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Predicting the NL West: Colorado Rockies

Eyeblack. It's the new <em>Twilight</em>.
Eyeblack. It's the new Twilight.

If the Padres were not expected to set the world on fire last year, the same can't be said for the Rockies, who were the pre-season favorites for the division in some projections. It didn't happen. Ubaldo Jimenez was a shadow of his former self, going 6-9 with a 4.46 ERA before being traded to Cleveland, and Carlos Gonzalez took a step back from his previous year's production. The only player to reach even three bWAR was Troy Tulowitzki, who also led the National League in triples*. Are the omens any better for the team in 2012?

* Or, at least, triples at Coors Field. By a short-stop. Who has used Miley Cyrus as his walk-up music.

2011 Production
The Rockies started off the year like they meant it, and had a 4.5 game lead in the division at the end of April, having got off to a 17-8 opening run. The next month brought an abrupt and brutal reversal of fortunes. Colorado went through whatever the reverse of "Rocktober" is, losing 21 of their 29 games in May, and they were outscored by their opponent every month the rest of the way. They did just manage a winning month in June, but the trade deadline departure of Jimenez effectively signaled surrender, with Colorado ten games back - they never got closer than 8.5 out the rest of the way, and endured a nine-game losing streak in September that was the team's worst since 2005.

Like San Diego, they weren't as bad as the record suggests. Indeed, this was far and away the most-balanced division in all baseball, if you go by Pythagorean record. Only eleven games covered first and last place - the next closest was the 27-game margin in the AL Central - rather than the 23-game margin in the actual standings. That tends to suggest that, in the absence of any major spending sprees or fire-sales by its inhabitants, it could be closer than you'd think in 2012, and this series will reflect that. The Rockies had a .486 Pythagorean record in the first-half, and a .465 in the second0-half, which using our formula works out at a starting point of 76.5 wins in 2012.

Off-season moves
As you can see from the table below, there was a lot of churn on the Rockies roster over the winter, with a high number of trades and signings. The biggest signing was the arrival of Michael Cuddyer, who signed a deal taking him through 2014 in Denver, worth $33 million That might be an overpay, resulting from Cuddyer's All-Star contract season. While he was clearly better last season, from 2007-11, Cuddyer's WAR total for Minnesota was slightly below another Twins free-agent outfielder, Jason Kubel (7.6 to 7.8), whom Arizona got for rather less money and is almost three years younger too.

The other big arrival was Jeremy Guthrie, and it's a little hard to see why the Rockies traded for a pitcher who will be a free-agent at the end of a season in which they aren't expected to compete. However, Purple Row noted a sharp discrepancy in the way bWAR and fWAR valued Guthrie and Jason Hammel, the starter (along with Matt Lindstom) for whom Guthrie was dealt. Swapping Seth Smith for Guillermo Moscoso with the A's, could turn out to be more productive, and the signing of catcher Ramon Hernandez to a two-year, $6.4 million contract should be a good enough replacement for Chris Ianetta.

Arrivals WAR Departures WAR
Casey Blake 0.6 Jorge Cantu
Tyler Chatwood -0.6 Aaron Cook 0.2
Tyler Colvin -0.8 Matt Daley -0.2
Michael Cuddyer 3.0 Mark Ellis 0.6
Mike Ekstrom 0.0 Cole Garner 0.1
Jeremy Guthrie 2.9 Edgar Gonzalez 0.0
Ramon Hernandez 2.0 Jason Hammel 2.0
Steve Holm -0.3 Chris Ianetta 2.6
D.J. LeMahieu -0.4 Alan Johnson -0.3
Guillermo Moscoso 2.2 Kevin Kouzmanoff -0.4
Will Nieves -0.6 Matt Lindstrom 1.4
Josh Outman 1.1 Joe Mather
Zach Putnam -0.1 Jim Miller 0.1
Marco Scutaro 1.4 Kevin Milwood 1.1
Brandon Wood -0.6 Jose Morales -0.1
Clayton Mortensen 0.7
J.C. Romero -0.1
Seth Smith 0.0
Ryan Spilborghs -1.8
Ian Stewart -1.2
Huston Street 1.0
Eric Stults 0.0
Ty Wigginton -1.1
Total 9.8 Total 4.6

The host of changes rung during the winter do seem to make Colorado a better team overall, giving them 5.2 additional wins based on 2011 performances. A good chunk of that is simply not having the triumvirate of suck that was Ryan Spilborghs, Ian Stewart and Ty Wigginton on the roster for this year: they combined for more than four wins below replacement last campaign. Only 20 position players in the majors last year were worse than -1 bWAR, so for the Rockies to have three on one team was...unfortunate [though I note, nowhere near as unfortunate as the Twins, who had five of them!]

Colorado come in exactly at the median age for hitters, and come in half a year younger when looking at the weighted age for pitchers. A total of 0.5 years below gives them 1.0 extra win through aging in 2012: they'll improve sharply in this metric when Todd Helton (39 in August) and Jason Giambi (already 41) are no longer part of the roster. Wigginton and Spilborghs absence will help in this area, though none of last season's regular position players will be under 26 on Opening Day.

That's not the case for pitching, where Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio will be 24 and 25 respectively, and Drew Pomeranz, younger still, could be knocking on the door of the rotation before long. However, he's the only top-tier prospect likely to provide significant help on the mound for Colorado this season.

The Rockies' top prospect is Nolan Arenado, a 3B who was the Most Valuable Player in the Arizona Fall League last year. He was ranked #22 overall on the Top 100 prospects list, where he was described as "an extra-base machine." Which is nice, but if Colorado were certain of his production at the hot corner, they wouldn't have gone out and signed Casey Blake to play there. The Rockies were about middle-of-the-pack in terms of DL days last year too, though the pitchers were rather unfortunate, with Juan Nicasio's broken neck likely the low-light there - good to see him back on the mound this spring. So, no apparent need to tweak the numbers.

The Rockies finished above the Padres in the regular standings, but Pythagoras has them finishing a couple of games below San Diego - Colorado underwhelmed in one-run games, though not to the same degree as their coastal cousins, going 21-27 in those. However, they did seem to have a better off-season, which cancels out the lead the Padres had after the first stage of our projections. The arrival of Cuddyer, and the loss of an entire forest's worth of dead wood, should see them in better stead for the coming season. Final projection: 83 wins.

Well, would you look at that - the same as the Padres. This is also a good deal closer to the number spat out by other systems. MARCEL has Colorado at 85 wins; MORPS at 80; CAIRO 81; and PECOTA 80, so this scheme is in the same ballpark at least.