Been a while since I have been well enough to post, but trying to keep up with everyone on the site. And already thinking about 2015. I will be producing a series on each of the men on the 40 plus other key guys, reviewing their 2014 and looking at the 2015 and beyond, plus keeping everyone up on Hot Stove action after the World Series. The great thing about being unemployed – plenty of time for baseball.
Closing in on another disaster of a season, the great time of 2007, 2009-2010 seems like a whole lifetime ago. The Colorado Rockies will not finish last this year, but that has more to do with an Arizona team that somehow managed to take a talented team and farm system in 2011 and turn it into a total mess this year. Needless to say, Arizona has already cleaned house, with gritty Kirk Gibson and his unwillingness to keep any player who isn’t gritty and who isn’t willing to run through a wall just to make batting practice. I am no Arizona fan (actually I probably dislike Arizona more than every team not in the Bay area), but the DBacks should have done this last year.
But this isn’t about the Dbacks, this is about our sadly underperforming Rockies. The calls have been going for years now but have picked up since the All-Star Break. When Atlanta fired Frank Wren as their GM this week the papers and websites have been seeing calls for the baseball equivalent of O’Dowd’s Tar and Feathering, being ridden out on a rail (see the great O Brother Where Art Thou for a demonstration) and maybe for his neutering as well. After all if the successful Braves are willing to cut ties with their GM after years of success then the Rox are past due on the moving van for DOD.
I am known for being optimistic and I am of course still defending Dan O’Dowd after over a decade of running the club. Yes, all that is true. But the simple fact, if Wren had been running the Rockies the past 4 years, this team would long since have been challenging the Mets modern record for futility and also would have even less budget room than they do now. In other words, Wren has been a grand disaster and may have damaged one of the successful baseball teams for years to come. Dan O’Dowd has actually made good moves (remember he moved to primarily development of players after 2012, but is still involved in player moves).
The Braves made Wren the GM at the end of 2007, moving the true architect of the great Braves teams of the 1990s and 2000s, John Schuerholz, moved to team president. Since then the team has spent a lot, traded a lot, and has moved from a very excellent team, and won a lot of games. But a team’s general manager is measured by the talent they are accumulating and the freedom the team has to sign players and make key moves. The Braves recognized that Freddy Gonzalez deserved praise for getting more out of his talent than was actually there. And they know that 2014 is a good indicator of the future – and they moved quickly because a team’s future is far more important than the past.
2008 Braves, 72-90,
2009 Braves, 86-76,
2010 Braves, 91-71,
2011 Braves, 89-73,
2012 Braves, 94-68
2013 Braves, 96-66 (their only division title in this run)
2014 Braves, 77-83.
During his tenure the Braves winning percentage was .5359, not bad, but a big drop over the previous period, going from 1991 to 2007, or really any 8 year period during that time. They won only 2 playoff games (and struggled and limped to the playoffs each year they made it other than 2013). They had the only 2 losing years since 1990 under his tenure. When you are given a Ferreri turning it into a nice Honda isn’t a good thing.
It is true that the Braves suffered the loss of 2 starting pitchers in spring training, but they got more pitching value out of their young arms and guys off injury and poor pitching trash bin (Arron Harang). Atlanta is a good pitching park, so it is a good place to come to get your career back. But the hitting – that is another story. The Braves were next to last this year in runs, a .242 average put them almost at the bottom, and with a .361 slugging, next to last. This is a team that doesn’t just stink at the plate, they are so bad that they like the Rockies on the road, but everywhere, and that is as bad an insult I can give a team.
And that poor performance goes down to the decisions made by Wren. The team he inherited at the end of 2007 had Chipper Jones, a young Brian McCann, Edgar Renteria, Kelly Johnson at the peak of his career, a young Martin Prado, and Mark Teixeira heading into his final year of playing time with the Braves. The farm system developed by John Schuerholz included Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Tommie Hanson. He quickly traded away Renteria for the young Jair Jurrgens (not the player who briefly donned the Rockies pinstripes this year), based on the idea that Yunel Escobar would be his shortstop of the future. He was not. Renteria was on the back end of his career, but many Braves commentators point to the decision that Escobar was not the guy to man shortstop (his attitude was questions, he was dealt and then dealt again, and now is the everyday shortstop for the finally playoff bound Kansas City Royals, and their leadoff hitter) as the beginning of the undoing of the Braves. Getting weak up the middle is not the way to build a ballclub.
