Commentary

Youth, winning formula should sustain upstart Rockies

Originally Published: October 20, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DENVER -- They're a team caught in the middle of something special and unforgettable. But if you think the Colorado Rockies are just a bunch of impostors riding a shooting star to some kind of fluky hot streak, we've got this bulletin for you:

Sooner or later, the streak will end. But for the team currently floating on a 21-1 cloud, this is just the beginning.

Matt Holliday
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesMatt Holliday, who debuted with the Rockies in 2004, has averaged 35 home runs and 125 RBIs the last two seasons.

"There are a lot of good, young players on this team," says the Rockies' centerpiece player, Matt Holliday. "And it should be pretty much the same team next year, I would think. So we'll see. If they keep this group together, we're pretty strong in all aspects of the game."

To win 21 times in 22 games, now that's fluky. The '61 Yankees never did that. The '84 Tigers never did that. The '86 Mets never did that. Only four other teams in the past 70 years have ever gone on a 21-1 tear. So it's as much a measure of good luck as good baseball.

But there's nothing fluky about the team that has strung together that 21-1 streak. If there is, how could we explain all this?

• The Rockies led the league in hitting.

• They had the highest fielding percentage in the history of baseball.

• They led the league in ERA after the All-Star break.

• And they have the best record in the National League since May 1, June 1, July 1, Aug. 1, Sept. 1 and Oct. 1.

So if anybody wants to make a case that the best team in the NL isn't about to play in this World Series, be our guest. But our response will be: See above.

"They've had a tremendous amount of good fortune," one scout says. "The balls they hit are catching a lot of chalk. And they've had a lot of balls hit right at them. But let me tell you something. This is a good team. They're not going to be a one-hit wonder. If you asked, 'Who's the favorite in the NL West next year right now?' I'd say Colorado, if they keep the same club."

So the question isn't: Are they for real? The question is: Can they keep it together? And more importantly: Have they finally found a formula that will allow a team to sustain success a mile above sea level? If so, this might be the team to beat for a lot longer than next year. Let's take a look:

Youth is served
"Beware of the Rockies," one NL GM says. "I've been saying that since June. Look at their nucleus. Guys like Holliday and [Brad] Hawpe and [Garrett] Atkins are still young players, but they're also 'experienced' young players. And the shortstop [Troy Tulowitzki] is a tremendous young player. So they've got two generations of young players that are both real good.

Dan O'Dowd
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiFor Dan O'Dowd, 2007 is the Rockies' second winning season since he became GM in 1999.

"You want to know who they remind me of? Look back at the Atlanta Braves in 1991-92. They had a lot of good players who were [ages] 27-30. And they had more good players who were 22-25. And that's the dynamic on the Rockies. They're for real."

Of the Rockies' eight starting position players, six of them are in their 20s. All their postseason games except one have been started by a pitcher 26 or younger. Ubaldo Jimenez (23) and Franklin Morales (21) both have given sneak previews of their top-of-the-rotation futures. And the closer, Manny Corpas, is 24.

They play in a division in which two other teams -- the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers -- also are loaded with young hotshots. And the San Francisco Giants probably have the best young starting pitching around. But among baseball people we've surveyed, the Rockies' cast is viewed as more advanced, more complete and more fundamentally sound.

Oh, and one more thing: These guys have won -- everywhere.

"This group of guys has won Double-A championships," outfielder Ryan Spilborghs says. "We've won A-ball championships. We've won in Triple-A. It's not like, all of a sudden, we've just started to win. Our organization has been winning in the minor leagues for years. And the guys in this clubhouse have been part of that."

Now, though, they've won where it really matters: in the big leagues. And the good news is, there are more where this group came from.

They have pitching coming (Greg Reynolds, Juan Morillo, Brandon Hynick), not to mention the return of the highly regarded Jason Hirsh from a broken leg. They have position players not too far over the horizon (third baseman Ian Stewart, catcher Chris Iannetta, second baseman Eric Young Jr., outfielder Dexter Fowler). So there's no reason this team shouldn't keep winning, or at least contending, for a long time.

The secret formula
They heard for years this couldn't be done. Not in Denver. Not at Coors Field.

Coors Field
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCoors Field was the third-most hitter-friendly ballpark in the majors in 2007 according to ESPN.com's Park Factor stats.

