The Colorado Rockies are an anomalous baseball team.
For much of their relatively brief existence, the Rockies have failed to achieve anything resembling sustainable success, and over the years many wise individuals (and some of us a little less wise) have attempted to explain what it is going on with our beloved ballclub.
Over the last 16 years, Thomas Harding of MLB.com has had a front-row seat to this circus and as such has an almost unmatched perspective when it comes to analyzing the team. He's seen 16 years worth of trade rumors, 16 years worth of prospects succeeding or failing, and 16 years of the evolution of the game of baseball and the media that cover it.
In a rapidly shifting media environment, thanks to the growing influences of analytics and the internet, someone with Harding's institutional memory is tough to come by. So, who better to answer some of our questions about the endlessly fascinating world of sports journalism and more specifically about what the future holds for the Colorado Rockies.
Listen to the full audio here:
Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
DC: A lot of people have opinions about the blogosphere coming into the press box, what are yours?
TH: My feeling is, it's a great thing. There are a lot of fans who are getting their information from the bloggers and the bloggers have brought a different take on things a very analytical take. I do believe that them coming into the press box -- yourself and some of the other guys from Purple Row, Rockies Zingers -- what it's done, is it's helped fill some gaps in their coverage just the way that some of the analytics have filled the gap in the so-called "traditional" media coverage.
I'm not sure there is such a thing as traditional media anymore. We are all online, even the print publications are all online these days. It's given some of the bloggers, some of the people who really are passionate about this game, a chance to actually talk to some of the players, to talk to the people who are making this news here. It's helped to round out the coverage so I believe it's been a very good thing.
DC: Well we appreciate that. In general, what have you noticed about the evolution of baseball media? You mentioned the analytical element of blogs, which was coming up even before we were in the press box. Surely there are other ways that covering baseball has changed since you first started.
TH: Well, I think the biggest difference in covering baseball if you want to write about baseball is simply the timing. Everything moves a lot faster now because you're not waiting for a newspaper deadline. Definitely since the day I got to MLB.com in 2002, my day was covering the season by the game itself. Stuff had to be in before the game started, stuff was going on during the game and stuff after the game so really, that changed and it changed a whole lot of different things. Sometimes if you had a piece of news you were very secretive with it, you didn't put it out there on the internet because your currency was the next day's newspaper.
So what has happened is everything is immediate now. I'll tell you what else has happened: The value of breaking news has diminished a bit because who cares who had it first as long as it's correct? Sometimes, the first bit of news is not the most accurate bit. So it's changed in many ways. I like to think us at mlb.com have been a huge part of that, because we're writing in conjunction with the game being broadcast, whether it's on the radio, on video, or online, so we are actually on almost a television pace and everyone else has given up trying to do the same things.
DC: And it's interesting too because sometimes we will have breaking news about the most banal subjects just because we think we got there first, so that probably also diminishes the value as well.
TH: Well, I don't know. As reporters we were like that all the time. Let's say that the reason why it was breaking news was that we had it. It has gone on forever. I got here during the newspaper wars -- I hate using the word "war" with newspaper, the "newspaper competition," but they treated it like war -- when the Colorado Springs Gazette, in addition to the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, and the Boulder Daily Camera all traveled with the team.
We were all fighting over the nuggets and a lot of times. It happens now with the internet but you know the more you do this, you understand there are some things that are huge breaking news, and there are other things that are, well, someone had it first and it's nice to credit that other person, but in the grand scheme of things it's not that important.
DC: On the macro level, do you feel like baseball is covered better now than it was when you started, or maybe ever, or is it worse? On a micro level, is Twitter good or bad for covering games, especially while they happen?
TH: Well, I think it's just changed a lot. In some ways, for those of us who came up with the newspapers, we've had to make a major adjustment here because baseball has always been the writer's game. You had a lot of access to the players, you still do, and people followed it differently than they follow football, where every game is one big huge event, then there is nothing going on for six days, so you're rehashing. The game [baseball] was always moving. You can find different stories in different corners of the clubhouse, and because of newspapers, sometimes you had the room to write them. Now everything is a little bit faster, and a lot of times you're writing more, but you're not writing that wonderful story. You're not telling that same story as often. Even though you're writing a whole lot more, so that's been the biggest change.
As far as Twitter is concerned, I think that it's like almost anything else. It's a lot like the Internet in that back before the Internet you had legal monopolies. If someone owned a printing press, they had a monopoly on you, they had sort of a local media monopoly. The fans or anyone else, they were receiving the information from whichever publication was out there. When the Internet started, you did have bloggers who took a different look; you had a whole lot of people writing a whole lot. Some of that has dissipated, because the ones who really weren't dedicated to the craft or they were dedicated to something that wasn't important, they tended to fall off. Now, you have a pretty good critical mass of people who are covering baseball and are showing quality work there.
I think Twitter has been a great tool. At MLB.com, it took us a while, actually, to tweak the way that others do it. It used to be that we felt Twitter was more something that when you tweeted, you were helping Twitter -- you were helping that business but were you really helping your mlb.com sites like Rockies.com? So, in the beginning, we hardly tweeted at all unless we were linking back to the site. Still for me, tweeting in order to get people to the website, that's my goal here. It's not to be involved in the conversation, although I am involved in the conversation, that's not the main thing. Sometimes, I think the fans who are on Twitter, they get those two things confused. Like if something is going on, I'm writing a story, I'm not going to be interacting at that point. It's not that I have a problem with Twitter itself or the fans who are asking me questions at that point, it's just that my primary job is to put stuff on the site and the next job is to get people to read it on the site.
