Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Don Baylor's failures will haunt the Rockies

When Clint Hurdle brought the Colorado Rockies first manager back on to his staff before the 2009 season, the move was celebrated.

The club had gone back to it's roots and hired someone who understood the culture of the Rockies. However, that move will continue to haunt the Rockies for years to come.

It became increasingly clear as the 2010 season progressed that Baylor was failing miserably at his job. When players fell into slumps, they never recovered. Hitters were continuously failing with runners in scoring position, and striking out when a ground ball could get the job done.

After the 2010 season, the Rockies had made no decisions on their coaches being retained or not. However, the club made it very clear that they were willing to let Baylor interview for open managerial positions. Nothing materialized, and the next step became inevitable. The Rockies hired Carney Lansford, their former Triple-A hitting coach who has had success with several of the current 25-man roster, and gave Baylor the token front-office-job-offer. Baylor turned down the job and took the Diamondbacks open hitting coach position.

As obvious as Baylor's flaws were, Dave Krieger of the Denver Post wrote an article that was meant to show what Lansford was capable of, but was perhaps more telling of Baylor's faults.

Lansford, upon being hired, went to work individually with the Rockies three most underwhelming 2010 performers; Seth Smith, Chris Iannetta and Ian Stewart. All three had worked with Lansford in 2007. The results were clearly stunning to the new Rockies coach. Stewart was suddenly a pull-hitter who never bunted, Iannetta was a mental mess, switching his stance and forgetting a see-it, hit-it mindset, and Smith going little league and trying to hit the ball out of the park every single time he went to the plate.

While the proof will come in April, the article makes the issues that made Rockies fans pull their hair out for the greater portion on the 2010 season, was a quick fix. Lansford seems to have the issues of all three pinpointed and on the way to being resolved.

It goes without saying, if those three Rockies suddenly find their strokes again, the club will be in very good shape. However, the success would be bittersweet. The Rockies and their fans would celebrate the return of three very good hitters, but the damage has already been done.

There are several players who will no longer be wearing Rockies uniforms who at one point were regarded as great hitters. Brad Hawpe started his 2009 season as well as anyone could have imagined. It seemed that he had put it all together. His start was rewarded with an All-Star appearance. The problem was that the All-Star game was the peak. He struggled for the next season-and-a-half, culminating in his August release.

Garrett Atkins also looked like a future All-Star. In his first four full seasons in the big leagues he had never hit worse than .286. He logged 419 RBIs and 88 home runs. His OBP was never worse than his 2005 season where he finished at .773.

Enter Baylor, and Atkins suddenly couldn't hit. In 2009 Atkins hit just .229 with nine home runs and 48 RBIs. His OBP was a terrible .650.

To be fair to Baylor, Tracy Ringolsby of FOX Sports reported on several occasions that Atkins was in horrible shape when he reported to camp in '09 and never worked hard enough to regain his form.

The next case is slightly different. Clint Barmes was never going to be an All-Star at the plate. His plate discipline has always been awful. However, under Baylor, Barmes became home run happy. The slick-fielding 2nd baseman suddenly was trying to hit every ball deep into the left field bleachers. The occasional home run is obviously welcomed, however, hitting out of the eight hole, as Barmes generally did, is not normally thought of as a home run spot.

If Barmes would have focused on hitting the ball to the opposite field, he would have been far more successful at moving runners over, or even simply turning the lineup over so that the Rockies didn't have to lead off the next inning with the pitcher.

Those three players are all gone. They have moved along, hoping to find their swings elsewhere. It would be nice to see what those guys could have done with a hitting coach that was able to identify and fix their problems. Instead, they were forced to try and figure it out themselves and their frustrations ended with their release or trade.

What they could have done in purple pinstripes will never be known.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Rockies say goodbye to Jeff Francis

Most Colorado Rockies fans have heard the news. Jeff Francis signed a one-year deal with the Kansas City Royals. He will receive $2 million guaranteed, with incentives that can up his earning to twice that amount.

It was inevitable. The Rockies turned down the lefties option early in the offseason, but said that they would like to have him back. The only problem was that they never offered him more than a minor league contract.

While very few fans would argue that having Francis back makes the Rockies a better team in 2011, the news shouldn't be easy to take for any fan of the team.

