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Lineup

2B Aaron Miles
SS Royce Clayton
1B Todd Helton
CF Preston Wilson
RF Larry Walker
LF Jeromy Burnitz
3B Vinny Castilla
C Charles Johnson

Rotation

SP Jason Jennings
SP Joe Kennedy
SP Shawn Estes
SP Jeff Fassero
SP Chin-Hui Tsao

Closer

CL Shawn Chacon

The Rockies have become more like a puzzle than a baseball team. While the intellectual exercise is good, the fact is that the problem of winning at altitude has become a lot more interesting than the team itself. While baseball at a mile high should be among the most exciting spectacles in the game–tape measure home runs and plenty of hitting–this team just doesn’t look like anything more than a bad team.

The Rockies head into the 2004 campaign with most of the same questions they had last season. Their best players are slightly fragile and their supporting cast isn’t enough to take up the slack when those players inevitably miss games. The pitching staff will be slightly healthier, but Denny Neagle has to be taken into account in the overall assessment of the medical staff.

The big three of Helton, Walker, and Wilson are really the only concerns, but this is both blessing and curse. Any of the other players are essentially average players that could be replaced by backups without much loss of value. Already, the drop-off from the big three is being seen. A combination of Kit Pellow and Rene Reyes will be forced to try and keep the Rockies above water while Larry Walker starts the season on the DL. Walker may be in the ‘best shape of his life’ as some said earlier, but it doesn’t appear that the physical conditioning was enough to keep him healthy. Expecting even 100 games from Walker is unlikely to happen, and a 23-run drop-off in PECOTA-projected VORP will be tough to overcome, even at a minimum.

Todd Helton’s back is again a major concern, but just as last year, the medical staff is well aware of what they must do to deal with it. Also, Clint Hurdle is learning to spot Helton out regularly and on the league’s harder surfaces. Helton has the opportunity to take advantage of his home park like no other hitter, and the projected improve rate must scare opposing hitters, considering his value from last season. The back will probably hold down his power, but it appears that Helton is already adjusting to become more of an on-base machine.

Wilson is much more of an immediate concern. He’ll fight a meniscal tear throughout the season and try to hold off surgery until the team is out of contention. It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to run much without severely aggravating the knee. I’ll put his likelihood of making it through the season without surgery at 50-50. Look at this problem like we did Cliff Floyd last season; it’s inevitable and more a matter of pain tolerance and treatment than anything else.

On the pitching side, the yellow lights go to two pitchers who say more about this team than anything else. For most teams, Estes and Fassero would be desperate moves, but for the Rockies, it appears that they’ve almost given up on finding good pitching. Fancy theories about ground balls, change ups, and anything else just don’t work when the talent is below replacement level.

Shawn Chacon moves to the closer role and will be an interesting experiment. Moved to the bullpen to protect his damaged elbow–and no one believes the diagnosis of tendinitis–despite the fact that there’s no real evidence that closing is any easier than starting. The thought that he wouldn’t pitch back to back days was tossed when he did it this week. It’s an interesting concept and one I’ll be watching closely. Chacon’s elbow and location makes him a major risk.

The Rockies remain a bad team built on something that looks like the fantasy “stars and scrubs” strategy. Usually, a team like this would be waiting on a bunch of minor league studs, much like the Brewers, but there’s no Prince Fielder or Rickie Weeks in the pipeline. Until team management can make this team better, or at least exciting, they’ll remain baseball’s enigma… and not much more.