Friday, March 21, 2008

Around the Horn: Infield

Just finished watching the Rox school the Cubs 7-3 (the Cubs can never lose enough, which makes it more annoying that they beat us yesterday) and a few observations:

- Corpas looks good in recovering from taking the loss yesterday. 1-2-3, pitches crisp, and a few feeble ground balls were all the Flubs could get off him.
- Typical Brian Fuentes outing. Two quick outs, then a 3-1 base hit and a 5-pitch walk before a laser off the bat of Mark De Rosa is turned into the end of the inning thanks to Spilly's good read on it, instead of a double.
- Atkins, of all people, hit a triple. He's had a relatively quiet spring (0 HR, 4 RBI) so it's good to see him flash a little power. Also, it's always kind of amusing to watch him rumble around the bases. Atkins is a big fella and not exactly a speed demon, as everyone made sure to point out to him when he hit the inside-the-parker last year.
- Tulo is locked in. Every time he was up, he hit a bullet, and although he did get picked off once, he made up for it with an easy steal. Someone is ready for the season to start.
- Big man Mattie, however, looks a little asleep at the moment. 0-4 with a pair of K's, but he had a bad swing on his last at-bat and still almost managed to hit the ball out of the yard. As you can tell by looking at his arms, the man is freakishly strong.
- "Angular velocity" had me laughing all afternoon. George Frazier, one of the TV analysts, started it by having the sideline reporter ask Jeff Francis (a physics major) what it was, supposedly for his daughter's school project. Francis laughingly demurred and protested he didn't want to look like a nerd on camera, but could explain it later if need be. Undeterred, the FSN RM crew therefore made a habit of asking every player they interviewed after that what it was. A few of the best:

Matt Herges: "I think you'd better ask Jeff. He probably invented it."
Jeff Baker: "Whoa, dude, I'm a hitter, not a pitcher. I dunno."
Jason Hirsh: [long pause] "Back to you!"

That's what I love about spring training -- even though it's winding down and everyone is focusing on preparing for the season and securing jobs, they can still have fun and joke around. Gah, I love this team, and yes, it is always extremely annoying that I have to leave spring break and go back to TV-less New York just a few days before the season starts. On April 4, the home opener, I will be in class, giving a presentation about something I am passionate about -- which not so coincidentally will be baseball -- and the instant it's over, I shall grab a dinner to go and flee back to my computer to watch it. I can't wait.

In the meantime, it's time to preview the Rockies' deep and talented infield. Yes, two consecutive posts, 'tis miraculous. Also, I'll only examine the five projected starters here (including catcher) and everyone else will get their due in "Around the Horn: Bench."

1B Todd Helton
2B Jayson Nix
SS Troy Tulowitzki
3B Garrett Atkins
C Yorvit Torrealba

#17 L/L Todd Helton: The elder statesman of a team that's no longer Todd and the Toddlers, Helton's long and distinguished career, and patience with a pretty awful set of seasons in the early oughts, was finally rewarded last year with the Rockies' miracle run to the Series. One of my favorite memories ever is of Helton catching the throw from Tulowitzki to end Game 4 of the NLCS, with Byrnes on his face in the dirt, and then just throwing up both fists and screaming, dancing across the infield, as giddy as a schoolboy. Close on its heels is the image of him tossing off his helmet, screaming like a wild man, and flinging himself into the arms of his euphoric teammates after his unbelievable walk-off homer against Takashi Saito and the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 18th. I've memorized the call for that play, and the sight of Helton, mad with joy, stage-diving into a mob of arms, still gives me chills after the dozens of times I've watched it. No longer rumored to be on his way out, Helton seems to be thrilled to be where he is, his love for the game rekindled, and 2007 was a great starter gift to give a guy who's been through hell and high water with the club since the beginning of his career. But he, and everyone else, wants to get to the very highest peak this year, and you can bet that everyone in the organization was thinking particularly of Helton when they were celebrating last year. Still, champagne fades. Todd wants back, and he's going to set an example with hard work to get there.

One of the acknowledged clubhouse co-leaders (Holliday and Tulo being the other two) Helton is still a force at age 34. His days of .372/42/147 monstrosities are behind him, but he's still a solid line-drive hitter who will wear a pitcher out with his remarkable patience. Helton has an outstanding idea and awareness of where the strike zone is, and a typical at-bat for him takes at least five or six pitches before he finds something he wants to square up on. He hasn't hit below .300 since his rookie season of 1997 (.280) and his remarkable patience leads to lots of walks, which means his OBP is well north of .400. (He walked 116 times last year against 74 strikeouts). Helton is the only player in history with 10 straight seasons of 35+ doubles, and he'll likely continue that this year, as the balls might not be making it over the fence, but there's plenty of room for them to roam in the spacious outfield of Coors. He sets a great example for the team's many youngsters; when your longest-tenured, most recognizable (although Matt and Tulo are making inroads) franchise player is also your hardest and most dedicated, team-oriented worker, there are good things afoot and it's a key to the Rockies' remarkable close, loving, goofy clubhouse chemistry. Helton is about as far from Bonds as you can get, in his element when he can display his killer dry sense of humor on others, who can then freely dish it back. The Rockies constantly say that there are no egos in the clubhouse, and it's true. Maybe a Giants rookie would quail in fear before attempting to prick His Bondsness with a jab or two, but a Rockies rookie can feel perfectly confident teasing ol' man Helton a little. Of course, you get what you give, as Todd is faster with a quip than just about anybody.

