Rockies thinking big after small, off-season trade pays dividends

By Morris Phillips

What seemed like an innocuous, off-season trade–Colorado’s Dexter Fowler for Houston’s Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes–sure did inspire a bunch of negative reaction from Rockies’ followers.

Fowler, a 27-year old centerfielder, provided speed and pop for the Rockies from the leadoff spot.  He also gave the team a real presence in the outfield, which at Coors Field is about as big and intimidating as they come in the major leagues.  Even if Fowler wasn’t an All-Star caliber player, Colorado fans made it clear they would rather live with him than without him.

But when the Fowler’s trade was consummated for Lyles and Barnes, fans winced at what was coming in return.  Lyles, a former first-round pick of the Astros, had an ERA above 5.00 in each of his three losing seasons in Houston, and Barnes—at 27, the same age as Fowler—appeared to be simply a similar player to Fowler with clearly lesser statistics.  Smarty pants mathematicians projected that Lyles’ ERA would jump to 8.00 in Denver, while others opined that this was another sign that GM Dan O’Dowd didn’t know what he was doing.

But 45 games—and 25 Colorado wins, good enough for second place in the NL West behind the Giants—into the season, the trade not only looks smart from the Rockies’ standpoint, it could be considered the catalyst for the team’s offensive revival and status as an early post-season contender.

First off, Fowler was about to become an expensive commodity for Colorado, making $7.8 million this season in the final year of his deal.  O’Dowd’s detractors will say that was the GM’s only consideration when making the deal, believing that the Colorado exec is more concerned about money than winning.  But beyond that, Fowler was far too streaky to be a prototypical leadoff man, and more importantly, he was far less a factor in road contests (.214 in 206 at-bats in 2013) than at home in Coors (.311).

And for a team that’s trying to change its culture as a notoriously poor road team those numbers mean everything.  Fowler’s replacement, Charlie Blackmon, had shown in limited playing time over three season in Denver that he could hit home and away with his overall batting average improving each season to this season’s breakout .339 through 43 games.  Blackmon had less of a drop-off in home/road splits over his three seasons than many of his Colorado teammates, including Fowler.  This season, Blackmon is hitting .415 at Coors and .265 on the road.

Even Blackmon’s understudy, 24-year old Corey Dickerson, shows the same traits.  Dickerson is hitting .349 with increased playing time (.400 at Coors, .311 away), numbers far and away above his first three seasons (.300/.231).

In Colorado, the gaudy batting averages don’t start with Blackmon and Dickerson.  Perennial All-Star Troy Tulowitzki is healthy and performing, hitting .393 currently for the National League’s top offensive lineup.  The Rockies currently lead the NL in runs scored, batting average, slugging and on base percentages.  For Tulowitzki, hitting behind consistent table setters like Blackmon and frequent No. 2 hitter Nolan Arenado is making a difference. 

And first basemen Justin Morneau is having a bounce back season, hitting .327 for the Rockies.  Morneau was signed after the Fowler trade ostensibly freed up money to sign someone as desirable as the 33-year old former All-Star.

And what of Lyles and his ability to pitch in Coors after he posted subpar numbers in Houston?  He’s 5-1 with Colorado after going 14-29 in three seasons in Houston. General managers always keep an eye on young players who may have gotten caught up in a culture of losing where they’re at and might benefit from a change in scenery.  In Lyles, it appears O’Dowd scored as the 24-year old hurler’s current 3.60 ERA is a full point-and-a-half lower than his career number (5.12).  Also, Lyles has stayed away from giving up gopher balls as he’s allowed just four homers this season, after giving up 51 round trippers in 2011-2013.

As a result, the Giants-Rockies three-game series that starts Tuesday carries weight.  The Rockies have surpassed the underperforming Dodgers and could catch the Giants at the top the NL West with a sweep. Colorado almost pulled off the trick in April when the Giants averted getting swept in Denver by pulling out the series finale, 12-10 in 11 innings.

That game featured 30 hits, nine homers, three doubles and 12 pitchers.  For the Rockies, it was loss, but offensively chaotic just as they prefer. 

On Tuesday, Madison Bumgarner will try to provide some resistance, looking for his fourth straight win.  Franklin Morales will take the ball for Colorado, looking to pitch better than he did in his previous outing, a 5-1 loss to the Royals.

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