But what has changed over the years is that Twitter has become such a force. If you tweet out a story, then every network runs it across the bottom of their screen, [so] sometimes you have to put news on Twitter. I would prefer it that all news came through the website, the hits would be credited to me, but what we're finding is that a lot of times, people read the tweet and then go back and read the story later. You do have a limited number of people who want to have the conversation reported there. I think that the way that the media companies have operated we've found a little bit of a handle on Twitter.
DC: It seems like it's still going to take some time to figure out the best way to make all of that work, but it seems the best way to use it is to tweet out and retweet the actual stories and hope that people will then go click and read more than 140 characters.
We should probably talk about the Colorado Rockies a little bit. I being more of the mind that the team needs to sell or rebuild and trust in the prospects. You seem to be more of the opinion that it's a good idea to continue to bring in veteran players, is that a fair framing?
TH: It's a fair framing, but it's become less feasible, to be honest with you.
It's something that I'm writing about even today. When you look at where this team is, they were able to dangle their outfielders out there and say ‘hey, we'd like to make some deals to improve our pitching.' But when you're looking at what could possibly come back, what could come back is young major leaguers or prospect types, and the Rockies have been loading up, not just their own first round picks, but guys like Jeff Hoffman and other high round picks. Chris Rusin was a high round pick of the Cubs, same with David Hale with the Braves. So, it looks like the best way to attack the pitching problem is to collect as many of those arms as possible and see if you can get five or six, or see if you can get four. And then, when you're closer to contending, make a move for a veteran.
Going into this offseason, my hope was that, and I think there were a lot of people with the Rockies [also hoping], if they can get an impact pitcher somehow, in some sort of way it would jump this rebuilding process. The problem is, when they started putting their players out there, really what was coming back was, ‘well, we may give you this young major leaguer, or we may give you one of these top prospects,' but even that has been difficult to do because pitching is at such a premium. I believe that the Rockies are in a position where maybe they won't say they're gonna do it, but the prudent thing would to be to build, and you hate to say they're building for 2017-2018, but when you look at the number of pitchers that don't either have a full years of major league experience or maybe a little bit more than a year's major league experience, and that's the bulk of your rotation, then there is no other way to look at it.
DC: Right, speaking of which, what is your take on Jeff Bridich? You were talking about essentially what I've been hearing, which is that he won't blink, he maybe overvalues his players. The other way to say it would be specific value for what his players are worth, like you were saying maybe specific targets that other teams aren't willing to give him. But what is your take on his ability to deal with other general managers as a young GM who is already developing the reputation as being pretty hard headed and pretty stubborn?
TH: Well, if you look at it, are you really going to get better by taking less in a trade? I guess the better way to look at it is he is doing his job, which is to build this team, whether it's now or later. Basically, if you're the Colorado Rockies what you're trying to do -- which has been very elusive in their history -- is to try and build something that lasts. You know they were able in the mid-90s to have a few years of winning, and that fell off. It took them a long time to get back. Then, 2007-2010; 2007 seemed to come out of nowhere, but really it was building for three to four years. They were able to do that, but they weren't able to sustain that for very long. So, they are trying to get that elusive something that lasts.
DC: Yeah, it's tough, but it seems like if you're trying to reserve this tanker, you can't just throw down the anchor and try and immediately reverse course, it's gonna take some patience to turn it all around.
I'll get you out of here on this since you just alluded to it. Maybe the million dollar question when it comes to the Rockies, and you were there, why didn't 2007-10 last longer, and why hasn't the team been able to repeat that kind of success?
TH: It's really simple, but not easy. It goes back to pitching.
In 2007, you got the very best of Jeff Francis; all the way up through 2010, you got the very best of Aaron Cook and the very best of Ubaldo Jimenez. A couple of those guys are no longer pitching and Ubaldo Jimenez has not been the same. When they have gotten decent pitching at the major league level, it has not sustained itself. Now, injuries are an issue. People like to criticize them and say that 'they can't develop pitching, they've shown they can't'. But you cannot tell me that in all this time since the franchise has been, here you've had a pitcher that pitched here for a long time. Other than Jorge De La Rosa, you haven't had a pitcher who has succeeded for a long period of time. I'm talking about more than four years.
You haven't had a pitcher who pitched here and has gone on elsewhere to become a superstar pitcher after starting his career and being here a number of seasons. So, there is something to this thing. There have been three different general managers; there have been all kinds of different managers; there have been enough pitching coaches, it seems, to roll out a starting nine, or maybe even run back a punt return for the Broncos. So, there is something here that seems to work against having a pitching staff for a long period of time. So, it may be what Jeff Bridich is starting to do now by building a group of pitchers. If they can continually draft pitchers and hope they don't get hurt, hope they don't make mistakes, and then make trades off their big league roster to bring back even more young pitching and keep replenishing that way, that may be the way to go.
The question will be, once they are close to winning, can they go out and sign, whether it's a mid level free agent or maybe a veteran type pitcher, or trade for one that will help push them over the top and give them that savvy that they need the way that the Kansas City Royals have been able to do the last couple years. If they can do that and keep sustaining young pitching, they have a chance for a long run of success, but since that hasn't happened, we don't know that it will.
DC: Yeah I guess the answer is just an army of young arms, right? One after another, that's the only plausible explanation.
TH: Yes. You attack the problem with numbers. It's almost a college football like approach. The more people you have that can play, you just keep inserting them in the lineup, and if you have more than the other guys you're able to win.
DC: Well, Thomas Harding, thank you for joining us, this was a lot of fun.
TH: This was outstanding, and I appreciate it.