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August 16, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

You Can Build with Wood, but You Can't Rebuild with Millwood

by Geoff Young

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One of the more curious moves in the 2011 NL West occurred last week when the Colorado Rockies signed 36-year-old right-hander Kevin Millwood to replace the injured Juan Nicasio in the rotation. Millwood started for the Rockies on Wednesday night in Cincinnati and lost, 3-2. He pitched fairly well (7 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 6 SO), his only blemishes being three solo homers.

Beyond Millwood's performance in his Rockies debut lies a larger, more fundamental question: Why is an old pitcher that nobody wanted starting for a team that is, or should be, looking toward the future? As of this writing, the Rockies are 56-66 and have fallen behind the Dodgers into fourth place, 12 ½ games back of division-leading Arizona.

Millwood suffered through a forgettable 2010 with the Baltimore Orioles and, despite finishing strong (3.29 ERA over his final 10 starts, with opponents hitting .244/.315/.374 against him), found himself without many viable employment opportunities heading into 2011. So he did what any sensible seemingly washed-up pitcher would do: He signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees and hoped for the best.

After making one start at Double-A Trenton and two more at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Millwood opted out of his contract on May 1. A little less than three weeks later, he signed with the Boston Red Sox and posted a 4.28 ERA with their Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket. Despite Boston's instability in the rotation this year, the Red Sox never saw fit to recall Millwood and, on August 7, released him. As R.J. Anderson noted at the time, “Now Millwood will hit the open market again, but this time with better results... if a team was willing to give him a go after his rough experiences in the Yankees farm system, then it figures some team will give him a shot now.”

Which returns us to that still-burning question: Why the Rockies? Why now?

The Denver Post's Troy Renck notes that Greg Reynolds wasn't a possibility due to his having been optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs less than 10 days earlier. Clayton Mortensen? Sure, he is 10 ½ years younger than Millwood and might have a future in baseball, but he also owns a 10.98 ERA in 10 starts for the Sky Sox this season. Context is important—Colorado Springs is a ridiculous place to pitch—but it's difficult to justify bringing up a kid who can't get minor-league hitters out to try to do the same in the big leagues.

Other options? Well, the best currently active starter for the Sky Sox is 27-year-old right-hander Billy Buckner, whose 5.94 ERA looks beautiful next to that of his teammates (the staff ERA is 6.37). How does a team evaluate young pitchers in such an unforgiving environment? The Pacific Coast League as a whole owns a 5.20 ERA and a .287/.360/.453 slash line. That's like an entire league full of Nick Markakises or Ian Kinslers.

This problem isn't unique to the Rockies. In fact, it affects everyone in the division. Here's a quick-and-dirty comparison of how each team's run-scoring environment compares to that of its Triple-A affiliate (through games of August 14, as are all stats in this article):

Team

MLB

AAA

RS/G

RA/G

RS/G

RA/G

Ari

4.60

4.37

6.95

6.12

SF

3.44

3.50

5.11

5.70

LA

3.71

3.93

6.10

6.25

Col

4.45

4.56

6.57

6.93

SD

3.75

3.86

5.88

6.45

We saw the flip side of this earlier in the season, when the Padres recalled Anthony Rizzo from Tucson and he, predictably, struggled at Petco Park. Player evaluation is challenging when “all else is equal,” but it's nigh impossible when you have to account for these incongruities as well. This is hardly a recent phenomenon. Randy Bass and Mike Marshall, among others, put up gaudy numbers in the PCL in the late '70s/early '80s. (Heck, Joe Bauman hit 221 home runs over a four-year stretch in the old Longhorn League, including 72 at Roswell in 1954. Colorado and New Mexico are fun places to hit baseballs.)

The point is that when a team allows seven runs per game, every pitcher looks bad. It’s not that Mortensen didn't earn his 10.98 ERA, but the man was effective with the big club earlier this season (58 1/3 IP, 3.86 ERA). Sure, his peripherals were weak (3.7 BB/9, 4.6 K/9), but our standard is “effective,” not “brilliant.” So Mortensen was bypassed and Millwood summoned. And now the Rockies, a team headed nowhere, have an old innings eater in their rotation instead of some poor sucker who had the misfortune of plying his craft at Colorado Springs this year rather than in Pawtucket's more pitcher-friendly atmosphere (4.61 RS/G, 3.88 RA/G).

It is hard to make a case for Mortensen, or anyone else on the Sky Sox, and the Rockies couldn't have foreseen Nicasio's injury. That being said, their decision to trade last-year's Cy Young award contender Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland seems all the more baffling now. And although it's unfair to judge this or any transaction based on information not available at the time (i.e., Nicasio's injury), the fact remains that Jimenez is 27 years old and was locked up through 2014. The considerable haul received in exchange for Jimenez notwithstanding, it seems that a team looking toward the future could have used a guy like him... more than they can use Millwood, anyway.

Looking at this from the other side, what does Millwood gain from signing with Colorado? This isn't Jon Garland or Aaron Harang, or even Dustin Moseley, coming to Petco Park in an effort to rebuild value by pitching in a place where home runs go to die. This is a man whose right arm has logged more than 2,500 big-league innings, trying to extend his career in a ballpark that once yielded 31 homers in a single season to Dante Bichette (who hit nine elsewhere that year)... or as Millwood himself calls it in the aforementioned Renck article, “an interesting place.”

The whole situation feels like closing time at a seedy bar (this is strictly hearsay, of course), when two strangers who have had a few too many eye each other, shrug their shoulders, and leave together for lack of anything better to do with their lives. It is sad when people drift in no particular direction, like a rudderless vessel. It is no less unpleasant to watch baseball teams do the same.

 You can build a boat with driftwood. Just don't expect it to go anywhere meaningful.  

Related Content:  Colorado Rockies,  Kevin Millwood

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