Keep in mind, this is the same Jeff Francis whose domination of the minor leagues helped Rockies fans through the 2003 and 2004 seasons in which the only debate at Coors Field was whether the Rockies would keep their loss total below 95. This is the same Francis who stepped into the ace role down the stretch in 2007 when the Rockies needed him most.

The fact that the Rockies were not willing to offer Francis a Major League deal speaks volumes about where they believe his surgically repaired shoulder is at. After missing most of 2008, all of 2009 and a great deal of 2010, Francis still isn't healthy enough to be depended on.

The harsh reality is, Francis' days of being an ace are long behind him.

While his shoulder injury will mar what could have been a really good career, losing Francis is just another departure from the team that proved it was possible to win while playing 81 games at Coors Field. He was the ace on a team that gave Rockies fans hope after spending years being mathematically eliminated by the first week of June. After all, Francis is the first pitcher in Rockies history to have two postseason wins. Until Ubaldo Jimenez dominated the mound in 2010, Francis' 17-wins in 2007 were tied for the most in club history, but were by far the most important 17 wins.

No one will deny that Francis' passion for the game was there. Even though his season was wiped out in '08, the crafty lefty was seen in the home dugout during every single home game. He desperately wanted to be a part of the team. The name Jeff Francis will long be intertwined with the Rockies launch back to respectability.

Without Francis, the Rockies have no World Series run. They have no magical comeback story. So even though Francis' best days were behind him, the Rockies and their fans are sad to see someone who made such a huge impact go.

For more on the Rockies, visit RockiesReview.com

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Colorado Rockies big contracts baffle those outside of Denver

The Colorado Rockies have played baseball for 18 seasons.

There were the honeymoon years, when crowds filled up Mile High Stadium or Coors Field, simply because baseball had arrived. There were the early successes that saw the likes of Larry Walker, Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla and Andres Galarraga bash their way into the playoffs.

There were the big-spending years, in which the Rockies pretended they were a large-market team and signed big-name free agents. First it was Darryl Kile, then came the real debacles, the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle deals.

It seemed the product on the field couldn't get any worse, but it did. The Rockies finally understood that they were not cut out for spending big money on the cream of the free agent crop every year. They needed to build from within. Many Rockies fans who packed the seats in the 90's jumped off of the bandwagon. Fans simply couldn't look to the future. They saw the 72-win seasons as unacceptable. They longed for the old, failed strategy to be re-enacted. They didn't understand why the Rockies were not willing to shell out big money to free agents. The local media pundits, the likes of Mark Kiszla and Woody Paige, ripped the Rockies ownership for years, claiming that they were greedy and penny-pinchers. Most of the fan base bought in.

The Rockies front office, despite constant calls for their heads, held strong in their belief that they were doing the right thing. They were vindicated in 2007 when a young Rockies team suddenly put it all together and surprised everyone in the baseball world with a wild ride to the National League pennant.

That offseason, plan "B" kicked in for the club. They inked their soon-to-be second year shortstop to a deal that took him through his arbitration years and would keep him in a Rockies uniform through 2014.

After failing to live up to the hype in 2008, most Rockies fans dubbed the pennant run a fluke. The plan was being called into question again.

Once again, the front office held strong. They dealt Matt Holliday to the A's after it became clear that he did not believe in the plan to win and thought he could do better on the free agent market. The move was ridiculed by Rockies fans as proof that ownership was cheap and would never pay their big-name players, that they would simply deal them away when the time came to pay them.

After an incredible offseason in which the Rockies have locked up both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to 10 year and seven year deals respectively, fans have finally started to see the big picture that the Rockies front office has seen the whole time.

The two deals were lauded by fans in Denver. Finally they knew who their stars were going to be for years to come. Finally, they had a guarantee that their favorite players would be with the team long-term. No longer is the team viewed as a farm team for the rest of the league.

While the teams were applauded in Denver, the rest of baseball seems to have a different opinion. Jayson Stark, of ESPN wrote an article about the big deals in this offseason. He mentions the Rockies signings not in a way that praises the Rockies for signing their stars when they had the chance, but talking about the risk the the club took and how it might not have been the smartest move.

Craig Calterra, the lead blogger for NBC Sports, ridiculed the Rockies on Twitter, mocking the club for signing players that were already under their control for the foreseeable future.

