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Sunday Rockpile: On the sustaining of the Rockies success

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Over the past few weeks I've seen in discussions some worry about how the Rockies might be in for another 2008 type of letdown due to their relative inaction in the offseason. Fans see the pattern of the team having success one year and then not going out to the free agent or trade market to try and supplement or build on it. The two successful seasons sandwiching 2008 also happened to follow major trades by the organization (Jason Jennings before 2007, Matt Holliday before 2009) which probably adds to the feeling by fans that if the Rockies want to be competitive in 2010, they ought to do something.., anything.., to shake things up.

I wanted to actually take a closer look at this today, and in doing so, I noticed I had some misconceptions myself about what caused the team's collapse in 2008 (hint: Troy Tulowitzki, Jeff Francis, Todd Helton and Matt Holliday had much more to do with it than Willy Taveras, Jayson Nix, Kip Wells or Greg Reynolds). So to start, I'll put the teams actual wins from each of the last three seasons, along with the WAR provided by both the position players and pitchers, and then after the jump break down just what went wrong in 2008 and try to find out if we're in danger of it happening again.

2007: Actual wins: 90

 

Batters/Fielders: 23.5

Pitchers: 18.6

 

2008: Actual wins: 74

 

Batters/Fielders: 13.0

Pitchers: 19.4

 

2009: Actual wins: 92

 

Batters/Fielders 18.7

Pitchers: 23.6

 

First of all, note how in 2007 the Rockies pitching complemented the superior hitting unit on the way to the playoffs and in 2009 it was almost the exact reverse of that. The Rockies have added five wins of value in their pitching over the last two seasons, which has taken them from a decent middle of the pack squad to one of the League's top pitching units.

The other thing I want to point out is the apparent disparity in replacement level in 2008 vs. that of 2007 and 2009. You take off the 42 added wins from the roughly 90 win talent team that the Rockies had each of those two playoff seasons and you get a replacement level of 48. You take the 32 wins above replacement off the Rockies 2008 and your replacement level seemingly dips to 42. What that's actually probably showing is that the 2008 Rockies talent that season was closer to that of an 80 win team. Still not good enough to beat the Dodgers that year, but we should have been close to the division lead than we were. 

Alright, what I really want to look at, however, is that 10 win dip in production from 2007 to 2008 and the bounce back in 2009, because there seems to be a general fear among fans that the inaction of the Rockies front office in 2009-2010 winter thus far indicates we're watching a repeat of the 2007-2008 off season. 

I'm going to list the 2007 production in wins from guys who wouldn't be providing close to the same level in 2008, then I'm going to list who the team expected to make up that 

2007 Key Pitching WAR contributors lost:

 

  • Jeff Francis 4.1 WAR
  • Taylor Buchholz 1.7
  • Josh Fogg 1.4
  • Manny Corpas 1.4
  • Rodrigo Lopez 1.1

 

2008 Expected Pitching replacements:

 

  • Jeff Francis 1.6 WAR
  • Taylor Buchholz 1.2 
  • Manny Corpas 0.9
  • Luis Vizcaino -0.1 
  • Mark Redman 0.2
  • Kip Wells 0.0
  • Greg Reynolds -0.5

 

2008 Actual Pitching replacements:

 

  • Aaron Cook 4.7
  • Ubaldo Jimenez 4.2
  • Jorge De La Rosa 2.4
  • Brian Fuentes 2.4
  • Jason Grilli 1.1
  • Glendon Rusch 1.0

 

Early in 2008, the pitching seemed to be well on its way to a trainwreck with injuries and several expected go-to pitchers falling flat. Dan O'Dowd made two key moves with AL Central teams in picking JDLR and Grilli, who both wound up pitching better than most of us expected and along with better than usual season from Aaron Cook and nice development from Ubaldo Jimenez and rebound for Brian Fuentes, the gains we made in the 2007 season were saved on the pitching front. This was not to be the case with the position players:

2007 Key hitting/fielding WAR contributors lost:

 

  • Troy Tulowitzki 5.4
  • Todd Helton 5.0
  • Brad Hawpe 1.3
  • Matt Holliday 8.0
  • Garrett Atkins 2.4
  • Kaz Matsui 2.9
  • Willy Taveras 1.0

 

2008 expected replacements:

 

  • Troy Tulowitzki 0.9
  • Todd Helton 1.6
  • Brad Hawpe (0.6)
  • Matt Holliday 6.3
  • Garrett Atkins 0.7
  • Clint Barmes/Ian Stewart/Jeff Baker 1.8
  • Willy Taveras 0.0

 

2008 Actual replacements

 

  • Chris Iannetta 3.8

 

Iannetta's big year couldn't come close to making up for losses of one WAR or more from every other starting position player. When I look at it this way, it makes it really difficult for me to figure out what O'Dowd could have done to save us in 2008. There's just too much bleeding at too many different positions. Replacing the entire team (keep in mind this is the team that just won a pennant) was not an option and would have likely gotten him in much more hot water with fans than he already was.

