Tag Archives: Dick Monfort

Dick Monfort just proved all his critics right

[T]hese Rockies, they don’t do self-reflection. Nor do they do reality.

— Marc Carig, The Athletic

If you’ve followed the Rockies lo these 28 years, Lord knows you’ve seen some bad press conferences.

But Tuesday’s attempt to justify the Nolan Arenado trade was the worst I can remember. Owner Dick Monfort looked like a minor-league ballplayer trying to play major-league ball. GM Jeff Bridich, as usual, looked like the subject of a hostage video.

“This brings closure to something we have been dealing with for over a year,” said Monfort, establishing the tone of Rockies-as-victims that would permeate the following hour.

“In 2019, we signed Nolan to what I would call a career contract, something we were committed to. Nine months later, Nolan asked us to look for a trade.”

Huh. Skip anything between those two events, Dick? What would cause a player who had just signed an eight-year, $260 million “career contract” to ask out nine months later?

Rockies brass offered no explanation. Bridich archly informed the assembled peasants that he never tries to speak for players.

What we have on the record is pretty thin. In January 2020, 11 months into the contract and two months after Monfort says Arenado asked for a trade, Bridich told the Denver Post: “We have listened to teams regarding Nolan and really nothing has come of it. We are going to move forward pretty much as we expected — with Nolan in the purple and black as our third baseman. So we can put this to bed . . . .”

Thomas Harding of mlb.com reached out to Arenado by text for a reaction.

“There’s a lot of disrespect from people there that I don’t want to be a part of,” Arenado replied. “You can quote me on that.”

Asked to elaborate, he repeated his message: “You asked what I thought of Jeff’s quotes and I say I don’t care what people say around there. There is a lot of disrespect.”

Arenado declined to be specific, but added: “I’m not mad at the trade rumors. There’s more to it.”

In 2017 and 2018, the two years before Arenado signed the deal, the Rockies had winning records and reached the playoffs. They didn’t go far, but there was a sense following seasons of 87 and 91 wins that if they continued to add talent, they had a window, behind a young, homegrown pitching staff and the powerful bats of Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon, to be a serious contender.

In that context, the club declined to re-sign second baseman DJ LeMahieu and signed veteran free agent Daniel Murphy instead, a decision that turned out to be disastrous. Even Monfort admitted it was a mistake. LeMahieu signed with the Yankees, won a batting title and finished in the top four in American League Most Valuable Player voting in both 2019 and 2020. Murphy had two forgettable seasons for the Rockies and retired.

Prior to the 2018 season, Bridich spent over $100 million on contracts for three free agent relief pitchers — Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw. All three struggled mightily in Colorado, as free agent pitchers often do. By the time Arenado was traded, they had all been released.

Prior to the 2017 season, Bridich signed free agent Ian Desmond, a longtime shortstop in Washington who would play first base and the outfield in Denver, to a six-year, $70 million contract. Like the relievers, Desmond failed to live up to the big contract.

In 2019, the first season of Arenado’s new deal, the Rocks were 44-40 at the end of June, then collapsed, staggering to the finish line 71-91, 35 games out of first place in the National League West. Arenado finished strong, but the pitching fell apart. More than half the starting rotation went down with injuries, and it hadn’t been very good to start with.

“It feels like a rebuild,” Arenado said in September, surveying the wreckage. As I might have mentioned before, pitching collapsing has been an endemic problem playing at elevation, but physics are not to blame for Bridich’s repeated failures in the free agent market.

“[T]he hope for Arenado and company is going to be that the Rockies add reinforcements this coming offseason and try to contend in 2020,” one national reporter wrote.

This set the stage for the conflict that broke into the open that offseason. After Bridich’s succession of failed offseason moves, the team made no major additions following the disappointing 2019 campaign, expressing a belief, as Monfort did again Tuesday, that the roster was extremely talented and poor performance was an inexplicable anomaly. The pandemic-shortened 2020 season brought another losing record — 26-34 — with the club again starting fast and then collapsing.

We are left to fill in the blanks around the thin public record. At his introductory press conference in St. Louis, Arenado declined to detail the reasons for his unhappiness in Colorado, choosing to look forward.

