Friday, December 23, 2016

How to Conquer Coors Field and Make the Rockies Contenders


Danville, Kentucky -- Folks, I won't pretend to be a fan of the Colorado Rockies. I will always harbor reservations about a team that plays in a state conducting a dangerous experiment with legal marijuana. If it were up to me, baseball would only be played in the prairies and fields of America's heartland, not in the bizarre atmospheric conditions of the Rocky Mountains, a cruel and inhospitable terrain barely fit for habitation by humans.

Nonetheless, in spite of Colorado's deadly tryst with the devil's lettuce, the Rockies are here to stay. Coors Field and its anomalous playing conditions are also here to stay. The powerhouse New York Yankees of old used to dominate because they crafted a roster that gelled with their stadium: by pursuing left-handed power bats, the Bronx Bombers were able to create high-octane offenses that could take advantage of the short porch in right field with ease. The 2015 Royals won the World Series because they prioritized excellent defensive outfielders with the speed and range to patrol the spacious Kauffman Stadium. Colorado needs to follow this blueprint and construct a Rockies team that takes full advantage of their dinger-friendly stadium.

It's now or never for the Rockies. They have an opening to seriously compete in the National League West, but only if the front office shows some serious strategic vision. The Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres are not contending; a smartly-built Rockies team could rack up wins against these bottom-feeders. In addition, 2017 is an odd year, so the San Francisco Giants will suck. Throw in a Los Angeles Dodgers team that is just treading water by extending certain players like Kenley Jensen while allowing key pieces like Joe Blanton and Chase Utley to leave, and you have something of a power vacuum within the division. The Dodgers will still be the team to beat in the NL West, but with a good off-season the Rockies could give Los Angeles a run for their money and seriously contend for a Wild Card.

I know it would be tempting for the Rockies to pat themselves on the back for the Mike Dunn signing and call it an off-season, but there's still work to be done to create a Rockies roster that fully exploits the idiosyncratic characteristics of Coors Field. Here's how to create a Rockies team danker than Blueberry Diesel:


BRING BACK RABURN



There's no sugar-coating how bad Ryan Raburn's 2016 season was. The Rockies were expecting a little more productivity than a measly 9 dingers and 30 RBIs. But saavy baseball fans like myself could've seen this coming. In fact, Raburn's underwhelming 2016 campaign was totally predictable, and followed a long trend for the 35 year old slugger:

Raburn's numbers, 2011-2016
Raburn is a volatile player. In even years (like 2016) Raburn is all but useless, a worse investment than a donation to the now-defunct Clinton Foundation. In contrast, odd year Raburn is quite good, boasting a higher batting average, more power, and more RBIs. It's not Raburn's fault the Rockies signed him in the decline stage of his boom-bust cycle. That being said, the Rockies should absolutely bring Raburn back next year to reap the righteous harvest which they have sown. Sign him to another one-year contract and bask in the glory of odd year Ryan Raburn. Raburn's true power in Coors Field will be quite a sight to behold.

SIGN DOUG FISTER



Folks, it's no secret that many of Colorado's problems are pitching related. The Rockies have great young position players like Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and reigning NL batting champ DJ LeMahieu, but have struggled at run prevention. Colorado's Achilles Heel is pitching. It's difficult to develop quality starting pitching in a punishing ballpark that gives up home runs more freely than Colorado's marijuana dispensaries wantonly give edible marijuana candies to unsuspecting children.

Which candies are safe and which are drugged? Children don't know either.
Enter Doug Fister. Doug quietly had a solid year with the Houston Astros last season, as he tried to rebuild his value on a one-year contract. There was a lot to like about Fister's 2016 season. Despite missing April, May, and most of June with an injury, Fister racked up 12 wins and pitched nearly 200 innings. The 180 quality innings that Fister threw last season would've been the 2nd most on the 2016 Rockies: only Chad Bettis, who threw 186 innings, pitched more. If healthy, Fister would be a lock to throw well over 200 innings next season. He's still just a few years removed from a borderline Cy Young campaign in 2014 with the Nationals where he had a 2.41 ERA and won 16 games. Not sold yet?