This was followed by the big trade of Texeira to the Angels for Casey Kotchman and Steve Mark. Yea, not what you would call good value. Oh, and the Angels were unable to sign Texeira but the compensation pick they got for losing him – some clown named Mike Trout. Ouch! (Wren didn’t think Trout was a good prospect and likely would have passed on him…but that is just more about Trout).
The beginning of his tenure was marked by bad trades (then again, so was Dan O’Dowd’s). But it was the free agent signings that really marked Wren’s downfall. Yes, we all know about Hampton and Red Light Cruiser, but those were looked as smart signing in 2001 and were pushed by the owner, not by DOD (the argument that our owner needs to stay away from baseball decisions is one we can debate later). Wren though did a good job at topping the Hapton/Red Light mistakes. He gave 4 years to Derek Lowe (after he was well past more than a 1 year deal) and 3 years to Kenshin Kawakami from Japan. Yikes!
And then there were the trades that free agent moves that tied up the payroll for the future. While letting good players walk because of the lack of payroll flexibility (last year’s failure to make room for McCann and Tim Hudson probably doomed his tenure). First, he got excited about the one really good year from BJ Upton and significantly overpaid for a guy who seems to have lost the strikezone on the way to Atlanta. He then traded the quality wherever he played Martin Prado and 2013 near batting champ Chris Johnson for the other Upton, who has never gotten close to his one career year, and has been a slow slide to barely league average since that year. He also traded for and put a lot of money on Dan Uggla, ignoring his deep issues with the strike zone for the promise of the long ball, though sadly in the new era of baseball, the long ball disappeard and the Ks multiplied. $13 million per year for 2013’s .179/.309/.671, although with 22 homers (early in the season) and 2014’s .149/.229/.442 with just 2 homers in 52 games. The Braves have to think no Uggla would have allowed them to keep McCann. Oh, and they get to pay Uggla another $13 million in 2015 and 2016. BJ Upton will be flaling at fastballs for $14.5/$15.5/$16.5 million until 2017. Yikes.
The only high quality draft pick under Wren (in his first year) who panned out is the incredible Craig Kimbrel. They are rated as the 24th best farm system, in large part due to bad picks, rather than injury. The Braves have had a fairly static payroll and this has impacted the draft and development allowance, but a GM has to work with what he has (and with a middle of the pack payroll, how do you spend a that money on Upton and Uggla?).
In the end, Wren bet big on the wrong guys, didn’t draft well, and didn’t resign the guys he needed to, in part because of the bad spending elsewhere. The future of the Braves? It doesn’t look good. It is true that John Schuerholz got “lucky” in giving 1 year deals to guys and getting near career years from them. But this speaks to Wren’s poor performance at looking at talent and determining if the future for those players is going to better than the past. The fact is that the Braves looked at Wren and his tenure and could see that the future is not looking promising. I have doubts of whether or not John Schuerholz can bring back the magic, with so many bad contracts trapping their ability to sign talent and with the farm system so barren. There is talk that Schuerholz may bring back his old friend Dan O’Dowd to be part of the talent development team in Atlanta (it would get O’Dowd closer to his son who is a top rank prospect in Florida baseball), which tells you that O’Dowd’s ability in finding and developing talent is still respecting in baseball circles.
So Wren has ruined the Braves, but hasn’t Dan O’Dowd ruined the Rockies? Here we get to the determining whether or not the Rockies are primed for performance or are heading into 4th and 5th place finishes for the foreseeable future.
Let’s forget the period until 2005. The ownership wanted to spend a lot, win now, and Dan O’Dowd was able to get the best talent to come to Colorado. It didn’t work, but he did what he was asked to do by ownership. So we begin in 2005. At that point the Rockies had already drafted or would draft Matt Holliday (who other teams didn’t think they could get to give up football, something that O’Dowd has done a good job time after time – see Dexter Fowler for another big time steal) and Tulo. Yes, they messed up in 2006 in drafting Greg Reynolds, but even that has to be seen from the perspective of them thinking they were close to contending (as in fact they were, but they were thinking 2008), needing quality pitching help soon, and after the experience with Hamtpon and Red Light, they knew they had to develop their own pitching. Sadly, the ace they wanted was there – his name is Clayton Kershaw, and he in fact got the bigs at nearly the same time as Reynolds, and has had a bit more success since. But if Reynolds had not destroyed his shoulder he might have at least been worth a #1 pick, but he was never going to live up to the #2 overall. The best player from 2006 draft? Mike McKenry (they did draft a high school pitcher in round 18 who chose to go to college named Andrew Cashner – that would have been a nice sign). 2007 was also a questionable draft, as they went after a college closer in Casey Weathers, who was new to the role, looked healthy and ready to help the pen quickly. Sadly his elbow went south and he became one of the 10% who never makes it back from Tommy John. The best 2 players from that draft were Jordan Pacheco and Matt Reyolds, who now both work in Arizona. They did work hard to sign a 21st round pick from Florida, but Chris Sale would eventually turn down over slot money to go to college, and then become a potential CY Young winner in the AL. Give O’Dowd and the scouts credit – they know talent, but with high school pitchers you don’t want to blow a higher pick or money money unless they are certain talent.
