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Five things I learned watching Sunday’s Diamondbacks/Rockies game:

  1. Aaron Cook is one of the most interesting stories in
    baseball.

    On August 1, 2004, Cook pitched a complete game to beat the Diamondbacks,
    his fastball topping out at 95 mph. The start continued a stretch in
    which the big righty looked to be coming into his own. Though it was
    clear he’d never ring up enough strikeouts to be a dominant pitcher, it
    looked like he’d be able to get batters out and forge a successful career.
    In the third inning of his next start, though, Cook left the game complaining of
    dizziness. The diagnosis? Blood clots in his lungs, requiring blood
    thinners and at least six months away from the game.

    This season, Cook has made it all the way back, with great results. In nine
    starts he’s put up a 5-1 record and a 3.23 ERA. On Sunday he threw another
    complete game for the Rockies, again against the D’backs, for a 7-2 win.
    Jason Giambi and others have done a lot more
    statistically to merit Comeback Player of the Year consideration. But few
    carry a better backstory than Cook.

    Here’s his line through nine starts, including Sunday’s game:

    
    IP       H    HR   BB   K   BABIP  GB/F
    55.2    65     2    9   18   .309  3.32
    
    

    Cook’s overall line looked even more outrageous before Sunday’s game. That
    contest saw Cook strike out five and yield two homers to Troy
    Glaus
    –the only two he’d ceded all year. His groundball/flyball
    rate ranks
    7th among all MLB starters with at least five starts
    .

    Can a pitcher survive–even thrive–striking out three batters a game,
    even with pinpoint control and a microscopic home-run rate? In the
    short-term, the answer is obviously yes. In addition to Cook’s nine-start
    success, Kirk Saarloos also ranks among MLB’s best in
    GB/FB ratio, while also striking out less than three batters per
    nine innings (45 in 143 2/3 after fanning five in six frames last night;
    after last night his ERA stood at 3.89, and he
    ranked among the 30 best pitchers in the AL according to VORP
    ).

    The Rockies announcers kept raving about Cook’s ability to get hitters to
    put the ball in play–he’s thrown less than three pitches per batter this
    season, one of the lowest figures in the majors. But that approach forces
    your defense to catch a ton of balls, a tough proposition in a park with
    an outfield as spacious as Coors Field. On the other hand, Cook’s sinker
    is for real. Hitters rolled over on it all day for groundouts, and yes,
    several swung over it and whiffed too.

    Limiting baserunners by keeping walks down, cutting down on big innings by
    keeping the ball in the park, and keeping pitch counts in check with a
    ball-in-play approach are all traits that serve a pitcher well in the most
    nightmarish pitching environment of our generation. In acquiring
    low-strikeout, low-walk, high-groundball-rate pitcher Zach
    Day
    earlier this year from the Nationals, Dan O’Dowd and company
    could find themselves with a set of twins at the top of their rotation
    next year. If the Rockies aren’t going to land a Roger
    Clemens
    through free agency and have trouble developing
    conventional pitchers through their system, The Cook Convention could be
    an interesting Mile High experiment.

  2. Sunday’s lineup showed that the Diamondbacks are going to have a numbers
    crunch on their hands in the outfield and first base.

    • At age 25, Chad Tracy‘s had the power spike he needed to
      be a viable hitter at a corner spot, putting up a .291/.343/.515 line
      through Monday that even in offense-friendly Arizona helps his club. A
      year away from arbitration eligibility, he’s a valuable asset for near
      the league minimum. Will the club keep him in right, move him to another
      position, or have to make a tough choice given the talent in the pipeline?

    • Shawn Green‘s .297/.364/.504 line has also given the
      D’backs a boost. Like Tracy in right, Green has also fared better than
      expected defensively to date, playing a month of surprisingly fluid center
      field. He’s under contract for $8 million in 2006, $9.5 million in 2007,
      with a $10 million mutual option in 2008. Do they keep him in center and
      hope his defense and his health hold up, move him back to right, or try
      something else?

    • Tony Clark has come out of nowhere to become a terror at
      the plate, hitting .308 with an outrageous .633 slugging average. While
      skeptics figured his power would only last as long as he found favorable
      matchups as a part-time player, Clark’s continued to mash in a regular
      role. The D’backs think so highly of him that they have him batting in the
      cleanup slot ahead of Glaus, he of the 34 homers and fringe-MVP candidate
      performance this season. They even went so far as to sign him to a
      two-year contract extension, complete with a no-trade clause through the
      2006 season. If Clark keeps hitting, how will the D’backs be able to sit
      him down?

