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October 19, 2007

Future Shock

How the Rockies Were Built

by Kevin Goldstein

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This article isn't designed to explain how the Rockies have gone a perfect 7-0 in the postseason, or how the team won 14 of 15 games in the first place to get there. No article could do that, although many are trying. Instead, we'll see how the team was assembled in the first place, and like fellow LCS teams Arizona and Cleveland, the Rockies are primarily built from within, and more importantly, built to last.

Catchers

Chris Iannetta (Draft 2004)
Yorvit Torrealba (Trade 12/05)

Iannetta was a fourth-round pick out of North Carolina in 2004 who entered pro ball with a decent glove/decent bat/great makeup reputation. That all changed when his offense exploded last year, and while he failed to live up to expectations this season in the big leagues, he's still the club's catcher of the future, and like many other Rockies, he was outstanding down the stretch when he played, batting .320 (16-for-50) with six walks and a pair of home runs. He'll still be good, so don't give up on him yet.

Torrelba's three-run home run in Game Three of the NLCS was in itself worth all they paid to get him from the Mariners--righty Marcos Carvajal. Originally signed by the Giants out of Venezuela, Torrealba spent seven years in their minor league system hitting like a backup catcher, and then becoming the big league squad's backup for four years before going to Seattle in the Randy Winn deal. He's done yeoman's work in taking over the starting role when Iannetta struggled, but his future will likely involve a return to the number two job.

The Future: Torrealba is a free agent at the end of the year, and his postseason exposure might end up getting parlayed into decent money and a starting job elsewhere. Either way, Iannetta will be a better starting option next year.

Infielders

Garrett Atkins (Draft, 2000)
Jamey Carroll (Purchased, 2/06)
Todd Helton (Draft, 1995)
Kazuo Matsui (Trade, 6/06)
Troy Tulowitzki (Draft, 2005)

Atkins was a fifth-round pick out of UCLA in 2000, and the big question about him both as an amateur and a minor leaguer was his ability to hit for power. He hit .325 at High-A Salem in his full-season debut, but just five home runs did little to address the primary concern for a corner infielder. His surprising power surge over the past two seasons has cemented his future--and the organization is now trying to find a new position for Ian Stewart, as opposed to vice-versa.

Carroll was a 14th-round pick in 1996 out of the University of Evansville, so he's already far exceeded any expectations. Give him credit for sticking to it--he didn't hit a home run in his first three professional seasons, and didn't reach the majors until 1998. He did an admirable job last year as the starting second baseman, but this year, he settled into the job he's more suited to--a utility role.

The eighth overall pick in the 1995 draft, Helton's pro debut was some cause for concern when he hit .254/.339/.333 after signing, but that's also the last bad year he's ever had. Almost lost to history is what a tremendous athlete he was as an amateur. He was the backup quarterback at the University of Tennessee during his three years and on the baseball field, and he doubled as the team's closer and was one of the best college relievers in the country, with excellent bullpen potential as a power lefty if he had never picked up a bat.

With the Rockies in the World Series, there has been much written about Kaz Matsui, and how he's "found himself" in Colorado. To which I say: rubbish. His .288/.342/.405 line this year is really no different from his .272/.331/.396 stateside debut three years ago, and it's very plain that Coors Field played a large role in even that "improvement," as Matsui hit a miserable .249/.304/.333 on the road this year. He's really no different from the player he was as a Met, only the magnifying glass is off. One of the biggest stars in Japan when he signed with the Mets before the 2004 season, Matsui was never able to come close to matching the power he showed with Seibu, where he hit 116 home runs in his final four seasons for the Lions.

Troy Tulowitzki shouldn't even be with Colorado. He fell into the Rockies' lap when the Blue Jays made a mistake often reserved for your annual fantasy draft - overvaluing positional scarcity. In 2005, Cal State Fullerton's Ricky Romero was the only top-shelf college lefty in the draft, and the Blue Jays over-drafted him at sixth overall, leaving Tulowitzki surprisingly available to Colorado at seven. Tulo needed just 126 minor league games to be ready, and this year finished eighth among big shortstops in VORP. What about Romero, you ask? He's stagnated in Double-A.