2008 brought Christian Freidrich, who looked to be a Jeff Francis Jr until the back and shoulder issues. He may never be worthy of his #1 pick at this point, but he does show potential as a lefty out of the pen, allowing them to spend money elsewhere. We shall see on Christian…I don’t want to give up quite yet, especially as he is still getting healthy. But that draft also brought Charlie Blackmon, who making the All-Star team this year (finally healthy) has already probably warranted the 2nd round pick (if he can improve on the road, he might yet be a real star). 2009 was probably O’Dowd’s best move, drafting the player widely considered the 2nd best in the draft, Tyler Matzek when no other club thought he could be gotten away from going to college. The team has been willing to handle with care, and there was a period where he looked like another failure (his loss of the strike zone may by itself have caused the trade of Ubaldo), but after watching him in his rookie year, he has the potential to turn into at least a #2, and if the strike zone issues really are gone, maybe a #1 in the end. 2009 also brought Tim Wheeler, who had it not been for the hamate bone issue, could have been another nice piece in the outfield. Rex Brothers, Nolan Arenado, Ben Paulsen, Rob Scahill also were part of 2009, so that one draft may end up providing the future #1, closer, 3B, pen piece and depending on Paulsen’s development, a 1B. The big miss that year? They were unable to sign in the 29th round some outfielder named Corey Dickerson.
The ground work had been laid. 2010 added to the team’s future depth – Kyle Parker, Chad Bettis, Josh Rutledge, Corey Dickerson (an All-Star next year?), Kraig Sitton, Will Swanner, Christian Bergman (who just pitches, and might be next year’s #5 or higher), Ryan Casteel, and a Super Bowl winning quarterback in Russel Wilson. 2011 added Tyler Anderson, who probably would have come up in September if not for a sole elbow in the playoffs, and is being looked at as at least the #5 next year based on his work in Tulsa this year, as well as Trevor Story (the future at either 2B or SS if he can hit), and in the 21st round, Daniel Winkler, the best pitcher in the Rockies organization this year before Tommy John (what little is out there it sounds like rehab is going well, and he will start the season in 2015 in extended Spring before hopefully heading back to Tulsa and if he rebounds to 2013-2014 performance, still be in Colorado in 2015). 2015 added future starters David Dahl (he held is own at High A the 2nd half of this year and looks like the future at CF), Eddie Butler (whose 2014 wasn’t up to par, but the talent is all there), as well as Tom Murphy (still looked at as a potential starter at C, despite a bad year). 2013 brought Jon Grey, who fell to the Rockies at #3 overall (he looks better than #1 overall, but the Rocks may yet regret not getting Kris Bryant), Ryan McMahon (whose up and down season has to be looked at in light of his being age 19), as well as guys who they believe will be future major leaguers in Terry McClure, Patrick Valaika, and Jordan Patterson. 2014 brought a surprise with their ability to get Kyle Freeland and Forrest Wall, two players they had rated much higher than where they fell. All this is just the draft, and it has to be added that the Rockies during DOD tenure has been able to build a great facility in the D.R. and they have a great pipeline coming through there.
So, Dan O’Dowd has built a high quality farm system, and where there have been misses it has been primarily due to injury – the hardest aspect to determine in any player. Which brings us to the free agent decisions by DOD. We look back to 2010 and the large contracts they signed both CarGo and Tulo too that off-season. There is not a single Rockies fan I know of who in 2010 thought those were bad deals. When those 2 players are healthy and on the field, this team plays well over .500 ball (I am tossing out most of this season for CarGo since he was never healthy). Who could have forseen CarGo’s injury issues, especially because before mid-2013, they were fairly small (and almost entirely due to playing too hard). Tulo was always more of a risk, but when he is healthy, he is among the 3 or 4 best players in the whole MLB. Signing him and CarGo was great work by DOD and the ownership. It just hasn’t worked. Their failures have not been performance, they have been injury, and that is always the risk with any contract. I still remember in 2012 when people thought Derek Jeter would catch Pete Rose. All it took was one bad foot to make that a fantasy. So, I still give DOD credit for both deals, and CarGo still has 3 years on his deal, and if he gets healthy in 2015 and the team underperforms, well, then he can be dealt. But on the whole, they were both deals that few thought would be made. DOD was trying to secure the future – it just has gone very badly.