Based on his comments to Harding, it’s clear that Bridich pissed him off. We don’t know exactly how. Maybe by going public with the fact he had entertained trade talks. Maybe by saying nothing had come of them, making the talks public and shutting them down at the same time. Maybe something else entirely that Arenado considered contrary to private assurances, which we can infer from his comment, “There’s more to it.”

We do know that Arenado has repeatedly expressed a desire to play for a winning organization. We can suppose that, like many of us, he was encouraged by the back-to-back postseason appearances in 2017-18. We can speculate that Bridich assured him, during discussions around the new contract, that he would do what it took to keep the team competitive. We can imagine that Arenado decided Bridich was not up to the task, or had perhaps misled him, following the 2019 collapse.

In any case, when a star player and a club official have irreconcilable differences, the person running the franchise has to make a decision. When it became clear to the late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen that quarterback John Elway and coach Dan Reeves could not co-exist, Bowlen made the logical choice: He could replace his head coach with someone comparable. He could not so readily find a quarterback as good as Elway. He fired Reeves, hired Mike Shanahan, and the rest is history.

Monfort could have done the same thing here. Arenado is among the best third basemen in major league history. Bridich is far less accomplished as a GM than Reeves was as a coach. Still, if we can take Monfort at his word, he never considered dumping Bridich.

Would it have been possible to salvage the club’s relationship with Arenado by bringing in a new GM? There’s no way to know. Again, Monfort claims never to have considered it.

Because Arenado had requested a trade, Monfort says he figured he would opt out of his contract at the end of the 2021 season and leave as a free agent. That would leave the club with two choices: play out one more season with Arenado and accept a late first-round draft choice as compensation when it was over, or trade him by the deadline and try to get more in return.

This Monfort conclusion is also debatable. The economics of baseball have been dealt a body blow by the Covid pandemic. Revenues plunged in 2020 with no fans in the stands. The current free agent market makes it appear unlikely Arenado could have replicated the salaries in his Rockies deal as a free agent at the end of this year.

Some have speculated the Rocks were afraid not that he would opt out but that he wouldn’t, leaving them on the hook for annual salaries of $35 million with much less revenue to fund them. This view is supported by the Rockies’ decision to pay the Cardinals a reported $50 million over time as the price of getting them to take on the hefty contract Bridich had negotiated just two years earlier.

Paying $35 million for Arenado to play one more year for the Rockies makes a lot more sense than paying $50 million for him to play for somebody else unless you’re afraid he won’t opt out and you’ll be on the hook for another $164 million. Monfort made a thoroughly unconvincing case that the mid-tier prospects the Rocks received from the Cardinals made the $50 million payment worthwhile.

Whatever the real reason, and we may never know, Monfort decided to trade him. There is a pattern to salary dumps of top players such as this. The team doing the dumping usually tries to get a replacement or blue-chip prospect at the same position as part of the package it receives in exchange, assuming it isn’t making the deal because it prefers somebody else on its roster already.

When Cleveland traded star shortstop Francisco Lindor last month, it got back a package including two young major-league shortstops from the Mets. When Tampa Bay dumped former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, 21-year-old Luis Patino, one of San Diego’s top pitching prospects, was in the group coming back. When the Red Sox traded star outfielder Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, they received, among others, 24-year-old outfielder Alex Verdugo, who finished 12th in A.L. MVP voting in his first year in Boston.

Following this pattern, the obvious ask by the Rockies when giving up their star third baseman would have been 20-year-old Nolan Gorman, a 2018 first-round draft choice and the Cardinals’ top third-base prospect. When the names of the young players the Rocks received for Arenado were revealed, Gorman’s was not among them. Neither were the three other Cardinals prospects ranked among the top 100 in baseball.

Instead, they settled for a package of one big-league pitcher and four mid-level prospects roundly mocked by analysts as inadequate compensation for one of the best players Colorado has ever produced.

The closest analog was the Cubs’ trade of Yu Darvish to San Diego, in which they accepted a major-league starting pitcher and a passel of very young players, none of whom has been around long enough to be graded among the Padres’ top prospects. But club president Jed Hoyer was transparent about why: After draining the Cubs’ minor league system to go for broke at the major league level in the late teens, a quest that ended a century-long championship drought, the club is now restocking the cupboard.