The comments and articles show exactly how little it takes to be an "expert." While both writers have an expansive knowledge of baseball, and are well respected, their statements make it clear how little they understand about baseball in Colorado.

What these "experts" do not seem to understand, is that the Rockies did not make these deals prematurely, but rather, they signed both players in just the nick of time.

Here is what the naysayers don't seem to understand. If the Rockies had decided to wait one more year to make a deal happen with Gonzalez, and say he hits .300 with 25 home runs and 90 RBIs, a year that is below his production level of 2010, then their 7-year, $80 million deal just turned into a 7-year, $125 million deal. If that happens, the Rockies are essentially priced out of the Gonzalez sweepstakes, and are forced into a Matt Holliday situation.

The same thing goes for Tulowitzki. While the Rockies negotiated a team-friendly deal through 2014, another year like Tulowitzki had, or even slightly less, and the shortstop goes from being a top-5 shortstop in baseball, to one of the premier players in the game. Considering Jayson Werth received a $120+ million deal over seven years after never being the best player on his team, one can only imagine how much Tulo would be worth.

Yes, the Rockies are taking a risk. These deals could set the Rockies back for years if injuries creep in, or in Gonzalez proves to be a fluke. However, if the club has any intention of keeping their young superstars, these are the risks that they will have to take.

The other option for the Rockies is to never take these types of risks and resolve themselves to be the National League's version of the Cleveland Indians, or Kansas City Royals, teams that always seem to have a good farm system, but when those players get near free agency, they are dealt in order to get some value, instead of simply a compensation pick when that player signs with a team that can afford a huge risk.

The Rockies are taking a huge risk, but it is a risk that every medium-market team is envious of. The fact is, to be competitive for more than one or two years out of every decade, the Rockies must take risks like these two deals. They must lock their young players in for money that is enticing to the player in the early years and enticing to the team in the later years if the player performs.

Time will tell how good these deals are, but one year from now, these same "experts" could be talking about what a bargain the Rockies got with both of these players.

For more on the Rockies visit RockiesReview.com

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Larry Walker does not belong in Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame

On Wednesday, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced the 2011 class of Hall of Famers.

After spending 14 years of being denied, Bert Blyleven made it in, along with perhaps the best second baseman of all time, Roberto Alomar. Both, in my mind, are worthy candidates.

However, much of the talk around Colorado was about how first-time-eligible Larry Walker received close to 20 percent of the vote, a number that suggests he might be able to sneak in somewhere before his eligibility is up.

If Walker eventually gets in, the Rockies will celebrate their first hall of famer. However, perhaps the most talented man to don purple pinstripes does not belong in Cooperstown.

There is no denying that Walker had the talent. He hit for average, he hit for power, he had a great arm, and he did all of the little things nearly perfectly. Walker ran the bases better than anyone in the game. He played smart. He was a five-time all star and a six-time gold glove winner. He won three batting titles over the course of four years. He was the first-and only-Rockie to take home an MVP award.

So why does he not belong in the Hall of Fame? It sounds crazy, but what should keep the Canadian out Cooperstown is his lack of passion for the game.

That sounds crazy for a guy who played as hard as he did. However, for Walker, when things started going downhill for the team, he seemed to always find a way to having a nagging injury. In 1998 and 1999 when the Rockies went 77-85 and 72-90 respectively, Walker missed over 30 games. In fact, he played just enough to qualify for the batting title.

Those were rough years to be a Rockies fan. It must have been rough being a superstar player on such average teams. For Walker, winning was the most important thing, so when his team was out of the race, he focused on winning individual awards, like batting titles. If taking days off hurt the team, but helped his prospects of staying fresh to win that title, that is what he did.

In 2007, when the Rockies went on their historic run in which the won 13-of-14 to squeeze into the wild card slot, I wondered on several occasions whether that would have been possible when Walker was in the clubhouse. With the club 6-1/2 games back on September 13th, he most likely would have packed it in and given up on the season. Instead, a new group of younger Rockies focused on winning each game and found their way into the playoffs.

A Hall of Famer, in my mind, goes beyond someone who put up phenomenal statistics, as Walker did. A player worthy of the hall not only possessed the talents and abilities, but also possessed the intangibles and passion that it takes to lead a team. Walker was missing the second half of the equation.

Do you disagree? Let me know why.