Fielding-wise, it was a total travesty that Helton did not get a Gold Glove last year. He made only ONE ERROR ALL YEAR for a .999 fielding percentage, is one of the best in the game at picking out low throws from across the diamond (saving both Atkins and Tulowitzki throwing errors) and yet somehow got passed up for Derrek Lee, who made 7. I don't get that, and I'm still slightly rankled about the Rockies being shut completely out of postseason awards, no matter how much they themselves insist it doesn't matter. He won't get to all the balls he did a few years ago, since he's not going to be doing bellyflops in the infield at his age, but he's still a key component of the Rockies' defense, which, oh yeah, was the best in all of baseball last year. (And yet failed to rank in the top ten in the MLB '08: The Show video game. The talking heads STILL haven't caught up to the Rockies yet. No matter, Todd will be at the forefront of leading the calvary charge to a repeat this year, whether it's in getting the timely hit, inspiring the youngsters, or patiently answering the same questions about how the hell the Rockies made it back to October again).

2007 Line: .320 AVG., 17 HR, 91 RBI, .434 OBP, .494 SLG, .928 OPS
2008 Proj.: .315 AVG, 18 HR, 89 RBI, .440 OBP, .480 SLG, .920 OPS

#4 R/R Jayson Nix: Nix has had a long slow climb to the majors. The Rockies' top pick in 2001 (44th overall) he's the brother of the equally y-misplaced Laynce (now with the Brewers) and has spent seven years toiling away in the minors. He's played a year apiece at Rookie, A, and Advanced A, and two years apiece in AA and AAA. Since he was 18 when he was drafted, he's still only 25, but the time it took for him to get to this level have raised questions about his ability to contribute to the big-league club. Nix has also been pedestrian with the bat in the minors, never a good sign, but then again, a guy named Matt Holliday didn't have a standout minor league career and got himself to where he is by working his ass off. Of course, Nix, at a relatively slight 5'11" and 185 lbs, doesn't exactly compare to Holliday's massive 6'4"/230 lb, but it goes to show you that if you set your mind to it, you can do it (now I sound like the song "Heart" from Damn Yankees).

Nix hit .294 at Rookie-level Casper his first year, but dropped to .246 the next year at Class A Asheville. He rose back to .281 at Advanced-A Visalia, but struggled through a pair of off-years in AA Tulsa -- .213 and .236, nonetheless making it to AAA Colorado Springs in 2006. He only hit .251 that year, but enjoyed a surge in 2007, finishing with his highest average since Rookie ball -- .292 for the Sky Sox, with 11 HR and 58 RBI, strong numbers for a second baseman, who's generally given leeway to be more of a glove guy than a bat guy. Nix definitely is a glove guy, as Holliday claims he's stopped in the middle of batting practice to watch Nix vacuum up ground balls in the infield, but the hitting has been off and on. He was named MVP of Team USA this past offseason and came to camp with the inside track in filling the positional vacancy left by Kaz Matsui's departure to the Astros. (For the record, I think that that decision will end up being rued by both parties. Kaz benefited from Coors Field and a terrific lineup hitting behind him in a town where he had come to resuscitate his career after a disastrous stint with the Mets. The Astros have no such power, play in hot and humid South Texas, and overpaid badly -- $16.5 million over three years -- for a guy who hit .249 away from Coors. (My internet is being maddeningly slow again... arrgh, so that's a guess, since nothing will load for me).

Nix faces some competition from Jeff Baker for the official nod, but Hurdle has evidently liked what he has seen and the six-man second base derby (between Nix, Baker, Ian Stewart, Clint Barmes, Omar Quintanilla, and Marcus Giles) seems to have drawn to a close with Nix the last one standing. He'll face challenges in proving that he can adjust to Major League pitching and not be a Barmes-esque hole in the lineup, but will have the benefit of hitting seventh or eighth behind a Monster's Row of Tulowitzki-Helton-Holliday-Atkins-Hawpe. His sterling glovework will help to form an airtight seal up the middle of the infield, but honestly, with Tulo out there, we only need a league-average second baseman, as Tulo will probably be fielding a lot of those anyway. Nix is better than that, but the hitting needs to follow suit. He can also provide speed at the bottom of the order -- he's stolen over 10 bags every year since Casper and swiped 24 for the Sky Sox last year. With Tulo and Taveras both running (assuming Taveras is healthy) Nix will help them add the dimension that was lost to some degree with Kaz's departure.

