As the Colorado Rockies gear up for their second playoff run in three years, there is much to smile about in Denver this summer.
Over the last half decade, Colorado has quietly built a budding contender. The team peaked early in 2007 and is only beginning to round into form this season. At this pace, the Rockies have all the makings in place to be a long-term NL contender.
The starting staff has been consistent and impressive, especially considering that Coors Field has yielded 28 percent more runs than the average ballpark this year. The offense, while less consistent, has also been a force in the National League, leading the league in walks and homeruns.
What makes this team so interesting, however, is its relative youth. Every starting position player outside of the immortal Todd Helton is under the age of 31. Brad Hawpe, age 30, may only be around for one more season, considering the team’s influx of young outfield talent and Clint Barmes, also age 30, may soon play himself out of the lineup.
Perhaps one of the most telling signs of the emergence of the team’s young talent are the results in the outfield. Platooning in leftfield and centerfield are 23-year-olds Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez, alongside relative veteran Seth Smith, who’s just a shade older at 26.
The young trio, while not getting a lot of media attention, is one of the main reasons the Rockies have stayed in the wildcard race for so long, providing speed, top of the order power, and beyond anything else, exceptional defense in the spacious confines of Coors Field.
Dexter Fowler made his debut this season with the Rockies after playing last year in AA-Tulsa. He is the first Rockies player to make the jump directly from AA since Troy Tulowitzki in 2007.
Fowler came out of the gate blazing, impressing scouts and fans alike with a mix of gap power and startling speed. His bat quieted as the season wore on but in August has begun to heat up once more.
Fowler’s August line is a remarkable .435/.500/.739 and he has picked up eight hits in just six games since being benched for two consecutive contests against Cincinnati.
At this point in the season, Fowler still strikes out too much (95 times in 340 AB) and the power he showed in the minors is yet to emerge (only 4 HR).
That said, Fowler currently ranks third in the league with 26 stolen bases and has been an adequate, if not exceptional, table setter for the rest of the Rockies lineup. If nothing else, Fowler’s combination of OBP and speed make him an upgrade over departed centerfielder Willy Taveras.
Carlos Gonzalez had nothing left to prove at AAA-Colorado Springs before his June call-up. Once he joined the Rockies, however, he struggled immediately, carrying a line of .210/.269/.339 in the month of June.
His below league average stats did little to garner support among fans, but Rockies Manager Jim Tracy continually supported him in the press, referencing his intangibles and defense as reasons he would remain with the team.
In August, Gonzalez has been nothing short of fantastic. His line of .524/.560/.714 makes him an early candidate for NL Player of the Month and the leftfielder has multiple hits in four of his five August starts.
For the season, Gonzalez’ recent surge has brought his AVG up to .283 and his OBP up to .352, numbers that show marked improvement over his 2008 stats with Oakland.
Though he plays almost exclusively against right-handed pitching, his statistics against lefties have also shown improvement this year. At 23, he has impressive speed (8 stolen bases in only 127 AB) and he has shown flashes of major league power. In time, Gonzalez is likely to become a middle of the order producer for the Rockies.
Seth Smith has been the picture of consistent production for Colorado. His season line of .296/.390/.488 makes him one of the most dangerous bats in the Rockies’ lineup (though he has not received the playing time many think he deserves).
Smith has collected nine homers and 33 walks in just 213 at bats, striking out just 39 times. Stretched over a full season, Smith’s stats would look like those of a budding star, patient at the plate, with solid power numbers and above average defense in left field.
Taken together, the Rockies’ young outfield trio is one of the most underrated in the game and will give the team the flexibility for the stretch run.
Rightfielder Brad Hawpe will continue to start nearly every game, but having three flashy contributors battling it out for playing time has rarely hurt a team in the past.
What the Rockies have that they were missing last year is a young core of healthy producers that seem to feed off of one another’s successes. The competition for outfield playing time, fueled by maturing talent and fun-loving personalities, might just spur the Rockies to the playoffs.