The Colorado Rockies opened their Cactus League season with a 5-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks Wednesday afternoon, and although nothing could possibly be less indicative of how a season will transpire than the first game of spring training, I still find myself bothered by the result. The sole reason, of course, is that I really hate losing to the Diamondbacks.
Other than that, of course, there are no conclusions to be drawn – not from Ubaldo Jimenez and Alan Embree’s rough outings (Jimenez gave up three runs, Embree the other two), not from Chris Iannetta throwing out two potential basestealers, and not from an 0-for-3, 2K performance by Ryan Spilborghs. These are the most stress-free boxscores a baseball fan can ever read if they’re taken with the right perspective.
I thought it prudent to celebrate the beginning of the baseball season with the beginning of a new series here at MHCSports: “Blueprint to Contention.” I wanted to call it “Blueprint to a Pennant” but I thought that sounded a little too pie-in-the-sky, even for February. The fact is, the Rockies are in a winnable division, and even if we don’t see a Rocktober redux this season, there is ample opportunity for the Rockies to be playing meaningful September baseball for the second time in three seasons.
Of course, for any team that has aspirations to contender-hood, a lot of things have to go right. Take the 2007 Rockies – they had an MVP caliber season from Matt Holliday, a fabulous debut from Troy Tulowitzki, a bullpen bailout performed by Manny Corpas, and the best year that Kaz Matsui, Willy Taveras, and Jeff Francis are likely to ever have in their careers. Not all of these things seemed probable at this time two years ago, but there were all things that likely would have been fingered as necessities if the Rockies were to do anything of note in 2007.
That’s the point of this “Blueprint in Contention” series. There are things we can pretty safely assume, and even some of those things might be derailed for various reasons. But it’s the factors that don’t seem so certain while still seeming within the realm of possibility that separate a team playing out the string in September to a team making plans for October baseball. This series will explore those factors and try and determine their likelihood.
Our first variable in the Rockies Blueprint for Contention… Ryan Spilborghs as Viable Leadoff Man.
Let’s talk about Spilly first. As the incumbent center fielder, Spilly represents a defensive downgrade from Taveras, but he’ll more than make up for that with his offensive upgrade, as he represents a 38-point upgrade in career OPS+ (neutralized OPS) from Taveras – roughly the difference between a league-average hitter and Matt Holliday in 2006 (OPS+ that year: 137). Spilborghs’ career .302/.374/.466 line includes a .313/.407/.468 line in 233 AB in an injury interrupted 2008.
Allow me to be perfectly clear: the number one priority for a leadoff hitter is to get on base with great frequency, thereby giving his team the best chance to score as many runs as possible. Some folks – and apparently Clint Hurdle was one of them, at least last season – believe that you have to have speed at the top of the lineup at any cost. But for all of Taveras’ baserunning exploits, if you’re only getting on base at a .308 clip, you’re killing the offense.
Spilly’s no speed merchant, to be sure. He’s 16-for-23 lifetime in base stealing, so he’s not Bengie Molina or anything, but he’s not likely to threaten 68 steals in ’09. What he will do – what he has shown a predilection for his entire career – is get on base. If Spilborghs can maintain a .360 OBP or higher, this Rockies offense can really go places. If Spilly does a Tim Raines impersonation and edges that OBP up near the .407 it sat at last year, 850 runs is not out of the question. (The team, not Spilly – that’d be a record or something.)
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection for Spilborghs has him hitting .289/.364/.437, albeit in 202 plate appearances, raising the question of whether or not those numbers would suffer in regular playing time. That notwithstanding, those rates are perfectly acceptable, if not spectacular, for a leadoff man. His power will be an asset as well, considering the potency the Rockies could potentially have at the bottom of their order with hitters like Chris Iannetta, Troy Tulowitzki, Seth Smith, and Clint Barmes (well, he’s potent at home, anyway) figuring to hit in the bottom two lineup slots at certain points.
The biggest reason we’re likely to see an improved Rockies lineup this season is because of an improved presence at the top of the order. Todd Helton, Garrett Atkins, and Brad Hawpe are going to enjoy having a hitter on base ahead of them when they step to the plate. I think Spilborghs is capable of posting numbers at or even slightly above his career rates given 500 AB this year, and although he doesn’t fit the ‘ideal leadoff hitter’ mode, for these Rockies, he’s as ideal as it gets right now. I’d place the odds for this piece of the blueprint falling into place at 75%.