The Future: Helton is pretty darn good, but also downright impossible to deal because of his contract. The Rockies will pay him nearly $70 million over the next four years, but picking up his $23 million dollar option for 2012 seems unlikely. The left side of the infield is locked in for the future due to the youth of the two starters, but second base provides some interesting scenarios. Following the World Series, the Rockies have an exclusive five-day window to sign Matsui to an extension, and if they don't, he becomes a free agent. At the same time, Colorado is trying Stewart at at second base this offseason, which based on his scouting reports, doesn't seem like the best idea on paper. Carroll is under contract next year for $2 million.

Outfielders

Brad Hawpe (Draft, 2000)
Matt Holliday (Draft, 1998)
Ryan Spilborghs (Draft, 2002)
Cory Sullivan (Draft, 2001)
Willy Taveras (Trade, 12/06)
Jeff Baker (Draft, 2002)
Seth Smith (Draft, 2004)

Holliday is similar in some ways to Grady Sizemore. A seventh-round pick in 1998 because of his commitment to play football (he was a highly recruited quarterback), the Rockies paid him $840,000 for a commitment to baseball. Like Sizemore, Holliday was a late bloomer. He spent two years at High-A, and had to do likewise at Double-A, and in those to seasons (one in the Southern League and one in the Texas League), he hit .276/.375/.391 and .253/.313/.395. The next year he was in the big leagues, though the real power didn't come until 2006. Coors has been especially kind to Holliday, who has slugged .662 at home in his career, as opposed to .448 on the road. Even this year's remarkable season includes a relatively tame road line of .301/.374/.485.

Baker was supposed to be much bigger than this by now. One of the top power prospects in the 2002 draft, he dropped all the way to the fourth round because of perceived bonus demands and a connection to Scott Boras. Of course, none of that mattered in the end when he received a $2 million big league contract. Unfortunately, Baker's pro career can be defined by two words: wrist problems. Spending as much time on the DL as his did on the field, Baker has always hit in the minors when healthy, and can still fill in at third base here and there. He's an offense-first player, and one that could surprise if given an everyday role.

Hawpe on the other hand, wasn't supposed to be anywhere near this good. An 11th-round pick out of Louisiana State in 2000, Hawpe was basically seen as a one-dimensional slugger. But there was one thing--as he moved up the ladder, he just kept slugging, finishing his minor league career with a .306/.392/.560 line. There is no reason to believe he can't replicate his numbers over the last two years for the next six.

Smith is yet another multiple sport athlete on the team, and he's a surprising member of the post-season roster, considering that he has a grand total of eight regular season plate appearances to his name. A supplemental first-round pick in 2004, Smith was a backup quarterback at Mississippi, and his minor league career has been defined by a good batting average, but not enough in the way of secondary skills to project as an everyday corner outfielder. As an athletic lefty hitter, however, he'll have a solid career.

Spilborghs was one of those safe college picks--a seventh-rounder in 2002 who had a decent career at Cal-Santa Barbara. His minor league career consisted of very little for three years before a 2005 offensive explosion that included OPS of 960 and 956 at Colorado's Double- and Triple-A affiliates. Over the last two years he's split time between Triple-A and the majors, doing an admirable job this season in place of an injured Willy Taveras.

Sullivan is basically the left-handed version of Spilborghs--only not as good. Also a seventh-round selection (one year earlier), he missed all of 2004 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but then made the big league squad and earned a starting job the next season thanks to a massive spring. This year, he hit his way back to the minors for a portion of the season, and he's very much been passed up by others.

Originally signed by Cleveland as a 17-year-old Dominican, Taveras is a true burner, stealing 50-plus bases in each of his last three minor leagues seasons, although that was pretty much the sum of his offensive value when the Astros selected him in the 2003 Rule Five draft. Tavaras hit .335 at Double-A the following year, which convinced the Astros to make him their starting center fielder for two years, before sending him to Colorado as part of the Jason Jennings trade. He's highly similar to Juan Pierre, a good hitter with game-changing speed who lacks power or a leadoff man's approach. Also like Pierre, he has fantastic range in center, but unlike Pierre, he has solid arm strength. That kind of player has more value in Colorado than elsewhere.