    • Conor Jackson has started slowly in his first exposure to
      the big leagues, managing just a .220/.319/.373 performance and forced to
      ride the pine even with the Diamondbacks all but out of it (he pinch-hit
      in the ninth inning Sunday). But Jackson is going to be a star, and it’s
      going to happen soon. He toyed with Triple-A pitching this season, bashing
      to the tune of .354/.457/.553. He owns an incredible batting eye, racking
      up 69 walks and 32 strikeouts in 93 games at Tuscon this season, scoffing
      at pitches even an inch off the plate when I saw him play Tacoma this
      summer. Do the D’backs send him back to Triple-A to start next season, make
      him a part-timer player, or turn him loose on the league, at the expense
      of Clark’s playing time?

    • Wanting to avoid adding him to the 40-man roster until they have to next
      season, the Diamondbacks elected not to promote Carlos
      Quentin
      to the big leagues upon roster expansion. All Quentin has
      done is hit .301/.422/.520 in his age-22 season in Triple-A, following a
      combined 985 OPS in High-A and Double-A ball last year. As with
      Jackson, Quentin’s numbers come with the caveat of robust hitting
      environments. That said, both the adjusted numbers and the scouting
      reports contend he’s going to hit a ton in the majors, likely soon if
      given the chance. How long will Arizona let him demolish minor-league
      pitching before he gets the call?

    Though D’back loyalists may shudder at the suggestion, the best solution to
    the problem may be the toughest one to make politically: Luis
    Gonzalez
    shouldn’t start for Arizona in 2006. Though Gonzalez’s
    walk rate remains healthy, a .268 average and .444 slugging average won’t
    cut it for a left fielder at the BOB. His fragged throwing arm, declining
    mobility, rising injury risk and just-passed 38th birthday don’t help,
    either. Gonzalez is signed for one more year, due to make $11.5 million
    next season before the club opts out of a $10 million option in ’07. The
    D’backs likely won’t have the fortitude to sit Gonzalez for younger talent,
    which could hurt the team’s chances next year.
    The team would thus do well to look for a Sammy Sosa-type
    deal this off-season, agreeing to pay part of Gonzalez’s salary in
    exchange for young talent, preferably up the middle where the club’s weak.
    Gonzalez has more left in the tank than Sosa did after last year, though,
    so here’s hoping they get more than Jerry Hairston and
    some magic beans.

  3. The Russ Ortiz signing going bust ranks as one of the
    most predictable events…uh, maybe ever. In the
    first of his winter meetings reports in December
    , Joe Sheehan had this
    to say about the four-year, $33-million deal the D’backs gave Ortiz:


    You don’t usually get the kind of agreement on a transaction that I heard
    about the Russ Ortiz signing. No one I talked to likes it, and a few
    people were calling it the worst signing of this winter.

    That’s saying a lot in an off-season that saw Carl Lindner balk all winter
    at spending money, then suddenly issue an ultimatum to his front office to
    sign the best pitcher available, resulting in a three-year, $25.5 million
    Titanic of a deal with Eric Milton (though Milton’s deal
    came two-and-a-half weeks after Ortiz’s). Still, Ortiz may earn that
    dubious distinction. He ranks as the worst pitcher in the majors with at
    least 100 innings pitched this season, according
    to BP’s Support-Neutral report
    .

    As much as we talk about the masses becoming more sophisticated in how
    they view the game, the old biases still rear their ugly head again and
    again. Rockies announcer Drew Goodman, describing Ortiz’s 2005 season:
    “This is a guy who’s had a lot of success in the big leagues, but this
    year has been an aberration.” Goodman then went on to note that Ortiz has
    won 82 games since the 2000 All-Star break, tied with Matt
    Morris
    for second in the National League. No mention of Ortiz’s
    low batting average on balls in play numbers bailing him out (an
    admittedly advanced concept for a standard baseball telecast) or the
    pitfalls that flawed pitchers often run into after leaving Leo Mazzone’s
    care (hello Jaret Wright). Goodman did briefly mention Ortiz’s bugaboo,
    the awful control that saw Ortiz average 106 walks a season from 1999 to
    2004.

