Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
Colorado's upside remains limited due to the willingness of the front office to change the direction of the franchise on a yearly and sometimes monthly basis. General Manager Dan O'Dowd decided that changeup specialists would succeed in Coors, so he gave Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle extraordinary contracts even though their skills didn't merit such a commitment. We've seen them derided in many places for a top-heavy payroll and the willingness to allocate a very high percentage of salary to only four or five players. Although we normally completely agree with this strategy, while Todd Helton and Larry Walker rank among the best bats in the game and merit extravagant salaries, Hampton and Neagle do not. The current challenge for this franchise is to find a way to convert two incredibly unwieldy contracts into two or more contracts more easily moved. A rumored trade centered around Mike Hampton for Preston Wilson would move in that direction, as did the Neagle-for-Bobby Higginson deal before Neagle refused to leave. I'll be shocked if Hampton returns next spring, and a smart GM would be able to convert Hampton, through three or more trades, into a couple of prospects and a catcher or infielder with an expensive deal like Jason Kendall or even bring Jeff Cirillo back for a second tour.
Hiring Clint Hurdle seems a wise choice, and we're not overly concerned about the Rockies' staff. Their offense also remains anchored around elite sluggers in Helton and Walker, but the disappearance of Juan Pierre's skills and the failed development of Juan Uribe, Jose Ortiz, and Ben Petrick left the lineup with gaping holes. Colorado also lacks a premier right-handed hitter to bat between Helton and Walker, so signing Jeff Kent seems the most important move the team could make. If they can move Hampton and/or Neagle to downsize payroll, signing Ray Durham to play second would also make sense, setting the top of the lineup at Durham, centerfielder Jay Payton, Helton, Kent, and Walker. A Pierre rebound in Spring Training would allow him to hit first, Durham to hit second, and enable Payton to move to left field and the #6 hole to focus on his power. Since Pierre also possesses significant trade value, they could deal him, leave Payton in CF and #2, and slot Gabe Kapler in left field and the #6 hole, followed by the catcher and Uribe, who deserves at least one more season since he jumped up the system so quickly. The catching situation remains rather confusing, and they don't need a long-term solution with two promising prospects in Garrett Gentry and J.D. Closser. Todd Hundley would be a solid option, giving them a switch-hitter with power to hit seventh, and Chicago would deal him for practically nothing; however Colorado also should explore foisting Neagle's contract on the Cubs in a Hundley trade, especially since Hampton appears to have other suitors. Hampton and Neagle make about $20M/year in 2003, so between their salaries and departing free agent Todd Zeile, they can cover Hundley, someone like Preston Wilson, Durham, and only need a payroll increase of around $5M to accommodate Jeff Kent. If Durham isn't feasible, then allow Kapler and Petrick to spend all winter learning to play third base, with Petrick likely owning a slight edge.
The beauty of trading their two "aces" for offense is that Colorado's rotation almost lacks room for Hampton and Neagle. Jason Jennings returns as the anointed #1 even though he doesn't deserve votes for Rookie of the Year. Denny Stark and Shawn Chacon both earned extended looks, and Jason Young appears ready to contribute. If they either keep Neagle or find a capable fifth starter in free agency, they should be able to maintain a league-average rotation until Young develops into an ace and some of the younger starters reach the majors.
Colorado's bullpen also could be a strength with one or two additions. Jose Jimenez is a dependable closer, and Justin Speier's a very promising setup man. Re-signing Todd Jones or a comparable replacement is necessary to retain depth, but the Rockies need to add a left-hander after likely losing Kent Mercker; fortunately Brian Fuentes can handle the job if necessary. Guys like Chris Nichting and Ryan Cameron can compete with minor league free agents to complete what at least should be a league-average pen.
So Dan O'Dowd likely can transform this team into a tremendous offensive force without severely hurting the pitching, and the impressive depth throughout the farm system enables them to deal for talent. Signing Kent away from San Francisco could bury the Giants in the west, and with San Diego needing another year or two to develop and Los Angeles still suffering from several poor contracts, Colorado appears ready to fight Arizona for division supremacy over the next few years. Continue to plunder their roster for offensive help while judiciously selecting one or two pitchers when necessary to augment your quantitative numbers.
Jack Cust, 23, OF-L
I can respect Colorado's decision to keep Cust on the roster since if he showed the ability to cover left field, he would have given the lineup another top bat. However the combination of an unimpressive offensive season and continued poor defense means they must deal him. Oakland needs a power-hitting left-handed bat at DH to replace David Justice, and they're both interested in Cust and possess the pitching to deal; Cory Lidle, Aaron Harang, or a couple of their AA studs could really help Colorado, and a Cust-for-Harang&prospects deal looks very intriguing from both perspectives. I also expect Toronto to enter the bidding, so O'Dowd can hold out for a maximum package, albeit he likely will receive less than the deals he could have completed a year ago. If given a regular lineup slot at DH, Cust will dominate major league hitting, posting at least an .850 OPS his first season, so definitely target him assuming the Rockies don't incorrectly believe they need to keep him as a pinch-hitter.
