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Pressing Questions: The Colorado Rockies

Brandon Funston
Roto Arcade

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It's all about health when it comes to the Rockies' stars (USAT)

The Rockies finished last in the National League West last season, but their run differential (-54) was better than both the Padres (-82) and Giants (-62). Moreover, Colorado actually had a winning record when both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez were healthy (h/t Gene McCaffrey). Of course, the former is hurt almost every year, and this is just the nicest way of painting Colorado’s otherwise poor season, as they finished 18.0 games behind the N.L. West winner and allowed the most runs in the Senior Circuit (albeit thanks a lot to Coors Field, which remains baseball’s best hitter’s park by a wide margin. In fact, it has increased run scoring by 36 percent over the past three seasons. The next highest has been the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington at a distant 15 percent).

[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

The Rockies enter 2014 with mostly the same team as last year, losing Dexter Fowler and Todd Helton while adding Justin Morneau and Brett Anderson. They get no favors playing in a division headlined by one of the World Series favorites in the Dodgers, while the Giants should bounce back and the rosters of the Diamondbacks and Padres are fast improving. If you’re into projection systems like PECOTA, they have Colorado pegged to win 78 games and once again finish last in its division. As usual, the team’s hitters are going to help fantasy owners a lot more than their pitchers.

Q: How should Troy Tulowitzki be valued?

A: Despite missing 36 games and finishing with a modest 446 at-bats last season, Tulowitzki led all shortstops in batting average (.312), RBI (82) and home runs (25, tied with J.J. Hardy). Still, because of the missed time, the first round pick ended as the No. 58 ranked fantasy player. In fact, Tulow has never finished as a top-20 fantasy player during his career, although to be fair he’s been in the top-30 three times over the past six years, which shows how much upside he has considering he’s missed an average of 47.0 games over that span.

Tulowitzki is still just 29 years old, plays in MLB’s best hitter’s park and is the premier player at his position, so it’s understandable why fantasy owners remain aggressive drafting him. However, he no longer runs (he has three stolen bases over the past 198 games), and his current ADP is 14.26, which is awfully risky for someone with such serious durability issues. Tulowitzki makes a lot more sense in shallow mixed leagues compared to NL-only formats, when upside means more than floor. In deeper mixed leagues, I’d personally pass at that price.

Q: How should Carlos Gonzalez be valued?

A: Gonzalez is similar to his teammate, with a ton of fantasy upside combined with a history of being injured. He’s gone 20-20 in each of the past four seasons despite missing an average of 32.8 games over that stretch. CarGo is a career .300 hitter who actually performed better on the road (14 homers, .332/.381/.606) than at Coors Field (12 homers, .273/.354/.535) last season. He appeared in just 19 games after the All-Star break while dealing with a sprained right middle finger and underwent an emergency appendectomy during the offseason, but Gonzalez is expected to enter 2014 fully healthy, although how long he stays that way is the key question.

While his injury history may deem him a risky pick at his current ADP (8.62), those being taken around him aren’t without their own question marks: Chris Davis (7.30) slashed .245/.339/.515 after the All-Star break; Adam Jones (9.25) had a 136:25 K:BB ratio to go along with a 1.51 GB/FB ratio; Robinson Cano (9.28) is moving from a home park that increased homers for left-handed batters by 33 percent over the past three years (tied with Coors Field for the MLB lead) to Safeco Field, which suppressed HRs to LHB by 14 percent last season even after the fences were moved in; Hanley Ramirez (10.38) is an even bigger health risk, as he’s missed an average of 50.3 games over the past three seasons; Ryan Braun (11.26) is coming off a season in which he posted the second lowest OPS of his career that ended early with a PED suspension. In other words, there are barely any sure things when it comes to the mid-to-late first round, so Gonzalez makes about as much sense as any of them this year.

Q: Who’s going to close?

A: Rex Brothers finished last year closing after Rafael Betancourt underwent Tommy John surgery in late August and succeeded in the role, ultimately converting 19-of-21 save opportunities and finishing with a 1.74 ERA. The southpaw was death to lefties (.162/.287/.176) but also more than held his own against right-handed batters (.229/.321/.365). Brothers also walked 36 over 67.1 innings, which led to a 1.29 WHIP and suggests a correction in ERA is coming if his control doesn’t improve moving forward (then again, any ERA under 2.00 is due to regress). Still, he just turned 26 years old and is a left-hander who’s averaged 94.6 mph with his fastball during his career. Last season Brothers recorded a 27.1 K% combined with a 1.50 FB/GB ratio. One would think he’d be given a chance at the closer’s role in 2014.

