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There have been no press conferences this winter introducing a Denny Neagle or Mike Hampton or Preston Wilson as the solution to the mile-high dilemma. The Rockies have for the most part retreated from the market, content to quietly lick their wounds and count their casualties after five straight losing seasons and about as many big-ticket mistakes. The team appears to be once more reevaluating its approach to constructing a winner in Colorado, and this time management is falling back on the oldest and most effective strategy around–player development.
The Rockies are grooming a group of young hitters to support the 32-year old Todd Helton before their star loses his offensive value. Twenty-year-old third baseman Ian Stewart, taken in the first round of the 2003 draft, 22-year-old catcher Chris Iannetta (fourth round in ’04), and 21-year-old shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (first round in ’05), all spent the bulk of last season with Class-A Modesto of the California League, and all showed enough to merit advancing to Double-A Tulsa in 2006. Together with third baseman Garrett Atkins and shortstop Clint Barmes, 26-year-olds who put together solid first seasons in Colorado last year, the Rockies are creating a formidable infield that should be the strength of the team for the next few years.
While the Rockies’ system is showing signs of life, the 2006 outlook is again dismal. The offense is weighed down by a handful of colorless fourth outfielders, and the pitching staff is typically problematic. Since they’ll still have to play 162 games, however–and in honor of the end of the bleak month of January, with just three weeks until players arrive in Florida–here are some positional battles to watch for in Tucson:
- The Organizational Soldier: The Rockies love Danny Ardoin because of his defense, which might make you roll your eyes and invoke Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense. However, while the 31-year-old Ardoin’s bat is too weak for a full-time job–many Triple-A lifers could put up a .682 OPS in Coors Field–his glove work is worthy of the accolades. Ardoin had a Rate of 122 last year and was 15 runs above average in only 80 games, third best among major league catchers behind the brothers Molina (Yadier and Jose).
- The Disgruntled Backup: For 3 1/2 years in San Francisco Yorvit Torrealba sat behind Benito Santiago, A.J. Pierzynski and then Mike Matheny, who the Giants signed last year despite Torrealba’s all-around superiority. Torrealba eventually got annoyed enough to request a trade, but struggled mightily in a brief trial in Seattle. The Rockies snagged him for a PTBNL in December, and he’ll likely get his first fair shot in the best of possible circumstances, entering Denver’s offensive nirvana in his breakout-potential age-27 season.
- The Overrated Youngster: After a strong debut in 2004, J.D. Closser was made the starting catcher last spring. Entering the season with a career line of .281/.383/.459 in 2435 minor league at bats, Closser hit just .219/.314/.376 in 237 AB and played terrible defense (13 runs below average in 80 games). He’s still likely the best offensive option of the three, but it remains to be seen whether he can hit enough to be an asset despite his leaden glove, and the ’05 flop makes it doubtful the Rockies will give him much more time.
- The Organizational Soldier: Luis Gonzalez has a higher OPS in two years with Colorado (.774) than in his seven years in the minors (.756). Sure, he punched his bush league clocks in the pitcher’s parks of the Cleveland chain before being taken in the 2003 Rule 5 draft by the Rockies. Although he is entering his peak years, Gonzalez can’t be expected to produce more than he has, and that isn’t much–he ranked 12th among NL second baseman in PMLVr last year.
- The Overrated Youngster: Red flags rise when Billy Beane trades a prospect, and Omar Quintanilla‘s stock dove following a rough 2005 in which he struggled at Double-A Midland and knocked all of two extra base hits in 128 AB with the Rockies. Quintanilla has a higher ceiling than Gonzalez; he hit 42 doubles in 2004 between Single-A and Double-A, and a return of that gap power in Triple-A Colorado Springs will win him a promotion. With Jayson Nix no longer a potential answer at the keystone after a second straight bad year in the Texas League, the Rockies will test whether Quintanilla deserves a piece of their next playoff share.
- The Incumbent: Cory Sullivan didn’t make an appearance in BP 2005, which speaks to his prospect status. Yet here he is, entering 2006 as a starter following a season where he had a .626 road OPS and -0.027 PMLVr. With the Larry Bigbie-for-Ray King trade, the Rockies decided it was more important to have a $2.5 million LOOGY than a player with experience in center and offensive ability making just $0.9 million.
