Monday, March 31, 2008

Around the Horn: Bench

I am back in New York on a gray, chilly Monday to finish out my sophomore year of college and (presumably) actually get some work done in achieving this. Further proving how starved for baseball I am, I seriously got impatient last night waiting for the Nationals/Braves game to kick off. I have zero emotional connection to either of the teams, AND I wasn't even watching on TV, I was resorting to my usual standard of Gameday. But I followed the damn thing, Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off homer to beat the Braves, christen new Nationals Park, and no doubt make all the Mets fans in this city who virulently hate the Braves very happy. But now it is time for real Rockies baseball, and I am bouncing myself off the hook waiting for 4:15 pm ET this afternoon (but once they get all the ceremonies done, probably more like 4:30 or so). In which the Rockies open their title defense in St. Louis against the Cards and Adam Wainwright (and yes, I still love him. And yes, I want the Rockies to sweep the Cards to get 2008 started right, as the Cards are kind of sad-sack this year and I'll root for them when they are not playing the Blake Street Sweepers. Like last year, I will likely be live-blogging the game and posting on Purple Row, so if you have to know second by second what's going on, I will have you covered).

In the meantime, I'm going to close out the team previews at the eleventh hour with a look at our bench. Scott Podsednik was officially named the fifth outfielder, Cory Sullivan got demoted to AAA yet again, and Ramon Ramirez got traded to the Royals for a Player To Be Named Later (who is a popular fellow). So, it's time to see who will be constituting the backup corps for the purple pinstripes, and Clint Barmes made it. Zoyyy.


OF Ryan Spilborghs
OF Scott Podsednik
OF/IF Jeff Baker
IF Clint Barmes
C Chris Iannetta

#19 R/R Ryan Spilborghs: Spilly, as he's affectionately known, is about as valuable and offbeat as fourth outfielders come. A colorful character who experiments with crazy hairdos and clothing, has his own TV segment on Rockies All Access, and otherwise is as outgoing and exuberant as he looks, Spilly is the life of the party and readily submits to all the (good-natured) ribbing he endures from his teammates (although not without giving as good as he gets). Spilly is a naturally funny person who can make comedy out of any situation, and people like him are good for the chemistry and to balance out the intense leader-types like Tulo, Matt, and Todd. Your basic clubhouse clown (he bought dancing robots last year) Spilly is also an extremely good option to have as a backup outfielder. Last time this season, I was kvetching, with just cause, that his talents were wasted in the Springs and Steve Finley was going to suck; I was proved quite right in this instance. Fortunately, they saw the light and promoted Spilly in May, and as far as I'm concerned, they need to keep him around -- they actually released him on December 21, 2005, and then immediately realizing their mistake, signed him back the same day. Spilly loves Denver, and has moved his entire family (mom, dad, and sister) with him from Santa Barbara so his mom can get the best medical treatment available. Fortunately, Denver loves him too; I've yet to find a Rockies fan that doesn't adore Spilly, and if they don't, then ignore the poltroon. They love his zaniness, or his ability to provide a spark, or generally the fact that he's the sort of guy you spend a long time recounting assorted off-the-wall stories about. (His debut on Rockies All Access this past week was a hit, especially when he, quote unquote, decides to "cook" Atkins' steak).

He's also an entertainment coordinator who bridges the gaps between players and organizes activities in all the cities the team goes to, so they don't just have to sit around the hotel waiting for the game to start. To wit:

“I know everyone here pretty well, so I’m always grabbing different people,” Spilborghs said. “I drag people to do stuff that they’re not going to do. We have a lot of fun.”

Like on the Freedom Trail in Boston. Spilborghs convinced Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki, to name a few, to go on a trek that wound through the city and visited different historical sites.

Baker and Jeff Francis were sitting at a Boston restaurant when they heard the group just before they rounded a corner.

“Spilly’s yelling at Tulo, Tulo’s yelling at Holliday, Holliday’s yelling at Atkins and me and Francis are dying laughing,” Baker said. “It was something I’ll never forget.”

(Not to mention that as inducement, Spilly promised everyone he'd buy them something every time they complained and they'd get ice cream at the end. He does know how to hold an audience).

