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Colorado Rockies
Overall rank: 24 Division rank: 4
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Plan D: Escape the cellar by relying on homegrown pitchers and the long ball

By Phil Taylor

The constants through all the changes are Helton (above) and Walker, who are always among the NL's top hitters. Jim Gund
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."
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.
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.

Issue date: March 31, 2003