Sunday Rockpile: Defining the Rockies plan, volume 1

While I'm in favor of Larry Walker reaching the Hall of Fame and think he's deserving, I actually have few qualms with writers or fans who have limited their ballots to just two names: Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell. While I think the inclusion of players like Jim Rice makes the small hall vs big hall debate moot (it's a big hall already, get over it, whiners) I think limiting a ballot to the clear cut consensus HOF players and holding off on the others is a defensible stance given the established protocols. It's when writers extend their votes beyond those two and include others but not fairly consider Walker that I take issue.

Enter Troy Renck, who will not pass off field judgment on Bagwell over suspected PED use (which is right,) but feels okay diagnosing Walker with enough lack of passion to keep him out. Renck will vote in Jack Morris, who didn't accumulate the numbers of a prototypical Hall of Famer, but not Walker, who came a lot closer. Lee Smith "lacked a signature moment" played less than Walker and had less of an impact on his teams, but gets in. Renck acknowledges that he has "never covered a better player" than Walker, but for some reason can't vote for him. He should go back to that point and look closer. Walker is a Hall of Fame player, one of the most complete players of our generation, if not ever, as you'd be hard pressed to find a better balance of offense (power, average, baserunning) and defense. What's discouraging to me is that the HOF has become so myopic when it comes to focusing on certain micro-abilities that total package players like Walker tend to get lost.

If you've read the comments here or among other groups of Rockies fans, you know that Giambi's presence on the roster is a divisive issue. I think my pro-Giambi stance is well known, and this article would be more propaganda for that view. I doubt it will do much to convince the anti-Giambi crowd, however.

At any rate, on to why this post is taking so long today. I've been mildly disappointed that there seem to be many that just don't get what Dan O'Dowd's been trying to accomplish this off season with the Rockies. The "O'Dowd doesn't have a plan" meme is not a valid argument and it closes off the opportunity to actually dissect whether the plan that the Rockies have been carrying out to date is worthwhile or not. So, I thought it would be wise to take a step back and clearly define what the team has been up to, and then from there maybe we can actually get back to worthwhile discussion rather than merely repeating empty "Dan the man without a plan" group-think.

Facing O'Dowd over this past year were a couple of competing directions he could go:

Arguments against not trying to compete in 2012:

  • The NL West division is weak and winnable for any team
  • The Rockies need to maintain a relatively consistent attendance level to continue paying Tulo and Cargo et al... Going into a complete rebuild may compromise the ability to retain star players currently on the roster.
  • Those two stars are already in their primes, there should be no season where a team built around them takes itself completely out of the running.

Arguments for a rebuild:

  • While NL West competitive, the Rockies as constructed in 2010 and 2011 were not a truly viable WS contender, and there was not enough help coming from a weakened farm to transform them into one. They were falling behind divisional peers, mainly the Diamondbacks, in talent on hand.
  • There was a perceived clubhouse psychology issue and lack of effort or accountability from certain players.

Faced with two conflicting team building options, O'Dowd has chosen to abandon going all in for the immediate short-term, but instead focus on surrounding Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez with players that could be ready to contribute in the next year (leaving a chance that the Rockies will do well enough to reach the playoffs in 2012) and entering their career peaks in the next three seasons. It's a plan that focuses on success in an intermediate period rather than a short or long term period, and I think this is what has confused pundits.

I'll break it down a little by season for 2012 and 2013 after the jump, but I've realized that this post needs to be broken up to fully look at the situation the Rockies are in. And I'm already really late, so we'll just have to leave this post here for right now.

2012:

Exorcise the demons. Clean the house. The players traded thus far this winter have been, whether fairly deemed this way or not, the red-headed stepchildren in the organization. Disappointing draft picks, malcontent former closers or Chris Iannetta.

Replace the above with an older veteran free agent player of more or less equivalent talent but also keep the farm standby for the future. Note how each free agent replacement for traded players that the Rockies have added or hope to add this season is signed to either a one or two year contract and has a prospect pair already in the system. Iannetta gets replaced with Ramon Hernandez with Wilin Rosario standing by to take over as soon as prudent, Street gets moved on for a Brad Lidge-type yet to be signed and eventually Rex Brothers. Ian Stewart shuffles off for Casey Blake and in the near future, Nolan Arenado. Finally, Seth Smith will likely get moved with Michael Cuddyer replacing him now, but then Tim Wheeler or maybe Charlie Blackmon or Kent Matthes on down the road.