The Rockies are eying the idea of using Spilly as their backup leadoff man, to keep Willy T fresh and to continue to provide a reliable catalyst at the top of the lineup. If Spilly's performance after he was called up in May and asked to do just that is any indication, they're in good hands. After Finley finally received his long-overdue walking papers, Spilly hit .310 in 22 at-bats in May, with 3 doubles and 5 RBI (I believe he got three of them in something like his first game, immediately surpassing Finley's total for the season). He kept humming right along in June, hitting .308 with 2 doubles, 3 HR, and 14 RBI for the month, but he really took off in July -- he hit .353 for the month, with 4 HR and 18 RBI, including a grand slam against the Mets on July 3 in a game that the Rockies won 11-3. When he was expected to take over full-time duty in August, Spilly scuffled slightly, as he hit only .250 for August with 3 HR and 8 RBI, but recovered in September alongside everyone else to hit .322 and play his part in guiding the team to a rampaging regular-season finish. Home or away didn't make a significant difference, as Spilly hit. 311 at Coors Field for the year and .290 on the road. Most importantly, he's also a major threat against lefties (.356) which was why he got a significant amount of platoon time last year due to Hawpe's continuing struggles with southpaws. He doesn't possess Willy T's speed (4 SB, 1 CS, but may have more opportunities) but has much more of a power stroke and a knack for seizing a situation. Whether it's dancing robots, bad cooking, interesting facial hair, or the timely hit, Ryan Spilborghs has got you covered. If they're planning to use him to spell Willy T, we may be seeing him get more regular playing time as well.

One more thing: Last year, the Yankees tried to get Spilly (AND Frankie Morales) in exchange for (drumroll please...) Kyle Farnsworth. Aside from the fact that Farnsworth isn't worth a half of these players, let alone both of them, poor Spilly would be miserable on the "25 guys, 25 cabs" Yankees. I somehow don't think they'd take well to him trying to organize expeditions on the Freedom Trail in Boston. In other words, Spilly was born to be a Rockie and to send him anywhere else would result in deep unhappiness for all parties concerned. I love you dearly dearly, Ryan, but shave the damn beard. Bake is right, you do look like a terrorist.

2007 Line: .299 AVG, 11 HR, 51 RBI, .363 OBP, .485 SLG, .848 OPS
2008 Proj.: .292 AVG, 13 HR, 53 RBI, .371 OBP, .476 SLG, .847 OPS

#22 L/L Scott Podsednik: Podsednik will be under a microscope in a hurry while with the Rockies. He hasn't been really healthy since 2004, when he stole 70 bases for Milwaukee, and 2005, when he was a big part of the White Sox' championship run. Since then, he has undergone sports hernia surgeries at the end of three consecutive seasons, and he's taking over the place of Cory Sullivan, who's very popular in the clubhouse and a member of the Rockies fraternity that grew up together in the minor leagues. Also not to mention, the last left-handed older outfielder to be brought in from outside the organization for pinch-hit and bench help was an unqualified disaster. Also, it causes people to ask if the Rockies are a) going to disrupt their remarkable clubhouse chemistry for winning, and b) whether or not this is a bad thing, and c) whether Scott Eric Podsednik can help them do this better than Cory Sullivan. But Podsednik came in determined to prove he could once again be a difference-maker, and on the back of a .302 spring complimented by strong defense, he swayed Hurdle to give him the final spot on the Opening Day 25-man roster. Still, Sullivan is one of the Rockies' best defensive outfielders, and diving catches aren't to be confused with stellar overall defensive ability.

Podsednik is 34, so he's no spring chicken, but he will be asked to be a pinch-runner late in games, a spot starter, and a bat off the bench, and he will also need to perform these roles with a great deal more success than his unfortunate predecessor, or else find Sullivan called up to take his job again. It was a question of organizational depth as well with the Sully vs. Pods deathmatch, as if Sullivan won the job, Podsednik would have asked to be released in order to find big-league employment elsewhere -- with his age and track record, he's not a minor-league scrub. But he will have to both stay healthy and be effective for the Rockies to justify keeping him around, especially since it's already going to be such a closely scrutinized decision. He's making $750,000 to Sullivan's $1 million, and Sullivan is both a better defender and a long-standing friend of the key group, so if he doesn't show a spark off the bench, it's likely happy trails sooner rather than later. If nothing else, we can hope that the Rockies learned from the Finley disaster and are much quicker to pull the trigger this time if Podsednik goes down the drain early. Sullivan will assuredly be back up, but it's Podsednik's play that will see if that's in September when active rosters expand to 40, or much sooner due to incompetence. Pods' OBP (and stats in general) from last year are not pretty. Let's hope he doesn't repeat.

2007 Line: .243 AVG, 2 HR, 11 RBI, .299 OBP, .369 SLG, .668 OPS, 12 SB, 5 CS
2008 Proj.: .277 AVG, 4 HR, 22 RBI, .331 OBP, .380 SLG, .710 OPS
INC/DEC/LEV: INC, or rather, returning to slightly nearer his normal production. If he's healthy and he has Coors on his side, he could turn out to be a very underrated pickup.

