Sunday Rockpile: Rockies 2009 offense stable, chances of recovery good

Prior to the humidor, I would look at any Rockie hitter who finished out of the top five in the NL in OPS at his position as a liability that needed replaced. Now it's closer to a more natural top eight that I use as a threshold. Last season, the Rockies had three positions qualify, but perhaps more galling was how bad two of those three were. Had we had even moderate increases in production from Helton/Atkins at first and Taveras in center, had we removed Jayson Nix from duty sooner, the season could have turned out much differently. To make this point clear, notice that the World Series champions had just as many failed slots in their lineup, the difference (well besides them also having Cole Hamels) was the degree of failure by the Rockies trio of misery.

2008 by position with NL OPS rank in parentheses:

1B: .254/.348/.403 (#15; Phillies #4)

2B: .252/.305/.404 (#11; Phillies #1)

3B: .293/.343/.468 (#5; Phillies #15)

SS: .272/.326/.423 (#7; Phillies #6)

C:  .250/.347/.441 (#3; Phillies #10)

LF: .323/.403/.531 (#1; Phillies #5)

CF: .258/.316/.333 (#15; Phillies #4)

RF: .288/.382/.500 (#3; Phillies #12)

So, how much confidence should we have that there will be a different story in 2009?

Carlos Gonzalez (.242/.273/.361) on the basis of his 2008 non-adjusted numbers wouldn't seem to be much of an upgrade offensively over Willy Taveras in center, but there are a host of reasons why we should expect him to be a considerable improvement in 2009, ranging from Gonzalez switching to a more favorable park and league, to his age and scouting profile and the general consensus that Taveras' skills don't have much, if any, room for improvement at the plate. The question for Rockies fans will be how much of an improvement will Gonzalez be, and will it be enough to offset the step down from Holliday to Ryan Spilborghs that we take in left. That should be the other question for Rockies fans, how much offense, exactly, are we going to lose in left field?

Spilborghs' career line of .302/.374/.466 isn't far removed from Holliday's .321/.409/.538 line from last season. What's more, in terms of getting on base, Spilborghs has shown improvement in each of his three MLB seasons culminating in last season's .407 OBP, which is almost an exact match for Holliday's .409. Where Spilly clearly falls short is in his power production, which just happens to be the arena that Gonzalez has a decisive advantage over Taveras in. Let me put it another way, over the course of a full season, the Rockies project to lose about 15 extra base hits in the switch from Holliday to Spilborghs, but gain over 20 in the switch from Taveras to Gonzalez with a small, predictable step forward from CarGo, not even a real breakthrough. The key to improving on 2008's hitting performance in the outfield will be in optimizing the lineup to take advantage of the net gain in XBH, but not expose Gonzalez' weak on base skills as much as Taveras' were. An optimal lineup with this team would have Spilborghs leading off and Gonzalez batting relatively deep.

While concerns about how our hitting will fare without Holliday seem relatively overblown, where the Rockies will take a big hit with this trade is in the baserunning department. Taveras and Holliday were the team's best, stealing successfully an immensely valuable 96/105 times in 2008, and otherwise providing added runs throughout the season by taking advatage of advancement opportunities. For all their virtues, Gonzalez and Spilborghs simply are incapable of duplicating that performance. How are the Rockies going to make this up? Again, this goes back to lineup construction. The hope for me is that this gain comes through better efficiency than we saw last season. Clint Hurdle wasted an inordinate amount of outs last season by insistently putting Taveras at the top of his lineup cards, completely nullifying Willy's positive effects on the basepaths by denying better hitters more plate opportunities. Without Taveras or a similarly speed oriented player available, it's my hope that Hurdle will be more inclined to build a lineup around who truly sets the table for the team. Do I have any confidence that the man will actually make the right decision and do this? That's a different question, but I like the chances of it happening better without Taveras around.

In sum, last week's trade actually keeps some overall offensive stability in the outfield, and leaves the onus of improving 2008's offensive lag onto the infield, where it would have been even had we kept Holliday. The right side in particular will be the key to the Rockies competing next season. Todd Helton and Jeff Baker/Clint Barmes have to rebound if the Rockies expect to get back into the playoff hunt.

The cutoff for being a top eight first baseman in the NL in OPS last season was .845, about .100 points higher than what we had last season, which is what the Cubs and Mets got from Lee and Delgado mostly. Helton can actually put up a line similar to his 2006 .302/.404/.476 numbers and still be helping the team be competitive. Of course, we'd like him to be more like 2007, but let's not get too greedy for the the 35 year old with back issues. As for second base, that's more problematic. The Rockies seem to be ignoring what everybody else sees as a problem, but the upgrade that's needed here to be competitive in the NL is relatively small, only about .050 points of OPS, which possibly could be made up simply by having fewer Jayson Nix starts. Still, I see a little too much confidence from the team for Baker/Barmes, two players who have had a wild history of highs and lows. The lows, and the strong possibility of a replay of them, are what worry me.

The baseline for a competitive NL centerfielder is fairly high, something along the lines of Mike Cameron's .244/.332/.479 for Milwaukee last season. As the Phillies at third showed in 2008, it is possible for an NL contender to have one major hole in the lineup and be successful, but without a Hamels like ace fronting our rotation, I don't know if we have that luxury, so the closer Gonzalez gets to that .800 OPS line the better.  We can earn some wiggle room at these other positions with a strong season from the left side of our infield, Tulo and Stewart are already well positioned competitively despite being very young and not having what we would consider peak seasons last year. Overall, it looks like the prognosis for recovery for our offense in 2009 is decent, but I would really like to have a more reliable bet at second.

I'll look at the state of the rest of the NL West's (sans San Diego) offenses on Thursday.

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