Coming off last season’s deeply disappointing 73-89 record and fourth-place finish, the Rockies turned their roster upside down this winter.
It didn’t feel like an overhaul because the moves came piecemeal, stretched out over the offseason. But the purpose wasn’t piecemeal. The purpose was to change a culture in the clubhouse that Rockies brass believed had been undermined by self-interest since the team’s last playoff appearance in 2009.
Four of the eight everyday starters have changed. A new pitching rotation will be culled from nearly a dozen candidates. But there’s a common theme to the changes.
“We’ve got some great guys and I think they have a chance to be tremendous leaders,” general manager Dan O’Dowd told us on the Dave Logan Show the other day. “I don’t think it’s on any one person. But I think the group of them overall needs to step up and take accountability for our clubhouse.
“We got rid of a lot of players we just feel like weren’t going to get that. Not all of them we got rid of for that reason, but a lot of players we got rid of for that reason. We moved them on to other places that hopefully will help them in their career and give them a fresh start, but (we) just didn’t feel like they were ever going to get that part of it.”
Five of the nine players in the starting lineup for last season’s April 1 opener will not be wearing Rockies uniforms for this season’s opener: starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, catcher Chris Iannetta, second baseman Jose Lopez, third baseman Ty Wigginton and right fielder Seth Smith.
Ian Stewart, for years the team’s third baseman of the future, is gone. So is closer Huston Street.
“I think we took a step back at the end of the year and realized, OK, where are we at and where are we trying to get to and do the players we currently have, are they going to get us there?” O’Dowd said.
“Quite honestly, I just feel like we needed to address our culture more than anything. We certainly need to address our talent, but I think talent becomes secondary if your culture is not where it needs to be. I think we had too many players, not naming anybody, that were more worried about collecting service time than actually worried about winning and playing the game the right way.
“So our focus going into the winter was to create flexibility and then to try to add the type of individuals that No. 1, we think are good players, but No. 2, they get it, as it relates to the underlying philosophy that you’ve got to be a little bit other-focused within your clubhouse day-in and day-out to be able to maximize whatever talent you do have. And we had a tough time with that last year.”
In place of Iannetta behind the plate is veteran Ramon Hernandez, 35. In place of Lopez, who was released shortly after being acquired last season, is veteran Marco Scutaro, 36. In place of the failed combination of Stewart and Wigginton at third is veteran Casey Blake, with young Nolan Arenado now in the role of third baseman of the future. In place of Smith is veteran Michael Cuddyer, 32.
The common denominator, as you might have noticed, is “veteran.” These are experienced players in their 30s. Rockies brass hopes they will do the little things that help teams win, even if they don’t show up in the box score.
“I think it’s kind of who you are as a person,” O’Dowd said. “In Cuddyer’s case, I don’t think it’s about Michael. I think Michael is a good player, but I also think Michael really wants to win and he understands the best way to win is not only him being a good player, but him being the kind of teammate that gets the most out of everybody else there by holding to a level, a standard, on how we should play the game and how we should be accountable to one another in all aspects of being a team — on the plane, on the bus, in the hotel, in the clubhouse and on the field.
“And taking ownership of one another to be able to do that. We’ve worked real hard to bring in players that can help us do that, but you heal from the inside out. We had a miserable year last year on our record, but I don’t think it was a good year in how we went about doing what we did, either.”
In Blake, 38, the Rocks hope they have a bridge to the 20-year-old Arenado, who had a sensational Arizona Fall League, but would be attempting a gargantuan jump from Class A to the major leagues if he were to win the third base job out of spring training.
“We just want to get an average Casey Blake year,” O’Dowd said. “We did not guarantee Casey’s contract. We didn’t do that, one, from a health standpoint, and No. 2, with Nolan, he’s put us in an interesting position. I think talent-wise, he probably could handle the jump. I think the question is maturity-wise if he can handle the jump. I think that’s what the concern is. We’re going to take a good long look at that, but we’re not going to push Nolan if the maturity level is not there because I don’t feel that’s fair to him. He’s going to be playing catchup for a long time if we do that to him.
“There weren’t many third basemen on the market. We had our eye on Casey all along because we think he’s a pro’s pro. He’s probably a 100-game to 110-game guy, max. At some point in time, Nolan could even factor into that picture. But we look at the versatility that (Blake) brings between the two corner positions. We think he’s a professional hitter and he’s just another guy that gets it as it relates to his responsibility with creating the kind of culture a championship team should be all about every day.”
As he rebuilds the starting rotation in the wake of trading Jimenez last season, O’Dowd assembled a passel of arms to provide competition when pitchers and catchers report to Scottsdale next month. Half the spots on the team’s 40-man roster are occupied by pitchers.
Among the candidates for the starting rotation are Jhoulys Chacin, Jason Hammel, Drew Pomeranz, Juan Nicasio, Alex White, Esmil Rogers and offseason acquisitions Tyler Chatwood, Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman. Jorge De La Rosa is expected back from last year’s Tommy John surgery by late May or early June.
“When you look at putting the rotation together, I think we’re going to look at it a little differently this year,” O’Dowd said.
“Some of those starters could very easily end up being additions to our bullpen and either starting for us at some point in time during the course of the season when we think it’s necessary to give people rest, picking up the dead innings and bringing them along that way, or some of them may even gravitate towards the back end of the bullpen. So of all those guys, eight of them could end up on our staff in some way, shape or form.”
With young stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to build around, veterans Todd Helton and Jason Giambi providing continuity and Pomeranz, the jewel of the Jimenez trade, penciled in to replace Ubaldo as the staff leader, the Rocks have a decent foundation. But they have replaced many of the other pieces.
A year ago, the club over-promised and under-delivered. Having subtracted a number of young players trying to make names for themselves and replaced them with veterans who have long since finished that process, the club hopes to do the opposite this year.
“The underlying principle of every team is being able to get out the most of the entire team with everybody having an accountability factor in the process of doing that, and not just showing up every day and worrying about your particular space and your particular responsibility, which they do need to do, but also worrying about being part of the process with the team,” O’Dowd said.
“We had that in ’07, we had that in ’09. I think winning created that within our culture. I think we have it a little backwards. I think our culture probably needs to create more of that.”