- The Long Shots: It appears the Rockies don’t consider Jorge Piedra a center fielder, but he has ably manned the position in the past–an 18 game stint in 2004–and his .305/.357/.527 line in 203 major league AB suggest he’d be a better option than Sullivan, even if he proves to be a defensive downgrade. After being signed to a minor league deal, Eli Marrero could see some time, in hopes he summons the poltergeist that helped him hit for a .301 EqA in the Atlanta outfield two years ago. Things like that happen to the Braves, of course, but not to Colorado. More interesting is minor leaguer Tony Miller, who put up a .280/.400/.461 line in his second shot at Double-A Tulsa, popping 18 homers and walking 87 times. Miller has the speed to patrol the expanses in Coors, and could get a look if he continues to get on base in Triple-A.
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The Phillies’ offseason moves can be described more in terms of tweaking than a major overhaul. When discussing the new players for the upcoming season, most of the attention will be paid to Aaron Rowand and Tom Gordon. Here are two more names who won’t get nearly as much attention, but who could be part of a useful supporting cast over the season.
- The one member of the pair sure to make the team out of spring training is Shane Victorino. With Endy Chavez being non-tendered and Jason Michaels dealt to the Indians in the trade for Arthur Rhodes, Victorino is left standing as the primary reserve outfielder. Victorino has had a rather convoluted path to the majors in that he has twice been drafted in the Rule 5 draft–neither time did he stick in the majors. In 2003 the Padres drafted him from the Dodgers, but after two disastrous months as a backup outfielder he was sent back. Drafted a second time last year by the Phillies, he didn’t even make it out of spring training. After looking hopelessly overmatched in the Grapefruit League, he was offered back to the Dodgers who declined to take him back, allowing the Phillies to send him to Triple-A. Last year’s PECOTA projection didn’t see much future for him either, projecting a .240 EQA and a -2.2 VORP.
In light of all that, this year’s PECOTA projection is nothing short of astounding, with an EQA of .266 and an a VORP of 18.4. What accounts for the change? In short, he finally put together the ability to handle the strike zone with a respectable amount of power. During his previous seasons he had occasionally shown decent plate discipline or a flash of power, but never both at the same time. Something fell into place last season and he was able to put up a .377 OBP at Scranton while still hitting 59 extra base hits.
Despite having been around long enough to be drafted twice in the Rule 5 draft, Victorino is only 25, so there is reason to be optimistic that the improvements seen last year are real. If so, he becomes a solid bat off the bench, something the Phillies lacked last year. His strength has always been his speed and his defense, so he is well-suited to the fourth outfielder role, and will likely be frequently used as a defensive substitute for Pat Burrell in the late innings.
- Somewhat less likely to make the team at the start of the year is Victorino’s Triple-A teammate from last year, Carlos Ruiz. Normally a 27 year-old catcher who has yet to appear in the major leagues wouldn’t be noteworthy, but Ruiz’s career development is somewhat unusual in that he didn’t begin catching until after high school. That, more than issues with his offense, has slowed down his path through the minors.
Ruiz is not a threat to Mike Lieberthal‘s job. As long as he is healthy, Lieberthal will be the starting catcher. However, Ruiz may sneak into consideration for the backup job. The Phillies seem to regard Ruiz’s potential long-term role as that of a backup catcher, so they are unlikely to hesitate to put him in that role; the current designated backup, Sal Fasano, is signed cheaply while established veteran backup Todd Pratt was allowed to move on.
His defense is usually lauded as his major strength, specifically his ability to work well with pitchers. He has a strong arm, although since his control is not as sharp, the arm strength is only partially put to good use. Offensively, he had a productive season in Scranton last year, though there is understandable concern that his advanced age may have given him a boost. Ruiz’s most surprising skill should carry over, in that he is one of the fastest catchers in the game, finishing 5th in the International League in triples last year with 9.
His injury history is a concern. Ruiz spent a good deal of time last year dealing with a bad shoulder, and his desire to always block the plate on plays at home–even when it is not necessary–increases the chances of him getting hurt again. If he can demonstrate in spring training that he is healthy and can avoid being overwhelmed by major league pitching, he may very well join Victorino on the Phillies bench.