Whether things are going well, badly or somewhere in between, I try to touch base with Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd at roughly the one-third and two-thirds marks of each season to take his pulse on the team. I’ve known O’Dowd for more than a decade now, and whether I was at the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post or 850 KOA, he’s always accommodated these requests for his time.
The one-third mark, the Rockies’ 54th game, falls on June 4 this year, which also happens to be the first day of the baseball draft, so I hit him up a few days early and we spoke this morning.
The state of the Rockies is no secret. They rank third in the National League in runs, second in home runs and second in OPS, which is the sum of on-base percentage and slugging percentage (the acronym stands for On-base Plus Slugging). They’re a good offensive club with a chance to be better than that, although their situational hitting has at times left something to be desired.
They rank last in the league in earned-run average (5.18), more than three-quarters of a run higher than the next-worst team. The combined ERA of their starters (5.80) is more than a run higher than the next-worst starting staff. On the bright side, their overworked bullpen has a better ERA (4.20) than those of four other NL teams, suggesting it might actually be pretty good if the starters did their jobs.
The Rocks have 15 quality starts (a starter throws at least six innings and gives up three earned runs or fewer) out of 48 games, the fewest in baseball. They are the only team in baseball not to have shut out an opponent all season. In 48 tries, they do not have a complete game by a starting pitcher. They lead baseball in blown saves with 11.
In short, their pitching has been frightful. And that’s chiefly why they go into tonight’s home game against Houston 10 games below .500 at 19-29.
They stand fourth in the NL West, 12.5 games behind the Dodgers, who have the best record in baseball. They have a chance to attack that deficit this weekend when L.A. makes its second trip of the season to Coors Field. The Rocks took two of three from the Dodgers on the first visit, April 30-May 2, but that seems like a long time ago, perhaps because it immediately preceded the Atlanta series in which everything fell apart.
The Rocks were 11-11 in April. So far, they are 8-18 in May. Two of their starting pitchers, Jhoulys Chacin and Jeremy Guthrie, have spent time on the disabled list. Chacin is still there. Another, Jorge De La Rosa, has been on the DL since last summer, when he underwent Tommy John surgery. He is currently making rehab starts at Triple-A Colorado Springs. A fourth starter, Drew Pomeranz, was demoted to the Springs to work on his mechanics and get his velocity back. At the moment, the starting staff consists of Guthrie, 49-year-old Jamie Moyer and three rookies — Christian Friedrich, Juan Nicasio and Alex White.
I began by asking O’Dowd an open-ended question about his evaluation of the first two months of the season.
“Honestly, a couple things,” he said. “Leaving spring training, I thought a lot of things would have to go right from a pitching standpoint for us to get out of the gate real well. I had hoped that we could play .500 or close to for the first two, three months of the season until our young pitching began to mature. Obviously, that happened in the month of April. Obviously, a lot of things have gone wrong in the month of May.
“I would say, looking at it objectively, I like our position-player club a ton. I think it’s probably one of the better position-player clubs we’ve ever put on a field because of its depth and versatility and the quality of the players. I think (Wilin) Rosario, (Jordan) Pacheco, (Tyler) Colvin, (Eric) Young give us a really nice blend of youth to go with our veterans. I think CarGo and Tulo are going to end up having monster years. I think (Michael) Cuddyer has been a solid addition. So I think that’s played out even better than I could have hoped for.
“But our starting pitching has been so bad at times that it’s really exposed our bullpen. I think if we got any kind of starting pitching, our bullpen would actually be one of the strengths of our club.
“I banked on some things which, obviously, I’m accountable for, with Guthrie and Chacin and hoping De La Rosa would get back around this time of year, this week or next. Guthrie’s been bad and Chacin got hurt and De La Rosa’s probably still four or five starts away from helping us. So we’re in a tough box relying on a lot of kids right now that have ability, but it looks like there’s just a significant gap between their potential and their performance right now.”
I asked him for a diagnosis on Guthrie, acquired from Baltimore in February in exchange for starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. Over his previous three seasons, Guthrie threw 617 1/3 innings for the Orioles with an ERA of 4.39. So far this season, he’s thrown just 40 2/3 for the Rocks, missing a handful of starts because of a freak bicycle accident, with an ERA of 5.31. On the road, he’s 2-1 with a 2.22 ERA. At Coors Field, he’s 0-2 with a 9.92 ERA.
(Full disclosure: I’ve followed the Orioles for years and admired Guthrie as a horse who took the ball every fifth day for a team that was truly awful for most of his stay. I wholeheartedly endorsed this trade.)
“I don’t know,” O’Dowd said. “I know I’m supposed to have all the answers. I went back over our process with this one. I know Jason Hammel’s pitched well, but I’ve got a long list of Coors Field bounce-backs, so that doesn’t surprise me. Guys leave here and they pitch much better than they pitched here.
“Four years of 200-plus innings, pitching in the American League East, actually getting his brains beat in at times, you’d think that would prepare him for the gauntlet that he’d go through here at times. I think the freakish injury certainly didn’t help. He’s three starts back from that now.