They heard for years there was no possible formula that would allow a team to win if it had to play half its games in the semi-weightlessness of the Rocky Mountains.

Uhhh, guess there was.

But it wasn't the formula they tried in the mid- and late-'90s. "Bash 'Em To Death" didn't work.

And it wasn't the formula they tried at the beginning of the new millennium. "If You Overpay Them, Pitchers Will Come" didn't work, either.

So the Rockies essentially blew up the old blueprints and settled on this one:

    1. Put a guy who catches the ball at every position.

    2. Balance the lineup with mashers, athletes and hitters with plate discipline.

    3. Develop your own pitchers -- the more swing-and-miss types, the better.

    4. And complement all that with a couple of innovations that allow baseball games played at Coors to actually end in baseball scores, not Arena Football League scores: letting the infield grass grow, and, of course, The Fabulous Humidor, the climate-controlled room installed in 2002 to keep the balls at 70 degrees and 50-percent humidity.

"The humidor," one scout says, "has changed everything. Now, if I was going to rank the best hitters' parks in that league, I think Coors is back in the middle of the pack."

Oh, Coors still is not exactly the Petco Park of the Mountain Time Zone. We'll concede that. The Rockies did score nearly 100 more runs at home this year than on the road. But that used to be more like 200.

In Coors' first seven seasons, back in the pre-humidor era, there were five more runs scored per game when the Rockies played at home (13.8) than on the road (8.8). But over the past two seasons, with both the humidor and lawn-mower modifications in place, that gap is down to about a run and a half (10.7 at home, compared to 9.3 on the road). So, Coors doesn't play a whole lot differently anymore than, say, Jacobs Field.

"What the humidor has done," GM Dan O'Dowd says, "is given us a chance to pitch and play defense. Our pitching is better, too. But the big thing is, it's changed the mind-set of our pitchers. It's given them the ability to attack the strike zone, because they're not afraid of contact."

Love won't keep them together

Once the games are over this year, the tough part begins:

That's the part where the Rockies try to keep these pieces in place.

I'm not worried about next year. I know we can do it next year. What happens to our payroll beyond that -- our fan base will determine that. If we end up drawing three million fans a year, the answers to the questions are different.

--Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd

We're talking about a team that has reached the World Series with a $54 million Opening Day payroll, which ranked 25th in baseball. But that's only because most of these guys have managed to win so young, before they have maxed out their earning power. So to keep this nucleus together as the arbitration years and free-agent payoffs approach, it's going to require creativity, tough decisions and dollars.

"I'm not worried about next year," O'Dowd says. "I know we can do it next year. What happens to our payroll beyond that -- our fan base will determine that. If we end up drawing three million fans a year, the answers to the questions are different."

Next year, the payroll is expected to jump about $10 million, into the low $60 million area. Of the regulars, only Kaz Matsui and Yorvit Torrealba are eligible for free agency. And of the core group, only Holliday, Hawpe, Atkins, Willy Taveras and Brian Fuentes are arbitration-eligible.

So if some of these players aren't back, that will be a matter of choice, not affordability. The biggest question the Rockies will ponder might be whether to trade Fuentes, who lost his closer's job to Corpas, has a year left until free agency and would figure to have big value as a trading chip.

But over the horizon, some monstrous questions loom. And none is bigger than the future of Holliday.

He's 27 years old. He's coming off an MVP-type season. He's two years away from free agency. And his agent is (uh-ohhh) Scott Boras.

So is Holliday going to stick around? Or is he going to become this franchise's Mark Teixeira?

We could find out this winter. The Rockies figure to dial Boras' number at some point to see if they can lock up Holliday for his final two arbitration years and beyond. But selling off free-agent years never has been one of Boras' favorite pastimes.

"I can't imagine it will be easy," O'Dowd says. "But we'll make it hard for him to say no. I'll put it that way."

How long Holliday wears the old black-and-purple uniform could have a lot to do with how long the Rockies' window of contention lasts. But if you think that window is going to be propped open for only about another week and a half, you haven't been paying attention.

"This is definitely not a fluke" Spilborghs says. "If you start looking at the type of guys we have on this club, you see All-Stars everywhere. We've got a rookie of the year (Tulowitzki). We've got an MVP (Holliday). We've got Corpas, who is unbelievable. We've got [Jeff] Francis, who is a bona-fide No. 1. So if they do keep this group together, I think we're capable of doing special things for quite a while."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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