Just two weeks before pitchers and catchers report to the Rockies’ spring training complex in Scottsdale, the club finally got its innings-eater.
Jeremy Guthrie has thrown 200 or more innings in each of the past three seasons as the largely unappreciated pitching mainstay of a perpetually rebuilding Baltimore Orioles team. Throughout that stay, the former first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians was a mix of fiery competitor and goodwill ambassador for a franchise spinning its wheels.
And yes, that’s three former first-round picks by the Tribe as candidates for the Rockies’ starting rotation: Guthrie (2002), Drew Pomeranz (2010) and Alex White (2009).
Guthrie’s record in Baltimore wasn’t great (47-65), but his winning percentage (.420) was better than the team’s (.415) and his earned-run average (4.19) was fine considering he pitched in the murderous American League East at hitter-friendly Camden Yards.
“We spent a lot of time breaking him down, really since the trading deadline of last year,” Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd said.
“When we went through the Wandy Rodriguez thing,” — the Rockies put in a waiver claim on the Astros starter last season but couldn’t work out a deal before Houston pulled him back — “he was somebody on our list that fit kind of what we were looking for — the guy that might be a little overlooked because of where he pitches, the position he pitches in, the role that he was used in, that’s been extremely durable, well above-average athlete, extremely competitive, very tough guy. That’s exactly what we saw as a fit for us.”
Within a couple of hours of Monday morning’s trade announcement, Guthrie tweeted a picture of himself Tebowing on a pitching rubber in a Rockies cap and Tim Tebow jersey.
“X-Factor in this trade: my new strikeout celebration is suddenly more appropriate! @TimTebow,” he wrote.
Having followed Guthrie’s Twitter feed when he was with the O’s, I can tell you this much: Rockies fans are going to enjoy this guy.
“He rides his bike to the ballpark,” O’Dowd said. “I think he’s one of those physical fitness freaks. Knock on wood, he hasn’t spent a ton of time on the DL. We liked the competitive nature of how he goes about preparing to do his job. I think he’s a real good get for us.”
To acquire him, O’Dowd gave up starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. Although both have live arms and remain intriguing, Guthrie is an upgrade over Hammel for the rotation and the Rocks have numerous candidates to replace Lindstrom in the bullpen.
Orioles fans, on the other hand, are a bit confused. They felt sure that new general manager Dan Duquette would use Guthrie to acquire talented prospects who would help with the rebuilding rather than exchange him for other mid-career veterans. In a poll on the Baltimore Sun web site that offered seven possible takes on the deal, the most popular in early voting was “Don’t understand it.”
Guthrie and the Orioles had been preparing for a contentious arbitration hearing, with Guthrie seeking a salary of $10.25 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility and the Birds offering $7.25 million. After hearing of the pending trade back to his native West — Guthrie was born in Oregon and went to Stanford — he swiftly agreed to a one-year deal for $8.2 million.
That’s pretty close to the combined salaries of Hammel and Lindstrom and leaves the Rocks’ prospective payroll a shade below $90 million, or about where it was last season.
Guthrie is not a No. 1 starter by talent, but by necessity that’s the role he filled in Baltimore without complaint. He’s a fly ball pitcher, so he’ll give up some dingers at Coors Field, but he throws in the mid-90s and is known for competitive zeal and good humor, not to mention a love of sneakers.
He’s also another important piece of the bridge the organization is building to the future. No longer content to wait on the development of homegrown talent, the Rocks overhauled their roster after a disappointing 2011 campaign to bring in veterans with a competitive edge who would take the pressure off not-quite-ready-for-prime-time prospects.
“We went into the offseason with a specific game plan, but I can’t tell you that anything ever would connect the dots the way this winter did, one to another,” O’Dowd said. “It usually does not happen that way. This winter, for whatever reason, it did. That doesn’t mean it’s going to turn out great. It just means we had identified a group of guys within each category we wanted to get and we were able to get a lot of them.”
Consider: With Guthrie (208 innings in 2011) and Jhoulys Chacin (a franchise-leading 194) heading the rotation going into spring training, there’s less pressure on the 23-year-old Pomeranz to replace Ubaldo Jimenez as the staff ace immediately and less pressure on veteran Jorge De La Rosa to come back from Tommy John surgery before he’s ready.
If all four are starting in June, with White, Juan Nicasio, Guillermo Moscoso, Tyler Chatwood and Josh Outman competing for innings in the bullpen or minor leagues, the Rocks could be deeper in starting pitching than they’ve ever been, with the flexibility to make further moves if needed.
Veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez is the bridge to Wilin Rosario or Jordan Pacheco. Veteran infielders Casey Blake and Marco Scutaro are the bridge to Nolan Arenado and Josh Rutledge. Veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer could be a bridge to a prospect or a big bat on the trade market.
The Rocks are no longer content to throw their prospects into the big league pool and let them sink or swim. Frankly, too many of them sank with that approach. Except for young stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, much of the last wave — Chris Iannetta, Ian Stewart and Seth Smith, to name three — did not live up to the organization’s expectations.
Whether Guthrie is more than a one-year rental remains to be seen. If he eats innings as expected and long-term contracts for middle-of-the-rotation free agent starters remain scarce next winter, the Rocks might well be interested in bringing him back.
“Our thing is not so much the dollar in the given year, it’s just we don’t want to commit a lot of length to anybody and create lack of flexibility for ourselves,” O’Dowd said.
There are no guarantees the various veteran acquisitions will perform, as Ty Wigginton and Jose Lopez demonstrated a year ago. But they all fit the profile the Rocks constructed after last season’s disappointment — pro’s pros more focused on winning than accumulating service time.
If they don’t work out, the organization will be one year closer to handing over the keys to the generation of Pomeranz, Rosario, Arenado and Rutledge. If they do, the Rocks might just surprise again, but this time in a good way.