Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Directionless Rockies Continue to Baffle Me

I don’t understand the Colorado Rockies. At all.

News came out yesterday that the team had resigned pitcher Jorge De La Rosa to a two-year deal. And it made me remember something I had thought of many times before: I’m pretty sure the Rockies don’t really have a strategy.

Sure, they have a solid core. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are great…when they aren’t injured. Nolan Arenado has prospect pedigree and has shown talent at the major league level (hopefully he avoids the problems with injuries the other two have had). After that, though, they are surprisingly shallow in talent. Sure, Charlie Blackmon, Drew Stubbs, and Corey Dickerson are okay, but that’s pretty much every other decent part they have left.

And you know what’s the sad thing? It didn’t have to be this way.

You know when the last time the Rockies had a winning season was? 2010. It wasn’t even that successful a season, either, with only 83 wins. And yet, here are the things they have done since then to improve:

Continued Existing: Winning would be extraordinarily difficult if the Rockies had folded sometime since then. However, they’ve continued to not be contracted since then. So that’s at least one positive thing, then.

Trade Ubaldo Jimenez: This one actually didn’t turn out too poorly. Colorado picked just the right time to bail on Jimenez, and picked up prospects Alex White and Drew Pomeranz. It seems like a good rebuilding move.

Sign Justin Morneau: These signings weren’t necessarily bad. I mean, neither was prohibitively expensive, both were bounce back buy-low candidates, and the Rockies needed people to play. And both have far-exceeded expectations. It’s just the details that have been the issue. In each case, the player was 33 with an extensive injury history, yet got a multi-year deal from a team coming off a losing season. In each case, the player did well in the middle of the contract. And in each case, the Rockies failed to do anything with it. Look, when Michael Cuddyer unexpectedly has an All-Star, career-best year at the age of 34 in a season in which you’re fighting for even 75 wins, you trade that for the best offer. Healthy fluke Cuddyer didn’t do it for you; don’t bet on a second year of that. And of course, he’s gotten hurt this year, taking away most of his trade value.

Morneau’s the same, staying mostly healthy and hitting well (for the first time in four seasons) in the first year of a two-year (plus option) deal. And the Rockies just sat on their hands at the deadline in what seemed to be a seller’s market, hoping that he’d repeat next year and bolster what they apparently consider their “core”. Let’s put it this way; the Rockies lucked into two good, short-term veteran deals while in losing seasons, and decided rather than turning them into longer-term assets, they’d instead double down on the gamble. Except the gamble is two-fold, that the veteran will continue to stay healthy and produce despite being a year older IN ADDITION TO everything else coming together next season to make that performance actually worth something.

Trade Dexter Fowler: I’m not really sure what the thinking was here. Fowler was a consistently above-average center fielder. Hitting well for his position, but with defense that was subject to a variety of opinions. He was a 2-3 win option with two years under contract still. They traded him for fourth outfielder Brandon Barnes and former pitching prospect Jordan Lyles. That’s…a pretty weak return, all things considered. Usually you try and get either potential or sure-thing-ness, but this move seemed to bring back little of either.

Acquire Ty Wigginton, Mark Ellis, Marco Scutaro, Jeremy Guthrie, Brett Anderson, Roy Oswalt, Jon Garland, etc.: Basically, a lot of picking up of mid-level players, all either old and/or with an extensive injury history, on short deals. It’d be great if all they needed to do was plug a hole or two…but as we’ve established, this has been a 60-to-70 win roster, in need of much more than a patch job.

Not really have a great farm system: The pre-2014 list marked the first year the Rockies placed someone in the top 30 of Baseball America’s top prospects list since the pre-2010 list. Now, to be fair, Baseball America was lower on Nolan Arenado than most other sources were. Still, the Rockies weren’t exactly building some huge wave of minor league talent. They’d place an average number of prospects in top-100 lists (3 or 4, which literally works out to the average, 100/3), usually Arenado leading in the 20-30 range, followed by a couple of guys in the bottom half. It’s hard to argue that that sounds like a top farm system, given that they didn’t appear to have higher-level quality or quantity.

Not really trade anyone to bolster said farm system: It’s one thing to draft poorly. It’s another to refuse to rebuild on top of that. That’s how you get in situations like the Astros are in today. And it’s not like the Rockies were hurting for trade candidates in that time, either. Like I mentioned, Morneau and Cuddyer both would have worked.

On top of that, the team has had solid bullpen options for each of the last few years. Matt Belisle, Rafael Betancourt, Rex Brothers, and Adam Ottavino have been some of the best. We can quibble about which ones should have gone, but the bigger point is that this has been a last-place team that has held on dearly to all of their above-average bullpen pitchers, to a fault. Just look at Betancourt; he was one of the better relievers for a while there. And they just held on to him, until he finally needed Tommy John surgery, removing any chance of getting a return for him. The last thing a last place team needs is a top-flight bullpen, but the Rockies have just ignored that adage.

And even De La Rosa probably should have been gone a year ago. At 32, De La Rosa was having an above average season (127 ERA+, 3.0 fWAR). Starters are always in demand in July, and here you had an above average pitcher who was 32 and had a contract ending either after the year of after the next one (depending on options). That is the type of player a rebuilding team needs to turn into prospects.

And the Rockies…just, didn’t. They held on, because they apparently think that this roster, which could be renamed “The Troy, Carlos, and Nolan Show”, is just a player or two from competing for the postseason. They seem both unaware that they need to improve 15-to-20 games, and absolutely clueless as to how to go about such an endeavor.

I’m not sure there’s a more directionless franchise in baseball right now. Maybe the Phillies? But no, at least the Phillies have a direction (that direction is “backwards in time to 2008”, so it may be a little misguided). The Rockies seem content to just stay stuck in neutral, stagnating at the bottom of the league, hoping that maybe they’ll accidentally hit on a big prospect or two and have an honest-to-goodness core to work off of. As is, they have three great players, a handful of average ones, a lot of dreck, and no apparent motivation to change from this approach.

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