No such explanation was forthcoming from Rockies brass. In fact, they went out of their way to say the deal does not signal a rebuild. So why weren’t Gorman or any of the Cardinals’ other top prospects part of the return?

Who knows? Nobody asked.

Not that they would have gotten a straight answer, but the question should have been posed anyway.

Woody Paige of the Gazette asked a pertinent question — whether Monfort had considered firing Bridich as GM or himself as Bridich’s supervisor, given the deeply disappointing outcome of the saga.

Monfort said he did not consider firing Bridich but did consider firing himself. He did not explain why he decided not to.

Monfort described himself as a fan and said he tries not to interfere in baseball decisions. On the other hand, it was he, not Bridich, who led off the press conference with a prepared statement attempting to justify the trade. This mixed message is emblematic of the Rockies’ organizational problem.

Monfort’s meandering commentary made it obvious he is unqualified to have any role on the baseball side of the business. And that’s OK. Most owners are. That’s why they hire experts to run the baseball operation and let them explain themselves at press conferences when necessary. This is a problem when Bridich is your expert, given his lack of credibility and disdain for the press.

Monfort’s inability or unwillingness to see the inadequacies of the front office he leads is just another disheartening revelation of the Arenado saga. Veteran baseball reporter Mark Saxon recently tweeted that he’d heard a player agent describe Bridich as “the worst communicator in MLB.” If you’ve watched him in press conferences, you would be hard-pressed to argue.

Bridich’s sullen affect is easier to understand in the context of a quote he gave Rockies broadcaster Drew Goodman for his book, “If These Walls Could Talk”: “I think I’m personally blessed with a capacity to not really care what is said about me all that much. The reality is — and this is going to sound petty and bad — if you just objectively look at the people who are evaluating us every day, you know they’ve never come close to doing this job and all the work that goes into it.”

As a longtime sportswriter, I can tell you this view is shared by many people in professional sports. And they certainly have a point. Not counting former players turned analysts, media critics by and large have not played the games they cover at a high level, nor run organizations.

But that’s the way the world works. Political reporters have seldom been elected officials. Art critics are not generally great artists.

So the smartest players and executives understand everybody in the ecosystem has a job to do. Bridich wouldn’t make the large salary general managers command if baseball weren’t supported by millions of fans, who crave information. The media are an important conduit of that information. The executives get paid a lot, the reporters get paid relatively little, which should make Bridich happy. So dealing with the press becomes a test of humility and the willingness to be accountable. Some executives are gracious about this interaction and some are not.

It’s also worth noting that one of the analysts who ripped the Arenado trade was Jim Bowden, who has indeed done Bridich’s job, and done it better than Bridich has. Bowden was a general manager in Cincinnati and Washington, won two division titles, and was named MLB executive of the year by Baseball America in 1999 before becoming an analyst.

When your performance is lousy — the Rockies are 350-453 in the six seasons since Bridich was named GM, with zero division titles and a 1-4 record in the playoffs — and you also resent anyone questioning or criticizing you, you’re going to become an object of scorn by your fan base, which is what Bridich has accomplished.

And when there’s a dispute over who caused a divorce as messy as this one, Bridich’s sour public affect and Arenado’s cheerful one — to say nothing of their relative contributions to the team’s success — are going to make it easy for fans to pick a villain.

From an executive standpoint, the Rocks are currently one of the worst organizations in baseball, with an unqualified top dog in Monfort and a GM who just alienated the team’s best player and resents questions about it.

There are frequent calls for Monfort to sell the team, but he has little incentive to do it. The Rocks are a cash cow in non-pandemic times, with fans pouring into Coors Field because it’s a gorgeous place to watch a game whether or not the team is any good. Now that he and other investors are building a massive commercial real estate project next door, it’s even less likely.

So the next best thing would be Monfort finally acknowledging he needs a more robust front office on the baseball side. If he’s unwilling to fire Bridich, that would entail hiring an experienced executive as club president over Bridich, someone with a track record as a general manager or club president elsewhere who has the ability to bring an objectivity to the Rockies’ operation that Monfort does not. If that doesn’t suit Bridich, well, he can make the same decision Arenado made.