During this time he also managed to resign the best pitcher in Rockies history, twice, in Jorge De La Rosa, who again everyone thought was going to be gone in 2011. He realized they were not going to be able to resign Matt Holliday, and made a great deal to refill the team’s depth in 2009 and set them up for the future (remember, Holliday’s deal probably caused Albert Puljos to leave). Holliday is still making $17 million a year, which St. Louis can afford, but which is far too much for a .273/20 homer guy, which is what he is at this point. Holliday will always be the one who got away but it probably was for the best for the team and the player.
One other free agent move by DOD that deserves note: Micheal Cuddyer. Cuddy has given them plus value since he came here, although again health has reduced the full effect. He has bought them time for their talent pool in the outfield to grow, and he can still play ball even at the end of the deal. Good player, great clubhouse guy. Don’t see anyway he comes back in 2015 but for the 3 years he was here, he earned his pay.
So to trades. Lets only look at recent history. The deal for Ubaldo ended badly for both sides. In the end despite what looked like a treasure trove at the time, Alex White was overwhelmed by Coors Field, went to Houston, and ended up blowing out his elbow. Drew Pomeranz is a jerk (there I said it –met him once, jerk, everyone who knows him and his brother say the same things), who let Coors get into his psyche in 2012 and was never going to be more than a lefty pen arm here. Getting Brett Anderson for him looked like a steal – but the trade went south when Anderson’s frail physique took him down (I look at him and just don’t see a glass jaw, but sadly that is the case). Unless the budget is increased for 2015 or he signs a team friendly deal, Anderson will likely not be here next year. Ubaldo didn’t make Clevland happy either, until the last 3 months of his time there. He rolled 3 good months into a deal this year with Baltimore ($15 mil/year, for which Baltimore got 6-9, 4.85, with a WHIP of 1.528 and only 124.1 innings – they get 3 more years of Ubaldo). The trade didn’t work…but it was worth the effort in my book (best deal possible at the time) and if they had resigned him that poor pitching results would have been on the Rockies dime. Love the player…but he really isn’t that good.
Other trades since? 2012 he traded Clayton Mortensen for Marco Scuturo and then rolled Scuturo into Charlie Culberson. Not a trade that gets you GM of the year but has helped the team get younger and deeper. He traded Jason Hammel for Jeremy Guthrie, which was a bad deal not least because Coors became unpitchable. That is one that DOD still needs to answer for (Hammel will never give you 200 innings, but he gives you a chance every time out). He grabbed Adam Ottovino off waivers in 2012, not a trade but a smart GM move. He dumped (trades for cash) both Esmil Rogers and Samuel Deduno, neither of who have been All Stars but both of whom ran out of waivers and should have been kept. Again, bad moves from the GM on both players. He traded Matt Reynolds at the end of 2012 for Ryan Wheeler, who never reached his talent level here, but who was again lost due to poor 40 man management (my understanding is that falls under Bill Geivett now).
2013 was a relatively slow season until after the 2013 season ended. Then DOD and the Rockies made a number of important moves. In one week’s time we saw Dexter Fowler and Drew Pomeranz dealt. At the time everyone questioned the Fowler trade, expecting that the Rockies could have and should have gotten more. What they did get was a very young and until 2013 extremely well thought of young pitcher in Jordan Lyles. As I have written repeatedly, the Astros would not have even taken that call 6 months earlier. Lyles had a horrible 2013 season, but given the environment there, the porous defense (death for a groundball pitcher) and the challenges practically every young pitcher has, they gave up on him way to early. Lyles has the potential to be a #2 if the potential is reached (before 2012 began many wondered if he could be a #1, in the mode of Brandon Webb). For a player paid too much, who underperformed his talent every season, and who was causing the depth of other outfielders to sit while he filled CF and lead-off. Could they have gotten more? Yes, maybe, but getting a young, cheap, arm who could one day be your top right hander? That is a good trade…if he reaches his potential. Add in Brandon Barnes and the performance of Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson, and you have one of the best trades in years. The deal for Pomeranz didn’t work out…but it was the chance to get a former #1 for a guy who wasn’t going to be happy pitching at Coors.