2007 Line (AAA): .292 AVG, 11 HR, 58 RBI, .342 OBP, .451 SLG, .793 OPS
2007 Proj. (MLB): .270 AVG, 7 HR, 37 RBI, .335 OBP, .415 SLG, .750 OPS
INC/DEC/LEV: Hard to say with Nix, as he's never had a big-league cup of tea before.

#2 R/R Troy Tulowitzki: What can you say about Tulo? I have absolutely unshakable confidence in him, and every time someone expresses concern that the Rockies might fall back to earth in 2008, my response is always, "Don't worry, Tulo won't let it happen." A fantastically confident and mature rookie who blasted into stardom in his first full year on the team and was rewarded with a six-year, $31 million contract, Tulo is the real thing. He famously announced last year after the team's 18-27 start that he had never played for a losing team before and wasn't keen to start -- at the time, he was just 22. Some might have looked down their noses at a rookie trying to take on a leadership role, but Tulo craves the spotlight and has never been shy about letting everyone know that hang-dogging, self-pity, lackadaisical, or losing play just doesn't fly. He has ice in his veins and a cannon arm, and some of the plays he makes deep in the hole are positively Ripkenesque. Tulo is big for his position at 6'3" and 205 lbs, but he dropped 10 or 15 pounds this past offseason and is leaner and meaner than ever. Besides, when you're a ball-Hoover the way he is, it doesn't matter what size you are. Tulo wears #2 as a tribute to his boyhood idol Derek Jeter, but at this point, I'd take him in a New York minute over Jeter. A cartoon in the Rocky Mountain News made a bold prediction for the Rockies: "Tulowitzki plays infield all by himself. Rox win NL West." This is a joke, of course, but when you have the range that Tulo does, and are always determined to get to even more balls, it's sort of true. Tulo led all shortstops in fielding at his position (.987) and somehow managed to get gypped out of the Gold Glove to effing Jimmy Rollins, who also stole Holliday's MVP. Not to mention, he now holds the NL record for homers by a rookie shortstop with 24, breaking Ernie Banks' record, and is second overall behind Nomar Garciaparra's 30 in 1997.

Besides all this, Tulo possesses an absolutely out-of-his-head drive to win and improve, and I continue to believe that he had the lion's share of credit in smashing the resigned to losing mentality that existed in the clubhouse before he got here. Hitting .195 in the postseason rankled with him, and continues to rankle with him -- he lost sleep over it and is determined to bring the team better and go farther this year, which isn't something you see in everyone. Tulo has become a superstar-in-the-making -- his at-bats are accompanied by a chant that goes "[Nine claps] TU-LO!", his jersey is worn by everyone from toddlers to middle-aged men, and needless to say, he's got a bit of a following among female Rockies fans as well. College guys paint his initials on their chest and he continually gets big cheers wherever he goes. Last year at this time he was driving a plebeian SUV; this year, he's the proud owner of a $117,000 black Maserati GT, a car he claims to have lusted after since high school. (A Rockies commercial this year shows the Tulo! chant in every phase of our dashing young hero's life -- whether it's in the beeps of his alarm clock, the thuds of a jackhammer outside his apartment, the click of cash register keys when he's buying new sunglasses, or the bang of kitchen utensils when he decides to hit a restaurant with Atkins, who elbows him and grins slyly while Tulo looks rather pleased with himself). He could easily hit 30 HR and 100 RBI this year while providing stellar defense, aside from wanting to chew down brick walls to win games. He is only going to get better and sorry Ryan Speier, if Tulo would like me to have his children, you're out of luck, postseason IOUs or otherwise. With Clint Hurdle managing the NL in this year's All-Star Game in New York, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Tulo was going with him in July. Show those blowhards what they're missing, especially those who insist there's a "steep dropoff" at shortstop after the (NL East) trio of Rollins, Ramirez, and Reyes. Tulo could use work on cutting down the strikeouts (130 to only 57 walks) but he's displayed an uncanny knack for clutch hitting and does his best work under pressure. I am thrilled to have him on the team and wait to see how high he goes.

2007 Line: .291 AVG, 24 HR, 99 RBI, .359 OBP, .479 SLG, .838 OPS
2008 Proj.: .310 AVG, 27 HR, 102 RBI, .370 OBP, .488 SLG, .858 OPS
INC/DEC/LEV: INC. The stars are the limit for this guy.