Jason Young, 23, RH Starter
The only skill he lost upon jumping to Colorado Springs was control over his homer rate, as it jumped from .1 to 1.1 HR/9. He maintained his dominance and command while continuing to average over six innings a start. Colorado selected Young in the second round of the 2000 draft, and the only reason he didn't receive a September cup-of-coffee is that he otherwise doesn't need protecting from the Rule 5 draft. Young could use more time at AAA to refine his skills, however he'll encounter homer difficulties at both Colorado Springs and Denver, so with his command intact, he deserves to earn a rotation spot out of Spring Training. He could bomb and need more seasoning, but I suspect he could post a season very similar to Jason Jennings, especially since Young owned similar skills. My only concern is he possesses a mildly worrisome injury history, although I don't find that relevant for the logical strategy involving Young in fantasy leagues. Consider spending a couple bucks if he breaks camp with the team, and then deal him as soon he gets five wins by early May and Gammons starts talking about him.
Jerome Alviso, 27, IF-S
Alviso barely posted a .700+ OPS in his second year in AAA. He lacks speed and power potential, and he committed 21 errors in 104 games, appearing at least 10 times at each infield position. However he hit .313 and offers position flexibility, so he might compete for a spot as a back-up in Spring Training. Don't expect any positive roto contribution from him given his limited offensive skills.
Garrett Atkins, 23, 3B-R
Atkins didn't show any severe problems while moving from first to third base, committing a relatively acceptable 19 errors in 126 games. Offensively, while he developed more home run power and mostly maintained his place discipline, his walk rate slipped from .16 to .12, and his OPS dropped almost 150 points. He really needs another year of AA, although he also could likely produce reasonable roto value if he somehow wins the third base job in Spring Training. Expect him to spend at least another year in the minors, but he's a quality potential draft pick who could help your fantasy team.
John Barnes, 26, OF-R
Barnes has missed parts of the last two seasons with injuries, however he remains a capable player on both sides of the ball. He possesses the range necessary to plan all three outfield positions, and he normally holds a fairly good walk rate and excellent contact rate. Several teams should be interested in him as a minor league free agent, and he's likely worth a Dollar Days gamble if he breaks camp as a backup to an injury-prone starter.
Cliff Brumbaugh, 28, OF/1B/3B-R
He owns a career AAA line of .295/.384/.458 in 876 at-bats over the past four years, and yet Brumbaugh somehow still qualifies as a rookie due to Texas and Colorado refusing to leave him in the majors. I recognize he's not a great fielder, but he's competent at all the corner positions, and he certainly appears to possess the skills normally requested of a pinch-hitter. Assuming some team gives him a chance to win a spot next spring after signing him as a minor league free agent, Brumbaugh should contribute in the majors for a few years and wouldn't hurt you as roster filler.
J.D. Closser, 22, C-S
While he didn't post great numbers at AA, he demonstrated sufficient offensive competence to earn a year of AAA time along with a second straight AFL berth. Switch-hitting catchers with power and plate discipline don't exactly populate large segments of the earth, so after basically forcing Ben Petrick to one step away from leaving the organization at the first available trade offer, hopefully Colorado will take better care of Closser. He'll probably need another couple years before he's ready to start, but if available in a low round, he's a decent pick as the Rockies' top catching prospect, a post he may hold for a while considering Garrett Gentry missed the year due to injury.
Choo Freeman, 23, OF-R
Apparently someone finally taught Freeman how to play baseball following four years of him wielding impressive tools with limited skill. Some signs of weakness persist, including a terrible 54% SB success rate, however he posted the best walk rate of his career. Freeman reemerged as a promising young outfielder and will reach AAA next year with a chance to push aside Payton and Pierre to claim the starting centerfielder job by 2004. He's worth a gamble given his obvious upside in Coors.
Ross Gload, 26, 1B-L
Gload's somewhat similar to Sky Sox teammate Cliff Brumbaugh although he walks less and can't play third base. Fortunately he offers much more impressive power potential, and he could help several teams in a platoon role next year. If Jack Cust departs, Gload could challenge for the 25th man spot as a secondary pinch-hitter to Greg Norton. Like any good hitter entering Coors as a back-up, he could post impressive numbers and should be worth a buck or two in most drafts.
Walt McKeel, 30, C-R
Colorado gave him only his third cup-of-coffee in 12 professional seasons; he's managed just 16 at-bats in the majors. While McKeel owns decent plate discipline, he possesses essentially no power upside, so he'll never stick in the majors. The Rockies DFA'd him at the end of July, and he won't help fantasy teams even if returns to the big leagues in 2003.
Rob Stratton, 25, OF-R
Stratton managed a rather extreme .213/.308/.525 line after arriving in the Thomson/Payton trade, and I'm not sure Colorado will actively seek to re-sign him as a minor league free agent given his incredible number of strikeouts; he struck out 203 times in 2001. While he posted a mildly better contact rate this year, he's only useful for teams that understand he'll strike out five times for every homer. He's only a viable fantasy alternative for owners that regularly punt batting average, so very few owners even should consider owning Stratton.