Unfortunately, if Monfort’s public pronouncements are to be believed, he is utterly oblivious to the incompetent leadership this episode revealed. Two of the most minor-league moments in Tuesday’s press conference came when Monfort admitted he pays no attention to the annual rankings of baseball’s top prospects because a couple of Rockies who turned out well weren’t listed years ago, and when he turned a question about letting LeMahieu go into a weird personal tangent about how much he liked him.

Owners get to be willfully ignorant, sentimental and incoherent — it’s a privilege of being rich and writing the checks. Successful baseball executives do not.

Regrettably, there is no sign that Monfort is self-aware enough or cares enough about winning to make the necessary changes. So the Rocks will roll on as they are, wasting the talents of  some very good players because the people running the baseball operation are not up to the task.

-30-


Rockies will listen to offers for Dexter Fowler

Dan O’Dowd and I had lunch at Zi South by the ballpark today. We had the place almost to ourselves, which gave us a chance to talk a lot of baseball.

Perhaps the biggest news out of our conversation was his acknowledgement that the Rockies will listen to offers for center fielder Dexter Fowler, who regressed last season from a productive 2012 and appeared in only 119 games. That may not come as a surprise, but in light of owner Dick Monfort taking Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez off the market before it opened, at least it indicates the Rocks aren’t disconnecting the phones.

Whether Fowler spends the 2014 season in Colorado or elsewhere, O’Dowd said it will be an important one for his reputation in the industry. He also said the Rocks won’t trade him without getting appropriate value back.

O’Dowd acknowledged pursuing catchers Carlos Ruiz and Brian McCann in free agency and being outbid for both. Ruiz signed a three-year, $26 million deal with the Phillies, which works out to more than $8.5 million a year for a catcher who will be 35 when spring training opens. McCann reportedly got $85 million over five years from the Yankees, an average of $17 million per.

The Rockies made a substantial offer to McCann not merely for the obvious reasons — he’s a seven-time All-Star with power — but because the team could use a double dose of his attitude and competitiveness. But what’s reasonable financially for the Yankees is unreasonable for most other teams, and this again was the case.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Q: What was your game plan going into this off-season?

A: I think as an organization we feel like we’ve got a window of competitiveness with two of our best players and we were trying to figure out a way to impact those guys within our means as much as we possibly could in the positions where we felt like we could impact them.

The free agent market was not flush with impact players. We earmarked a few and up ’til now haven’t been able to get any of those done, but I think that was our overall game plan, was to try to create some versatility in our lineup but also try to create a window here to take another step.

Q: It’s been widely reported you pursued Carlos Ruiz and Brian McCann. What does that say about your view of Wilin Rosario as a catcher?

A: I think that had as much to do with what we thought his gifts were, rather than his liabilities. An average catcher here since we’ve been in existence has caught somewhere between 100 and 110 games. And this kid’s bat is pretty special, and the power is pretty special. I think he caught 102 last year — he started 102. Then you’ve got to factor in how many of those 102 did he feel really good physically hitting because of the wear and tear?

I think you’ve got to catch an average of 130 pitches here a night, and that’s not just physically but mentally, calling 130 pitches. So I think it was just a function of we could make one move and affect two different positions on the field. And notwithstanding, maybe get a defensive catcher that would be a little bit further along in his career, because it takes a long time to get good in that particular role. So we thought we might be able to help our pitching staff in that way, too, but I think it was more a function of giving him an opportunity to get more at-bats.

Q: Where else could Wilin play?

A: We think Wilin’s a really good athlete. We felt pretty comfortable that giving him enough time he could play right field. He’s got a plus arm, he’s a good enough athlete, he runs pretty well. Sure, it would have been a risk, but we’re going to have to take some risks at times to get where we want to go, and that was one risk I think everybody was willing to take if we could find the right guy.

Q: The Cardinals are reportedly signing Jhonny Peralta to play shortstop. There’s been a lot of speculation since the World Series that they would make a run at Tulo . . . 

A: There was never . . . no, I mean, Bill (Geivett) and I are always listening to clubs. That’s what we’re responsible for. The Cardinals have a pretty good model in place right now.

Q: They were not interested or they did not make a pitch?