Fister isn't an enticing free agent option for the Rockies merely because of his workhorse, innings-eating track record. His profile would be an excellent match with Coors Field. Fister's xFIP and K/9 numbers aren't going to get the nerds at fangraphs hot and bothered; but when he's on top of his game, he generates lots of ground balls. Let me tell you something about ground balls, folks. When I was 6 years old, my father put me on his knee and taught me some life lessons I'll never forget: never drink on an empty stomach, don't eat the tomatoes at fast food restaurants, and don't let fly ball pitchers pitch in high altitude environments. Here's another true fact: balls hit on the ground can't be home runs, folks, unless through defensive incompetency someone nabs an inside the park homer. Fortunately, Dougie Fresh is a ground ball guru. He generated a whopping 19 double plays last year. The Rockies need guys who can keep the ball on the ground. The Rockies need quality pitching at an affordable price. They need Fister to team 'em how to Dougie.

DOUBLE DOWN ON POWER BATS


There are tons of reasonably priced power bats available on the open market this off-season. If I were the Rockies GM, I would start by signing some guys who can actually play first base. Ian Desmond was a good signing, but he's never played first base before, and the Rockies' replacement options are weak if Mr. Desmond gets injured. I'm skeptical that Desmond, who played exclusively in the outfield last season, will seamlessly plug into first base. Playing first base isn't easy, just ask Ron Washington. Fortunately there are some solid options on the free agent market: Chris Carter and Justin Morneau in particular stand out.


If the Rockies are smart, they'll create a Chris Carter/Justin Morneau platoon at first base next season. Carter hit a whopping 41 dingers last season, 6th most in all of the MLB and more than every Colorado player except Arenado. Carter's right-handed bat would represent a fierce power threat smack dab in the middle of an already stacked Rockies lineup. Crucially, Carter's right-handed power would pair perfectly with the left-handed batting prowess of former Rockie Justin Morneau, another free agent first baseman. It's not everyday you have an opportunity to lock up the 2006 AL MVP, folks. Remember the good old days of Morneau in a Rockies uniform? In 2014, Morneau batted .319 with 17 HRs and 82 RBIs with Colorado. He looked surprisingly good in very limited action with the White Sox last season as well, providing modest power and a .261 batting average along with some veteran leadership. You could expect his offensive numbers to surge next season playing in the harrowing confines of Coors. As a package deal, you'd be hard pressed to find a better righty/lefty one-two punch at first base than Carter and Morneau.


Don't stop there either, Rockies. There's lots of other ways to upgrade the team's offense. Mark Trumbo is still inexplicably available. He hit 47 HRs last year with the Orioles in an MVP-worthy campaign. He could easily crack 60 dingers if he played a full year in Coors. A Rockies lineup that featured Trumbo, Carter, and Morneau would give Clayton Kershaw nightmares and make every opposing pitcher lie awake at night, terrified at the idea of pitching to that lineup in Coors Field. You might be wondering: what are the Rockies going to do with all these first basemen and outfielders? Let them duke it out for the starting roles at Spring Training, and deal the extra players for pitching. Get it done, Rockies.

CONCLUSION


The time to play it safe has come and gone. There is blood in the water in the NL West. The Giants' even year magic is dead. The Dodgers have not upgraded their roster and may even get worse in some respects. The time has come for the Rockies to get serious about contending. Their talented core of positions players isn't getting any younger. Some smart moves could easily get the Rockies into the 85-win range that would thrust them right into the thick of the Wild Card race.

The Rockies organization owes it to their fans to win a World Series championship before Colorado's medical infrastructure collapses under the weight of an imminent marijuana-poisoning epidemic. The leaf-lovers in Denver and Boulder are probably too stoned to care that the Rockies have not lived up to their potential. But the good people of blue-collar towns like Silver Cliff, Colorado -- a community built by the grandsons and granddaughters of hard-working silver miners -- deserve to see a World Series victory in their lifetime. If the Colorado front office stops messing around and locks up phenom talents like Mark Trumbo, they'll have taken a small step towards doing right by the folks in Colorado sober enough to appreciate a quality baseball team.