    Even the biggest pessimist would have struggled to conceive a 6.88 ERA and
    a K/BB rate of 44/58 this season. But maybe Ortiz, along with Milton and
    so many other colossal free-agent blunders over the years will eventually
    convince teams that just because someone’s the biggest-name free agent on
    the market doesn’t mean that ignoring his glaring flaws and spending the
    GDP of Luxembourg is a good idea.

  4. At least so far, I was wrong about Troy Glaus.

    While BP as a group was somewhat
    non-committal publicly
    about the four-year, $45 million contract the
    D’backs gave Glaus over the winter, privately I muttered about the risk of
    spending that much money on a player who had what was then thought to be a
    highly questionable shoulder. That the deal would only pan out if he could
    effectively man third base past his 33rd birthday made me more skeptical.
    I’ll fess up and say it: I loved Glaus as a hitter, but thought the deal
    was a bad idea, all things considered.

    Glaus ranks 5th
    among MLB third basemen in VORP
    ; he’ll pass the injured Aramis
    Ramirez
    and likely finish 4th, barring a big run by
    Chipper Jones. Glaus absolutely obliterated four pitches
    out of the park in the weekend series, including a shot into the far, far
    away concourse in left-center Saturday and two ropes on Sunday. But more
    than just his prodigious power, which has never been in doubt, the
    significance of VORP is that it speaks to both Glaus’ productivity and his
    ability to stay healthy and in the lineup every day. The D’backs probably
    cost themselves a few runs over the course of the year by batting Glaus
    fifth and Gonzalez third in the lineup–thus giving the inferior hitter
    more plate appearances over the course of the season. But that’s manager
    Bob Melvin’s doing, not the GM’s. Joe Garagiola Jr. gets full marks for
    trusting his medical staff, taking a calculated risk with Glaus, and at
    least through year one of the four-year deal, having it pay off in spades.

  5. The Rockies need to acquire an impact hitter, or better yet, two or three.

    Todd Helton‘s back problems finally caught up to him this
    year. While we could see a bit of a bounceback toward the mean in 2006,
    Helton’s injury concerns coupled with him turning 33 next August make him
    a poor bet to ever again produce at a superstar level. Though his
    .303/.429/.505 line is certainly nothing to sneeze at, it looks less
    impressive after translating for park and other effects (.284/.415/.482)
    and is well off the .620 or better slugging averages Helton put up in four
    out of five seasons from 2000 to 2004. Matt Holliday‘s
    emerged as better than the overrated Quad-A fodder we thought he might be,
    but he still lacks the power and Helton-like walk rates to lead a club.
    Clint Barmes far exceeded expectations early this year
    before going down to the infamous “deer meat” injury; he’ll face a sterner
    test given 600 at-bats next season. In other words, no one on the big
    league roster projects as an elite offensive player.

    Down on the farm, the situation is only marginally brighter. Jeff
    Baker
    was slowed by a hand injury this year and hasn’t yet
    developed into the power monster the team may have hoped for. Ian
    Stewart
    remains an elite prospect, though his star has dimmed a
    bit after an otherwordly 2004 season at age 19. Even if both make big
    strides next season, it may be a while before they settle in as top big
    league performers.

    With a cash cow of a stadium, attendance figures that dwarf other NL
    doormats and a fan base that’s shown a willingness to pack the joint when
    given a reason, the Rockies have both the revenue stream and revenue
    potential to warrant opening the pocketbook this off-season. That doesn’t
    mean going the Russ Ortiz route and overpaying for a name player likely to
    disappoint, though–a recycled Jeromy Burnitz or
    Preston Wilson or a 40-plus Craig Biggio
    isn’t going to cut it. Instead, the Rockies need to think boldly. Will
    Boston’s front office disagreements prompt them to trade Manny
    Ramirez
    and pay a big chunk of his salary the next three years to
    boot? Can Brian Giles be had on a two-year deal if given
    a little more per annum? Will the Reds follow through on rumors that
    they’d trade Adam Dunn?

    More than mastering the mystical secrets of Coors Field or daring to
    ask what a Rocky Mountain oyster
    is, Dan O’Dowd (or whoever mans the GM
    chair in Denver this off-season) needs to get down to basics. Stop making
    excuses, get the best talent, and go out and win the highly winnable NL
    West within the next two seasons. The same goes for the D’backs.

    Then maybe this time next year we’ll be writing about the Rox and Snakes
    as September contenders, not the last two contractually obligated teams in
    the Game of the Week rainbow.