A: How could there not be interest in that type of player? But I think their model right now is their interest is only to the extent that they could make a deal based upon their parameters to make a deal, which weren’t even close to anything that we would ever entertain to trade that type of player.

Q: So let’s talk about the starting rotation. What are you looking to do there?

A: As we sit here today, we have four starters, knock on wood health, which are (Jhoulys) Chacin, (Jorge) De La Rosa, (Tyler) Chatwood and (Juan) Nicasio. We still would love to add more depth to that.

Q: You still see Nicasio as a starter?

A: We do. He hadn’t pitched for two years. Got physically tired the second half of the year, especially his knee that he had surgery on. Didn’t get a chance to train much last winter because of the knee surgery. He throws a lot of innings for us. No doubt he has to get better, but going out on the market, we’re understanding the value of what he brings to our club.

Some of these are hope things, but (Christian) Friedrich is having a great winter. Two years ago, we were really encouraged about him being a part of our rotation for last year, and then he had an injury-riddled season. We’re really pleased by his progress physically right now.

Q: His back is OK?

A: You know, he’s totally redone his delivery, which is what we helped him with. But until he gets into the live competition with a hitter in front of him and the adrenaline flowing, if he can maintain what he’s doing within the course of the game, he’s going to be OK.

And we still haven’t given up on (Drew) Pomeranz, although I know he showed really well out of the ‘pen when we put him in there. I think we’ll keep an open mind on that.

Q: What’s your diagnosis there?

A: Well, one, he’s got to get over the hump at the major league level. He’s got to show some more toughness and competitiveness and some better secondary pitches. He started to flash that out of the ‘pen when we used him for that last three weeks of the season. It was pretty special stuff in that role. Whether he translates that into the starting rotation . . .

I think it’s another example of a kid getting rushed, never really getting the time to fully develop at the minor league level and making sure that he had stuff to go to at the big league level when things didn’t go right. That’s where we want to make sure with (Eddie) Butler and (Jonathan) Gray. We know we have two big leaguers here. We just want to make sure that they get enough minor league innings to be able to react appropriately when things don’t go right at the big league level, which is inevitable.

Q: How many is that?

A: I think they’ll determine that. Butler is obviously closer, not necessarily ability-wise, but because he’s had a full year pitching in the minor leagues. If Eddie can pick up where he left off at Double-A last year [six starts, 27.2 innings pitched, 13 hits, two earned runs, six walks, 25 strikeouts, 0.65 ERA], he should come pretty quickly, but we’ll have to see if he picks up where he left off last year. A lot of that will be dependent upon the amount of work we challenged him to do this winter and what he does with it.

Q: And where does Gray start?

A: Probably in Tulsa, too. He dominated the Cal League. [5 starts for Modesto, 24 innings pitched, 10 hits, two earned runs, six walks, 36 strikeouts, 0.75 ERA] If we didn’t shut him down, they probably would have won the Cal League there. He was unhittable. No reason to send him back to the Cal League. So he’ll be in Tulsa, too, to start the year.

Q: In retrospect, what’s your self-evaluation of the Ubaldo deal?

A: I think under the conditions we were in, knowing all the players that were involved, I don’t think Ubaldo would have pitched any better here under the circumstances, so I think we did the best that we could. Doing an autopsy on it, I think we know a little bit more about what we got that didn’t work, but I think we were being offered very similar players from every other club that was involved in the process as you look at those names unfold now throughout their careers.

But I don’t think it would have changed the fact that Ubaldo had to be moved from our situation simply because of where it had gotten to. I feel bad that it had gotten to that point. I’m not sure why, to this day, that it did. But that’s a choice he made.

Q: Alex White, what happened there, before he got hurt last year?

A: I think one of the things that we’re really beginning to bear down and understand is that a quality major league starter has tremendous balance, rhythm and timing in their delivery. I think in Alex’s case, he never really had that. He did a lot of things on effort and competitiveness, but it was very difficult for him to duplicate his delivery. I think he would have ended up being a bullpen guy for us, probably a halfway-decent one, too, depending upon how he adapted to the role. But I think in that case as a kid that came with a lot of accolades, that was rushed to the big leagues, that never really figured out his delivery and how to pitch, I think he got overwhelmed at the big league level and then, predictably with that kind of delivery, he blew out.

