Shawn Chacon has a knack for finding silver linings, which serves him well as a member of the Rockies. So it was that when the 27-year-old righthander emerged from the trainer's room one day in March after receiving treatment for a strained hamstring, he declared that he wasn't at all frustrated by being sidelined for most of the spring. "It could be worse," he said. "At least it's not my arm."
It could be worse isn't much of a rallying cry, but it's about right for the 2005 Rockies. A roster loaded with prospects and suspects makes them realistic about their chances this year. As manager Clint Hurdle says, "We're not taking [championship] ring sizes."
"By the end of the year," adds general manager Dan O'Dowd, "we hope to have a core of players that we can take another step with. Who will that be? I have no idea."
Given the superiority of the other four teams in the division and Colorado's dearth of proven talent, the Rockies appear headed for their fourth last-place finish in seven years. "You can pretty much see the writing on the wall," says first baseman Todd Helton, who other than centerfielder Preston Wilson is the only player in the projected lineup with more than two years of big league experience.
As soon as his nagging hamstring is healthy, Chacon, who was Colorado's closer most of last season, will go back to being a starter. He was showing great promise in that capacity in 2003--on June 23 of that year he was 11--2 (the National League leader in winning percentage) and was picked for the All-Star Game--until a sore elbow derailed him. Hampered by what was eventually diagnosed as tendinitis in his pitching arm, Chacon lost his next six decisions. The Rockies shipped him to the minors in August and didn't bother to recall him when rosters expanded in September.
Shifting Chacon to the bullpen last year made sense not only because it would reduce the strain on his elbow, but also because he hadn't been a strong second-half pitcher in his first three major league seasons. In fact, he had never won a game after July 30. While the move may have been easier on Chacon's elbow, it was certainly harder on Hurdle's stomach lining. Chacon developed control problems coming out of the bullpen, walking 52 batters in 631/3 innings--the kiss of death for any reliever, but especially lethal at Coors Field. Although he saved 35 of Colorado's 68 wins, Chacon went 1--9 with a 7.11 ERA and nine blown saves. Overall, the bullpen set major league records for blown saves (35) and losses (39). But his elbow didn't flare up again, so, you know, it could have been worse.
The difficulty in going from starting games to closing them, Chacon says, is the smaller margin for error. "If you walk one or two guys as a starter in the first inning, you have time to work your way out of it and find your rhythm," he says. "If you do it as a closer in the ninth inning of a one-run game, it's a whole different story. You feel like you have to try to blow the next couple of guys away to get out of the jam, and suddenly you're overthrowing and getting out of the strike zone. It's a more comfortable feeling for me as a starter."
Chacon also discovered that as a closer he didn't need his entire repertoire of pitches. The problem was, he couldn't decide which of his pitches--fastball, curve, slider and changeup--to eliminate. "Last year he was wondering, What kind of a pitcher do I need to be? What does being a closer entail?" says pitching coach Bob Apodaca. "That led to him trying to do things he wasn't capable of doing. But I think he knows what to do as a starter. He's much more at ease knowing that he's going back to a familiar role."
Unfortunately for the Rockies, who have had only one winning season since 1998, it appears they're going to return to an all-too-familiar position as well. Yet if Chacon holds up for a full season and a few young players establish themselves as guys who can contribute long-term to the team, at least Colorado will be able to say it could have been worse. --P.T.
Todd Helton was the runner-up for the NL batting crown the last two years, the first player in the league to do that since Atlanta's Ralph Garr in 1971 and '72.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Rockies
"THIS IS a Triple A club that's not even fun to watch. I don't see how they're going to score, even at Coors.... Todd Helton will put up All-Star numbers, but he's getting tired of going in a different direction every year.... Aaron Miles is a gutty second baseman, but his tools are limited. I see Clint Barmes as a utility player rather than as a starting shortstop. At third Garrett Atkins is a big drop-off from Vinny Castilla. I'm not sure he's going to produce the every-day numbers.... The outfielders would be backups on good clubs, though in left Matt Holliday has grown on me. He's a good athlete for a big guy. They're actively shopping Preston Wilson, and Dustan Mohr and Brad Hawpe are extra outfielders at best.... Jason Jennings doesn't have the best body, but he has the heavy sinker. Joe Kennedy has lost a lot of velocity, and his breaking ball doesn't have teeth anymore. Jeff Francis's stuff is pretty ordinary, but he pitches with the poise of a veteran.... They'll use Chin-hui Tsao, who has a good arm, to close, with Aaron Taylor filling in. Taylor is Jeff Nelson with better stuff."
projected roster with 2004 statistics
BRAD HAWPE (R)
CLINT BARMES (R)
GARRETT ATKINS (R)
J.D. CLOSSER (R)
DUSTAN MOHR [New acquisition]
4th in NL West
fourth season with Colorado
RH Chin-hui Tsao
LH Brian Fuentes
RH Scott Dohmann
New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws IPS: Innings pitched per start WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)