Ryan Cameron, 25, RH Swingman
I haven't split anyone else's minor league stat lines thus far, but I saw no reason to penalize Cameron for allowing eight of the 10 batters he faced to score in an emergency start at AAA. While he essentially repeated AA this year, he improved all his ratios and posted an especially impressive 10.5 K/9. Given the developing starting depth throughout the organization, I'd like to see Cameron spend most of 2003 in the Colorado Springs' bullpen, but he seems fairly close to contributing in the majors. However, like all Colorado relievers, make sure he's both compiling solid skills and will soon spend time on a road trip before you roster him.
Aaron Cook, 23, RH Starter
Despite good velocity, a solid repertoire of pitches, and six years of development time, Cook's shown no ability to dominate hitters at any level. Colorado rushed him to the majors where he struggled as we expected, failing to sustain his 1.42 ERA from 14 AA starts. I wouldn't object to seeing him spend 2003 with the Rockies, however he doesn't appear capable of sustaining any success as a major league starter, so Colorado should seriously consider leaving him in the bullpen at least for a few months. He can always return to a rotation in two or three years once he's found some success in relief, although Cook's skill history suggests he's far more likely to emerge as a more effective reliever. I see no reason to consider him for your team at this time.
Brian Fitzgerald, 27, LH Reliever
Fitzgerald advanced through Seattle's system slowly due to both inconsistent dominance and occasional control problems. Despite flashes of intriguing talent at AA over the last few years, he hasn't really established himself even at AAA, so he logically struggled upon reaching the majors. Colorado only saw him in seven games after they grabbed him off waivers in mid-August, and they therefore possessed no reason to keep him on their 40-man roster. Consequently Fitzgerald's now a minor league free agent, and regardless of his destination for 2003, I doubt he'll make a positive fantasy contribution since he needs at least another year in the minors.
Doug Thompson, 26, RH Reliever
In his first full year of AA, Thompson continued establishing himself as a competent reliever who should continue succeeding at higher levels. While he likely needs a full year of AAA before reaching the majors next September, I don't believe he requires protecting on the 40-man roster at this time. If he remains effective in Colorado Springs, he might be worth considering in 2004 as Thompson only looks likely to help the Rockies in 2003, not any fantasy owners.
Cory Vance, 23, LH Starter
Instead of continuing to develop his command at AA, his dominance fell, leaving him only one more unimpressive season from needing to move to relief. However Vance still earned a 40-man spot since he needed protection from the Rule 5 draft this winter, so discount his struggles in the cup-of-coffee as the Rockies desperately needed any available arms. I like his overall upside and believe he'll pitch much better if left at AA for another year, although his struggles push back his likely arrival until sometime in 2004, and I don't expect he'll contribute to fantasy teams until the following season.
Mark Watson, 28, LH Reliever
Watson's shown zero ability to succeed above AA, so his rather poor performance this year isn't surprising. While he's evolved into a reasonably dominant lefty reliever, he hasn't maintained his success when pitching in AAA. You shouldn't even consider him until he starts regularly dispatching all minor league opponents with ease.
Brad Hawpe, 23, 1B-L
Hawpe hit 22 homers after Colorado opened his swing last season and watched him develop into a disciplined hitter with power to all fields. While moving from A Asheville to Salem, he improved his skill set from .52 BB:K, .15 walk rate, and .71 contact rate to a surprising .96 BB:K, .18 walk rate, and .81 contact rate. He finished second in the minors in batting average and third in both on-base and slugging percentage, and while he remained at first base, he possesses the speed and range necessary to play either outfield corner. Hawpe should join Larry Walker in the Rockies' outfield in 2005 before replacing him in right field a season or two later. Even if he was old for his league, you certainly should consider him among the best hitting prospects in the game, as well as someone who merits a very high draft pick in most leagues.
Tony Miller, 22, OF-R
Drafting Miller definitely incurs tremendous risk since he was old for his league and won't reach the majors for three years. However he possess solid power potential and excellent speed, and only his 5'9" height kept him from pursuing a career as a defensive back. Gambling on Miller is relatively safe compared to most power-speed guys since he'll only fail to reach the majors if his strikeouts balloon, though since he might only peak as a reserve, he's only worth consideration as a low round pick.
Rod Bair, 27, AAA Colorado Springs(PCL) OF-R
Robert Averette, 26, AA Carolina(SL) RH Starter
1. Minnesota Twins(M.Cuddyer, M.Restovich, T.Sears, L.Ford, J.Mauer, J.Morneau)
Humidor or no humidor, we've yet to see any convincing evidence that Colorado remains anything but the best hitters' park in Major League Baseball. So while pitchers like Jason Young and Aaron Cook are viable options in some leagues, unless you only need wins and don't care about qualitative damage, do not select them over comparable pitchers on nearly any other team.
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