4 Colorado Rockies Plan D: Escape the cellar by relying on homegrown pitchers and the long ball

March 31, 2003

Every season of late the Rockies seem to switch tactics in a bid
to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1995. They got to
the postseason that year on the Big Bat philosophy, in which they
loaded their lineup with power hitters such as Dante Bichette and
Vinny Castilla and tried to outslug the opposition. But four
years later they were in the NL West cellar, and the changes
started coming fast and furious. There was the Fleet Feet
experiment, in which it was thought that speedy players such as
Jeffrey Hammonds and Jeff Cirillo could knock the ball into the
expansive gaps at Coors Field and race around the bases. And
there was the terribly unsuccessful (Over) Pay for Pitching
strategy, in which the Rockies committed not-so-small fortunes to
free agents such as Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton.

But the experiment that Colorado would no doubt like to try this
year--the Cloning of Jason Jennings--is beyond their expertise.
Jennings, a 24-year-old righthander, won 16 games and the
National League Rookie of the Year award last season, impressive
achievements in their own right but downright awesome when the
thin air of Denver is factored in. "Pitching in Coors can be
mentally draining," says Jennings. "You have to concentrate
harder than normal, and you have to fight the frustration when
your ball doesn't break or sink as much as it does [in other
ballparks]. But if you back off and try to be too careful, it
just gets worse. You can't let the ballpark change the way you
pitch."

The combination of Jennings's emergence and the struggles of
established pitchers such as Neagle (17-19, 5.32 ERA in his two
years with Colorado) and Hampton (12-26 in his final 49 starts
with Colorado before being traded to Atlanta in the off-season)
has led the Rockies to this new approach: They want Homegrown
Hurlers, on the theory that the young guys won't hate pitching at
Coors because they won't know any better. That's why Shawn Chacon
and Aaron Cook appear likely to join Jennings and Neagle in the
rotation. "We've had a revelation," says manager Clint Hurdle.
"The pitchers who have had to learn at Coors Field aren't
thinking, I did it this way when I was pitching in Atlanta or
Cincinnati or Montreal. They are just thinking about what they
need to do to establish themselves."

Revamping the pitching staff will take time, but Colorado can't
afford to wait for a five-year plan to play out, not after
consecutive 73-win seasons have cost them at the gate. In 2002
attendance at Coors dropped for the sixth consecutive year and
fell below 3 million for the first time in franchise history.
This year season-ticket sales are around 14,000, a drop-off of
about 10,000 from 2002. That's another reason why general manager
Dan O'Dowd--who, with two years remaining on his contract, is
under pressure to produce success--has been so active in the
trade market.

Now believing that speedy players with little power aren't a good
fit at Coors, O'Dowd wants power at every position. He dealt
fleet centerfielder Juan Pierre to the Marlins in the three-team
Hampton deal and got back centerfielder Preston Wilson and
catcher Charles Johnson, to go with outfielders Jay Payton and
Gabe Kapler, who were added at the trading deadline last July.
Colorado also signed free-agent third baseman Jose Hernandez, who
can hit the ball a long way (24 homers last season with the
Brewers) if he hits it at all (major-league-high 188 strikeouts).
Hurdle believes that Hernandez (who, with Juan Uribe injured,
will open the season at shortstop), Johnson, Payton and Wilson
are all capable of 20-homer seasons, and he is counting on the
jewels of the Rockies' batting order, first baseman Todd Helton
and rightfielder Larry Walker, to continue drilling line drives.

But even if the offense is more potent this season, the club's
hopes of staying out of fifth place will rest largely on its
pitching. That means Jennings must establish himself as the ace.
Pedro Astacio's 29 total victories in 1999 and 2000 are the most
a Rockie has ever won in back-to-back seasons. "For any rookie
coming off a good year, there are going to be questions about
whether he can do it again or whether he was just a one-year
wonder," says Jennings. "I'm not going to worry about that or set
a goal to win a certain number of games. I just want to have a
solid season."

O'Dowd is hoping for the same thing. If Colorado has to try
another experiment next year, someone else may be running the
laboratory. --P.T.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE .300 CLUB The constants through all the changes are Helton (right) and Walker, who are always among the NL's top hitters. COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES JENNINGS

IN FACT
With just one complete game pitched in 2002, Colorado tied a big
league record set in 2001 by the Devil Rays. The only Rockie to
go nine? Denny Neagle.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Rockies

"This organization seems to be panic-stricken, always changing
what they're doing. The team that went to the playoffs in 1995
banged the ball around, so they must think that's the way to go
again.... Offensively, they've added a lot of strikeouts. Jose
Hernandez is good for about 200. Preston Wilson has made
adjustments to cut down on his swing, but he'll still have 130 to
140. Charles Johnson strikes out a lot, plus he's lazy behind the
plate and no longer throws well. At least Wilson can hit 30 to 40
home runs in that ballpark.... Larry Walker and Todd Helton still
put up monster numbers, but losing day in and day out must be
wearing them down. The offense will score runs in bunches, but
the Rockies are so streaky that decent pitching will carve them
up.... Despite his pear-shaped body, Jason Jennings is a
tremendous athlete. His plus sinker is key in that ballpark. He's
going to establish himself in the upper echelon of NL
starters.... Among the young arms Aaron Cook is the prized gem,
but they're throwing him in there three or four months too early.
If I were running this club, Shawn Chacon would be my Number 2
starter--he looks like a veteran--but the team has been less than
impressed with his dedication."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2002 statistics

BATTING ORDER

2B Ozuna
LF Payton
1B Helton
CF Wilson
RF Walker
SS Hernandez
3B Stynes
C Johnson

PABLO OZUNA [**][#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 226 .326 7 33 16

JAY PAYTON

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 94 .303 16 59 7

TODD HELTON

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 17 .329 30 109 5

PRESTON WILSON [#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 86 .243 23 65 20

LARRY WALKER

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 20 .338 26 104 6

JOSE HERNANDEZ [#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 70 .288 24 73 3

CHRIS STYNES [#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 267 .241 5 26 1

CHARLES JOHNSON [#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 232 .217 6 36 0

BENCH

GABE KAPLER*

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 212 .279 2 34 11

JUAN URIBE

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 311 .240 6 49 9

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

LH Denny Neagle 203 8 11 5.5 1.42 5.26
RH Jason Jennings 31 16 8 5.8 1.46 4.52
RH Denny Stark 95 11 4 5.7 1.34 4.00
RH Aaron Cook(R) 152 2 1 6.0 1.51 4.54
RH Shawn Chacon 233 5 11 5.7 1.53 5.73

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Jose Jimenez 47 2 10 41 1.19 3.56
RH Todd Jones 137 1 4 1 1.36 4.70
RH Steve Reed [#] 225 2 5 1 1.04 2.01

[#] New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Combined AL and NL stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 157)
[**]Triple A stats

MANAGER

Clint Hurdle
second season with Colorado

2002 RECORD
73-89
fourth in NL West

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)