Grand Junction, Colo. -- I was sitting in the Grand Junction Rockies press box before a game writing about the NFL of all things when a surprising stroke of luck came my way. Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd strode casually into the room and sat down to get some work done.
Right place, right time.
I introduced myself and he smiled at the mention of Purple Row, noting, "You guys kill me over there!" I told him I had been a bit of a contrarian on that issue and he mentioned that he understood negative press comes with the job and he doesn't worry about anything other than the baseball analysis we (and others) do on the team. "You guys have a job to do, too," he said.
After a nice casual chat, I asked if he would go on record with me and without hesitation, he agreed.
The next day, we sat in the empty bleachers down the first base line as the Grand Junction team took batting practice -- the perfect soundtrack to any baseball conversation.
Here is the dialogue that took place.
DC: Let's start with Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson. What is the status on those guys?
DOD: We think both have made tremendous progress this year. I think Jonathan's had a long season and I think we are going to shut him down for the rest of the year.
Tyler has taken his game to another level this season, from where he was a year ago in Modesto, in all aspects of his pitching. We are really pleased with the progress both of those guys have made this year. Still have more of a ways to go, but certainly right in the middle of our radar.
DC: So the shut-downs are definitely more precautionary?
DOD: Well, we haven't done all of our testing on Jonathan so I don't know the whole answer to that question right now but we are hopeful that it's just the normal fatigue of a long season for him in professional baseball. You know, starting every five days, it was a big level jump that he had, all the emotions of last year ... it's everything. He's come a long way in a lot of areas -- not just from a baseball standpoint, but just a life standpoint, too.
DC: Did you get to see Eddie Butler since he's been back?
DOD: I did, I saw him a week ago.
DC: He's been struggling a little bit there, is that just him still coming back from injury?
DOD: Well, I actually saw him pitch pretty well. The first two innings against the Frisco club, he didn't have the same rhythm, his arm-slot was a little higher, but from the third inning on, when he really started pitching and not overthrowing, he was every bit as good as he was last year.
Now, follow-up start to that in Arkansas wasn't quite as good but it was 100-degree heat on the field and he had a severe migraine in the bullpen and he had to pitch because we were so short of guys. So he battled through five innings and I think the quality of his stuff was the same, I think the location of it wasn't quite as good. This certainly has been a year where he's taken some steps back but, we think, [did that in order to] to take steps forward.
DC: What do you think are the odds we see him again at the major league level this season, maybe as a September call-up just to get his feet wet again?
DOD: Don't know the answer to that yet. That can depend on a lot. You know, Jorge de la Rosa got hit by a ball last night because it's just been that kind of year. So we will just have to see what happens. We'll see how he ends up, too, in the playoffs in the Texas League and see where he's at physically at that time.
DC: Speaking of being shorthanded, one of the guys that got called up, Jayson Aquino, made his first start for Tulsa recently and he wasn't having the best of years in Modesto...
DOD: His last four starts ... or rather, his last start wasn't very good but the four prior to that were really good...
DC: Right, and now his first start in Tulsa was pretty good.
DOD: That's right.
DC: Am I reading too much into that or does he have a bit of that competitor x-gene?
DOD: What I've found throughout my career is that some kids, if you can expose them to the next level that they are going to prior to that year it has a way of rewarding them and at the same point in time telling them how much you believe in them. And then certain ones rise to the occasion and we hope Aquino will be that kind of guy.
He's got one more start and then a decision on the post season with him. He's a kid that were looking at possibly sending to the Arizona Fall League, too.
DC: In terms of all the injuries, the Rockies obviously aren't the only team having a hard time keeping pitchers healthy but I was wondering: a lot has been written about the pitch-to-contact approach, the Mark Wiley era and pitcher development but is some of that a way to try and combat injuries by keeping workloads smaller?
DOD: Yeah ... you know what? If I had an answer to the injury question I'd be a very, very, wealthy man. I think everything we are trying to do is make each kid the best possible pitcher they can be. I think philosophically Mark has instilled ... you know, we work a lot quicker, we use the change-up a lot more, I think at almost every level our base-on-balls per nine is 50 percent better than it was a year ago.
