Saturday, April 30, 2011

AL West Preview - Part IV

Colorado Scott Brede and Alving Fernandez promise to bring opposing bats Under Control

A baseball player is causing a ruckus in a bar in Denver, singing loudly, spilling his beer and screaming at the bartender for another round. After about an hour of this passes, a patron asks the bartender why he continues to put up with the guy. The bartender replies “Well, I can’t throw him out – he walked here.”

That was the joke in Denver last season. The Rockies’ pitching staff issued a league-leading 889 free passes to opposing batters. What’s even more egregious is that number is 253 higher than the next worst team statistically. Were the Rockies merely getting around power hitters, afraid of them connecting in the mile high air? No. Of the 889, only 34 were intentional, good for 8th overall. Away from home, their WHIP was a league worst 1.70. And finally, and perhaps most tellingly, the team was second in the league in one unusual category: hit batters, with 85. The pitching in Colorado was out of control.

If issuing walks were a crime, then the faces of Colorado starting pitchers Terry York and Cristobal Ortiz were plastered in post offices around the country. The pair had the unfortunate distinction of being number one and two, respectively, in all of MLB in walks issued. York walked 181 in 164 innings of work, while Ortiz walked 130 in 143.2 innings. Granting free passes to batters in a stadium where a hit seldom finds a glove to begin with is not exactly a formula for success, and the Rockies suffered for it. They gave up the most runs, and finished with a run differential of -301.

To their credit, management acted decisively over the winter to bring the pitching problems under control. The club signed 32-year-old free agent Scott Brede from the Pirates. The former Bucco pitched six complete games last season on route to a 15-12 record and a 1.20 WHIP. Brede is known for his excellent command, is extremely adept at getting a ground ball and has a solid repertoire of pitches keeping hitters guessing. His services do not come cheaply however, and set the Rockies back $56 million.

Not satisfied there, the team also signed 30-year-old free agent starting pitcher Alving Fernandez from the New York Mets. Fernandez has exemplary command of the strike zone, going 13-8 last year in 200+ innings of work and putting up a WHIP of 1.34. He also throws the ball hard, striking out 193 batters while walking only 67. Fernandez was more expensive than Brede – settling for $90 million for five years on the mound.

Finally, the club made a trade with Cincinnati to obtain starting pitcher Sal Rivera from the Reds. Rivera has good command of the strike zone and finished the year with a WHIP of 1.14 over 92 IP. The deal also brought Shayne Lee to the bullpen, and he too brings excellent control and velocity to the table while having an innate ability to keep the ball in the yard.

All of these deals banished York and Ortiz to the bullpen, where no doubt they will see limited innings compared to last season. The club also jettisoned Ned Turnbow and Justin Duran due to their control issues. With 60% of the starting rotation transformed, Colorado stands to be the most improved franchise in the AL West.

Offense has never been a problem in the Mile High City, and the face of the franchise is big bat Hipolito Iglesias, the team’s All-Star Silver Slugging DH. Just 22 years old, Iglesias batted .360 last year good for best in the American League. The team led the league in average and was in the top six teams in nearly every major offensive category. Two rookies were added to the starting lineup this season: Anthony Terry will bring good defense and a bat to third, while Jerry Schumaker gets the nod at first. Both should bolster the offense.

The club is below average defensively, so it was welcome news when fans learned the Rockies signed Rangers free agent center fielder Billy Lamb, who’s glove work at the wall will come in enormously handy. Lamb signed a 4-year, $24.6 million deal to patrol the middle of the field, and is a centerpiece of the defense now.

Shortstop is the other black hole in the defense, and was the only one that the Rockies struggled to fill. After light hitting Anibel Saenz retired last season, the team was looking to replace his below average range and poor arm strength. Jesus Bonilla, the team’s best prospect, is only 19 and still years away from playing in the majors. So the club bit the bullet and signed utility player Andrew Forbes from the Yankees for a pittance. A defensive specialist, Forbes has a major league problem: he can’t hit, even in the thin air of Colorado. Last season while resting the starters he collected just 9 hits in 82 AB – while striking out 35 times. If Forbes starts every game for the Rockies, it’s a virtual lock that he will set a dubious league record for strikeouts in a season – and one that will probably never be broken. He is a black hole in the lineup that’s outstanding otherwise. The Rockies must be hoping that the presence of so many other weapons will carry him.

dwb’s take: The Rockies spent a lot of money in the offseason – but wisely. Thanks to its vastly improved pitching, the club will improve dramatically this season, leapfrogging Oakland and challenging Seattle for second place in the AL West. Give all the credit to management: by all appearances they knew what to do and fearlessly pursued the plan, having the best offseason in terms of addressing needs of any team I previewed. The club will have to address the shortstop situation with a trade mid-season. Look for the team to make the biggest gain in its win total this season.

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