#27, R/R Garrett Atkins: Atkins is the only member of the core group that has not yet been signed to a long-term deal. Holliday's new deal takes him to the end of his arbitration, Brad Hawpe and Manny Corpas just got 4-year extensions, Tulo has his shiny new contract, but Atkins, conspicuously, has not. The Rockies claim it's because they did, in fact, make long-term overtures last winter but couldn't come to terms on the financial particulars. Atkins is a very money-savvy player who has managed and invested his income well, and he knows his worth and is more pragmatic than romantic about it. Also, he alone of the major role-players has a prospect pressing him from within -- Ian Stewart, the Rockies' top pick in 2003, has long been considered the third baseman of the future, and Atkins himself was once thought to be a stopgap until Stewart was ready. 67 homers and 320 RBI over three seasons will put a stop to that kind of speculation in a hurry, and now it's Atkins who's incumbent and Stewart who's challenging to win the spot. Atkins still has three seasons left before he can test free-agency, and he is under contract for $4.4 million for this year and has said he's comfortable going year-to-year for the rest of his arbitration period. However, his future might not be the only one at stake. He and Matt Holliday are so close, ever since 2002 when they were teammates and roommates in the minor leagues, that Atkins lives with the Holliday family during spring and has been known to babysit Matt's two sons. Matt himself has said in an interview with the Denver Post that Garrett's future will affect his own, so if the Rockies are thinking about retaining their MVP candidate long-term, they may also need to keep his best buddy. (Hey, every superhero needs a sidekick).

It's a testament to Atkins' pure baseball skill that he went .301/25/111 last year, and that was an off-year due to his horrendous May; at one point his average had dipped as low as .219. He batted a ridiculous .349 after the All-Star break, however, and was tops in all of baseball with 79 RBIs in 81 games from June to September. He has a smooth, sweet swing that would seem slump-immune, but he's gotten off to a slow start in March -- not as if you can read too much into spring statistics, but he will need to avoid a season-opening slump such as the one he suffered through last year. (Then again, the whole team will need to avoid that as well, so he's just one of many). Atkins is a converted first baseman who has never been the best at fielding the hot corner, but he has a strong arm and has worked on improving his range (although with Tulo to the left, you can give him a little leeway). His right side can still use some work, as it seems that he won't get to anything hit down the line, but he played outstanding D in the postseason and was no slouch in keeping up his end of the Rockies' top-ranked defense overall. His fielding hit a rough patch when his hitting did; in general, May just wasn't that kind to him. It's unlikely he'll start out in that kind of funk again, and although it's also unlikely he's going to show any marked improvement, a .300+ average with 25-30 HR and 100+ RBI doesn't leave a whole lot wanting. If Stewart can't force the issue at third this year, he may be dealt to bring in one of the top-flight arms it's looking as if the club may need, and if that happens, Atkins will likely get his long-term deal. In a perfect world, so then will Holliday.

2007 Line: .301 AVG, 25 HR, 111 RBI, .367 OBP, .486 SLG, .853 OPS
2008 Proj.: .305 AVG, 23 HR, 115 RBI, .372 OBP, .495 SLG, .867 OPS

#8 R/R Yorvit Torrealba: Yorvit was thisclose to becoming a New York Met after signing a $14.4 million, 3-year deal with them, but the arrangement fell through at the eleventh hour and he returned to Colorado, where he's comfortable, where he's developed an excellent rapport with the pitchers, and where he hopefully will be able to throw out a baserunner to save his life. 32 of 34 baserunners were successfully able to steal during the latter half of the season, which Yorvit attributes to a cranky shoulder, and insists it'll be healed this year. His ability to speak Spanish with young pitchers Morales, Jimenez, and Corpas is also a plus, and the rest of the staff raves about his game-calling. He's not going to light the world on fire offensively, but did have a key home run against the Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the NLCS, and has sometimes shown a knack for producing big hits in key times. Not necessarily last year, as he hit .201 with RISP and generally excelled at producing weak ground balls to the left side instead, but it's something he has done before. If healthy, Yorvit will hit around .260, high single digits in homers, and 40-50 RBI, but if he can help tutor the valuable young Latin arms that the club is counting so highly on, I may be persuaded to overlook it.

2007 Line: .255 AVG, 8 HR, 47 RBI, .323 OBP, .376 SLG, .699 OPS
2008 Proj.: .259 AVG, 7 HR, 48 RBI, .321 OBP, .366 SLG, .687 OPS

All right, that's finished -- took me a few hours, but now I feel moderately productive. I'll examine the outfield and bench next, then I have a few fun ideas: "The Ultimate Rockies Playlist" and "30 MLB Teams: Love, Hate, Tolerate" are among the things I have in mind. Mainly, I want baseball back. HOW long now?

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