So we are doing a lot of new things. Is that going to prevent injury? That is a whole industry related question and I think it starts at an amateur level. I think it starts when kids are 10, 11, 12, and 13 years old. How they're trained and their pitch usage, how they develop long-toss programs and arm strength along with total core strength; I think everything plays a role.
DC: So more in terms of results on the field for the Wiley era, what do you say to critics who say you don't draft Jon Gray and turn him into a pitch-to-contact pitcher?
DOD: Well, I don't think we have. I think what we've tried to do is just -- what Mark and Darryl Scott have tried to do -- is get him to be more consistent with the quality of his strikes. That's all it is more than anything. We realize that he's not a true sinker-ball guy and he's a guy whose strikeouts per nine should be higher. But if your strikeouts per nine up and your walks per nine are up, it doesn't matter. It's the separation of low walks per nine and high strikeouts per nine that lend to impact.
I think Jonathan is just going through the normal development stages of understanding what kind of pitcher that he needs to be but nothing in our approach has changed as relates to wanting him to be a power pitcher and a strikeout guy. Whoever is saying that, that's false.
Now maybe the results look that way but that's not a conscious effort on our part to do that, its just him feeling his way through how he's going to utilize his gifts and his pitches to get people out.
You know, it's funny, to that end, if we had decided to give him another half a year in Modesto, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
DC: He likely could have put up some silly numbers.
DOD: Correct. He would have put up pinball numbers.
DC: And what good does that do anybody?
DOD: Well, we felt that way. But there's an argument to be made that it builds confidence and maybe he would have done better going to Tulsa. But I think any great major league player will tell you that the more adversity a kid goes through at the minor league level, and learns to deal with it, the better big leaguer he will be.
If you don't deal with any adversity on your way through up, at some point in time when you deal with it at the major league level, it can be crippling.
DC: And you saw what Tyler Matzek did the other night in San Francisco, and what he's done in general. One thing that gives me confidence about him is thinking 'man, what is going to shake this kid that hasn't already?'
DOD: That is exactly what we've talked about in the office. This kid has had to grind through a lot just to get to the big league level. He still has a ways to go at the big league level, but he doesn't get rattled very easily when he doesn't perform well because he's been there before.
DC: Congratulations, by the way, for your son [Chris O'Dowd] going to the Arizona Fall League. That's pretty cool.
DOD: Taxi squad. It's a partial scholarship.
DC: [Laughs] Absolutely, but still ... I read the Pebble Reports every day and he's having a nice season. I'm a big catcher guy ...
DOD: So am I. He's an above average receiver and game caller. His throwing has to get better, his blocking has to get better, the consistency of his play has to get better, but he's made big jumps. So, we'll see how that turns out.
DC: In the farm system, I feel like the catcher spot has really gotten better in the last few years ...
DOD: We've really focused hard on catching and on a design of a certain type of catcher for our organization.
DC: Dustin Garneau seems like he may be the closest of the defense-first guys coming up. I'm of the opinion that a guy could almost hit .150 and draw the occasional walk if he can really handle this young staff. So, how much stock do you put into that especially when it comes to the pitchers?
DOD: Well, I think that's more of a question for Walt than me. I mean, I believe that when you are in a pitching challenged ballpark like we are in our environment, anything that you can do that can competitively help your pitchers, has to be a priority.
Now, you have to balance that with -- you know you're gonna have to have some offensive production out of some other position on the field if you are going to carry someone who doesn't hit at all -- and so there is a balance to that.
And, I'll tell you, I think Dustin is going to hit a little bit. I think there's some power there, I think he's starting to get a better feel for actually understand how to hit. He has come through an awful lot.
Catchers can be surprising. No matter where you take them in the draft, they can pop on you. And most of the catchers in the game, they are what I call "hanger on" guys. They hang on and hang on and all of a sudden you look up and they've had six, seven, eight years in the big leagues.
So we're excited about him and we're excited about Jackson Williams, too. He went up today, and he's a guy we scouted heavily last year. Johnny Wile and his group did a great job. He can really receive the ball and call a game. He's another guy who hasn't been given a chance because he hasn't hit.