#10 R/R Jeff Baker: Bake, as he's not-so-imaginatively nicknamed, plays both corner outfield and infield positions, making him a valuable weapon to have, and now that he plays second as well, you can pretty much stick him anywhere except pitcher (I'm sure he could play catcher if he put his mind to it). He hit .368 in September 2006 after his call-up, fooling some Rockies fans, myself probably included, into thinking that he was the second coming of Dante Bichette and who could play a little third and first as well. Born in Bad Kissingen, Germany (hmmm! Is this a reflection on Jeff's osculating abilities?) and growing up as the son of an Air Force father, Bake is fortunately used to bouncing around. He'll be asked to do that with the club, as he failed to lock down his part in the platoon last season due to hitting only .222; he lost all the spot starts to Sully and Spilly. He DID get a spot start on June 2 (I remember that because it was Photo Day, and I personally asked him if he was starting, as it was during Atkins' horrible slump) ... and promptly grounded into three double plays, which is never exactly the way to make a good impression. As a matter of fact, it had been almost exactly 10 years since another Rockie did it -- Eric Young on June 1, 1997 against the Marlins.

This year, he may play some outfield if Hawpe needs a little time off, and he can also spell Atkins and Helton for starts at third and first. Baker could probably be a starter elsewhere, as he's flashed a power stroke on occasion, and consistent ABs could help him rediscover it -- but he's not going to get them on this club, blocked as he is by a raft of talent ahead of him. He's also going to need to learn how to pinch-hit, as that's also what he'll be used for, and he hit a miserable 9 for 46 (.196) in PHing duty. He was briefly in the second-base derby this year, and dropped 10 pounds and worked so hard there that he now rates his best defensive position as -- yup, second base, the one he just started playing, so he can also be used in the middle infield if the rookie Nix needs an occasional break. But Bake got 26 starts last year, the fewest of anybody on the Opening Day roster, and with his positions all capably filled, he doesn't figure to see much time as a starter again this year, unless (GOD FORBID) Helton or Hawpe go down. Bake himself knows a little about going down, as I was at the August 10 game in which he got drilled in the head by a pitch from the Cubs' Jason Marquis. As I mentioned at the time, it was kind of sick -- his helmet flew off and he just lay on the ground for several minutes while I just kept saying, "Come on, Bake, come on, stand up, be okay, come on." It's never fun to see anybody take one in the noggin, but fortunately, Bake is made of tough stuff and he came away from it with only a concussion. He missed 18 games, but made it back in time for the stretch drive, and in NLDS Game 3, he had the game-winning hit. The game was tied at 1 in the bottom of the eighth, Garrett Atkins singled, and with two outs and him standing on third, Bake came off the bench to deliver the go-ahead single into right field to push the Rockies up 2-1. Three outs and Manny Corpastime later, they were headed for their first NLCS, so the Rockies faithful remember Baker affectionately for this. I also remember him affectionately because he's a very nice and funny guy who took time to chat and hang out with us at Photo Day. (I think my sister Gillian now has a small thing for him due to this). I don't think he'll be quite as bad as he was this year, but nor do I think he's particularly above-average.

2007 Line: .222 AVG, 4 HR, 12 RBI, .296 OBP, .347 SLG, .643 OPS
2008 Proj.: .260 AVG, 5 HR, 18 RBI, .315 OBP, .358 SLG, .673 OPS
INC/DEC/LEV: Very slight INC.

#12 R/R Clint Barmes: By now I am sure you all know what I think of Clint Barmes. I understand he's a very popular guy in the clubhouse, humble, good team player, and close with the rest of the guys, to which I say -- all well and good. But Clint Barmes, while being a nice guy, is shockingly atrocious at baseball. This wasn't always so -- in 2005, he was hitting .400 to start the season, had an Opening Day walk-off homer against Trevor Hoffman (the first rookie ever to hit a walk-off on Opening Day) and looked like a surefire NL Rookie of the Year and the Rockies' shortstop of the future. Then there came a small incident involving deer meat, Barmes, and a little tumble down the stairs, to which he was granted the nickname "Venison" and a sudden and unfortunate end to a promising season. The broken collarbone that resulted from this sidelined him until almost the end of 2005, and he was never the same player afterwards. Defensively, he continues to be a wiz, but he is a bona-fide black hole at the plate. He hit .320 in 25 at-bats in 2003, .282 in 71 AB in 2004, and was an AAA All-Star this year at Colorado Springs, where he went .299/11/44, but Spilly replicated that line almost exactly at the major league level and Barmes, um, did not. In 37 AB, he hit a miserable .216/0/1, and I remember precisely when this occurred (It was on August 11 against the Cubs, in a game the Rockies won 15-2, and Barmes had been put in as a late-inning sub when the Rockies began to kill the Cubs relievers. Or was that when he hit a double and scored, still to my unending surprise? Whatever, I know it was in August).

