In the 2014 Hardball Times Baseball Annual, Jeff Moore analyzes six teams undergoing some form of “rebuilding.” He correctly notes that the concept has become a platitude in sports media, but that it still has explanatory value. In order to highlight the utility of “rebuilding,” he parses the concept to represent different forms of practice implemented by a variety of organizations. Moore covers the “ignorance” of the Philadelphia Phillies who continue on as if their core of players wasn’t aging and Ryan Howard was ever a reliable contributor; the “recognition” of the New York Mets that they have to be patient for one or two more years before the pieces come together and, they hope, work as well as Matt Harvey’s new elbow should; the “overhauling” of the Houston Astros evident in their fecund farm system and arid big league squad; the “perpetual” rebuilding of the Miami Marlins in a different key from anyone else, most recently using the public extortion and fire sale method; the Kansas City Royals’ “deviation” by trading long-term potential for a short-term possibility; and the “competition” exemplified by the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates as they seemingly put everything together in 2013, though it remains to be seen whether or not they will need to rebuild again sooner rather than later.
Although the Colorado Rockies are not on Moore’s radar, I think they fall into an altogether different category. They appear to be in a confoundingly stagnant state of non-rebuilding. The mode of rebuilding can be as stigmatizing as it is clichéd, and it is as if the Rockies are avoiding the appellation at the cost of the foresight it might bring. Or, I don’t know what the hell is going on, and I’m not convinced there is a clear plan.
That might sound unfair. But if we, like Moore, take the definition of rebuilding to essentially mean identifying a future window of opportunity and working towards fielding a competitive team to maximize that opportunity, but with the acceptance of present limitations, then I don’t think I’m far off. General Manager Dan O’Dowd is, inexplicably, the fourth-longest tenured general manager in all of baseball, despite overseeing just four winning clubs in 14 full seasons. The only GMs who have held their current job longer are the dissimilarly successful Brian Sabean of the San Francisco Giants, Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees, and Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics. The possible moves that have been rumored suggest that Dan O’Dowd and de facto co-GM Bill Geivett are frozen by anything more than a one-year plan.
Let’s look at some of the possible moves that are garnering notice. Beat writer Troy Renck reports that the Rockies are eying first baseman Justin Morneau to replace the retired Todd Helton. Of all of the speculative deals, this one is most likely to happen. But what would this accomplish in the short and long-term? In the short term, it would provide a replacement for Todd Helton and possibly provide a bridge for either Wilin Rosario or prospect Kyle Parker to take over full-time at first. The long-term effects are not as easy to identify, as his contract probably wouldn’t exceed two years.
It might sound just fine, until you realize that Morneau would be a “replacement” in more than one sense. Per FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Morneau hasn’t accrued an average major-league season since the half-season he played in 2010. Hayden Kane over at Rox Pile notes that he slashed .345/.437/.618 before a concussion ended his 2010 season and most of the next, but those numbers were inflated by a .385 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), over .100 points higher than his career average. He was still well on his way to a successful season, but the effects the concussion had on his productivity cannot be overstated. Morneau accrued 4.9 war in the 81 games he played in 2010, and 0.4 since. Optimistically, if Morneau out-produces his projected line next year (.258/.330/.426, per Steamer projections), which he likely would do playing half of his games in Coors Field (except against lefties, who he can’t hit), he would at best be a league-average hitter to go along with his average defense. Sure, it would be an improvement from the lackluster production from first base in 2013, but not enough to build beyond current listlessness.
Fundamentally, I believe that the Rockies do need a bridge before easing Rosario into a defensive position where he is less of a liability or seeing what the team has in Parker. But they already have the link in Michael Cuddyer. While he’s unlikely to reproduce the career year he had in his age 34 season in 2013, having Cuddyer play out his contract sharing time at first seems to be the better allocation of resources in the short-term. In January of 2013, Paul Swydan characterized the Rockies as an organization on a “quest for mediocrity.” Signing Morneau would go a long way toward realizing that goal.