So, we like the depth we have at catcher. Obvously with Tommy [Murphy]'s injury this year -- that injury and the injury to Dan Winkler were two of the toughest injuries in our system. Winkler would have been in our big league rotation. And Tommy, we felt, had a chance to move on to another level at some point in time this year and put himself in a position when expansion came, he would be in play, but it just didn't work out that way.
DC: The young kids -- Wilfredo Rodriguez, Jose Briceno, and here with Hamlet Marte and Dom Nunez -- what have you seen out of those guys?
DOD: Billy Schmidt and his group did a great job on Dom Nunez. Even though he caught some in high school, he was predominantly a second baseman and we brought him out and let him play second just to let him get comfortable, and just to see how it would translate. But Billy took Dom with the purpose of moving him to catcher. Dom has a chance to be very special. He's got a long way to go, but he could be really special.
He can hit. He's got a pace of the game. He has a great flow, but again we've got a long way to go with some aspects on him, but we are very excited about what he could be.
DC: When I saw Briceno here last year, he was killing the ball.
DOD: Yeah, he's going to be a good offensive player. He's going to be continually a work in progress with his defense but he's come a long way, even including his blocking .
We went to a different concept this year in our system where the pitching coaches have taken ownership of the catchers. So, at the conclusion of every game, a catcher grades himself out in five areas and then sits with the pitching coach and they go over it collectively and then that report is called in. And then Mark Strittmatter is evaluating video every night and talking not just to the catchers but to the staff on the drill work he wants done with them on a weekly basis.
So, we have put a heightened focus on catching the last year and a half in our system and all the finer aspects of it. I think Mark Brewer -- to make a long story short on the other part of your question -- Brewer's done a great job with Rodriguez and Briceno there in Asheville.
DC: There are more well-known names on that Asheville team I also got to see play a lot here [in Grand Junction] last year. How much have you seen of Ryan McMahon and Raimel Tapia?
DOD: I have only seen about four games in person [this year] of each of those guys but we know we have got two special [players] there.
DC: Tapia's hitting approach is unlike anything I've seen before, his ability to barrel up the ball just about anywhere ...
DOD: And he's the best two-strike hitter in the entire organization. We believe power is going to come, his body is just going to fill and he'll learn how to sit on pitches and how to turn on pitches and he's got a chance to be a very special player. A very special player.
DC: From a major league perspective, moving into the offseason, what would you say are the team's general priorities?
DOD: You know, it's so hard to evaluate this season from a 30,000-foot view. Leaving spring training, we felt -- rightly or wrongly, we felt collectively -- that this was one of the better clubs, one of the deeper clubs, and one of the most versatile clubs we had been fortunate enough to put together.
DC: I did too.
DOD: So I'm not sure that we're ready to give up on that simply because -- and I realize how many games we could potentially lose -- of the freakish injuries we've had.
Saying that, we are obviously going to look to build more starting pitching depth and more bullpen depth. Doing that and not changing the core out is going to be problematic because it's hard to acquire impact players without giving impact players up, so we will just have to see what the window is.
The encouraging part of it is we've really seen some maturity and some growth at the major league level. Nolan Arenado is maturing into a very special player, Corey Dickerson has a chance to win a batting title. I think he's hitting .270 or .280 on the road so the home/road splits aren't too skewed. Charlie Blackmon has had a really difficult last few months, but when you look at his year collectively, he's been a really valuable contributor.
And then you talked about Tyler Matzek's emergence in our rotation. You can find positives in any season if you choose to want to find positives. So there have been positives there, obviously not enough, but I think we have found out things that can become cornerstones for us as we make our decisions moving forward.
DC: Speaking of cornerstones moving forward, Nolan Arenado: any kind of news on the extension front?
DOD: Well, he's represented by Scott [Boras], so that can be problematic in itself. And a lot of it comes down to a player's personal decision and what they want to do. Scott and I have had many of those discussions over the winter, and that will certainly be an offseason discussion topic.
We not only love Nolan's ability, we love the tenacity that he plays the game with night in and night out. And quite honestly, if he stays healthy, he should only get better.