For more on the Rockies visit RockiesReview.com

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Carlos Gonzalez deal puts to rest Colorado Rockies naysayers

Who would have thought that the best thing Matt Holliday could have done for the Colorado Rockies would be to leave?

One of the guys who came over in that deal just so happened to be Carlos Gonzalez. At the time of the deal, Gonzalez was a 22-year old player who had lost his prospect status after being given up on by the Diamondbacks, and written off by the Athletics.

To say that Gonzalez blossomed in a Rockies uniform would be a huge understatement.

On Monday, Gonzalez's publicist confirmed that the five-tool player is on the brink of signing a seven-year, $80 million extension with the Rockies.

The move completes an off season in which the Rockies locked up All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki through 2020, re-signed Jorge De La Rosa for at least two more seasons, and now signed perhaps the most talented player to wear purple pinstripes well into his free agent years.

For years fans, experts and writers have been crying about the Rockies front office not caring about winning. They were accused of being cheap, they were begged to sell the team, and they were crucified for not going after big-name free agents.

Even after signing their young stars to deals that kept them in Colorado for the greater part of their young years, the Rockies front office was criticized for hanging on to prospects when they could have been dealt for proven Major League talent.

Rockies fans are certainly happy that Rockies owners Dick and Charlie Monfort didn't read the newspapers or listen to the crying fans.

If nothing else, fans of the team at Coors Field have learned one thing in this off season. The Rockies front office not only cares about winning, but they are actively pursuing putting a winning team on the field not just for one year, but for years to come.

It is a good time to be a Rockies fan. The club has ignored what many medium-market teams have embraced. Instead of rolling over and trading away their young players when it comes time to pay them, Colorado has put together a model that gives fans the best shot possible of seeing their heroes in a Rockies uniform for as long as possible.

Don't be surprised to see the likes of Mark Kiszla and Woody Paige lauding the owners for finally listening to them and their thoughts for what the team should do. Of course, those who have followed this team and those writers will know that this was far from their game plan. Those writers were the most critical towards the owners, driving the majority of the rage towards the front office, who clearly had their long-term plan into place.

In a sports world where it seems that every single player is seeking top dollar, the Rockies have proven that there are a few exceptions.

The thought of signing Gonzalez long-term was essentially something that was written off long ago. Gonzalez is represented by super-agent Scott Boras. Everyone who follows the sport knows that Boras simply does not negotiate deals that take his clients, especially his superstar clients, into their free agency years. It was widely accepted that Gonzalez was essentially a rental player that the Rockies would have for three, maybe four more years until he would be used as bait for what would hopefully be the next Gonzalez.

Instead, Gonzalez proved common sense incorrect. He most likely spurned the advice of his agent and made a decision on his own to stay in a place where he is comfortable and in a clubhouse that he enjoys. In the process, he potentially cost himself millions upon millions of dollars.

It is a good time to be a fan of the Colorado Rockies. Not only has the front office proved that they are not just interested in winning, but intent on winning, but players are recognizing Coors Field as a place to call home, not a place that is a launching pad for their career in a bigger market.

The plan that was put into place years ago was painful to watch unfold, but the pain of losing for all of those years makes the other side of the plan that much more fun to be a part of.

For more on the Rockies visit RockiesReview.com

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Colorado Rockies sign Carlos Gonzalez to seven-year extension

Colorado Rockies fans everywhere are currently pinching themselves.

According to multiple reports, including from his own publicist, the Rockies have signed five-tool player Carlos Gonzalez to a seven-year, $80 million deal.

There has been noise out of Venezuela throughout the offseason that the Rockies were in talks with Gonzalez about signing a long-term deal. However, excitement about signing any deal that took the 24-year old beyond his arbitration years was tempered because of the fact that Gonzalez is represented by super-agent Scott Boras.

Boras is well known for waiting until his clients have hit the free agent market, allowing them to maximize their dollar amount when every team can compete for their services.

However, it appears that the appeal of the Rockies commitment to winning, despite playing in a medium-market, won Gonzalez over.

The deal is pending a physical that Gonzalez will reportedly take on Wednesday in Denver.

With Troy Tulowitzki signed through 2020, the Rockies have now locked up their two best hitters for the foreseeable future. It also officially ends the pessimists saying that the Rockies ownership group is cheap and doesn't care about winning.

For more on the Rockies visit RockiesReview.com

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