Nobody's talking about the Colorado Rockies, but how many teams have done as many good things as they've done this offseason?
In addition to shedding Mike Hampton, the Rockies have measurably improved themselves at three different positions. Which is hard to do without spending a lot of money (and as near as I can tell, they haven't).
Behind the plate, the Rockies now have Bobby Estalella (who they had last year) and Charles Johnson (who they didn't). Both of them were hurt in 2002, but you don't have go back too far to find some pretty impressive numbers; 2000, to be exact ...
At-bats 421 299
HR 31 14
OBP .381 .357
Slug .582 .468
Johnson's numbers went down in 2001 and they went down again in 2002. Estalella declined badly in 2001, but bounced back with decent numbers for the Rockies last season before going down with a rotator-cuff injury.
I'm not suggesting that these guys will combine for 40 home runs, but I do think the Rockies have a pretty good shot at getting decent production from their catchers this season. Last season they did not get decent production from Gary Bennett, their No. 1 catcher, and you simply can't afford to give away a position when you play half your games at Coors Field.
Before I get to the other two positions at which the Rockies have obviously improved themselves, let me just briefly discuss left field.
I don't know if a team has ever fielded a more impressive collection of unrealized talent at one position. At this moment, the Rockies have four players vying for left field. Those four players are Jay Payton, Gabe Kapler, Jack Cust, and Ben Petrick, all of whom have been hailed, not so many years ago, as future stars.
Of course, it hasn't worked out that way for any of them, and it's probably not going to. That said, there's a pretty good chance that at least two of them will become useful major-league players ... and two's all you need for left field. I'd probably go with a Cust/Kapler platoon, but what's important is that manager Clint Hurdle comes up with a plan in March (can you imagine what Earl Weaver could have done with a quartet like this?).
So they should be OK in left field, Larry Walker's still chugging along in right field ... and now the Rockies have Preston Wilson in center field. Wilson wasn't very good last year -- in fact, he wasn't even as good as Juan Pierre, the man he's replacing -- but that was due to injuries. A healthy Wilson represents a huge upgrade over Pierre.
And speaking of huge upgrades, the Rockies go from "ol' .286 OBP Juan Uribe" in 2002 to "ol' 24-homer Jose Hernandez" in 2003. Even if we assume that Hernandez was over his head last year (he was), we still have to think they're a lot better off now than they were.
I guess this is where I should mention the strikeouts.
As in, Rockies fans are going to see a lot of them in 2003.
In 2000, Preston Wilson would have broken the single-season record for strikeouts if his manager hadn't benched him.
In 2002, Jose Hernandez would have broken the single-season record for strikeouts if his manager hadn't benched him.
Now they're in the same lineup, and I guarantee that at least a couple of Mile High baseball writers will predict disaster for the Rockies, if only because of all those "rally-killing strikeouts."
That's nonsense, of course. Strikeouts are just slightly more damaging than other outs, and in fact many fine teams also sport high strikeout totals. But how will these high-strikeout guys fare in the rarefied air?
A couple of weeks ago, while wondering who the Rockies should acquire to play third base -- Hernandez, or Shea Hillenbrand? -- I repeated Joe Sheehan's argument that simply putting the ball in play is what's more important at Coors Field. Ergo, the Rockies should get Hillenbrand.
Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that Sheehan's colleague Rany Jazayerli had convincingly rebutted that argument. Extreme contact hitters, as Rany pointed out, actually benefit less from Coors Field than other sorts of hitters. What happens when you take a guy who doesn't hit home runs or strike out, and put him in Coors Field? He still doesn't hit home runs and he still doesn't strike out.
But what happens if you take a guy who does hit home runs and does strike out, and put him in Coors Field? He hits more home runs and he strikes out less often (and as a result, he makes contact more often).
In other words, Coors Field just might be the perfect ballpark for both Hernandez and Wilson. (And if you think that the men who run the Rockies don't read Rany Jazayerli, I've got a lovely little jewel of a ballpark in St. Petersburg that I'd like to sell you.)
What might Hernandez and Wilson do? I think they might be just as good as Vinny Castilla and Dante Bichette once were.
Has Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd added any great players to the roster this winter? No, he hasn't. But if the Rockies have a formula for success, it's pummeling their opponents at Coors Field, then hanging on for dear life on the road. And it seems to me that their pummeling prospects today are quite a bit better than they were six months ago.
On the other hand, there are some pretty compelling reasons to think the Rockies are going to finish in fourth or fifth place. For one thing, they've still got question marks at second base (Brent Butler) and third base (Chris Stynes and Greg Norton). Butler's better than he played last year and Norton will hit if given a chance, but neither of them are exactly All-Star candidates. For another thing, as usual the Rockies are about three starters short of a good rotation. And for one more thing, they've simply got too far to go.
In 2002, the Rockies finished 25 games behind the Diamondbacks and 22-and-a-half games behind the Giants and 19 games behind the Dodgers. It will be something of an accomplishment if the Rockies can pass one of those teams in 2003.
But all three? That would qualify as something of a miracle.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.