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Off Day Off-Season Primer

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While the Rockies' magical run has captured the interest of Denver fans and media alike, we've still seen some off-season stories start to trickle in.  If you're like me, then you are probably anticipating the Rockies continuing this run into the World Series (why not?), but it also means that for the first time we won't have a month and a half to preview the off-season, but hopefully a mere sixteen days.  Thus, it might be good to get a head start with the some of the stories and underlying issues of our off-season while we have a couple of days to wait nervously until Game One of the NLCS.

For those of you that wish to stay in playoff mode, I've spared you the scrolling by moving the bulk of this story behind the jump.  

There's been some good discussion in some threads lately about the merits of keeping or re-upping certain players, and that will be the primary focus of this piece.  A lot of good points have been made about the positive influences of both Fogg and Torrealba, and the resurgence of Fuentes, but what we need to take a look at is the factors relating to both team and player interest in a new deal.  The best way to go about this is to break it down by player, so let's just kick it off with the most valuable:

Brian Fuentes

Entering the All Star break, it looked like Fuentes days as an effective stopper were over.  His K rate was down to 7.41 from formerly lofty heights of 9+, and though the walk rate went with it, the hit and homer rate did not follow and Fuentes looked hittable and unnerved.  At the time, I was ready to part ways as well, and hoped to get him back quickly to move him at the deadline to a desperate team willing to part with some young pitching.  Now, I'm very happy to admit I was wrong.  Off the DL, Fuentes suddenly went back to being old Fuentes, racking up the K's (9.53) but also the walks (4.76) while suppressing hits (4.37); effectively wild Fuentes was back.  While he's hard on the heart, he's put up his best seasons with similar K and BB rates.  

Luck had a hand in his good late stretch, he didn't allow a homer and the hit rate is way too low to repeat, but the return of the K and the new role were the two biggest factors in his success.  Now, when Fuentes made a mess, he had help cleaning it up, thanks to a closer with excellent command and a GB heavy approach.  Also, Fuentes could be used more aggressively against lefties through situation subs, facing a greater percentage of lefties after leaving the closers role.  There was also talk that Fuentes had a hitch in his mechanics that was causing his stuff to flatten out, and while no follow up story was done to my knowledge, it's possible that Fuentes and the coaches ironed out some problems that helped return bite to his pitches.

Now that he's paired with Corpas to give the Rockies a competitive late inning tandem, O'Dowd has made it known that he'd like Fuentes back next year and beyond.  O'Dowd has the right idea, by extending Fuentes past free agency, he may cut down what could be a large single season figure if Fuentes goes to arbitration, by spreading money over a two-three year contract.  However, his comments about using two ninth inning relievers tells us something else about the situation:  Fuentes still wants to close.  

This is where it gets dicey.  Despite his numerous All Star selections, Fuentes has never had an FIP lower than Corpas' 3.56 number posted this year, or for that matter an ERA lower than Corpas' 2.10.  Manny has the power, control, and extreme GB tendencies to make him an elite closer, and on top of this, he has a hand in Fuentes' late success by cleaning up a couple messes Brian's left on the bases.  It's just not a good idea to make the best Rockies closer (and one controllable for four more years) unhappy by cutting into his role.

So how will O'Dowd work around Fuentes' desire to close again, while getting Fuentes to re-up in a lesser role?  Probably by paying him lip service; the Rockies always suggests two ninth inning guys when Fuentes returned but never came close to acting on it, even when it made sense with a lefty leading off the ninth.  The most likely scenario is that the Rockies just head to arbitration and bite the bullet on potentially a 6-7 million dollar arb figure.  Yet, if O'Dowd can somehow convince Fuentes that he's a better fit in his new role, while providing him financial security for the next two-three years, we could see Fuentes stay past 2008.

Josh Fogg

While the odds of retaining Fuentes for next year at least look good, they are considerably less promising with Fogg, and I'll explain in a moment.  For starters, Fogg exceeded my expectations this season.  He pitched like a top tier number five and turned in his best VORP since his rookie year.  His rates didn't reflect a great difference over last year, but his consistent mediocrity proved valuable when the Rockies' rotation was just lucky to have five working starters.

There have been several good arguments made for retaining Fogg to serve in a wave role, crediting his value in the clubhouse as well as his mentality on the mound.  While that makes some sense for the club, I think it makes little sense for the player, and don't see Colorado as an inviting place for Fogg's future.

Let's look at the situation hypothetically.  Let's say that Rockies decide to ink in Francis, Cook, and Jimenez for sure in next season's rotation.  They'd like Hirsh to compete for a role, but want Morales to get half a year at AAA.  Also, we must look at the suggestion of Ken Rosenthal that Colorado will shop for a big starter this off-season (if not Willis or Bedard, we could still be open to one of the other mentioned trade names like Blanton, Garland, Burnett, etc.).  So looking at it from Fogg's standpoint, he's had one of his best ERA's and win totals in his career, and he's developed a bulldog reputation that can rub off on younger players in a clubhouse.  That's a pretty marketable persona when you look at the rotations of Kansas City, Cincinnati, Seattle, and Texas (just to name a few).  If Fogg takes a critical look at his place in Colorado, he'll see that he's likely to have a role early on, but he also knows that Reynolds, Hynick, and Morales will all be waiting in AAA, and Morales is a guy the Rockies will certainly want to plug in as soon as he shows he's ready (assuming that isn't April).  Basically, the Rockies can't guarantee that they'll have a job for Fogg for the entirety of next season.