In addition to possible additions via free agency, trade rumors are aren’t helping to clarify where the team is. It has been rumored that the Rockies are interested in trading for Anaheim’s Mark Trumbo, which would also fill the hole at first base that I don’t think actually exists yet. Trumbo, a power hitter, is misleadingly tantalizing. As opposed to Morneau, Trumbo is at least on the right side of 30; similarly though, Trumbo doesn’t get on base enough to provide the offense the boost it needs, especially on the road. He’d be a virtual lock to hit 30+ home runs, but he would also be sure to have an OBP hovering around .300. It’s unclear who would be involved in such a deal, as the Angels wouldn’t be interested in the Rockies’ primary trading piece, Dexter Fowler.
Speaking of Fowler, he’s going to be traded. In an interview with Dave Krieger, O’Dowd said that the organization has given up on him. Not in those words of course—rather, he noted that Fowler lacks “edge,” which is a bullshit baseball “intangible” that doesn’t tell us anything about the player in question, but rather that the front office seeks amorphous traits that can only be identified retrospectively. Reports have the Rockies in talks with Kansas City that would result in the teams swapping Fowler for a couple of relievers, likely two of Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, and Wade Davis. This, too, would maintain organizational stagnation.
The Rockies are practicing a confounding type of non-rebuilding, wherein veterans are brought in not with the idea that they can be valuable role players (like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew were for the Boston Red Sox last off-season), but as immediate solutions to problems that should be viewed in the long-term. I’m not as pessimistic as I might sound. The Rockies finished in last place for the second straight season in 2013, but with just two fewer wins than the Padres as Giants, and a true-talent level of about a .500 team. The thing about teams with a win projection of about 80 is that they can reasonably be expected to finish with as much as 90 wins—and as few as 70. If the Rockies are competitive in 2014, it will likely be due to health and a lot of wins in close games. I do, however, think they can be competitive starting in 2015. That’s the rebuilding window of opportunity the team should be looking at. If they are, it won’t be because of who is playing first base or right field, or even an improvement in hitting on the road, but progress in the true source of their problems: run prevention.
Last year, only the Twins and the lowly Astros allowed more runs per game. Despite this, for the first time in a while Rockies’ fans can be optimistic about the engine of run prevention, quality starting pitching. This is an area where the team can build a clear agenda for the future. Tyler Chatwood and Jhoulys Chacin should be reliable starters for the next few years. It’s unclear how many good years Jorge de la Rosa has left in him, and it’s also unclear whether or not Juan Nicasio can be a legitimate starter. But the Rockies have two polished, nearly big-league-ready pitching prospects in Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler—Rockies’ fans should be really excited about these two—so long as one of them is not one of the “young arms” rumored to be in play for Trumbo. If Gray and Butler can be shepherded to the big leagues in a timely manner and learn to pitch to major leaguers quickly, they could join Chatwood and Chacin for possibly the best rotations in Rockies history. And if the front office really wants to make a big free-agent splash, the answers aren’t in the Brian McCanns or Jose Abreus of the world, but in splitter-throwing, ground-ball inducing, 25-year-old starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. His presence would likely push a rotation in 2015-2016 and possibly beyond from dependable to exceptional. Of course, it won’t happen. The Rockies, if they bid, will be outbid, and it’s precisely starting pitchers in demand that tend to stay away from Colorado.
In a sense, every major-league team is always in some stage of rebuilding, whether they admit it or not. My point is that I think there can be power in the admission of it. De-stigmatizing the “rebuilding process” might contribute to the recognition that it’s not necessarily a multiyear process, and that being in the process is not an acknowledgement of failure. Recognition of this, which by itself should provide more foresight, should lead the organization and armchair observers like myself from a state of confusion due to the team’s pursuit of stagnation, to one of encouragement where progress can be visualized.
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