Those were the big moves. The small ones were pretty good as well. The signing of Justin Morneau for a relatively cheap contract, after nearly getting the big bopper from Cuba, Abreau, filled the whole both in the batting order and defensively for the next 2 years (a batting title isn’t a bad add-in). They signed Boone Logan, a deal that was roundly cheered in the baseball world. Sadly, due to injuries, Logan hasn’t earned his value yet (I suspect with the likes of Friedrich and Flande showing some talent in short outings, that Logan might be dealt this year – a 2 year $10 million dollar contract for a veteran lefty should be easily moved). Minor trades also worked well – Jonathan Herrera moved on and brought back at equal cost Franklin Morales. I know, I know, Morales is deeply hated at www.roxwalkoff.com. But he gave them enough quality starts (he was supposed to be rotation depth, not a 20 start guy, who would give an extra lefty in the pen) as well as normally good pitching out of the pen. Morales probably wont be back, but they got more out of him then they would have out of Herrera this year. Josh Outmann was moved as well (now with plenty of lefty arms), bringing back Drew Stubbs who may have had his 2nd best season in his career at Coors this year. A great move…wonder if Stubbs will want to come back at the right price. Dan O’Dowd was able to add important extra depth grabbing minor league deals with Mike McKenry and Nick Masset (Masset the Rockies would love to have back, but McKenry despite a decent season at the plate, doesn’t seem to have earned a spot for 2015).
A lot of criticism has come over not dealing Jorge De La Rosa at the trading deadline for a fairly good prospect from Baltimore. It will be interesting to see the trajectory of the careers of that prospect (the names change based on which report you read), but dealing the Rockies best pitcher in history and their home ace, would have signaled this team is giving up on 2015 and 2016…something Rockies fans are not prepared to do after the past 3 years.
So, does Dan O’Dowd (or Bill Geivett) deserve to keep their jobs? There is plenty of basis for firing both men – three straight horrible seasons is enough of an excuse in itself. But O’Dowd is not Frank Wren. Wren has ruined a great franchise and has handicapped the going forward. Bringing back Shurholz and Hart from Cleveland’s glory days will help, but they are probably 2 years at best from putting themselves in position to implement their preferred strategy. Dan O’Dowd has been through 4 phases with the Rockies. The early days of free spending. The Todd and Toddlers stage came next, where DOD gift at player development proved out in the next stage. The 2007 to 2010 era showed DOD’s ability to keep fine-tuning a competitive franchise, including the deal for CarGo and dealing with Holliday’s insistence he wanted to be on winner NOW! Now has come the latest era – 2011 to today of rebuilding and failure.
2011 was supposed to be their year: with Ubaldo and DLR the Rocks had their best starting rotation and the pen looked deep with Franklin Morales viewed as future great closer. Tulo was young, CarGo just beginning to take the next step. It all looked so promising. But injuries and Ubaldo’s big step back, the disaster of 2012’s Coors implosion, and then the past 2 years of injuries all over the field…it has been a hard few seasons these past 4 years. A lot of us are done. It might be good to clean house in the front office, just to get a fresh taste in there. But the people don’t matter as much as the plan. DOD has been rebuilding – trying to replicate what happened between 2002 and 2006 – build great depth and talent and see if you can win as soon as possible. They are accused of being a team without direction. I don’t see that. Their core plan – drafting and developing pitching, get good young players to fill out the positional players, and sign cheap free agents to fill out of the roster. And of course, get 150 games out of each CarGo and Tulo. That is what worked in 2007 to 2010. But there are a lot of ifs, and the truth is, the fans are ready for some winning.
The best possible thing for all involved is to see Dan O’Dowd move to Atlanta, to rebuild their farm system, to be closer to family, and for the Rockies to find a new man for his role (and it is time for Monfort to realize he needs a team president other than himself – he must find the replacement for Kelly McGregor, and soon). Dan O’Dowd has worked to restock the minor league teams, he has made some good trades, and he has done his best to keep the budget in-line (that is another sore subject for another column). He can move to Atlanta and take on a new challenge while watching the Rockies hopefully prosper with the talent which he has brought for the future. The Rockies need to decide if they are close or not, and decide who is the best for the role of GM. But because of the way the Rockies work they need someone who is trustworthy and who can implement the larger picture that the Monforts have for the team (that is something we can’t forget – the owners of every team tend to set the direction, the GM only implements that vision).
I won’t necessarily be sad if DOD leaves, but I do think he has done more for this team than we realize. In the end no GM can know if the players he has brought in can stay healthy, and while health is not an excuse, it has to be included if you are going to understand the past 4 years…and the future.