The Future: This will be the Rockies outfield, at least for next year. Holiday is arbitration-eligible again, and a huge payday as a 2009 free agent is looming if the Rockies can't get a multi-year deal done. Tavaras and Hawpe are both early in their career, and cheap for a while yet, while Smith and Spilborghs are the same, and give the team one of the better bench outfield tandems in the game. To classify Baker as a sixth outfielder is a bit unfair; as a guy with plus power and the ability to play at both the outfield and infield corners, he's more valuable than that. Sullivan looks like an odd man out at this point.

Starting Pitchers

Josh Fogg (Free Agent, 2/06)
Jeff Francis (Draft, 2002)
Ubaldo Jimenez (NDFA, 2001)
Franklin Morales (NDFA, 2002)

In college, Fogg was one of the best relievers in the game, leading the SEC with a 2.03 ERA in his junior year while striking out 114 in 84 innings. However, he never had professional-grade closer's stuff, which is why when the White Sox took him in the third-round of the 1998 draft, they immediately converted him to a starting job. He continued to success at the lower levels with his strike-throwing, speed-changing ways, but a precipitous drop in his strikeout rate when he hit Double-A was the first red flag, and one he has never recovered from. He serves as and has never projected as anything more than a back-of-the-rotation starter who stays healthy.

The ninth overall pick in 2002, Francis is one of the highest-drafted Canadians ever, and he had one of the best short-term minor league runs in recent memory during the 2004 season, when he had a 1.98 ERA in 17 starts for Double-A Tulsa, allowing just 73 hits in 113 2/3 innings while compiling a 147/22 K/BB ratio. He recorded double-digit strikeout numbers in eight of those starts, including a seven-inning, one-hit, 14-strikeout performance in his final outing before moving up to Triple-A. Becoming a star pitcher in Colorado is remarkably difficult, but Francis has become the de facto ace in Denver, though he performs as more at the level of a second or third starter. His strikeout rate took a considerable jump this year, usually a sign of more good things to come.

The Rockies have always been heavy players in the international market, particularly with pitchers, and they finally reaped some dividends from that approach this year. Signed out of the Dominican as a 17-year-old, Jimenez burst into prominence in 2004 when in his first two California League starts, he allowed two hits over 12 innings and stuck out 21. Unfortunately, he'd make only seven more starts that year because of a stress fracture behind his shoulder that was attributed to his violent mechanics. While he's cleaned up some since then, he's still a max-effort pitcher, and despite his big league success so far, his Triple-A ERA this year was a lofty 5.85. If you've seen him pitch on multiple occasions, you know the drill--when his command is on, he has the stuff to dominate, but when it isn't, he gets in trouble by walking guys and getting too fine with his pitches. He's still a tech stock prospect--high risk, and high reward.

Morales is in many ways a left-handed version of Jimenez, only with better stuff. He throws a little harder, his breaking ball is a little sharper, and again, he's left-handed. Like Jimenez, Morales' minor league performance this year showed few signs of being ready as a postseason starter, with a solid 3.48 ERA at Double-A Tulsa, but 45 walks in 95 2/3 innings. Also like Jimenez, Morales' bugaboo is control, but when he's on, he's remarkable, and his upside is even higher than that of Ubaldo.

The Future: The are two starters not on the postseason roster, Aaron Cook and Jason Hirsh, both of whom are currently injured but will play a major role in the team's future. Josh Fogg is a free agent and highly expendable, with Jimenez and Morales likely entering 2008 with rotation jobs following their late-season contributions this year. It's a young rotation, and will arguably be the best top-to-bottom unit in franchise history.

Relief Pitchers

Jeremy Affeldt (Trade, 7/06)
Taylor Buchholz (Trade, 12/06)
Manny Corpas (NDFA, 1999)
Brian Fuentes (Trade, 12/01)
LaTroy Hawkins (Free Agent, 12/06)
Matt Herges (Free Agent, 2/07)
Ryan Speier (NDFA, 2001)

A third-round pick in 1997, Affeldt began his career as a highly-regarded Royals prospect, but he spent four years in the big leagues without finding any traction, failing as a starter, middle reliever, and closer. While he doesn't have closer stuff by any measurement, he always had scouting reports far better than the numbers, and the Rockies found some success with him in the bullpen after acquiring him at the 2006 trade deadline in the deal that sent Ryan Shealy to Kansas City. His fastball and curve are both capable of missing plenty of bats, but he still walks too many batters to be trusted with a larger role.