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But enter LaTroy Hawkins, whom the Rockies signed to a one-year deal during the offseason, and he’s already been announced as Colorado’s closer. To Hawkins’ credit, he posted a 2.93 ERA and 1.15 WHIP with a 55:10 K:BB ratio over 70.2 innings last season (and has more closing experience!). But just realize that came in a much easier environment (Citi Field suppressed run scoring by 13 percent last year even after moving the fences in, as only Petco Park was more pitcher friendly), and Hawkins is a 41-year-old who before last season hadn’t pitched 50.0 innings since 2009. It’s safest to avoid this situation altogether, but the guess here is Hawkins enters the season as the Rockies closer while Brothers finishes as it.

Q: Who will win the battle to be the team’s third outfielder?

A: Considering the Coors Field factor, the battle between Corey Dickerson/Charlie Blackmon/Drew Stubbs to become the team’s starting left fielder (or possibly in center) is one fantasy owners have to watch. Blackmon hit .309 last year, but that came with a 49:7 K:BB ratio over 246 ABs. Stubbs averaged 33.3 steals and 17.0 homers over 2010-2012 with solid defense in center field, but an abhorrent strikeout rate (29.3% for his career) makes him better suited as a fourth outfielder (Coors Field does help in K%, however, so Stubbs really is something of a sleeper with his SB/HR potential). Dickerson owns a career .321/.379/.601 minor league line over 1,480 at-bats, so he seems like the favorite to get the majority of playing time, but along with those three, prospect Brandon Barnes is also vying for one spot. This could be a platoon situation, ruining everything for fantasy owners. But I’m betting on Dickerson having the most value as of now.

Q: Are any starting pitchers fantasy worthy?

A: It obviously depends on your league format, but the short answer is “not really.” Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin combined for 30 wins and both finished with ERAs under 3.00 last season. But that was accompanied by a 238:123 K:BB ratio over 365.0 innings. That’s troublesome. Chacin finished as the No. 218 ranked fantasy player, which was the highest by a Rockies starting pitcher since 2010. I’m a recovering Brett Anderson apologist, but even I can’t recommend him at this point. He can’t stay healthy while throwing so many sliders, and a move to the N.L. is negated by him having to pitch in Coors Field. Another gem from Gene McCaffrey - if you insist on using a Colorado starter, do so early in the year, as Coors Field almost always becomes even more so a hitter’s park during the summer (last year was less extreme as usual, but the park still averaged 9.6 runs per game in April and May compared to 10.4 afterward).

Quick Hits: Nolan Arenado won a Gold Glove during his rookie season (and rightfully so), which means playing time shouldn’t be an issue. But he also finished with just a .706 OPS after compiling an .818 OPS throughout his minor league career, all while playing in the most favorable hitting conditions as it gets. Arenado is an interesting “post-hype sleeper” but I prefer “last year’s bum” Chase Headley, and these two went back-to-back during our Yahoo mock draftWilin Rosario turns just 25 years old later this month and has averaged 24.5 home runs, 75.0 RBI and even 4.0 steals over the past two seasons while getting a modest 422.5 at bats. Rosario had an astounding 41:1 K:BB ratio after the All-Star break last year that he somehow combined with a .319 batting average and .512 slugging percentage. After Buster Posey and Joe Mauer, there are AT LEAST eight catchers in which I have no idea how to rank (and would feel comfortable drafting equally). So take the one who falls furthest…D.J. LeMahieu looks like the favorite to be the Rockies’ starting second baseman after Josh Rutledge was such a bust last season. LeMahieu is something of a sleeper in deeper fantasy leagues as a career .321 hitter in the minors, but realize that’s also been accompanied by just nine homers and 48 stolen bases over 1,530 at-bats in strong hitting environments. Plus, Colorado has proven time and again to give up on younger players if they don’t immediately get off to hot starts.

Justin Morneau once won an MVP, but serious injuries and having to play in extreme pitcher’s parks since then have killed his fantasy value over the past five years. Regarding the latter, over the past three years, Target Field has suppressed home runs for left-handed batters by 25 percent, with only the O.co Coliseum being worse (26%) in the American League over that span. Morneau was traded to the Pirates midseason last year, when PNC Park suppressed homers to LHB by 21 percent, which was the third most in the National League. We can’t totally blame the park factors here (he hit zero home runs over 25 games with the Pirates), as Morneau is clearly not the same hitter he once was and will soon be 33 years old. But now playing in the greatest hitter’s park in the modern era, especially for left-handed batters, he’s someone who might not be a bad mid-to-late round target for fantasy owners.

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