Colorado Rockies' Moment of Truth

Jeremy GoldsonCorrespondent ISeptember 7, 2008

In Denver, the beginning of September is a ritualistic transition from non-Broncos season to Broncos season.

But, in 2007, there was an interloper on this generation-old trend. The Rockies made an improbable and incredible run to the World Series.

Amidst all of the "Rockies fever" was the gentle sensation from many Denver baseball lovers that it was about time that this city recaptured its baseball glory and reasserted the national pastime at the core of Denver’s sports culture.

Though the Rockies lost the Series, the effects of their run lasted into the winter, sometimes even competing with the Broncos for attention on the sports pages.

The 2008 baseball season started with an unusual amount of excitement, as many national publications had the Rockies pegged to return to the playoffs or even win the division. Players like Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday were seen as potential national superstars. ESPN even scheduled the Rockies for a Sunday Night Baseball appearance.

And they flopped.

They squeezed the bats too tight. The young pitchers failed spectacularly. Tulowitzki, then Holliday, and then team leader Todd Helton got hurt. The Rockies fell to 18-games below .500 at one point.

But the rest of the division wasn’t any better, which kept them within dreaming distance of the playoffs and kept people talking about them in Denver and, inexplicably, around the country.

Baseball people realized that the Rockies were a good team, a disappointing and underachieving team, but one with talent at numerous positions, a deep farm system, and one that should be competitive. Even at Coors Field.

Which means that the Rockies had better understand what the rest of the baseball America is also sensing. Whether they make the playoffs or not in 2008, it is now their moment of truth.

Do they become a competitor, a team that can vie for the playoffs more often than once-in-a-miracle, or do they fade into the pseudo-minor-league irrelevance and exist as merely a summer diversion for Broncos’ Country?

The Colorado media has been floating Matt Holliday and Garrett Atkins trade rumors for months now. This is a precarious position. Holliday makes $9.5 million this year, with $10 million in 2009, and Atkins makes almost $4.4 million and will be a free agent at the end of the year.

Holliday is in the league’s highest echelon of stars and will command a deal around $120 million, starting in 2010. Atkins has been one of the league’s finest third basemen for the past few years, and he will likely lead the 2008 Rockies in RBI. He has also done a fine job of filling in for injured Todd Helton at first base. 

Ironically, his fill-in at third, rookie Ian Stewart, has played so well that talk of Atkins’ departure has accelerated. Trading Atkins seems like a reasonable idea; Stewart is making the league minimum.

Colorado owners Charlie and Dick Monfort consider the team a small-market one and operate with that assumption. They are 20th in payroll this year, 13th in total attendance, and, according to Forbes magazine, are ranked 21st in total value as a franchise, despite ranking eighth in operating income.

So they fit the mold of a small-market team.

But who really wants to be a small-market team? Who wants to compete for the playoffs every decade or so? And the idea of Colorado fans filling Coors Field all summer long is not a pipe dream. They want something to root for.

Colorado has to decide what sort of team they want to field. In Stewart, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jeff Francis, Manny Corpas, Holliday, and Tulowitzki, they have an enviable base of talent.  But they have to keep it together. Though this franchise is gun-shy after having pulled the trigger on huge, and ultimately wasteful, deals for Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, and Helton, they need to take the plunge with Holliday.

Yes, he is a better player at Coors Field than on the road, but the Rockies play 81 games there, so that works out well for them. Yes, he is represented by Scott Boras and would take up a huge hunk of payroll, a luxury that the Rockies feel they can’t afford because of Helton (he is due for $75 million over the next four seasons).

But, in the battle for legitimacy—and the Denver sports fans’ heart—the Rockies need to keep Holliday. He has dropped hints that he loves Denver and the clubhouse and would like to stay, so perhaps he’ll sign for only $120 million.

Expendable, sadly, is Atkins (one of Holliday’s best friends). Colorado should be able get a capable No. 2 or No. 3 starter for him. A team like division-rival San Francisco or Seattle or even the Minnesota Twins would be well improved with Atkins, and they may have the pitcher that Colorado is looking for. 

Even Boston or Tampa Bay should take a long look at Atkins (as a first baseman for the Rays). The Rockies should also move OF Willy Taveras, who leads the majors in stolen bases. The team has plenty of depth in the outfield and have super-prospect Dexter Fowler in the wings.

C Yorvit Torrealba ($3 million) also could net a respectable prospect. One of the big questions is closer Brian Fuentes, whose $5 million salary ends this season, and he will be a free agent.

Unsaid, but clearly something that the Rockies have talked about behind closed doors is the option of trading Helton. His salary and production are two reasons why he is a really rough trade. But he is also the clear leader, the heart of the clubhouse. And that may offset much of his lackluster statistics. 

And, still, the team cannot reasonably afford to pay him $75 million more at this sort of production. Furthermore, his balky back has likely finished him for 2008, and he will enter Spring Training a question mark (again).  Helton's salary is such a drain on the payroll, that, if they could trade him, they would probably keep Atkins and Holliday.

The Rockies have an enviable farm system and a nice stash of prospects. But they also need to channel some of those excess prospects into more pitching help. Though Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook have both had solid seasons, and Francis seems to be rebounding from an awful start, the Rockies’ rotation is missing a fearsome pitcher. 

Every other team in the division has one (or two), and Colorado must catch up. The team seriously considered trading for Rich Harden last offseason and should not pass up a similar player in 2008.

With the Dodgers perhaps reaching their immense potential, and the Diamondbacks continuing to look dangerous on paper, it is going to take a serious commitment from Colorado to prevent themselves from shrinking back into an afterthought.

GM Dan O’Dowd has already strongly hinted that this winter will be more tumultuous than last years. Let’s hope that he makes the right choices.