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June 18, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Another Mile-High Miracle?

by Jay Jaffe

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Just shy of three weeks ago, the Rockies fired manager Clint Hurdle, having stumbled out to an 18-28 start and fallen 14 games back in the NL West race. Owners of the league's worst record west of the Potomac, they surprised nobody by losing four of their first six games under interim skipper Jim Tracy. The Rox were sinking like stones, well on their way to their eighth losing season out of nine. Their PECOTA-based playoff odds, which were around seven percent when the season began, had dwindled to 0.3 percent.

One 11-game winning streak later, and suddenly observers are invoking the 2007 Mile High Miracle, the 14-1 run via which the Rockies stormed from fourth place in the West to capture the NL Wild Card, and then the pennant with another seven straight wins across two post-season series, before being swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. Do the Rockies really have enough to return to October, or should they be thinking of tearing down and dealing a few veterans?

Through Wednesday, they're 32-33, 10 games back in the West, but with a respectable +16 run differential. Barring a major collapse by the division-leading Dodgers, the division is virtually unwinnable, with the Rockies' odds estimated at 0.8 percent. They're 3 games back in the chase for the Wild Card, behind four other teams, tied with the Cubs, and with four more clubs within two games of their heels. Given that amount of traffic, they're estimated to have just a 4.4 percent chance, though those odds improve to 16.8 percent if one throws PECOTA's 71-win projection out the window and goes with our plain-vanilla playoff odds.

Only a week ago, the rumor mill was abuzz with the future destinations of Brad Hawpe, Jason Marquis, Ryan Spilborghs, and Huston Street, but the streak has allowed the Rockies to defer such decisions. To the credit of Tracy and GM Dan O'Dowd, they've quickly made moves which help their chances of sustaining some momentum, starting with the replacement of third baseman Garrett Atkins with Ian Stewart; that also means that Stewart's out of the way of Clint Barmes at second. In a lineup that's second in the league in scoring but just seventh in EqA (.262)-taking stock of the Rox always starts with letting the air out of their offensive stats-Atkins (.210 EqA) has been the lineup's only real sinkhole; he recently went five weeks without a home run or a multi-hit game, a tough task for an everyday player. Barmes (.270 EqA) has been the team's hottest hitter over the past month (.345/.405/.560). Stewart (.262 EqA with a team-high 12 homers) is hitting .314/.357/.667 this month after fighting through a prolonged slump.

As Joe Sheehan pointed out recently, the Atkins shuffle should bear fruit for a team that's 10th in the league in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (-1.05 percent below average) and last in raw Defensive Efficiency (.677); Atkins is a lousy third baseman, Stewart a natural one, and Barmes is better at the keystone than the latter. Also helping the defense is the recent promotion of outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, a toolsy former top prospect with the ability to play center. He spent the first two months of 2009 in a Triple-A refresher course following his acquisition in the Matt Holliday trade. (He'd had a none-too-impressive half-season in Oakland, hitting just .242/.273/.361 with an 81/12 UIBB ratio.) Tracy has slotted him in left, previously the domain of an unstable but not wholly unproductive cast of righty Spilborghs, lefty Seth Smith, and redheaded stepchild Matt Murton.

Elsewhere, the offense is solid if unspectacular, led by right fielder Hawpe (.329 EqA), first baseman Todd Helton (.294), and catcher Chris Iannetta (.273). Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (.262) and rookie center fielder Dexter Fowler (.261) have held their own while contributing above-average defense at key up-the-middle positions. If Gonzalez hits, the lineup may not have a dead spot, particularly if Tracy continues to protect him from lefties via a platoon with Spilborghs.

The rotation was handicapped from the start when it lost putative ace Jeff Francis for the year, but it's in reasonable shape, ranking eighth in SNLVAR. They've done strong work of late, with a 3.50 ERA and 12 quality starts out of 16 this month. Marquis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook, and Jason Hammel have all posted ERAs below 4.30 because they follow the recipe for pitching success at altitude by getting tons of ground balls. The first three are all above 55 percent, and the staff as a whole is second in the league, which has kept their home-run rate a hair below average. The maddeningly inconsistent Jorge de la Rosa has been the rotation's weak link (5.81 ERA), but with Franklin Morales working his way back to the majors after a shoulder strain sustained in his second start, they'll have the option to make a change soon. Morales was a hero of the 2007 run as a rookie, but he struggled with his control and spent most of last year in the minors. His improvement this spring warrants optimism.

The bullpen, on the other hand, has been a mess, ranking 15th in WXRL, 0.3 wins below replacement level. Closer Huston Street, acquired in the Holliday deal with an eye toward flipping him once he reasserted himself as closer, has saved 14 out of 15 opportunities, but he's the only Colorado reliever in the majors' top 70 in WXRL. Taylor Buchholz is out due to Tommy John surgery, former closer Manny Corpas has been lousy as the top set-up man (5.58 ERA, -0.549 WXRL), and the team has shuffled through numerous middlemen in search of an acceptable combo. Joel Peralta? Matt Daley? Josh Fogg?

When it comes to making any deals, thanks to their streak the team has the luxury of playing both sides of the fence in the six weeks between now and the trading deadline. If they continue to play well, they should have few glaring weaknesses to shore up aside from their bullpen, and may have a spare outfielder to deal if Gonzalez clicks. If this latest burst is simply a mirage, they can gain salary relief and/or restock their larder by flipping Street, and selling high on the none-too-cheap Marquis ($9.875 million this year) and the relatively affordable Hawpe ($13 million total in 2009-2010). Perhaps they can even offload Atkins ($7.05 million); as discussed yesterday, the Cardinals need a third baseman, and the Reds could use one as well to hedge against Edwin Encarnacion's continued wrist problems.

Or perhaps the Rockies can do a bit of both, cleaning house and building for the future while remaining contenders; as far as PECOTA is concerned, the drop from Hawpe to a Spillborghs/Smith platoon in right, for example, is less than one win over a two-month period, and such a move would likely bring back other help. Team-building is a year-round process, and one can easily reel off a list-the 2008 Dodgers, 2007 Rockies, 2005 Astros, and 2004 Red Sox-of clubs whose mid-June iterations bore less than full resemblance to the ones which played deep into October. There may not be another Mile High Miracle this year, but for the moment, time is on the Rockies' side.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  The Streak,  Clint Barmes

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