The Rockies bet big that Mike Hampton can tame hitters in Colorado
Give Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd this: The man knows how to make a splash at the winter meetings. For the second straight year O'Dowd, fast becoming baseball's Mr. December, made Colorado the early talk of the annual off-season gathering. Last year in Anaheim he was the mastermind of the four-team, nine-player blockbuster trade that pried his current No. 3 hitter, third baseman Jeff Cirillo, from the Brewers. Last Saturday in Dallas the Rockies' bombshell was the signing of free-agent lefthander Mike Hampton to what was for two days (until shortstop Alex Rodriguez signed with the Rangers for 10 years and $252 million) the richest contract in baseball history—$121 million spread over eight seasons.
How unlikely was it that a top-drawer starter would volunteer for duty at the hitters' haven, Coors Field? "Before our first meeting," says O'Dowd, "[ Hampton's agent] Mark Rodgers told us we were 27th out of 30 teams."
That's roughly where Colorado ranked in team ERA last season, when its 5.26 mark was 26th in the majors. O'Dowd, however, expects his spending spree to dramatically improve the Rockies' staff. Five days before landing Hampton he signed free-agent lefthander Denny Neagle (15-9, 452 ERA with the Reds and the Yankees in 2000) to a five-year contract worth $51.5 million.
Colorado has to overpay to lure good pitchers to its offensive pleasure dome. In Hampton's case that surtax was an eighth year. The three other teams in the bidding for Hampton's services—the Cardinals, Cubs and Mets, for whom Hampton went 15-10 with a 3.14 ERA in 2000—each had seven-year offers on the table. "We realize we have to approach things differently than other teams do," says O'Dowd.
Hampton, 28, didn't consider the Rockies a viable option until that first meeting between O'Dowd and Rodgers, at the garnering of general managers in Amelia Island, Fla., last month. Rodgers called the get-together a "courtesy." But Hampton, who originally had leaned toward St. Louis or Atlanta (another early suitor), didn't really warm to Colorado until last week, when O'Dowd made the team's formal offer during a visit with the pitcher in Houston. The lefthander was bowled over by Colorado's financial package, by the prospect of moving his family to Denver and by what he calls "the test" of proving that he can thrive in a ballpark that has been a graveyard for pitchers.
O'Dowd had been clearing the payroll for a landmark signing since taking his post in Sept 1999. He has sent packing veterans with hefty contracts such as third baseman Vinny Castilla ($6.25 million salary in 2000), second baseman Mike Lansing (also $6.25 million) and outfielder Dante Bichette ($7 million). Those moves plus creative contract construction ( Hampton, for example, deferred his $20 million signing bonus and will make $8 million this season and $8.5 million in 2002) should enable the Rockies to keep their 2001 payroll below $70 million, an increase of roughly $13 million over last season.
Still, committing to a pitcher for eight years is risky—especially at Coors, where the memories of Darryl Kile's recent flame-out (combined 21-30 record and 5.84 ERA in 1998 and '99) are fresh. At least Hampton's ability to induce batters to hit ground balls off his sinkers and sliders gives him a fighting chance in Denver. Last season, according to Stats, Inc., Hampton was second in the National League only to Braves righthander Greg Maddux in ground ball to fly ball ratio. ( Maddux's figure was 2.66, Hampton's 2.51.) What's more, he allowed the fewest home runs among those pitching at least 162 innings (10, or .41 per nine innings) of any major league starter. On the other hand, he's prone to giving up walks (200 in 456? innings over the last two seasons) and has a lifetime 6.48 ERA in Colorado.
"But he's 4-1 [at Coors]," says O'Dowd. "You have to evaluate things differently in that park. If he goes 20-11 and has a 6.50 ERA, I won't care. The winning is what's important."
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