Several years ago I attempted to preview the playoffs by comparing the horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad 2015 Rockies to a bunch of playoff teams. The twist was I wasn't comparing them to the teams themselves so much as the path they took to get to the playoffs. The Rockies seemed, in many ways, very far from a contending season, but perhaps there were elements seen in other contending teams that we could see in this horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad Rockies team.
One of those teams was the 2015 Houston Astros. They were perhaps the most notable team because they had just emerged out of an ambitious (is that even the right word?) tanking program to rebuild the farm and to, hopefully, create a contending team. It was the first year that the Astros made the playoffs since getting swept in the World Series a decade before. That 2015 team snuck in as the second Wild Card team by defeating the New York Yankees to advance to the next round.
Two years later, that same Astros franchise is now four wins away from being World Series champions, and they got there by beating the Yankees in seven games. Time isn't quite a flat circle, but maybe an oval.
The Rockies just came out of a stretch of horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad baseball to make the 2017 playoffs as the second Wild Card team, ten years after getting swept in the World Series. They, like the 2015 Astros, faltered a bit down the stretch but still managed to get into that elimination game. While those Astros advanced one more round than these Rockies did, they both were eliminated in shocking fashion.
But the past isn't always prelude, so that's hardly reason to book a trip to Coors Field for the 2019 World Series. There are more similarities, but more importantly there are lessons that the Rockies can learn if they want to summit that mountain that the Astros have climbed.
Sign the young talent
This is the most obvious thing that the Rockies need to do. In 2013, before he became a little superstar, the Astros signed Jose Altuve to a four-year contract extension with two team options at the end of it. Since then all he's done is make the All-Star team every year and lead the league in hits for four straight years. Locking up the cornerstone of that offense for the long term is no doubt a major factor to where the team is today.
The Rockies are behind the 8-ball on this one. If they are going to sign Nolan Arenado for the long term it will be at close to market prices. It doesn't matter, it needs to be done. A player who averages over 80 extra-base hits a year and provides All-World defense at third base is worth whatever you can pay him. The only way the Rockies can hope to replicate the Astros process is if they secure their MVP candidate for the long-term, or at least the medium-term.
Find ways to move on from mistakes
It didn’t all go according to plan for the Astros. Mark Appel joined the Sam Bowie club and Brady Aiken never signed. The team literally cut JD Martinez at the end of spring training in 2014. They gave Jonathan Singleton a bunch of money while he was still in the minors to be their First Baseman of the Future and that future may not ever come. None of these mistakes were crippling because they found a way, whether through luck (Colin McHugh and Lance McCullers turned out OK) or intention (signing Yuli Guerriel who now looks like the First Baseman of the Future), to overcome the mistakes.
For all of his success at targeting young players (Germán Márquez, Jeff Hoffman, Kyle Freeland), Bridich has a sorry track record on free agent contracts (Jason Motte, Chad Qualls, and, so far, Ian Desmond). This year other players were able to make up for these missteps. But considering how much crucial talent is leaving in free agency this year, it will be interesting to see what Bridich can do to overcome that track record.
Make the bold trade
The Astros made trades to bolster the team down the stretch in 2015 (Scott Kazmir, Carlos Gomez), which helped carry them into the second wild card spot. This year, they went against type and brought in Justin Verlander, even though they were already well on their way to winning 100 games. But imagine where they would be without the ALCS MVP.
Bridich did well to go get Pat Neshek and Jonathan Lucroy this season to get into the second Wild Card, but if they find themselves having a truly excellent season in the near future, they need to be willing to make a similar move to get them over the hump—even if it might cost them.
As unsexy as it is to say, this is still baseball, and you still can’t predict it. As many smart moves as the Astros made in building their squadron, there is still a certain amount of luck involved in getting to the World Series. Altuve probably should’ve been thrown out, and Greg Bird shouldn’t have. Dallas Keuchel went from never making a Top 100 prospect list to winning a Cy Young. They were the only team in their division to finish above .500 in 2017. And on and on and on. A team can put themselves in a good position to take advantage of luck, but there’s no predicting what the luck will be or how it will benefit them.
There’s no way of knowing what type of good luck is coming for the Rockies. Sharing a division with the Dodgers means that an awful lot of good luck will need to come their way to take the division. Maybe Brian Mundell becomes the true First Baseman of the Future. Maybe Dom Nunez starts a Hall of Fame career soon. Maybe Bridich makes a good free agent deal. Probably it will be something completely different! But they’ll need it to get back to the World Series.
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The Astros were a less-than-mediocre major league product when Jeff Luhnow took over in 2011. He turned them into a terrible major league product in hopes of someday making them into a great major league product. Their 416 losses from 2011 to 2014 were unprecedented, but #TheProcess helped them turn around a bad farm system and build a 100-win team. This is due in no small part to farmhands like José Altuve and Carlos Correa developing into superstars. Now they are on the verge of destroying the Sports Illustrated cover jinx once and for all.
The Rockies didn’t make quite the same turn when Jeff Bridich came aboard in October 2014 (they were just fine at losing, thankyouverymuch: 365 from 2013 to 2016). They didn’t exactly have to tank, as they had a farm system on the rise. All the same, his presence in the top office led to changes in the way the team approached talent acquisition (Corey Dickerson and Kevin Padlo for Jake McGee and Márquez) and roster construction (trading Troy Tulowitzki for pitching, finally). It also helps that Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon have become legitimate MVP candidates.
Again, the Rockies are a little behind the Astros on the timeline. If they are going to be able to make the jump, they are going to have to learn the lessons the Astros did in the process.