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Keepers for 2008

In 2003, the Colorado Rockies used this batting order on opening day (with their OPS for the season):

  1. 2B -Ron Belliard .760, 28
  2. LF -Jay Payton .866, 30
  3. 1B -Todd Helton 1.088, 29
  4. RF -Larry Walker .898, 36
  5. CF -Preston Wilson .880, 28
  6. SS -Jose Hernandez .670, 33
  7. C -Charles Johnson .775, 31
  8. 3B -Chris Stynes .748, 30
And these were the opening day starters:
  1. Jason Jennings 5.11
  2. Aaron Cook 6.02
  3. Nelson Cruz 7.21
  4. Shawn Chacon 4.60
  5. Darren Oliver 5.04
If I recall correctly, Oliver was originally supposed to only be there until Denny Neagle returned from injury, but his effective use of a cut fastball combined with the ineffectiveness of Cruz, Neagle and others led him to be in the rotation the entire season and our winningest pitcher.

I bring this season up for a couple of reasons: 1) it was the first season with the humidor in use, and 2) it was the last season the Rockies opening day lineup consisted almost entirely of players past the free-agency barrier. Payton was in his last year of arbitration, but everybody else in the lineup was under large free agent type contracts, whether they tested the market or not.

Immediately there appears to be some lapse in player evaluation in putting this lineup together. These guys were all pretty much on the decline, or peaking that season. None of them -with the exception of Helton- would go on to be much more than quality role players in the future, and several would shortly after have their careers implode entirely. The rotation had a different problem, as Aaron Cook, Jason Jennings and Shawn Chacon were too young and inconsistent to be relied on to anchor an otherwise awful staff.

Since that opening day, the team has gone to an almost total build from within mode and the lineup has evolved to look something like this:

  1. Willy Taveras, 25
  2. Kaz Matsui, 31
  3. Garrett Atkins, 27
  4. Matt Holliday, 27
  5. Todd Helton, 33
  6. Brad Hawpe, 28
  7. Troy Tulowitzki, 22
  8. Chris Iannetta, 24
Basically with this post I want to figure out how you would mould the team for future success given this clay to work with. Keep in mind you have elite prospects at several positions and some pitching talent on the farm as well. Oh yeah, here's your rotation:
  1. Aaron Cook
  2. Jeff Francis
  3. Rodrigo Lopez
  4. Brian Lawrence
  5. Jason Hirsh/ Byung Hyun Kim/ Josh Fogg
Who do you try and sign to a long term deal? Who do you punt off immediately and what do you expect to get in return for them? I look at how contending teams have built their teams and there are some general rules of thumb that seem to pay off pretty well. So with these rules in mind, if I'm the GM, I'm only negotiating for a longer contract with two players from those two groups above right now (plus one reliever) with three or four others closely being considered:

1. Don't waste money on first basemen or corner outfielders in big long term contracts unless they're Albert Pujols/Barry Bonds special.

All the playoff teams had a slugger in at least one of the three (or four including the DH in the AL) offensive oriented positions, but only the Yankees had more than one on a big, long term contract. This eliminates Hawpe, Holliday and Jeff Baker from being aggressively chased. If they want to sign reasonable extensions that don't handcuff the future of the team, than I'd listen, but otherwise, I'll focus my energies elsewhere.

  1. If you've got a good shortstop, catcher or center-fielder, keep them. We probably have two of the three, but until they play a full season or two, it's pointless to negotiate long term. Tulo and Iannetta go on my closely watched list. Meanwhile, I'd try and get a solid prospect in a trade for Barmes.
  2. Signing a guy long term at third won't be as much of an albatross as at the other corners. Half of last season's playoff teams had stars at the hot corner (like David Wright, Alex Rodriguez and Scott Rolen) while others would trot out the likes of Nick Punto or Vinny Castilla, so it could go either way. If you've got a guy who can play third and hit like a first baseman, then it never hurts to try and sign them. Garrett Atkins is the only position player I'd be actively engaged in negotiating a contract extension with this season.
  3. Second base is meant for low offense, scrappy, easily replaceable players. Seriously. Of all of last season's playoff teams, only the Dodgers had a serious offensive threat at second, unless you count Jose Valentin's flukishly strong production for the Mets. In this respect, we're solid with our pair this year, but neither one gets consideration for a long term extension. This last point makes me envy Philadelphia and Milwaukee, as apparently second is the easiest position to get an offensive leg up on the competition. I hope one of the bunch of Wimberly, Jonathan Herrera, or EY Jr. step up to their potential soon, so we can take advantage of the talent vacuum, too.
  4. It's important to keep your pitching options open. The two New York teams tied a lot of salary to their rotations, while the others played it cool with the decks they'd been given. Most had one or two big ticket free agents in the starting staff, but all of them also relied heavily on young homegrown talent. A playoff rotation can be done on a build from within mode, as the Twins exhibited, but even the A's spent some money for innings eater Esteban Loaiza. For the Rockies, I'd look to extend Aaron Cook's contract next winter, but that's it right now. Wait, I forgot Brian Fuentes. Okay, that makes two pitchers I'm negotiating with plus Atkins for extensions. Fogg and Kim definitely seem on their way out without some atypically excellent performances, it's just a matter of timing at this point.
Alright, so if I was Dan O'Dowd planning for next winter's spending, extending Atkins, Fuentes and Cook would be big priorities. I'd also target Corey Patterson first, and if that fails, Torii Hunter as a plan B in center field, and another starter or two (Fogg adn Kim are already gone in this scenario) if Lawrence doesn't work out or if our prospects fail to develop. How much would this cost? Probably too much. I'm guessing the Cook, Atkins and Patterson contracts will each be in the $8-$12 million dollar per year range, with Cook at the higher end and Atkins at the lower end of that scale. Fuentes could be at the lower end of that range as well but I'd think he'd more likely be willing to sign a deal similar to the three year $21 million contract Keith Foulke got. It's still a lot of money, so to trim some excess and afford this at a $70 million cap, I'd have to trade Matt Holliday and Rodrigo Lopez for sure, and would be more aggressive in exploring for a new home for Todd Helton. I'd be less inclined to pull the trigger on trades for Fuentes and Cook, even if it seems like we won't be able to re-sign them after 2008, as I see them as more integral to our contending that season. I'd be careful to save some room to extend Tulowitzki and Iannetta when the time comes, so keeping within a salary limit remains important.

From reading between the lines of Rockies' officials, except for my interest in Patterson, this is mostly in line with what they're thinking. Cook is less of a priority for them than Fuentes and Atkins, but that will probably change by next October. There's a constant drumroll of pessimism in getting Holliday signed long term, and for the sake of the team, it seems best to prepare for his departure. A surprisingly strong season in 2007 could push the amount the team's able to spend higher, but it looks like more changes are on the way regardless next winter. At any rate, I'd be curious to hear other suggestions of who you'd sign, who you'd trade, and how you'd adjust the payroll to complete this puzzle.