately best known as a positive steroids test), stepped in late in the season for Hawpe, whose hamstring flared up. Piedra, also a lefty, outhit Hawpe by a wide margin in limited action, and should get legitimate consideration next spring for an expanded outfield role. Piedra was another player to post massive home/road splits, and faced a southpaw just twice in 112 at bats.
In center field, Larry Bigbie and Cory Sullivan are expected to vie for playing time. Nearly all of the Rockies outfielders are useful players, but nothing to showcase. While it might be unintentional, the team's penchant for nearly indistinguishable outfielders is puzzling. Sure, one or two of them could get injured or lose their skills and the team wouldn't miss a beat. But if that statement still holds true after three or four injuries, something's not right. Without quality, depth is worthless.
So what are the Rockies doing this winter to right the ship? The Denver Post says they're targeting Todd Wellemeyer, Jason Michaels, Shawn Estes, Pedro Astacio, Tony Armas Jr., and Byung-Hyun Kim. MLB.com suggests they're getting a little more adventurous with Jose Mesa himself.
Hey, stop snickering. Rumor has it that PECOTA's pegged Mesa for a huge breakout...
New GM Pat Gillick has certainly had a busy week and a half. Last week he traded Jim Thome for Aaron Rowand and two minor league prospects, a concept rather foreign to the Phillies of late. Then this week came the signing of three free agents, Abraham Nunez, Julio Santana, and Sal Fasano with a tentative agreement to add Tom Gordon as well. Joe Sheehan has already weighed in on the Thome trade, and Christina Kahrl will cover all the moves as always in a href="http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=4635">Transaction Analysis. Here we'll take a look at where the Phillies stand right now, along with what else they may be looking to do this offseason.
Position players: The continual presence of Bobby Abreu's name in trade rumors indicates that Gillick may not be done with the big moves, but for the time being the position players seem fairly set. The starting lineup looks very similar to the lineup they were fielding down the stretch with Rowand replacing the Jason Michaels/Kenny Lofton platoon in center field. Rowand brings improved defense to the position and if he can split the difference between his 2004 and 2005 batting performances, that improvement in the field will offset any offensive decline from the surprisingly effective platoon that was in center this past year.
Likewise barring any further moves, the bench is looking fairly settled with Michaels and Shane Victorino serving as outfield reserves, Nunez and Tomas Perez backing up the infield, and Fasano as the reserve catcher. Nunez may wind up platooning with David Bell at third base, but since both of them are likely to be around replacement level this merely highlights third as the biggest hole in the team's lineup. Michaels is the most likely player to be affected by a trade, either replacing Abreu or Pat Burrell if either of those players were to be traded or else serving as trade bait himself.
The Rotation: All the reports out of Philadelphia indicate that there are three names which are fairly firmly entrenched in the plans for next year's rotation: Brett Myers, Jon Lieber, and Cory Lidle. Myers bloomed under new pitching coach Rich Dubee with his strikeout rate showing an almost 50% increase from 5.9 K/9 to 8.7, and a corresponding drop in his ERA from 5.52 to 3.72. Myers has been touted all along as a power pitcher and since he's only 25 with no injury history, he's a good bet to build on last year's growth. Lieber is a pitcher who is average at worst and shows stretches of excellent pitching, while Lidle is a decent back-end-of-the rotation guy.
That leaves two spots open for the Phillies to try and find the extra few wins they'll need to make the playoffs. One option being discussed is to move Ryan Madson from the bullpen to the rotation. There are a lot of good reasons to make that move. Madson was an excellent starter for AAA Scranton in 2003 and has been more that just a "one or two pitch pitcher" out of the bullpen, showing a good change up and curve ball to go with his fastball. He's a lot more valuable to the team as a strong starter than as a reliever. There's one big reason to be wary of counting on Madson, however. He was very heavily used last year, frequently being brought in even when the team had 4 or 5 run leads, and it caught up to him at the end of the year as he approached the 80 appearances mark. After September 1st he gave up 15 runs in 13.2 innings and was hit hard, giving up 5 of the 11 homers he allowed all year. Given that, it's not hard to picture him injured this upcoming year.
Other in-house options come with question marks as well. Vicente Padilla was one of the team's better pitchers down the stretch, but was one bad outing away from being yanked from the rotation in June. There is a lot of speculation that he will not be offered a contract and instead be allowed to become a free agent later this month. Robinson Tejeda pitched extremely well in half a season in the rotation, but his performance was far above what he had done before and he was shut down early with a sore shoulder. Gavin Floyd has gone from "when are they going to bring him up?" to "what's wrong with him?" Prospect Cole Hamels pitched very well in limited action last year, but has only a couple starts at Double-A and has not been able to stay healthy. As a result, any trade that might happen is likely to involve bringing a starter to Philadelphia.
The Bullpen: The departure of Billy Wagner, the potential move of Madson to the rotation, and the bizarre situation leading to the arrest of Ugueth Urbina has led yet again to the Phillies paying a lot of attention to the bullpen in the off-season. Gillick seems to be following in the footsteps of his predecessor Ed Wade, chasing after expensive, aging free agent relievers with the signing of Gordon and Santana. However, there are also some decent options without going outside the organization.
Aaron Fultz, Aquilino Lopez, and Geoff Geary all pitched very well for the Phillies when they were given the opportunity--indeed, a little more use of Lopez and Geary in games which weren't that close might have left Madson better able to contribute down the stretch. Lopez and Geary are both pre-arbitration players so will be very cheap for the team, but are still reasonable bets to remain effective, making them exactly the sort of players the Phillies should be using to fill out their staff.
Likewise, instead of chasing after free agent relievers who require multi-year contracts to sign, they should be looking at creative alternatives to fill their remaining gaps. For example, Padilla has shown enough flashes of quality pitching to give some reason to think he might be effect as a setup man. Eude Brito gave them a couple of solid starts in August and could be tried as a reliever. If he doesn't work out, they can easily send him back to Triple-A. While he needs more time in the minors at this point, by mid-season Scott Mathieson may be ready to move up the majors and gain development time in the bullpen much like Ryan Madson did two years ago.
The Phillies are in a situation where a small gain in performance could have an enormous benefit. These small moves to round out the roster may be the difference between that gain being made or not.