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In the thin air of the Rockies, this off-season will be all about pitching–most of Colorado’s free agents and potential arbitration cases involve hurlers.

Free Agents
                Age   IP    VORP    RA+  K/9   Salary

Byung-Hyun Kim   26  148.0   8.9   1.01  6.99   6.6MM
Mike DeJean      34   62.3   5.1   1.01  7.51   1.2MM
Dan Micelli      34   18.3  -0.8   0.86  9.33   300K
Jamey Wright     30  171.3 -12.4   0.81  5.31   550K

                Age   PA    VORP    EqA        Salary
Dustan Mohr      29   293    1.8    .240        950K
Todd Greene      34   134    5.0    .244        650K

Arb Eligibles
                Age   IP    VORP    RA+  K/9   Salary

Brian Fuentes    29   74.3  20.5   1.68 11.02   328K
Aaron Cook       26   83.3  13.9   1.24  2.59   326K
Jamie Cerda      26   19.0  -1.8   0.71  8.53   342K
Zach Day         27   47.3 -10.7   0.59  4.37   358K

                Age   PA    VORP    EqA        Salary
Larry Bigbie     28   304   -3.4    .235        380K

Mike DeJean and Byung-Hyun Kim might both be keepers for the Rockies, despite being relatively expensive. Kim improved once he joined the rotation for good in July (5.46 ERA pre-All Star Break, 4.41 ERA post). The club has already bid its adieus to Dustan Mohr and Todd Greene, declining options on their .240 EqAs. Pitchers Dan Miceli and Jamey Wright should be members of the Non-Roster Invitee, Half Million and Under Club.

Larry Bigbie, Jaime Cerda, and Zach Day are all on the “not much to be excited about” list–however, their poor performances in 2005 should amount to reasonable arbitration requests or rewards in 2006, so the club might want to take a flyer on one or all of them.

As BP’s Jonah Keri noted in September, Aaron Cook is a keeper, as well as a great story after surviving a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. Nonetheless, that absurdly low 2.59 strikeout rate has to be a concern, even for a power sinkerballer like Cook. Those concerns are not likely to impact Cook’s standing in arbitration.

The most interesting arbitration case could belong to Brian Fuentes, who led the NL in WXRL, one of the reliever evaluation tools that tells us how many expected wins a reliever added over the course of the season. That mark was the best in the Rockies’ short history. In terms of the stats they actually talk about in arb proceedings, Fuentes saved 31 games in 34 opportunities, with a crisp 2.91 ERA.

One of the many peculiarities about Colorado’s franchise is that the Rockies’ most successful pitchers are most frequently their relievers. Strolling over to BP’s sortable stats database, let’s look at the top pitchers in Rockies’ history, by VORP:

Name            Year GS   IP  VORP

Gabe White      2000  0  83.0 37.6
Joe Kennedy     2004 27 162.3 36.0
Marvin Freeman  1994 18 112.7 32.5
Steve Reed      1995  0  84.0 28.6
Curt Leskanic   1995  0  98.0 23.4
Brian Fuentes   2003  0  75.3 23.0
Jose Jimenez    2000  0  70.7 22.9
Brian Bohanon   2000 26 177.0 22.8
Mike Myers      2000  0  45.3 22.0
Dave Veres      1998  0  76.3 21.4
Brian Fuentes   2005  0  74.3 20.5
Chuck McElroy   1998  0  68.3 19.5

Out of the top 12 pitching performances in Rockies’ history, nine belong to relievers, and two belong to Fuentes. Strangely, none of the starters on this list made a full season’s worth of starts; of the 15 times in Rockies’ history pitchers have started 32 or more games in a season, only three of those performances resulted in a VORP over 10: Pedro Astacio in 1999 (19.4) and 2000 (18.2), and Jason Jennings in 2002 (11.3).

It’s possible that this reliever effect is a sample size illusion due to the Rockies’ short history. However, comparing the Rockies to the other post-1992 expansion teams, none of the others show this pattern. Of the top performances (by VORP) for each of the other expansion teams, only two full-time relievers made their teams’ top 12–those being Jim Mecir‘s 1998 season, and Roberto Hernandez‘s 1999, both for the Devil Rays.

Despite the school of thought that declares that you should rarely pay top dollar for relief pitching, given the market for lefthanded relievers, it is likely that any one year deal the Rockies can reach with Fuentes would be a good–or at least a moveable–contract. For the moment, the stark gap between the Rockies’ starters and relievers will be yet another mystery of baseball at altitude.

