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Sports: Sizzlin' Action from the Hot Stove League 

A historic overhaul propels the Rockies into spring training

click to enlarge Dan ODowd and Marcel Lachmann  Its all over but the playing. - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • Dan ODowd and Marcel Lachmann Its all over but the playing.

Dan O'Dowd feigns embarrassment when he's introduced as "Dealin' Dan," but the Rockies' new general manager has admitted he'd trade his own wife for a starting pitcher.

On the final weekend of last season, I used this space to suggest the Rockies start from scratch, purging a dysfunctional dugout, cutting losses and losing losers before infecting another generation with doom.

Who knew Dealin' Dan was actually going to do it?

There was little question that the days of a tinker here and a tweak there were over. Baseball in Colorado had become a national punchline, enabled by the old regime's affinity for filling rosters with one-dimensional power hitters and an increasingly mystified pitching staff.

O'Dowd has made no bones about the problems he saw with the franchise whose stewardship he inherited. "We had talented players that cared more about their individual stats than they did about winning and losing ballgames," O'Dowd told a gathering of season ticket holders last week. "The thing that disgusted me most was I saw a half-dozen players not run out ground balls ... not go first to third on base hits ... not score from second base on base hits to the outfield. ...We don't want those kind of players around here."

Those players are gone. O'Dowd's shake-up brings 18 new Rockies looking for a spot on the 25-man roster.

Safety in numbers

Marcel Lachmann's friends questioned his sanity when he took the job as pitching coach in Colorado. The team, the park and the very state has suffered from the bad rap earned by never once putting together a competitive pitching staff. Sadly, this season's rotation is another gamble on the surplus hurlers who didn't make the grade on their former teams.

But the odds are in our favor this year, since rather than finding one or two mediocre starters, we've acquired five and are still counting.

Look for a rotation of Pedro Astacio, Masato Yoshi, Scott Karl, Rolando Arrojo and Jose Jimenez to edge out Brian Bohanon and Manny Aybar, who are at opposite ends of their prime but should be good in the role of long relief.

Astacio is no ace, but he will do in Colorado. He earned his 17-11 record in '99 by walking an average of 2.91 batters per nine-inning game (BB/9). "It's not the home runs that kill us here," O'Dowd said, "it's the three-run homers that kill us because two guys got on base with walks."

Yoshi is in Astacio's league, posting a 2.92 BB/9 ratio last year for the Mets and over the course of a 13-year career in the Japanese Central League.

Karl and Jimenez, both 28 years old, are poised to have breakout seasons, with 2.30 and 3.92 BB/9 ratios respectively. Jimenez is a Diamondback killer, having thrown a no-hitter against Randy Johnson, beating the Diamondbacks 1-0 in June followed by a two-hit shutout against the eventual Cy Young winner ten days later.

In the bullpen, Jerry Dipoto steps back into his '97 and '98 role as closer, although O'Dowd acknowledges "it's an unsettled role." Billy Taylor saved 26 games for the A's last year, and he should give solid support along with Mike Myers, who was second to Dipoto in the National League by allowing only 15.4 percent of his inherited base runners to score.

Line 'em up

A winning pitching rotation is more than any Rockies fan could hope for, but a more dynamic, athletic lineup could be just as foreign in the Coors Field confines.

Tom Goodwin leads off a lineup built around defensive skills, speed and pure hitting rather than power hitting. Goodwin stole 50 or more bases in four straight years before tapering off to 38 and 39 in his last two seasons with the Rangers. Goodwin's defensive speed should be a blessing in centerfield, but he needs to beef up his on-base percentage from .324 to the .370 range to make good on his base path threat.

Taking Bichette's place in left field will be Jeffrey Hammonds, the Bart Simpson of major league ballplayers, a perpetual underachiever with a great glove, untapped speed, and the ability to hit with power and for average. Going into his free-agent year, there is no better time for the 28-year-old to jump-start his career than in his inaugural season at Coors, where he hit three home runs in one game as a visiting Red last season.

Rockies scorecards have already been printed with Larry Walker in the No. 3 spot. Walker remains the game's best hitter and is one of the game's best all-around players. His total production numbers may fall a bit without Bichette hitting behind him, and it will be up to Jeff Cirillo to prove to opposing pitchers that he is a fearsome cleanup hitter.

Cirillo also must fill the shoes of fan-favorite Vinny Castilla at third, but he is a pure hitter in his prime who welcomes the chance to redefine Coors Field with his patented doubles attack, a crucial cog in the new run-manufacturing operation under manager Buddy Bell. If No. 5 hitter Todd Helton continues to improve at the pace he has set over the last two years, he could challenge Walker as perennial team MVP.

Batting sixth and improving the catching will be Brent Mayne, a player so overlooked that Arizona manager Buck Showalter intentionally walked Barry Bonds with the bases loaded in the 9th inning last season, yielding a run in hopes of retiring Mayne to win the game. Showalter's hopes were fulfilled, and the Rockies got Mayne's .300 average and reputation as a doubles hitter with solid skills behind the plate.

Neifi Perez can hold his own at short and remains a contributor offensively, but he's got to learn patience at the plate and develop some savvy on the base paths. The biggest threat to team dynamics is the brooding Mike Lansing, batting eighth. His affinity for pouting makes him the last player I'd want to count on for a turn-around season.

The question remains: can our pitching improve enough -- as it looks like it may -- to let our new-look, bomberless offense keep pace with a strong division in a homer-happy league that now has Griffey to contend with?

We're still made of discards and rejects from other organizations. But we've got more of them than any year since '93, and these rejects are not injured and washed up rejects, they're born rejects with the chance to be born again in Colorado.


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