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HURDLE sixth season with Rockies
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."
a modest proposal ...
For a team that plays half its games in a stadium where three-run homers are as easy to come by as drafts of Coors Light, the Rockies are oddly obsessed with improving their team speed. Picking up Willy Taveras from the Astros, for whom he had 33 steals in 42 attempts and hit one homer last year, was a smart move if only because Colorado needed a good defensive centerfielder. But handing a job to second baseman Kazuo Matsui is a mistake. While Matsui certainly performed well in 32 games with the Rockies after being called up to the majors in August, his overall big-league record tells another story: an on-base percentage of .318 and only 13 home runs in 970 at bats. Jamey Carroll (left), who started 102 games at second for Colorado last year, isn't as flashy as Matsui, but his .356 career OBP and steady defense make him the better player.
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