Derek Jacques

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Year One of Washington Nationals baseball is in the books. The Nats outplayed their interleague archrivals to the north, enjoyed a 51-day stint atop the NL East, re-opened the dormant RFK Stadium and seated 2,731,993 fans and politicians. But the reasonably strong vital signs couldn’t avoid a second-half crash landing of 29-45, turning the final standings upside down:

                W    L    Pct   GB
Atlanta        90   72   .556    -
Philadelphia   88   74   .543    2
Florida        83   79   .512    7
New York       83   79   .512    7
Washington     81   81   .500    9

The East wasn’t an easy playground, and the Nationals finished 34-41 against division foes. But even if the Expos had moved to Portland or Las Vegas, where any old band of slop-hackers can hang with the pack, adjusting for their tough schedule still would have left them at 75-87, just short of the Padres in the Third-Order standings.

Everyone knows by now that the offense (3.94 runs per game, worst in MLB) was DC’s big handicap. Nationals GM Jim Bowden may or may not be around to try and clean up his own mess, but somebody’s got to do it. Let’s take a peek at each position in the lineup, and the situation facing the front office this winter.

Catcher: Each year, increasingly more of Brian Schneider‘s value is rooted in his bat, but his forte is clearly Gold Glove-caliber defense (he’s caught 44 percent of base thieves in his career). Facing arbitration, he’s in line for a modest raise. Free agent Gary Bennett is very replaceable; they just need someone to spot Schneider versus lefties.

First base: In a lineup where a .256 OBP can score you major playing time, Nick Johnson is a very important man. Coming off a big season in both health and production, he’s also arbitration-eligible and due for a healthy raise.

Second base: Jose Vidro is owed $23 million over the next three years, and two straight years of waning offense and weakening legs make that contract appear doomed. He is currently rehabbing his knee to avoid surgery. Chances are good that Vidro’s prime hitting days are over, but the Nationals desperately need him healthy, if for no other reason than to keep Junior Spivey and Jamey Carroll far away from full-time duties. (Side note: though Rick Short is coming off shoulder surgery, should we really count him out?)

Third base: In the three months following the June amateur draft, fourth overall pick Ryan Zimmerman tore through the minors and landed in the Capitol, displacing Vinny Castilla and hitting .397/.419/.569 as a September call-up. (At all professional levels, he hit .347/.383/.565 in 308 at-bats.) Bowden says the Kid will play every day next year–it’s being reported Castilla will be shopped this winter–and given how he’s aced every test put before him, the only question might be if his long-term future is at the hot corner or…

Shortstop: So Cristian Guzman hits like Juan Guzman. That’s old news. He’s still owed a huge chunk of change, and it sounds like the Nationals will stick with Guzman next season, hoping the deal isn’t a completely sunk cost. Zimmerman is a defensive whiz and played a bit of shortstop in college and in Double-A Harrisburg this summer. If 2005 means anything, the team would be better off keeping Castilla (14.2 VORP and +20 Fielding Runs Above Replacement; one year, $3.1 million due) and instead cutting bait on Guzman (-9.7 VORP and +9 FRAR; three years, $12.6 million left). Letting Zimmerman step in at shortstop instead of third is likely the optimal move offensively and defensively, but the Nationals will probably let him get his feet wet in the Majors at a less demanding position.

Left field: Ryan Church is the early favorite after a solid rookie year that featured a .286 EqA and sound defense at all three outfield spots, but he’ll have to stay healthy. He wasn’t given much of a chance against southpaws, and even though he thrashed them in 30 at-bats, Marlon Byrd is a good bet to stick as Church’s platoon mate.

Center field: Preston Wilson is a free agent, and isn’t expected to return. The versatile Brad Wilkerson will play here when everyone is healthy, but those days were all too rare this season. His own injuries, mostly hand and forearm problems, robbed him of his power. If he regains that strength this winter, he’s a huge asset as one of the team’s best hitters playing league-average defense at a key position.

Right field: If we estimate that every marginal win is worth $2 million, it’s a no-brainer for the Nats to exercise the $4 million option for Jose Guillen, who’s been worth five wins above replacement level for each of the past two years. Guillen still hasn’t conquered his poor plate discipline, but he’s emerged as a right-handed, slightly more strikeout-prone version of Garret Anderson.

In summary, to put their best foot forward, the Nationals need full campaigns from Johnson, Vidro, Church and Wilkerson. That’s not very likely, but if that happens–and if the GM-to-be-named-later properly leverages Zimmerman’s defense–the lineup is in position to rebound.

Dave Haller

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