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5 Colorado Rockies A converted starter fills the void at closer, but will he get leads to protect?

April 05, 2004
April 05, 2004

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April 5, 2004

Baseball Preview 2004

5 Colorado Rockies A converted starter fills the void at closer, but will he get leads to protect?

Just when Shawn Chacon was relaxing at home in December, feeling
good about a breakout season in which he became only the second
Rockies pitcher to make the All-Star team, manager Clint Hurdle
telephoned him to tell him that the club wanted to convert him
into a closer. Chacon didn't know what to think.

This is an article from the April 5, 2004 issue

"Surprised," Chacon says. "Very surprised."

A few of his teammates, however, said they knew exactly what to
think.

"Two or three called me up and said, 'Man, they're trying to take
money out of your pocket,'" Chacon says.

Good starting pitchers generally do earn more glue than closers
because they throw more innings and are harder to find. Rockies
general manager Dan O'Dowd said he even ran some salary
simulations to show Chacon, 26, the difference. And if it wasn't
about the money, why in the oxygen-depleted world of
Colorado--where no qualifier in the franchise's 11-year history
has had an ERA better than 4.00 and only eight have come in under
5.00--would the Rockies turn a young starter with four quality
pitches into a specialist?

"I know it might not make sense for 29 other franchises," O'Dowd
says, "but we operate under a different set of parameters."

In Denver, where baseballs and leads vanish into thin air, O'Dowd
says he believes that Chacon has more value as a closer because
"he can impact the game more. Most of our games are decided in
the fifth, sixth and seventh innings and by how and when you use
your [setup] relievers. And you can't do that with any confidence
without a closer you know you can count on."

Actually, Rockies starters earned the fifth-most decisions in the
league last year--even though their rotation threw fewer innings
than all but two teams. Baseball at altitude, however, always has
made the architecture of a winning team more vexing than anywhere
else. The Rockies must constantly switch from a PS2 brand of
baseball to the real stuff once they hit the road, and their
alltime record reveals the duality: They're a .555 team at home
and a .393 club on the road. Overall they've never won more than
83 games in a season and have suffered a dip in attendance seven
straight years.

Coors Field is the Lourdes of baseball for hitters, having been
the font of miraculous revivals for players such as Andres
Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Ellis Burks and Jay Payton.
Leftfielder Jeromy Burnitz (.299 OBP last year), shortstop Royce
Clayton (.301 OBP) and--back for a second shot of elixir--third
baseman Vinny Castilla (.310 OBP) are this year's supplicants.

Pitching in Denver has been like ordering the Rocky Mountain
oysters at Coors Field: It's not for the fainthearted, and you're
better off not dwelling on the ingredients. Busts Billy Swift,
Greg Harris, Bret Saberhagen, Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton and Denny
Neagle have scared the Rockies from spending big money on
pitchers. "We're never going down that road again," O'Dowd says.

Instead O'Dowd has clipped coupons to patch a rotation with no
legit No. 2 starter, never mind a No. 1. Behind nominal ace Shawn
Estes (8-11 last year), O'Dowd is trying Jason Jennings, Joe
Kennedy, Scott Elarton and Chin-hui Tsao, who combined for all of
22 wins last year and whose lack of recent portfolio seems to
make Chacon's conversion all the more curious.

The Rockies converted Chacon partly because they were so
closer-phobic last year, when Jose Jimenez lost 10 games and the
confidence of his teammates. "It wore us down mentally," first
baseman Todd Helton says.

Chacon also has had durability questions--he's never won a game
after July in the majors--that gave the Rockies some pause about
his long-term future as a starter. So they enrolled him this
spring in Goose's School for Closers, bringing former closer Rich
Gossage to camp as his private tutor.

"He's talked to me about having that personality that's got to
match your stuff," Chacon says. "He said, 'If you've got electric
stuff, you've got to have an electric personality. Hitters don't
have to fear you, but they have to be leery of you. When you come
in they have to think, O.K., this game is over.'"

It took Chacon one week from Hurdle's phone call to come around
to the idea of closing. "I didn't want to make a decision about
money," he says. "It's best for the team." This, after all, is
Denver, where the rules are different for everything from boiling
water to sending your best starter to finishing school. --T.V.

COLOR PHOTO: MARK J. TERRILL/AP LESS IS MORE The reduced workload of closing should keep Chacon fresher and make him a greater asset to the team.COLOR PHOTO: HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES BURNITZ

IN FACT

Last year Todd Helton was the first player since 2000 to have 200
hits and 100 walks. He also did it in 2000.

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

"THIS IS one of those teams that make you shake your head and
wonder what the hell they're doing. Their 40-man roster is in
shambles, and outside of Todd Helton and Preston Wilson everyone
in the lineup is on the downside of their careers.... Helton has
looked fantastic. It appears he's put on 15 pounds of muscle and
is hitting balls into the next stratosphere.... The pitching
staff is going to be a major question mark. Jason Jennings
doesn't have anywhere near the stuff he's had in the past....
[Infielder] Luis Gonzalez is a guy to keep an eye on. They picked
him up in the Rule V draft, and he's shown an ability to hit the
ball all over the field.... I don't buy into the idea that Coors
Field is going to turn guys like Royce Clayton, Jeromy Burnitz
and Vinny Castilla into better hitters. Burnitz has been a home
run or strikeout guy his entire career--Clayton too--and playing
in Denver isn't going to change that.... You just get the feeling
that it's not a happy camp, and if they get off to a bad start,
things could get ugly really quick."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING ORDER

2B Miles
SS Clayton
1B Helton
CF Wilson
RF Walker
3B Castilla
LF Burnitz
C Johnson

PRESTON WILSON
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 11 .282 36 141 14

JEROMY BURNITZ [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 92 .239 31 77 5

LARRY WALKER
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 76 .284 16 79 7

ROYCE CLAYTON [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 190 .228 11 39 5

AARON MILES (R)* [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 187 .304 11 50 8

VINNY CASTILLA [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 102 .277 22 76 1

TODD HELTON
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 4 .358 33 117 0

CHARLES JOHNSON
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 204 .230 20 61 1

BENCH

TODD GREENE [New acquisition]
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 269 .229 10 20 0

MARK SWEENEY
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 348 .258 2 14 0

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

LH Shawn Estes [New acquisition]
236 8 11 5.4 1.74 5.73
RH Jason Jennings 220 12 13 5.7 1.65 5.11
LH Joe Kennedy [New acquisition]
326 3 12 6.3 1.60 6.13
RH Scott Elarton 268 4 4 5.1 1.80 6.27
RH Chin-hui Tsao (R) 250 3 3 5.3 1.57 6.02

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Shawn Chacon 99 11 8 0 1.33 4.60
LH Brian Fuentes 166 3 3 4 1.30 2.75
RH Steve Reed 227 5 3 0 1.34 3.27

2003 RECORD
74-88
fourth in NL West

MANAGER
Clint Hurdle
third season with Colorado

New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Triple A stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 142)