At this point, Buchholz is certainly seen as the third player in last winter's Jason Jennings trade, but at one time, he was the top pitcher in the Phillies system, and one of the better minor league pitchers around. A sixth-round pick in 2000, Buchholz finished second in the Carolina League in strikeouts in 2002, and placed fourth in the Eastern League in 2003, serving as the key piece to the Billy Wagner deal that winter. Since leaving the Phillies system, he's mysteriously gone backwards in every way, putting up a 5.23 ERA at Triple-A in his Houston debut, and never finding any consistency with his secondary pitches. He was used as a long reliever and spot starter, and while he pitched better than he had since his Phillies prospect heyday, it still wasn't overly impressive.

Corpas is another Latin American find, signing out of Panama in 1999. His statistics were nondescript until 2006, when he was suddenly a dominant force at Double-A Tulsa, stepping into the closer role for the first time in his career and putting up a minuscule 0.98 ERA in 36 2/3 innings with 35 strikeouts and only four walks. His fastball and slider are both plus pitches, but not at the level one normally associates with a shut-down closer, yet he was among baseball's best in the second half this year, and already ranks third all-time in saves among Panamanians, behind only Mariano Rivera and Juan Berenguer.

Fuentes was a draft-and-follow by the Mariners who signed in 1996 and showed some promise as a starter, ranking second in the Eastern league with 152 strikeouts in 2000. The next year, Seattle moved him to the bullpen and he continued to thrive, with 70 strikeouts in 52 innings at Triple-A Tacoma, and a brief yet successful big league debut with Seattle before they dealt him along with two other pitchers for Jeff Cirillo, who's fast decline began immediately after the trade. Starting as a situational reliever, Fuentes backed into the closer job two years ago, but lost it this year to Corpas. At the same time, he pitched much better this year after going back into a set-up role. Fuentes' best pitch is a highly deceptive changeup, and both his fastball and slider are good enough to set up the pitch effectively.

A seventh-round pick by Minnesota in 1991 out of a Gary, Indiana high school, Hawkins quickly established himself as one of the top pitching prospects in the game during his 1993 full-season debut, when he won the Midwest League triple crown by going 15-5 with a 2.06 ERA and 179 strikeouts in 157 1/3 innings. A six-foot-five righty with a low- to mid-90s fastball and excellent slider, Hawkins would shoot through the Minnesota system the following year, beginning the year in the Florida State League and finishing in Triple-A. Then he hit a wall and never really established himself with the Twins, consistently putting up 5+ ERAs (including a 6.66 mark in 1999) before finding success (at times) as a reliever. He's still inconsistent, and has had particular struggles when placed in a closer role, yet his performance this year was his best in years on the surface. His plummeting strikeout rate points to that being a fluke.

Matt Herges is certainly a warrior. Undrafted out of Illinois State and signed by the Dodgers in 1992, Herges worked his way up the ladder at a snail's pace, spending eight seasons in the minors, including the last five at Double- and Triple-A before finally making his big league debut at the age of 29. Since then, he's been a journeyman reliever, the consistent 10th or 11th man on a pitching staff, other than a brief shot at closing for the Giants in 2004.

Speier was also undrafted, but was signed by the Rockies in 2001 and has spent his entire career in the organization. It didn't take long for Speier to become a very real prospect as he learned how to use his height and low arm angle to dominate in 2003-04, striking out 143 in 120 1/3 innings while giving up just 83 hits. In 2005, an assignment to Triple-A proved to be a little more of a challenge for Speier, who had trouble fooling more advanced hitters with a style based almost solely on deception. He was lined up for a big league job in 2006, but missed the entire year following labrum surgery. Don't let that fact dissuade you from the notion the side-arming is healthier--Speier injured himself playing basketball. Healthy again in 2007, he's back on track for a decent career in middle relief.

The Future: For the most part, it's a young bullpen and one that should stick around. Herges and Affeldt can both move on after the year, but are ultimately replaceable, and Hawkins has a team option for 2008 that will likely be picked up.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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