Will Todd Helton and the Rockies be number 1 in 2012?
Faithful readers, this is the time in which everyone and their brother has a MLB season preview posted. I'm not going to do that here, but if you're curious you can see my (half-serious) entry into mkorpal's prediction competition. What I will do is give my thoughts on the Rockies' off-season and their chances going into 2012. As requested by numerous readers, no guarantees will be made.
Instead, I'm going to write about the concept of marginal wins and how they relate to the season ahead. Those of you who can remember back to 2009 will recall that I touched on this topic at that point at some length. Well, Matt Swartz of the Hardball Times wrote about them yesterday, inferring (correctly, in my opinion) that the Rockies are a great team at developing young talent and retaining it, but they have struggled at surrounding that talent with quality free agents to sustain playoff success.
Indeed, Colorado's 2007 and 2009 playoff runs were built on the backs of young, cost-controlled and homegrown talent. However, a large reason why Colorado's playoff experience has been limited to only those two years is because the team hasn't been able to supplement their core with free agents. Instead, they've relied too heavily on homegrown pieces that might not have been good enough to play a significant role on a major league roster (as much as it pains me to say it, this includes Ian Stewart and Seth Smith).
That's why this off-season has been so...different. Instead of minor tweaking to a roster that was good but not great, the Rockies got a major infusion of talent from outside the organization while jettisoning some of the underachievers from the 2009-2011 core. Instead of relying on the homegrown core, Colorado's going with a bridge team heavy on veteran (read, enough service time to be free agent eligible; also, old) players to the next core of prospects. So what do this have to do with marginal wins, and more importantly, will it work? I share my thoughts below the fold.
Every MLB team in 2012 is going to win at least 30% of their games, even if their roster was filled with replacement level players making the MLB minimum. Yes, even the Astros. Since 1965 (when the Rule 4 Draft was instituted), every team except the 2003 Tigers has done this. So when looking at marginal wins, you start at 49 (30% of 162) and count up from there. For example, a team that went 81-81 would have accumulated 32 marginal wins (81-49). The idea is that money spent above the minimum is money spent acquiring these marginal wins.
In the wild card era, 90 wins has been seen as the threshold to the playoffs (the point at which you can feel confident of making the postseason), which equates to about 41 marginal wins. However, the introduction of the 2nd wildcard reduces this threshold closer to 87-88 wins, so let's say that the Rockies will need 38 marginal wins to make it into the post-season.
They got only 24 marginal wins last year, falling at least 17 short of the threshold. However, on an individual value standpoint the Rockies earned closer to 33 marginal wins -- poor performance in high leverage situations among other things being the culprit. Therefore, I'm forecasting that the gap to the playoffs is much smaller than last year's 73-89 record would indicate.
With that in mind, let's see where the Rockies have shored up deficiencies this off-season and where they fall short. The numbers aren't exact, but the data should be directional enough to inform your own opinion:
Catcher: Chris Iannetta and the rest of 2011's catchers look like a wash with 2012's crew -- there's more upside this year with Wilin Rosario, but Ramon Hernandez is getting up there in years and can't be counted on for a full healthy season. Marginal Wins: 2.5 (-0.5 from 2011)
First Base: The boys are back in town -- by which I mean, the oldest 1B duo in the majors in Todd Helton and Jason Giambi. Helton had himself a nice bounceback year in 2011 and Giambi was excellent when he was starting (as opposed to his abysmal numbers pinch-hitting). At this age, I think that expecting the same or better production from these two (4 wins combined in 2011) would be naive. Marginal Wins: 2.5 (-1.5)
Second Base: The replacement for veteran Mark Ellis this year...the even older Marco Scutaro. Scutaro has been an above average player (as a SS) in the AL East the last 3 years, so that's encouraging. He won't be getting a positional boost this year if Tulo stays healthy, but I like Scutaro's offensive game quite a bit more than the melange of ick we ran out there last year. Marginal Wins: 2.0 (+1)
Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki was worth 6.3 fWAR last year...and the fans at Fangraphs expect even more, predicting an astounding 7.7 wins for Troy in 2012. I'm not comfortable in predicting any more than that--Troy's a beast, but that's a high mountain to climb. Marginal Wins: 6 (+0)
Third Base: With the failure of the Casey Blake experiment, this position could be a little ugly unless Nolan Arenado proves to be a savior. Both Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco were below replacement players last year. The good news is that the men they're replacing (Ian Stewart/TyWigginton/Jose Lopez/Kevin Kouzmanoff) set a very low bar to clear. Marginal Wins: 0 (+1.5)
Left Field: Predicting an improvement from last year assumes that Carlos Gonzalez plays here all year and is much more healthy than he was last year. I'll take that leap and project an improvement by CarGo. Marginal Wins: 5 (+1)
Center Field: I'm a big believer in Dexter Fowler. I just can't help being suckered into his fantastic post All-Star break production last year. This is furthest I'm going out on a limb with this predictions, but...Marginal Wins: 4 (+1)
Right Field: Michael Cuddyer will replace Seth Smith -- and given his price tag, he'd better provide a bump up in production! I'm penciling him in for 3 wins with the move to a friendly home park. Marginal Wins: 3 (+1)
Bench: The best characteristic these gentlemen bring to the table is the fact that they aren't Ryan Spilborghs ("worth" -1.1 fWAR last year). Tyler Colvin, Eric Young Jr, and whichever utility players I haven't mentioned yet should be respectable but below average. Marginal Wins: 0.5 (+1)
So to recap, I see a total of 25.5 marginal wins for position players, 4.5 more marginal wins than last year's team (in fWAR). That means that the pitching staff will need to produce at least 12.5 marginal wins (denominated by me in rWAR) to get Colorado to that playoff threshold.
Starting Rotation: If Jhoulys Chacin can control his walks while maintaining a decent strikeout pace and an elite groundball rate, he's a 4 win pitcher. If not...well, he'll still be above average (I'll say 3 wins). Jeremy Guthrie should be a league average pitcher (2). Juan Nicasio has the potential to dominate, but I'll keep him south of 2 wins due to inning caps -- and the same goes for Drew Pomeranz (1.5 each). As for the Jamie Moyer/spot starter slot and allowing for the renaissance of a healthy Jorge De La Rosa, I'll say 2 wins. Marginal Wins: 10 (-1)
Bullpen: Rafael Betancourt was pretty dominant last year, but he's getting up there in age too (I sense a theme). Then again, Rex Brothers should be better, and I'm slowly becoming a believer in Matt Belisle too. Colorado's going to have a lot of power arms coming out of the pen this year (like Tyler Chatwood), and the amount of competition they have in reserve should be able to step in if one of their horses breaks down. Still, the losses of Huston Street and Matt Lindstrom will be felt. Marginal Wins: 5.5 (-1.5)
Maybe I'm not very good at this pessimism thing, but I see 41 marginal wins for the Rockies in 2012 -- a 90 win season. Injuries happen, which is why these pie in the sky predictions don't come to pass very often, but the Rockies are due for some serious regression upwards in 2012. The consensus of pundits seems to put Colorado in 4th place in the West, but with this roster I think that they're severely underestimating this team.
Looks like Fowler will be hitting 2nd to start off the year. Fine by me, so long as Scutaro gets on base ahead of him.
Tulo looks like he'll be fine for Opening Day if not sooner.
Josh Outman won't be on the Opening Day roster, as he was placed on the DL with a strained oblique caused by food poisioning. Yuck. The Rockies could call up Alex White (who they had tabbed as a starter for Colorado Springs) in Outman's absence.
Jason Giambi talks about how zen he is now (or something like that).
Jamie Moyer is the master of finesse pitching, what with his 78 MPH fastball and all.
SI's NL West preview is probably the best division preview of the many I've seen. Maybe it's because they don't rank the teams -- because almost everybody has the Rockies finishing 4th (or if they're generous, 3rd).
Similarly, Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports has taken it upon himself to rank MLB's divisions and surprise of all surprises, the NL West is 4th.
The Hardball Times' Chris Jaffe writes about the 10 best Opening Day games of all time and the Rockies make the list. Guess which game it is!
This preview of the South Atlantic League's top prospects focuses on two Rockies players, PuRP 21 C Will Swanner and PuRP 12 SS Trevor Story.