“He hasn’t even looked close to being the pitcher that we scouted over a long period of time. That one’s been a little perplexing to me to be frank with you, especially the lack of strike throwing. He’s always been a guy that threw strikes and pitched innings. Both he and Chacin, I thought that we’d have guys that would have 4.5 to 4.8 ERAs, but I thought we’d get 200 innings out of each of them, which would then take some pressure off the group of young starters that would end up stepping forward, and, again, hoping that De La Rosa would come back.
“So we’ve got to tread some water here and make up some ground because I think with the starting pitching, if we can just be serviceable — I mean, we’re going to go through some moments when we struggle offensively, too, but I think for the most part it’s a club that’s going to put up some runs.”
I mentioned that Guillermo Moscoso, obtained in January from Oakland along with left-hander Josh Outman in exchange for outfielder Seth Smith, had a similar disconnect, going from very reasonable numbers as a starter with the A’s (8-10, 3.38 ERA in 21 starts in 2011) to horrendous numbers before being sent down by the Rocks (0-1, 11.57).
Prior to the installation of the humidor at Coors Field in 2002, the Rockies’ ERA at home averaged more than a full run higher than their ERA on the road. Since the humidor was installed, that differential has come down to less than half a run. This year, it is back up over a run a game. The Rocks’ ERA at Coors is 5.71. On the road, it is 4.55.
So I asked O’Dowd if the park might be having an outsized effect on the numbers of pitchers coming from other places.
“For some reason, this year it’s playing much differently,” he said. “I wish I knew the answer for that. Quite honestly, when the schedule came out and I saw two nine-game home stands to open up the season, I was concerned. We’ve never had that.
“Sometimes, with particular weather patterns, you can survive that. But I was concerned about the length of those home stands. Honestly, we were doing fine up until those two Atlanta games (May 4-5) and we have not played well since then. We’ve played better this last week, but starting on that Friday night against Atlanta when we had that six-run lead and coughed it up and then we did the same thing again on Saturday, we really have never recovered from a pitching standpoint.
“If you remember the way the ballpark used to play, where pitchers would try to avoid contact and then make a quality pitch and then get hit and then the wheels would start to turn mentally, it seems to be that situation again. I don’t think you’re seeing as many fluke home runs but, boy, you’re seeing some balls really driven off pitches that, quite honestly, aren’t that bad. Whatever mistakes we’ve made have just been absolutely hammered.
“Atlanta scored 19 runs on 42 hits in three games here. They had 14 extra-base hits, seven of them home runs. And then they went to Chicago and they scored four runs on 19 hits in three games at Wrigley. They had four extra-base hits and one home run. So that’s always going to be the case. You’re always going to have moments like that.
“But it’s not playing the same as it has over the last couple of years. Now, we’ve pitched (poorly), too, so that has certainly contributed to it. But the first game of the doubleheader the other day, Nicasio threw a fastball down and in at 95 (mph) to Carlos Lee and he hit a rocket into left-center and I went, ‘Gosh darn, I don’t know how that happened right there.'”
So I asked what fans have asked me: Is the humidor turned on? Did the Rocks forget to pay the electric bill?
“Oh, it’s the same setting and everything,” O’Dowd said. “Honestly, I wish we could turn that sucker up at times.”
I mentioned that far from the bounce-back effect we’ve seen with Hammel and Lindstrom in Baltimore, Ubaldo Jimenez has a higher ERA in Cleveland than he had in Colorado. Although the Indians’ massive run support has provided him with a respectable won-loss record of 5-4, his ERA is 5.79. Last year, his ERA in Cleveland after the trade was 5.10. Pitching for the Rockies, his 2011 ERA before the trade was 4.68. In 2010, his best year, it was 2.88.
“I know I’m taking a pounding, some of it justified, but man, where would we be if we had held onto Ubaldo?” O’Dowd asked. “Seriously, what would we have done?
“Right now, we’ve got (Joseph) Gardner pitching well in Double-A, (Matt) McBride is fourth in the (Pacific Coast League) in hitting, Pomeranz is a work in progress and with all White’s struggles, his numbers are better than Jimenez, pitching half his games in Coors Field!”
(White’s ERA is slightly higher, but his walk/strikeout ratio and baserunners-per-inning (WHIP) numbers are substantially better.)
The Rocks obtained all four in exchange for Jimenez.
Between the injuries and spontaneous implosions to veterans who were supposed to bridge the gap to the young pitching, the Rocks are force-feeding major league innings to young starters who are learning on the job. The club has little choice now but to ride those kids, for better or worse.
“I knew this was going to be a transition year,” O’Dowd said. “I never expected Jamie Moyer would last till June. We just looked at him as a guy to give us probably 10 starts at most until we could transition to someone else. But when you’re in the middle now trying to develop a pitching staff, there’s going to be good times and bad times. There’s a ton of ability here and there’s depth to it. We’ve just got to figure a way to get them over the hump, and that’s not going to be easy.”
Moscoso has four quality starts for the Sky Sox in his last four outings through May 24. I asked if it was time to give him another shot with the big league club.
