The Cleveland Indians had a plan for the 2016 season. They would ride the three studs in their starting rotation: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. They had would hold a distinct advantage with those starters and had the talent on the roster behind them to be a contender.
The Indians did, in fact, reach the World Series, losing to the Chicago Cubs in seven games. And they did so despite the fact that their plan actually fell apart. The plan was to win on the strength of their top three starting pitchers, yet they tore through the playoffs without two of them after they lost Carrasco and Salazaro to injuries.
Baseball seasons are long and weird. Teams might enter the season with a plan, but those plans rarely work the way they are supposed to. Good teams have their ideal plan, but that isn’t their only path to a successful season. They have the depth and versatility to recover if their best plan fails. They have backup plans.
Plans are great fodder for offseason content. They inform hype columns about winning the winter (pour one out for the win-now 2015 San Diego Padres), and they prop up prediction slideshows internet-wide. But due to the attrition and aforementioned weirdness of baseball seasons, they rarely work out. And in many cases we never get to see if they were good plans or not.
We still don’t know if the Rockies teams of years ago could have won riding Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. It was a plan with a very thin margin for error, one that disappeared each time one of them broke. What those seasons of “if Tulo and Cargo stay healthy” also did, however, was expose the team’s lack of a backup plan. And that’s where things are starting to feel different as we look ahead to 2017.
As the Rockies enjoy some welcome buzz as a sleeper with the season approaching, it’s fun to dream on a scenario where they are in the playoff race exactly as the plan is supposed to go. Jon Gray as the horse leading a solid, young rotation. David Dahl building on his explosive debut while Trevor Story socks home runs. The predictable greatness of Nolan Arenado supported by the predictable very-goodness of Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu and Carlos Gonzalez.
But we also know better, and we know it’s just as likely that the Rockies will take the field for a meaningful game with Gerardo Parra starting in left field, Ian Desmond in center field, Mark Reynolds at first base, Dustin Garneau behind the plate and a pitcher most people haven’t heard of on the mound. That doesn’t sound great, but it still isn’t as bad as some of the actual scenarios in past seasons when the Rockies were forced to use their backup plans.
For example: the team’s failed wild card run in 2016 was another cautionary tale against not having good backup plans. I’ll just write the words “Cristhian Adames” and “Gerardo Parra played first base” and leave it at that.
Signing Ian Desmond to play first base, on the face of it, is a move worthy of criticism. That was the popular opinion on the matter this offseason. But, as Ken Rosenthal noted in a recent piece about Desmond and the Rockies, there might be more to the move than Ian Desmond, first baseman. As it is, actually playing Desmond at first might have been the backup plan of the offseason, depending on how much credence those Charlie Blackmon trade rumors deserved.
The success of that signing might come down to Ian Desmond, first baseman, but it also might be graded after it gives the Rockies a higher floor in the infield and/or outfield if injuries or youth threaten to undercut what looks to be a very strong lineup. Whether that versatility is worth the salary the Rockies paid Desmond, as well as the first-round draft pick they gave up, is one thing, but it puts the team in a better position to recover if their plan goes off the rails in a key spot as it has in seasons past.
And then there’s the bullpen, those committees that are essentially backup plan collectives. The Rockies look better in this area as well. Mike Dunn and Greg Holland more evenly distribute the pressure on the bullpen over the course of the season.
When the team signed Dunn, it was popular to compare him to Boone Logan and then make a hilarious joke about how the Logan deal worked out for the Rockies. There is hopefully one key difference: with more options (see: backup plans) for key spots in the bullpen, the Rockies aren’t putting the same misplaced pressure on Dunn that they did on Logan. In that same regard, they are not signing Holland with the expectation that he will save 50 games this season. If he struggles, they will still probably be okay.
The Dunn signing could work out just fine. Holland might regain his form and give a serious boost to the back of the bullpen. Adam Ottavino will hopefully continue his dominance. Jake McGee could rebound. Carlos Estevez could learn from 2016 and be more consistent. Jairo Diaz might be healthy and ready to cover some high-leverage spots. There are a lot of things that could happen, but the point is that the Rockies’ bullpen won’t be doomed if one or more of those guys doesn’t work out.
There isn’t necessarily one plan, but there are more backup plans that actually feel worthy of a successful big league team.
The longstanding criticism of the Rockies is that they didn’t have a plan. Maybe they still don’t have a plan, but if they’re right about prioritizing versatility and giving themselves more options ahead of a more rigid plan, maybe that’s a good thing.
Maybe it’s good that the Rockies think they’re going to be good even if they don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like. Maybe that’s even comforting. Maybe they’ve acquired enough depth that not having a plan is a feature and not a bug. Maybe having more backup plans was more important all along.
Here’s to hoping. And if you’re reading this, Ian Desmond, maybe dust off those other gloves too, just in case you need to prove me right.