Thursday Rockpile: The Rocky Mountain Way

 

 "Now, you're implementing something, and it takes awhile. With some people, it takes longer. With Franklin, it took longer. Hopefully, it's something that he can really hold onto."

 

Bob Apodaca on reliever Franklin Morales


Patient to a fault, loyal to a fault. That's how the Rockies roll. A lot of us expressed some measure of disappointment that the Rockies didn't trade away declining players like Garrett Atkins or Brad Hawpe while they were at peak value. This is what the Rays would have done, and in fact that legion of brilliant scouts, player development minds, number crunchers and typewriter monkeys snatched up Hawpe on the cheap for the rest of the 2010 season and got a draft pick out of it. The Rockies on the other hand, got nothing but a bag full of magic beans, what we refer to as "goodwill", for treating a player that was no longer an asset to the team with as much as respect as they could. 

This is not the way to manage an investment. You don't care about soft values. You buy low, you sell high, you reap profit. You win. This is why the Rays are better than the Rockies and everybody else. Right? 

Not necessarily. While I'm being a bit snarky above, for their market, what the Rays are doing is probably optimal. If a team can't crack two million fans despite winning their division two out of the last three seasons, they are clearly at a severe competitive disadvantage relative to other MLB markets and it becomes necessary to treat the operation with those kind of cruel calculated moves, where people get dehumanized and put on a spreadsheet and into a cost/benefit process to maximize profit. The Rays players are commodity options, traded from a detached, distant front office and again, the proof is in the pudding, this process does work.

That said, don't feel discouraged about what the Rockies are doing differently. They have a market that allows them to treat the team like a hands-on business rather than a distant investment. Go through the Fortune list of the country's top 100 companies to work for and note the similarities these organizations have to the way the Monforts and O'Dowd are running the Rockies. Number one, SAS, operates on a "culture -- based on 'trust between our employees and the company'". Sound familiar? Number three, Wegman's, hasn't had a layoff in its history. They too, are loyal to a fault.

The way the Rockies are building their team follows this pattern of successfully run businesses rather than one created by Wall Street of successfully managed investments. Both strategies work in the business world, both models should be successful in the hyper-competitive MLB. One of them is more likely to avoid deep slumps in performance but probably less likely to produce spectacular short term returns. 

Look at the bitterness Carlos Gonzalez expressed for trading him away toward the other two organizations for which he played. Now, he says he wants to retire with the Rockies.  Jorge De La Rosa was willing to come back to the team despite the fact they offered him less than he could have received elsewhere. The Rockies system of trusting players, scouts and other staff keeps the voluntary attrition rate relatively low. You can read more on this from Troy Renck in today's Denver Post:

This isn't to say that the team is ignorant of the competitive environment of the MLB, and while loyal, the team doesn't cow to veteran demands for playing time despite poor performance. Declining Gen-R players such Atkins, Hawpe, Clint Barmes and Jeff Francis were all given opportunity to accept lesser roles with the Rockies or play elsewhere. Also, since the Rockies don't enjoy the revenue streams of the Phillies, Yankees, Dodgers or Giants, there is necessarily going to be churn, some young players will have to be allowed to go to other teams that give them greater opportunity to shine. Which brings up this Jim Armstrong article:

I'm going to break down more about what this kind of churn entails later, how a team can maintain a level of fifteen or so close to league minimum salaries and still be competitive and at least somewhat loyal, but after the jump I'll delve into a few more aspects that set the Rockies apart from other organizations around the league, what makes our team a unique culture that players want to stick with. 

Off-Topic

Another hallmark of the Rockies system is that it emphasizes quality over quantity. There are seven teams that have academies in Venezuela, but the Rockies aren't one of them. Yet only the Tigers are currently getting more production from Venezuelan born players than the Rockies. Headlines like this one aren't going to do anything to stop that flow of talent, either. The same is true in the Dominican, where Ubaldo Jimenez draws players to the team, and even Mexico, where Vinny Castilla's still a baseball hero and there's been a lot of interest in Jorge De La Rosa. 

The organization has seven affiliates, which is tied for the least in the majors, yet standard (17 MLB teams have seven, the rest have eight or nine) but the team is using those affiliates and their new Spring headquarters to build a unique development system that's less reliant on building prospect hype for trades than it is on building their value for insertion into the MLB team. They're in plans to build a Rockies only complex in the Dominican after sharing facilities for several years, their Pioneer League Casper affiliate is the most remote outpost in organized minor league baseball. And while the other affiliates are closer to scouting and prospect watching hotbeds, the Rockies fill them with players that often befuddle long time observers.

In 2009, many wondered why the Rockies would push 20 year old Wilin Rosario to Modesto rather than Asheville, and when he failed to produce stats befitting a top prospect, many felt justified in questioning this. In 2010, Rosario answered back with a monster season at AA that makes him an elite catching prospect.

Keith Law earlier this off season echoed some scouts who think that the Rockies messing with Tyler Matzek's old school delivery has been to the pitcher's detriment. In a way, it has, Matzek was one of baseball's consensus top 30 or so prospects a year ago, and now he's going to be lucky to find his way onto many pundits' top 100 lists due to the control issues and lowered velocity the tweaks engendered. While his value outside the organization has dropped (save for the one curiously misinformed Sports Illustrated writer linked yesterday), inside, however, he continues to rise. The player they drafted had promise as a starter, but with his current delivery was likely headed to a Billy Wagner type of career in the bullpen. The Rockies instead want a Randy Johnson type of career and they feel what they are doing will help him get there sooner. Much as the case was with Rosario, they've willingly devalued Matzek in the short term to give him larger value to the team in the long run.

Like few other teams, the Rockies treat prospects as employees they as an organization are willing to be patient to let grow into their talents rather than assets that can be used to shark talent from other clubs. The top quote from Apodaca on Morales, taken from this Thomas Harding article on the reliever is a perfect example. Again, what you're seeing here is a pattern of a team that's not afraid to buck the consensus of current baseball thought if it sees an opportunity for greater value.

There's a commitment to a work ethic with the Rockies too that bleeds from the top to the players. A Providence writer questions whether Chris Iannetta is working too much during the offseason. I think, and I believe that the Rockies and Iannetta think, that there's no such thing. Eventually the work will pay off. 

So, uhm, in conclusion, welcome to the organization Sean White, (and you too Claudio Vargas) good luck to you both. I'm sure WolfMarauder will be able to fill you in on the crunch you guys face for AAA roster space, but if you can latch on, it's a club worth keeping.

And to our opponents, as Trevor Hoffman can attest, your day of reckoning with what this kind of organization can accomplish will come soon enough.

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