“Yeah, we’re going to give him another shot,” O’Dowd said. “We’re not looking for miracles, we’re really just looking for somebody to come up here and throw consistent strikes. And I think we’re going to stretch Outman out a little bit, too. We’re going to back him up on Friday with Moyer and begin to stretch him out. Though we think he’s most suited to the bullpen, he does look like a duck out of water right now.
“One of the more discouraging things to me has been what’s happened with (Rex) Brothers, because other than the (Jonny) Venters guy in Atlanta, this kid should be one of the more dominant left-handed back-end guys in the game. And his meltdown this year was almost unexplainable to me, to be frank with you. Last season, he gave up one run in his last 16 innings. Started out this year OK, and then it’s been absolutely downhill ever since.”
I asked if it might be a product of overuse. Brothers made 22 appearances in the Rocks’ first 38 games before being sent down. On the other hand, pitching situationally in some of those appearances, he threw a total of 15.1 innings and never more than one inning per game.
“I don’t think so,” O’Dowd said. “I think it’s all mental. I think the kid had such a high expectation for himself as it relates to working into our closer role, I think he just got mentally locked up. I think he was certainly tired at times, but no, I think he’s more mentally tired than physically tired.”
On the bright side, in three outings for the Sky Sox, Brothers has pitched five innings and given up one run on three hits.
With three-fifths of the starting staff learning on the job, I asked if the veteran position players acquired during the offseason, particularly 36-year-old second baseman Marco Scutaro and 35-year-old catcher Ramon Hernandez, were now a mismatch for the young staff.
“I think there’s a misconception about this,” O’Dowd said. “We don’t have a young second baseman to turn to. I wasn’t comfortable going with Chris Nelson and didn’t really have any other alternatives. Jonny Herrera’s not an everyday player. The industry is bereft of second basemen to go get. So I don’t know really what our alternative would have been there.”
(The Rockies’ projected second baseman of the future, Josh Rutledge, turned 23 last month. He is batting .279 at Double-A Tulsa and looks to be at least a year away.)
“In Hernandez’s case, he was brought in for Rosario. He had just got done tutoring (Devin) Mesoraco in Cincinnati for two years, and we thought that Hernandez would be the perfect complement to Rosario as relates to Rosario’s development at the big-league level.
“So both things weren’t designed necessarily to put a championship club on the field. Heck, at the end of this year I’d like to bring Scutaro back. In Hernandez’s case, we feel we’ve got a young guy in Rosario who’s certainly got some rough edges we’ve got to work through and we feel we’ve got a guy here who’s a perfect mentor to him. (Chris) Iannetta would have never accepted that.”
I asked if veteran Will Nieves, recently called up to replace the injured Hernandez, might be a good complement to Rosario going forward.
“He could be. Same type of guy,” O’Dowd said. “I thought (assistant GM) Bill Geivett did a great job, he and (player development director Jeff) Bridich, in bringing Nieves back here. I think we’ve got good catching. That’s the shame of it. I really do think this is one of the better position-player clubs as far as how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.”
I asked how long it might be before Pomeranz gets another shot at the big-league level.
“Last night (Tuesday, May 29), he threw six innings, gave up nine hits, five of them were hit hard — I watched the game on MiLB.TV — he didn’t walk anybody and punched out seven. I thought he looked much more athletic. But we’re not going to bring him back here until we get his delivery back to the way he looked in Cleveland, not the way he looked here, because this was a 92 to 94, 95 (mph) guy throwing 88 to 90 here. He threw 91 last night, so it’s creeping back up. I’d love to have him back in the rotation by the beginning of July.”
“Chacin’s injury, we got good news last week on it, which was it was not an artery problem like (Aaron) Cook. He has a nerve issue. Every time he went to cock and throw, there’s a nerve that runs right under your clavicle that was really almost cutting everything off on him. So we think we’ve found what was wrong, but now getting it right, I don’t know how long that’s going to take. I’m hoping we get him back right after the All-Star break, if he’s one of our better guys at that point. Eventually, we hope some of these kids start stepping up.”
I noted that O’Dowd is taking a lot of heat from unhappy fans.
“I’m used to that,” he said. “It’s my 30th year doing this. If I get (fired) at the end of the year, then it happens. There’s nothing I can do about that. I believe in what we’re doing. This is painful. I get it. But I like our players, I like what’s going on in our clubhouse, I like the ownership some of our players are taking, I like the lessons some of them are learning.
“So I think a lot of good things are going on. I never expected Pacheco to turn into this. Rosario to me is way ahead of schedule. EY has completely turned his career around, which has forced Dexter to step up or Dexter knows he’s going out. And I have to tell you, I couldn’t be more pleased with the LeMahieu-Colvin deal for (Ian) Stewart.
“Colvin, that kid can hit a fastball. He’s still got to learn to hit a breaking ball and change-up, but he absolutely can hit anybody’s fastball.
“I know it looks like crap. I just think we’re positioned really well. I think the Pomeranzes and the Whites and the Friedrichs and the Nicasios, I think a year from now we could have one of the best starting rotations in our division and it could last for a long time. If I don’t survive, then whoever’s going to take my job is going to be in a really good situation.”