So what can we take from that catastrophe and apply to the Rockies situation right now? Okay, let's start by looking at the 2009 Value Chart for some players coming off spiky or unusually productive seasons such as Helton, Holliday, Tulo and Kaz Matsui in 2007.

Tulo is the only Rockies player to put up more than 5 WAR in 2009, the question would be is he in line for a total crash in value? Given that much of that crash was injury related, I'm not sure this is something we can actually predict, if it happens again, we're kind of screwed again. Helton's averaged about 3.5 wins of value over the last five seasons, and he'd have to drop to replacement level to match the loss in value we suffered by his drop in production in 2008.

Carlos Gonzalez and Seth Smith are both excellent candidates to fall back to earth in 2010, so our left field might actually see a more significant drop than some people seem to be expecting. That said, we should get more production from center field, third base and possibly catcher if Iannetta can regain some of his 2008 magic. There's even at least a decent possibility we get more, not less, production from Tulo despite him coming off his best season career to date at the plate, as he could regain some lost defensive value.

At any rate, the main point is that the loss of at least a win at every position scenario that played out in 2008 seems highly unlikely right now, and what losses in value are foreseeable are relatively small and made up by gains at other positions. Keep in mind throughout that we can't foresee injuries such as the broken leg that Tulowitzki suffered in 2008, and a repeat disaster like that for out shortstop will almost certainly cost the team any chance at making another playoff run. I have to think, however, that odds are in our favor that another injury like that doesn't occur.

Of course, unlike 2007, in 2009 the Rockies pitching gave the team the most value. Perhaps this would be a better place to look for a repeat catastrophe.

2009 Key WAR contributors lost:

 

  • Jason Marquis 3.8
  • ?

 

Alright, this is where it gets kind of tricky. We know for sure that the Rockies will lose Marquis, we can't tell for sure what other problems await. Until we know better what to expect from Jhoulys Chacin, Christian Friedrich and other mostly untested starters in 2010, there's a pretty big risk in the event of an injury to one of the projected five starters. This is why the team continues to look for pitchers like Tim Redding (yeah, not the ideal example, but he's the one we're most connected to) to raise the floor of that potential dropoff.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa are all downward regression candidates to varying degrees, but all also have decent arguments why they'd be able to maintain their 2009 level of production. I can probably get into those in the comments as I'm very late with this post as is, but the upshoot should be to expect a fall back for them but don't be surprised if it doesn't happen. If you're looking for a Verducci type effect due to a spike in the amount of innings, JDLR probably should be given at least a yellow flag, if not a red after a bump to 185 after 130 in 2008.

Conversely, the other two parts of the 2010 Rockies rotation might make up the Marquis gap and then some. If you take an average level of production from the pair, 2.9 wins for Jeff Francis, 3.3 wins for Aaron Cook (their MLB averages over the last four seasons they pitched) you could make up the difference between Cook and Marquis 2009, with half a win left over to help cover the other anticipated regressions.

At any rate, to lose 10 wins like the Rockies did with their 2008 position players, we'd need to see a combination of:

 

  • A major regression and/or injury to Ubaldo Jimenez.

 

and at least two more of the following:

 

  • Aaron Cook with another poor season by his standards.
  • Both JDLR and Jason Hammel regressing to levels of production prior to their acquisitions by the Rockies.
  • A less than average return by Jeff Francis.
  • Chaos in the bullpen

 

Jimenez probably has to join Tulowitzki in the category of players we simply can't afford to lose and maintain a truly competitive team. Any other part and I think the Rockies could still be competitive with the right breaks, but those two seem to have made themselves integral to the franchise's success.

Okay, I'm just going to post this and continue the discussion in the comments, but the short story is that a 10 win, 2008 type of collapse in the lineup seems very unlikely right now. A similar collapse with the rotation/pitching is at least a little bit of a better possibility, but also unlikely.