Fogg has a bullpen background, and he could be a good fit in the front of Colorado's bullpen, but compensation isn't the same, and there are many teams that need a number five starter.  Fogg is now 30, and he'd probably like to use this sub 5.00 ERA season to get a few years in a deal and decent amount of money to give him a cushy life after baseball.  This off-season could be his chance to get his "big deal."

From the Rockies standpoint,  they wouldn't mind having Fogg back for rotational depth to start the year, but probably can't guarantee that Fogg has a place in future plans with hopes of landing a big starter in addition to the three AAA prospects listed.  It's doubtful the Rockies would be open to a three year deal, but could look at a one year deal with a club option for year two.

Ultimately, Fogg would do good for himself to hit the market and sell his reputation to a couple of young, depleted starting staffs looking for a good clubhouse guy, a place where he would face little competition for his role in the first two years.  The Rockies can't offer this, and while I think both parties have a mutual admiration for each other, their likely goals and plans don't mesh.  Fogg will be hard to retain.

Yorvit Torrealba

Torrealba's situation could end up being similar to Fogg's.  Like Fogg, Torrealba's value goes beyond the statistical output, but we should also be careful not to overrate this particular aspect of his game.  While Torrealba has been a solid mentor for our young Latin pitchers, we also need to be careful not to give him too much credit for their obvious talents.  Still, he's given these guys a familiar voice and a reliable confidant as they were thrust into duty before maturation.

While the team's desire to retain Torrealba will be greater than that for Fogg, Torrealba looks to be in more demand as well.  Already on today's Baseball This Morning on XM Radio, Buck Martinez has listed Torrealba as one of the top free agent catchers available this off-season, and it's clear his playoff momentum is becoming a factor in his off-season popularity.  The same values Rockies' fans see in Torrealba are the same values that will make him enticing to teams; he's energetic and upbeat, he doesn't mind working with young pitchers, and has a reputation as a good receiver.  A couple of high profile teams will be catcher hunting as well.  Detroit-Torrealba rumors have already surfaced, and depending on the Posada situation, the Mets could be intrigued by his on field intensity and leadership qualities they feel they lack in the clubhouse.  Simply put, Torrealba's little run could make him a pretty expensive commodity.

He's not going to suit everyone.  He still finished 34th in VORP amongst catchers, and his throwing has not been good (but he can use the excuse that he was dealing with a young staff).  Ideally, he's a backup catcher offensively that may see his bat die away from Coors.  That said, the teams that have already or likely will hint interest are those that favor the intangible qualities of a catcher over certain offensive numbers.

So what do the Rockies want and do the Rockies fit what Torrealba wants?  Based on some passing comments in the press over the last two months, the Rockies still consider Iannetta the catcher of the future, and I believe that O'Dowd (more so than Hurdle) and his development staff would like to see Iannetta get a little more action, but they also wouldn't mind having Torrealba's presence with the Latin pitchers back.  At what cost, though?  It's conceivable to think that Torrealba could creep in to the 4-5 mil a year category if the catching market dries up quickly, and the teams in need of catchers have deep pockets.  The Rockies will still be operating on a limited budget with the expected raises of the big hitters in the lineup, and may not find it feasible to compete with the teams willing to give Torrealba big starter money.

From Torrealba's standpoint, how much playing time should he expect in Colorado next year?  Thanks to his work this season and the playoffs, 4-5 teams will come to him offering starting jobs.  The Rockies could offer this as well, but how much money and job security will be bigger issues.  Of all the players on this list, Torrealba's return is the most up in air (since we aren't sure just how teams will react to his new reputation), and would have to put 50-50 odds on this one.

Miscellaneous Notes

-Why have we heard nothing on the Matsui front?  I was worried that his offensive numbers were misleading, but looking at some defensive figures, he's very much worth retaining.  I think loyalty and opportunity play a greater role with Matsui, and hope the team can put together a solid two year package, at that point Chris Nelson should be ready to take over.

-I don't expect Affeldt, Hawkins, or Julio back, but I do think the team still needs a top notch righty to match with Fuentes in the bridge to Corpas.  By the all star break, the addition of Weathers to whatever set up man we add should give the Rockies a bullpen that not only stands out in surface stats, but also performs in leverage situations.

-Pay no attention to the Monfort's comments about adding payroll.  For one, they were saying this before the season began, and two, they have to just to cover arbitration bonuses to field a roster.  The payroll will increase, but lets not pretend O'Dowd will be getting a company credit card again this off-season.  The Rockies will once again work under a modest budget, but one with increased flexibility.  He'll get some new talent, but don't expect everyone to be retained long term.

-We'll talk about the situations of Atkins, Holliday, and Hawpe more after the playoffs, but one thing to keep in mind that a desire to retain players needs reciprocity to work.  Just because the Rockies offer these guys a long term deal doesn't mean a) that it's competitive with what they could receive on the open market, and b) the player actually desires to remain with the team at that rate of pay.  O'Dowd still has to work to insure long-term success without narrowing the window or deviate from the plan that has gotten the team this far.  These players will get offers that make sense to the club, and it will be up to the players to decide if it makes sense for them.  If it doesn't, don't be surprised if said player is still shopped this off-season.