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Rockslide: Tracking the decline of slugger Garrett Atkins

Mark Townsend
Big League Stew

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When Garrett Atkins debuted for the Colorado Rockies on August 3, 2003, the sky appeared to be the limit.

Today, just 7 1/2 years later, the 31-year-old faces the very real possibility that his big league career is over after being released by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

How did Atkins go from the mountain top to rock bottom so quickly? I'm not sure there's one clear answer to that question, but can I easily identify the moment that changed my outlook on the once-promising superstar.

First, a little career retrospective.

Atkins was a fifth-round selection from UCLA in the 2000 draft. It was clear, right away, that minor league pitching wasn't going to challenge him, but Colorado elected to exercise patience, moving Atkins at a normal pace and allowing him to play in only 40 big league games between 2003 and 2004.

In 2005, at the age of 25, Atkins was finally handed the third base job after the Rockies parted ways with ever-popular Vinny Castilla.

I think we all understand the pressure involved in replacing a fan favorite such as Castilla, who had spoiled Rockies fans with monster production in two separate stints with the club. It wasn't an easy situation for any young player to step into, but Garrett handled it like a true pro, earning fan respect almost immediately, and establishing his presence at the hot corner with a very respectable rookie campaign.

In his second full season, Atkins became the centerpiece of a very good Rockies offense — much more so than a still-effective Todd Helton or another upcoming slugger named Matt Holliday. He produced 29 bombs, 48 doubles, 120 RBIs and delivered an OPS of .965. Those numbers instantly catapulted him into an elite tier with David Wright, Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman.

An All-Star selection seemed inevitable at this point. Little did we know that season wouldn't just prove to be his breakout, but also his career peak. {YSP:MORE}

2007 saw his OPS drop over 100 points to . 865, but his overall production was still solid with 25 homers 35 doubles and 111 RBIs. His runs scored dipped from 117 to 83.

Another noticeable step backward came in 2008. His OPS dropped 70 more points to .780. He hit 21 home runs, 32 doubles, drove in 99 and scored 86 runs.

It was becoming clear that Atkins was not going to be a guy around whom you could build the offense, but those were still perfectly acceptable numbers for a middle-of-the-order type of hitter.

Then came the turning point in my feelings on Garrett Atkins. It happened after reading one snippet of a Rocky Mountain News article in January 2009. This was in the midst of an arbitration battle between Colorado and Atkins.

Jeff Blank, the agent for Atkins, said they were expecting a midpoint slightly below the $7.4 million contract Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau agreed to on the day salary figures were exchanged last year.

Morneau later signed a six-year, $80 million contract.

"We feel pretty strongly based on Garrett's career numbers and everything, he was above Morneau, but we were shooting for a midpoint just a little bit below Morneau just to be safe," Blank said.

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To this day I still wonder how Blank made that statement with a straight face. I understand his job is to make his clients the most money possible, but that's an unfair amount of pressure to put on any hitter.

Within moments of reading that outrageous comparison, I wrote that the Rockies should seriously consider trading Atkins. It was obvious he had no future with the club at that point, no matter if he stabilized at his current level, rebounded to his 2006 form, or his decline continued. Colorado also had Ian Stewart waiting in the wings, so they weren't going to go above and beyond to make Atkins happy.

Unfortunately, they did not move him, and the decline continued to the point of no return. As the 2009 season unfolded, Atkins was awful in every possible way — to the point that the Rockies couldn't find a team willing to part with a throwaway prospect to take him off their hands. He eventually was released on his 30th birthday.

After a failed stint in Baltimore last season, and now the news of his release today, where can Garrett Atkins go from here?

He entered that 2009 season needing just 11 home runs to reach 100 for his career. As we sit here now, he still needs one to reach that milestone. But will he ever get that opportunity?

Follow Mark on Twitter — @Townie813 — and check out the Stew on Facebook for more coverage.

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