St. Valentine's Day is a day when even the calendar is Sedona Red, and is also the anniversary of Arizona statehood, so it seems an appropriate time to invoke our bet with Rox Girl, and take over Purple Row to honor the reigning National League West champions, Arizona Diamondbacks. Maybe I should explain that concept for our high-altitude colleagues. :-) A "division title" happens when you are the best team over the course of an entire 162-game regular season, rather than a three-week period at the end of September. We're quite familiar with the idea here in Phoenix. Indeed, while we will only be celebrating our tenth anniversary this April, we are now looking to capture our fifth of these "division titles".
Now, I can see why last year has probably led to unparalleled expectations among Rockies fans, not seen since the days when Andres Galarraga patrolled first-base. It will likely be a disappointment if Colorado do not go 162-0, cure world hunger and broker a peace-settlement in the Middle East. However, a reality check is in order. Despite the sweep inflicted by the Rockies in the Championship series, I think it's safe to say that Arizona fans do not really regard Colorado as a significant threat to our ambitions of another (yawn!) division title.
To be blunt, Colorado are largely seen outside the state as a mediocre team who got incandescently hot for about three weeks. Whether fair or not, their presence in the playoffs is thought of as a quirk, a once-in-a-lifetime miracle provided by the God widely reported [accurately or not] as occupying the corner locker in the home team's dressing-room at Coors. Certainly, looking back at the standings, for the first five and half months, the Rockies were the fourth-best team in the division. At the end of play on September 17th - that's after 92% of the season was completed for Colorado - they were six games back.
The last date during 2007, on which Colorado had more wins than Arizona: April 4th. In many ways, the Rockies were, in fact, incredibly lucky. Now, this may seem ironic, coming from a fan of a team who were outscored by their opponents, yet still posted the best record in the National League. However, the difference is that Arizona made their own luck, with a rock-solid bullpen and excellent hitting off the bench. Even as Colorado won thirteen of their last fourteen regular season games - the sole loss being the one time they played us when we were actually trying - they should be giving thanks to just about everyone else in the division for their playoff spot.
The San Diego Padres and, in particular, Trevor Hoffman. The all-time saves leader was one strike from putting away Tony Gwynn, Jr as the third out of the ninth, and taking the Padres to the playoffs. He couldn't finish the job, and the Brewers eventually won the game. Of course, he blew the save in the one-game playoff too - dropping back-to-back save chances for only the third time in his fifteen-year career.
The Los Angeles Dodgers for giving up, absolutely, down the stretch. Arizona beat them on September 16, to send them 4.5 back and, effectively, end their chances. The Dodgers dropped eleven of their final fourteen games - and the Rockies were lucky enough to face Los Angeles in seven of them. If the Dodgers had mustered only a single win there, Colorado would have been sitting at home in October.
The Arizona Diamondbacks and their B-roster, given a nice workout over the final two games of our regular season. We'd clinched playoff baseball with the Friday night win in Colorado, and as a result, chose to rest many players in the remaining games. Sunday, in particular, we put out just two regular starters in Drew and Reynolds. We benched our team leaders in BA (Hudson), RBI (Byrnes) and home-runs (Young), and also replaced scheduled starter Doug Davis with rookie Yusmeiro Petit. Despite all that, a full-strength Rockies line-up only won by a single run. With hindsight, we should probably have made more effort. ;-)
Now, all credit to the Rockies for seizing the opportunity presented to them with both hands, and running it all the way to the World Series. And Colorado and Arizona have much in common, both building from within, on limited budgets, and doing a fine job of competing against teams with greater resources. However, I think it's in the off-season moves that the difference between the two teams can be found. Having had the best record in the National League, Arizona could be forgiven for sitting on their laurels. Instead, they went out there and brought on board the starter for the American League in last year's All-Star game, Dan Haren. This gives the Diamondbacks arguably the best 1-2 punch in the National League, even after the Mets splashed out for Santana.
The Dodgers picked up Andruw Jones and Hiroki Kuroda, and the Padres Jim Edmonds and Mark Prior. Hell, even the Giants made more noise over the winter, with their signing of Aaron Roward. In contrast, the Rockies' inaction - their big off-season acquisition being Marcus Giles - suggests that management's master-plan for 2008 involves working towards a repeat of last year. This would mean reaching the middle of September in fourth place, then winning 13 of 14 again, and hoping that all the teams ahead of them obligingly roll over and play dead. As advance preparation goes, this is like planning to pay the mortgage by winning the Powerball. Again.
What startled me is that the Rockies devoted their time, energy and no considerable amount of money to signing Troy Tulowitzki - who was not going anywhere until the end of 2012 anyway - and signed him to the biggest contract ever for a player with his (lack of) experience. Especially one who batted an anemic .256 away from Coors, and whose average in Denver was bloated by a freakish .372 BABIP at home. At the time of writing, Baseball-Reference.com reckons the most similar hitter to Tulo is Bill DeLancey. Who? Exactly. If that's the case, I'd say the Colorado locking themselves in to a $30+ million contract seems a little premature. Still, not my money.
If I were a Rockies fan, I'd be miffed that management hadn't seen fit to shore up a pitching staff which appears reliant upon Ubaldo Jimenez being the second coming of Nolan Ryan. I mean: Jeff Francis as your Opening Day starter? He'd be the #4 in Arizona. RoxGirl and I have already debated the longer-term future of the two franchises, and both look more than averagely bright, as the prospects which they hold should keep them in good stead down the line. However, as far as 2008 is concerned, the Diamondbacks seem to have a much better chance of repeating their triumphs, than the Rockies have of repeating theirs.
Still, if the Rockies are able to help us out in keeping the Padres out of the playoffs again this year, we'll welcome their assistance. Now, what's the bet going to be for this season, RG?