In late August, after a once promising season had turned into yet another Rocky Mountain Horror Show, Colorado made what at the time seemed a trivial late-season roster move. The Rockies, who had plunged to last place after a 44-40 start, called up 31-year-old second baseman Kazuo Matsui, the former Japanese 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 looking for an offensive identity," says general manager Dan O'Dowd, who traded utility player Eli Marrero to New York for Matsui in June, then immediately sent Matsui, who had been struggling at the plate, to Triple A Colorado Springs. "We weren't aggressive. We were first in sacrifice bunts and had little speed. We needed a spark -- but we had no idea it would come from Kaz."
After two and a half high-anxiety years in New York and two and a half months in Colorado Springs, Matsui (a .256 hitter with a .308 OBP in New York) arrived in Denver rejuvenated 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 32 games, helping to turn a mediocre offense (ranked 16th in the majors over the first five months) into the highest-scoring in September. "We were a totally 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 of the lineup since Juan Pierre left [in 2002]."
The Rockies believe that the dynamic player they saw last September is the Matsui everyone had 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 a trade with the Astros, O'Dowd picked up centerfielder Willy Taveras, who swiped a total of 67 bases for the Astros the last two years. (No Colorado player stole more than 14 in any of the past four seasons.) Matsui and Taveras will set the table for a potent middle of the order which includes leftfielder Matt Holliday, third baseman Garrett Atkins and rightfielder Brad Hawpe. Says a rival NL general manager, "This is an offense that can beat you in a lot of different ways, which isn't something you've been able to say about this team."
For all the talk about the humidor and soggy baseballs in Colorado, Coors Field remained true to its reputation as a hitters' park -- more runs were scored there than in any other NL stadium last year -- but the Rockies pitching staff still combined for the lowest ERA in franchise history (4.66) and also ended a streak of 12 seasons ranking next to last or last in the league. Most of the credit belonged to 26-year-old lefthander Jeff Francis and a pair of sinkerballers, Aaron Cook and Jason Jennings. In the off-season the Rockies dealt Jennings, who was in the last year of his contract, but acquired two other sinkerballers: 31-year-old righthander Rodrigo Lopez, traded from the Orioles, and promising 25-year-old righthander Jason Hirsh, who was dominant with the Astros' Triple A club in Round Rock (13-2, 2.10 ERA). "It's finally dawned on them that [at Coors] you've got to have sinkerballers who keep the ball down," says an NL scout. "That's their only chance of winning. But at least now they have a chance."
If the Rockies don'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 their respective 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 promising he's ever had. "One of these years we're going to make a huge step. Maybe this is the year." -- Albert Chen
Issue date: March 26, 2007