Cuddyer's hefty three year contract breaks part of the above pattern as the purely temporary fix that Blake and Hernandez seem to be. It's clear that the Rockies have a longer term vision for him as a starting level player, but we'll get to that later in the post. That said, the pattern emerges of a team filling its 2012 roster with professional baton-passers. I actually don't think there's a problem with that, but I'm surprised that others find this plan difficult to see.

The free agent baton-relay model has freed the Rockies to be selective in the players acquired via trade, rather than having to trade for need. Trading for need reduces leverage and will usually pigeonhole a franchise to giving up more prospect value than it gets back in MLB player value. The net result for the Rockies plan this winter has been that more, or at least as much young talent has entered the club then departed it. The drawback that the critics of this method point out is that thus far the players acquired have lacked impact ability. In particular, Tyler Chatwood and Nick Schmidt get dinged as the value of Chris Iannetta and Huston Street has been perceived by fans to be higher than the returned pieces.

The selection process for the Rockies in player trades is also readily apparent, one can see it simply by looking at the highest level of the acquired prospects dating back to the Ubaldo Jimenez trade;

  • Drew Pomeranz MLB
  • Alex White MLB
  • Joe Gardner AA
  • Matt McBride AA
  • Tyler Chatwood MLB
  • Nick Schmidt A+ (but as a reliever close to MLB ready)
  • D.J. LeMahieu MLB
  • Tyler Colvin MLB
  • Chad Tracy AAA

With waiver claims like Andrew Brown or Jamie Hoffman and minor league signings such as Brandon Wood, there's again a fairly obvious picture that emerges of players that require almost no additional investment in development time before they will be expected to contribute at a major league level. From there it's simply a matter of winnowing out the success stories from the disappointments and moving on. The 2012 Rockies team (and Sky Sox and Drillers teams) will be the window of opportunity for marginal MLB players to prove themselves otherwise, for many of the above it might be their last best chance of showing value at the highest level. The Rockies haven't been asking for younger lower level prospects at all, indicating that their focus remains revolving around the two superstars in the middle of their lineup.

Added to a solid veteran core of Tulo, Cargo, Helton, Cuddyer, and those more proven parts of the Rockies rotation and bullpen, it will take only a handful of the near-ready MLB young players (those above and prospects already in the system) proving themselves to push Colorado into contention. It's a situation similar to where the Giants were heading into 2010, and it should be unsurprising if the Rockies do compete in 2012 with only a couple of positive breaks.

2013

Trading away Iannetta and Street starts to make more sense in a two year vision. I think people who don't see a plan for the Rockies are either looking at 2012 only or 2014 and beyond only, and not realizing that it wouldn't take much for the Rockies to be back at the top of the division within a year. Iannetta's $5 million 2013 option is simply an extravagance compared to Ramon Hernandez's $3.2 million due next season if Wilin Rosario would be taking over more of the workload either way. Trading CDI at either midseason point would lose return value (with a voidable option, he'd have been a two month rental both seasons) and eliminate the possibility of getting a Hernandez level replacement/backup.

As for the return for Iannetta, people are focusing on the wrong statistic when questioning Chatwood's value. His walk rate is fine for a 21 year old rushed to the major leagues. Check out the first couple of seasons of pitchers like Clay Buchholz, Homer Bailey, Phil Hughes to name a . Command develops as pitchers age. The larger concern for me is the lack of a punch-out pitch. He needs to do two things, and I'm not sure if the Rockies will teach him either one. One, not be afraid to throw high heat on occasion, and two develop and utilize his change-up more frequently. If he does, he'll start racking up the K's and I'll be a lot more comfortable with the Roy Oswalt comparisons that sometimes get tossed around.

For Street, the Rockies paid a price for an ill-advised extension they signed the former closer to two years ago, once again displaying the symptoms of "playoff brain" that has led the front office to other bad decisions such as not trading Garrett Atkins after 2007 or extending manager Jim Tracy just after the 2009 playoffs. At any rate, trading him this off-season was the best remaining option (trading him last summer might have been better, but that was spilt milk.) Looking at the Francisco Rodriguez return (Danny Herrera and Adrian Rosario) from this past summer leaves me doubting that there will be a better market for Street in July of 2012. At any rate, Street's value to the club is easily replaceable by players such as Chatwood or Chad Bettis as short term bullpen commodities.

At any rate, 2013 is when the Rockies will really start to see returns from their recent moves as well as start to really benefit from internal prospects such as Rosario, Tim Wheeler and Nolan Arenado. By keeping these prospects now, and adding them to more mature acquired players such as Pomeranz, Chatwood and White, the Rockies should be in a strong position relative to the division in 2013. I'll go more into this and what the team has to look forward to in 2014 and beyond probably on Thursday, unless a Smith move takes place before then.

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