At the 20% point in the season this team has already faced a lot of adversity. They lost their opening-day starter before spring training started. They lost their #3 starter first to a hamstring and then to an elbow injury (which sounds like is not going to be as bad as first believed but will cost more time on the DL). They lost their #2 starter to one of the weirdest injuries a pitcher can get. They saw their opening day starter begin the season going 0-3. They have stayed afloat using a 27 year-old 2 pitch pitcher, a 28 year-old former top-prospect come reliever who has reinvented himself thanks to a cutter, and a pitcher who came into the season with a 5 ERA who people called part of a salary dump and who was probably going to start the season in AAA. That is resiliency.
But it is not just the macro-level resiliency this team faces. Even when it takes shots to the stomach like the grand slam against the Giants at home, they got the tying run to the plate. In each of the three games where they coughed up leads and had really painful losses, they have come out the next game and won, generally convincingly. They do not let losses linger in their clubhouse. Their bench has played well together, knowing that everyone wants to play but not everyone can. Each time a player gets the chance to play, it seems he makes a big play somewhere during the game. The new hitting coach has brought a plan to the season that has been effective, if not by the measures of just a few years ago.
If there is one complaint of this team it is in the bullpen managing. Walt Weiss learned under Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa, two guys who tended to structure their pens around older trustworthy guys in the 7th and 8th and a shut-down closer in the 9th (although that person changed a lot more for Cox than LaRussa, who had Eckersley and then in ST. Louis tried to find an experienced hand as soon as possible – except the year they turned Wainwright into to Dr. No!). Right now this pen isn’t that kind of pen, and yet it seems like a lot of nights Weiss is operating like it is. It is of course easy for those of us far from the clubhouse and the bullpen to 2nd guess the decisions that Walt has made. The team said that there would be growing pains with Walt as he found his style especially with regards the pen. Were Brothers the Rex of last year, this team would be in first place. But it seems that Walt wants to keep feeding him the ball to make it 2013 all over again. Maybe that is the right play…although it doesn’t seem that way. He has been hesitant to go to the younger guys in the key 8th or 9th situations – guys like Tommy Kahnle or Chris Martin, waiting for them to earn their chance seemingly. Again, it is still early and the pen is still taking shape. On paper the pen looks like it might be able to compete with the good to great pens in San Francisco, San Diego and L.A. The good news is that even when things do go bad, the team has hung together, picking each other up.
When healthy this can be a good bench – with pop from Rutledge and Dickerson, great defense from Stubbs and Barnes and decent hitting back-up catcher in Pacheco. The team is well put together…as long as there are no long-term injuries. And at the 20% mark….they have survived a lot.
Grade: A-, and that is certainly not based on how hard this team plays, how prepared they are every night for the game. At this point it reflects merely the ongoing learning curve with Walt Weiss and the bullpen. But as a fan, I would rather have his learning curve and yet know this team is going to compete, battle, and make the other team sweat until the 27th out than have a perfectly managed pen. One other thing, remember how Arizona tried to make a big deal of getting a team of “gritty players.” Problem is that they forgot you also need talent. Also, gritty manifests itself differently. You have a guy like CarGo who loves to play baseball, plays it hard, but has fun doing it. The folks in Arizona would have gotten CarGo the first flight out of the Valley of the Sun. Instead, players like him, the baseball rat Tulo, hard workers like Barnes, and even a Canadian make a team that is truly gritty and truly plays hard.
This is one of the hardest playing teams in baseball, with great defense, league average starting pitching (better than league average at home), a tough pen, great home field advantage, and making each game one their opponents have to work hard to win. Through 31 games they have lost only two games by more than 3 runs! And only two other games did they lose by 3 runs, and in one case they took the lead to the 8th and the other than had the tying run up in both the 8th and 9th. This team makes the opponents work every night, and if that keeps up, playing 81 at Coors, the Rox are going to find themselves starting to pull out wins against the other team’s pen rather than coughing up such wins. The only question is how do you evaluate in the mix the 6 pen losses and the fact that injuries are starting to mount.
Teams the Rockies have better records than on as of May 3rd:
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
St. Louis Cardinals
Los Angeles Dodgers
Tampa Bay Rays
All of whom were either playoff teams last year or have a payroll 2X the Rockies!