Hurdle absolutely LOVES Barmes, however (is it the first name? And I know Hurdle likes nice guys, but still.... and NO, he does not like nice guys "like that," or is it just because I have a dirty mind that I have to disclaim this?) so he made the club after the Rox traded fan-favorite Carroll, and is still (it's taking a while) proving that he can be a productive big league player. I take serious leave to doubt that this will finally unfold, and it's just a sad fact that Barmes will probably never be the player he was before the dead deer attack. Still, he'll see time as a pinch-runner, late-innings defensive sub for Atkins, and possibly one or two appearances in center field as well, a position that he started learning last year in an attempt to find more playing time. This being Barmes, he'll have to really force the issue.

2007 Line: .216 AVG, 0 HR, 1 RBI, .237 OBP, .297 SLG, .534 OPS
2008 Proj: . 224 AVG, 1 HR, 7 RBI, .282 OBP, .302 SLG, .584 OPS

#20 R/R Chris Iannetta: It's been an up-and-down road to the bigs for young backup backstop Iannetta. He's looked to as the Rockies' catcher of the future, and was thought to be a potential darkhorse Rookie of the Year pick going into 2007. It didn't happen, as Iannetta struggled with growing pains that eventually led to his demotion to AAA in August; he'd hit .158 in April, .222 in May, and .250 in June, culminating with a 1-for-8 (.042) July that sealed his fate. He is a very patient hitter (at times too patient) and he'd let himself get worked too deep into pitcher's counts, therefore limiting the number of good pitches he'd see in any given at-bat. A hard and dedicated worker, the serious and intelligent Iannetta (he graduated with a math degree from UNC Chapel Hill) took the demotion and worked with it, and on his return to the big leagues, he hit .357 in August and .308 in September. Still, Dan O'Dowd publicly announced this
spring that if Iannetta didn't show something, he'd risk being sent back to the Springs and have Edwin Bellorin be the backup catcher instead. Iannetta retorted that such an idea was "dumb" and marched out to prove it, showing that catcher will be (hopefully) a position of strength. He and Yorvit hit a combined .391 in Cactus League play, and in a game I watched last week against the Brewers, Iannetta hit a homer completely OUT of the ballpark. He has the ideal body for a catcher -- short, stocky, and very strong -- so once he does figure out how to get the ball and bat into the correct angle with each other for maximum velocity, he can definitely send them a long way. (I know from personal experience that he also has very big hands. Which is good for someone supposed to catch small speeding spheroids for a living, after all).

Catchers aren't usually power hitters, but Iannetta cranked 13 in 2005 (split between Class A Modesto and AA Tulsa) and 14 in 2006 (split between Tulsa and AAA Colorado Springs) so the stroke is definitely there; it's a matter of getting the average to consistently follow. He's hit .303 in his minor league career, so it's far from impossible. Iannetta is also quite good at catching baserunners stealing, as he has a strong arm and quick reflexes, and can just fire a bullet down to second for his buddy Tulo to lay the smackdown on the thief. (This is one area in which he easily beats Yorvit). He's also a good game-caller (no matter how much the pitching staff loves Yorvit) and has become something of Cook's personal catcher, since he recognizes that Aaron can throw pitches aside from fastballs. (Iannetta was behind the dish for Cookie's 74-pitch complete game against the Padres last year). Iannetta does have someone breathing at his heels, which is unusual for a prospect, but Michael McKenry has favorably impressed the Rockies brass and will be opening the year at High-A Modesto with a chance to move up faster. Still, if this is the year Iannetta can stand up and lay claim to the starter's job, he will see much more playing time than he did last year, and move into full-time starter mode as Yorvit's contract expires at the end of '09. He's already shown what's possible, now the trick is consistency.

2007 Line: .218 AVG, 4 HR, 27 RBI, .330 OBP, .350 SLG, .680 OPS
2008 Proj.: .266 AVG, 6 HR, 36 RBI, .344 OBP, .367 SLG, .711 OPS

Well, now that's finished, it's a little less than two hours until the Rockies open their 2007 NL Champs defense against the 2006 NL Champs (and World Series champs, which the Rockies sadly failed to get) Cardinals. I'll post lineups as soon as I see them and will otherwise liveblog.


Man, it feels good to write that and have it mean something.

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