MANAGER CLINTHURDLE sixth season with Rockies
IN LATE AUGUST, after a once promising season had turned into yet another RockyMountain Horror Show, Colorado made what at the time seemed a triviallate-season roster move. The Rockies, who had plunged to last place after a44--40 start, called up 31-year-old second baseman Kazuo Matsui, the formerJapanese superstar who wilted in the Big Apple after signing a three-year,$20.1 million contract with the Mets in 2004. "At the time we were lookingfor an offensive identity," says general manager Dan O'Dowd, who tradedutility player Eli Marrero to New York for Matsui in June, then immediatelysent Matsui, who had been struggling at the plate, to Triple A ColoradoSprings. "We weren't aggressive. We were first in sacrifice bunts and hadlittle speed. We needed a spark--but we had no idea it would come fromKaz."
After two and ahalf high-anxiety years in New York and two and a half months in ColoradoSprings, Matsui (a .256 hitter with a .308 OBP in New York) arrived in Denverrejuvenated and without a Japanese media horde shadowing his every move.Batting mostly leadoff, he hit .345, had a .392 OBP and stole eight bases in 32games, helping to turn a mediocre offense (ranked 16th in the majors over thefirst five months) into the highest-scoring in September. "We were atotally different club with him," says manager Clint Hurdle. "He [was]the fastest player on our squad--the base stealer we hadn't had at the top ofthe lineup since Juan Pierre left [in 2002]."
The Rockiesbelieve that the dynamic player they saw last September is the Matsui everyonehad expected to see in New York. This winter O'Dowd signed him to a one-year,incentive-laden, $1.5 million deal, then went shopping for more speed. In atrade with the Astros, O'Dowd picked up centerfielder Willy Taveras, who swipeda total of 67 bases for the Astros the last two years. (No Colorado playerstole more than 14 in any of the past four seasons.) Matsui and Taveras willset the table for a potent middle of the order which includes leftfielder MattHolliday, third baseman Garrett Atkins and rightfielder Brad Hawpe. Says arival NL general manager, "This is an offense that can beat you in a lot ofdifferent ways, which isn't something you've been able to say about thisteam."
For all the talkabout the humidor and soggy baseballs in Colorado, Coors Field remained true toits reputation as a hitters' park--more runs were scored there than in anyother NL stadium last year-- but the Rockies pitching staff still combined forthe lowest ERA in franchise history (4.66) and also ended a streak of 12seasons ranking next to last or last in the league. Most of the credit belongedto 26-year-old lefthander Jeff Francis and a pair of sinkerballers, Aaron Cookand Jason Jennings. In the off-season the Rockies dealt Jennings, who was inthe last year of his contract, but acquired two other sinkerballers:31-year-old righthander Rodrigo Lopez, traded from the Orioles, and promising25-year-old righthander Jason Hirsh, who was dominant with the Astros' Triple Aclub in Round Rock (13--2, 2.10 ERA). "It's finally dawned on them that [atCoors] you've got to have sinkerballers who keep the ball down," says an NLscout. "That's their only chance of winning. But at least now they have achance."
If the Rockiesdon't make progress this season, look for big changes in 2008: Hurdle, hired in'02, and O'Dowd, the team's G.M. since '00, are in the final year of theirrespective contracts. "Last season was a great maturation year for us,"says O'Dowd, who isn't overstating when he says this team is the most promisinghe's ever had. "One of these years we're going to make a huge step. Maybethis is the year."
a modestproposal ...
For a team thatplays half its games in a stadium where three-run homers are as easy to come byas drafts of Coors Light, the Rockies are oddly obsessed with improving theirteam speed. Picking up Willy Taveras from the Astros, for whom he had 33 stealsin 42 attempts and hit one homer last year, was a smart move if only becauseColorado needed a good defensive centerfielder. But handing a job to secondbaseman Kazuo Matsui is a mistake. While Matsui certainly performed well in 32games with the Rockies after being called up to the majors in August, hisoverall big-league record tells another story: an on-base percentage of .318and only 13 home runs in 970 at bats. Jamey Carroll (left), who started 102games at second for Colorado last year, isn't as flashy as Matsui, but his .356career OBP and steady defense make him the better player.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS
|TROY TULOWITZKI (R) SS||¬†||¬†||¬†||¬†||¬†|
|CHRIS IANNETTA (R)||C||¬†||¬†||¬†||¬†|
|JEFF BAKER (R)||INF-OF||¬†||¬†||¬†||¬†|
|RH||Jason Hirsh (R)*||126||3||4||29||1.57||6.04|
* New acquisition
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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Combined assistslast season by Colorado's projected Opening Day outfield of Brad Hawpe (16),Willy Taveras (nine) and Matt Holliday (eight). The three players ranked amongthe majors' top eight in assists at their respective positions, with Hawpeleading the rightfielders and Taveras (playing for the Astros in 2006) trailingonly the Mets' Carlos Beltran in centerfield.