Q: I know you admired his competitiveness when you first got to know him. As much as the game has turned to statistical analytics, how much do intangibles like his matter?

A: It’s called the human analytics. I think human analytics are just as important as statistical analytics. Hard to measure it because there’s no statistical formula for that, but really understanding what’s inside a guy is actually more important than what comes out of a guy because that’s the only way you know if you’ve got a winning player on your hands.

Like Michael Cuddyer’s case. He’s a perfect example of a guy that gets every little bit out of whatever ability he has and does it solely related to winning that game that night. It’s problematic in the whole industry right now, trying to find those kind of guys because it starts at a very early age with the entitlement factor. So when kids get put into the game based upon what the game owes them rather than the understanding of how appreciative they are of the opportunity, it creates an uphill battle right away. So I think it’s really important in our development system that we address a lot of the issues that we are now addressing as it relates to creating that tougher player that understands how to play for his team rather than play for himself.

Q: And how do you do that?

A: It’s a grind every single night.

Q: Would you agree with my characterization that your team is, overall, certain exceptions notwithstanding, soft? Mentally soft?

A: I would agree with you that our team could be a lot tougher.

Q: So how do you go about doing that?

A: Trying to create as much as you can within the mix of players you bring in as many guys as you possibly can who emulate that, who show up every single day with that being their mindset. That’s part of the reason for bringing (LaTroy) Hawkins back here.

Q: Do you not think that your stars have to, at least one of them, have to reflect that?

A: I think these are better questions for Walt (Weiss) and Bill rather than me, but I saw, personally, tremendous growth from Tulo in that area last year. I thought he started taking on that persona a little bit more. But there’s no doubt our best players have to be the best players in every way, shape or form, both in their production and how they make other players better.

Q: Let me ask you about Dexter Fowler. What’s his status?

A: Well, I think Dexter right now has got a big year in front of him. Whether that’s with us or whether that’s with somebody else at this point in time is too hard to say. I think it’s fair to say we are more willing to listen to calls about Dexter than we might have been in the past. He has a lot to prove this year within the industry. He’s got to show up and he’s got to do that.

Q: What are the considerations in your mind as to whether he will be here?

A: Like everything else we look at with our players, is there value out there that makes us a better team in the aggregate? So the same process that would go with any player would go with Dexter.

Q: You moved CarGo to left field in part because you didn’t want the stress and space of center field affecting his offense. If Dexter were gone, would you be comfortable moving CarGo back or would you go look for another center fielder?

A: Center fielders are really hard to find. I don’t think we’d find anybody that’s got better than CarGo’s skill set anywhere. Everything comes with risks, so I think you have to measure what you’re getting back against that risk that you just mentioned before you actually did anything. As far as CarGo’s skill set, he can play any position in the outfield, and he’s had trouble staying healthy in left, too.

Q: Has anything about Dexter disappointed you?

A: Dexter’s a great kid and he knows that we all feel that way about him. But I think he’s got to get tougher. No doubt. He’s got to show up and play with an edge every day, not just when he thinks he has to. It’s got to be that edge that he brings every day. He’s got to be a passionate competitor in the game. He has to love the game. He’s got to compete because he loves the game and he loves his teammates and he wants to win. It can’t be for anything the game provides. It’s got to be for those reasons.

Q: You’ve had three disappointing seasons in a row. What would you like to say to fans that are not hurling things at you?

A: I don’t think anybody in this organization is more disappointed in the way we’ve performed than me. I’m as big a competitor as anybody. But I think there are reasons why the years happened the way that they did. I think windows open and close. It took us really a long time in ’03, ’04, ’05 and ’06 to create a window for ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10, with ’08 being a bad year in there, but the other three being good years. And we’re working real hard to create that window again right now and hopefully have it stay open a little bit longer than the last one. There are windows in market sizes across all sports — specifically baseball more than anything, but I think hockey is a little bit similar — that open and close. I think we could have been a lot better last year if Tulo didn’t go down for that long a stretch of time, but I don’t think we still would have been good enough to win.

I think we sit here today with a team that has the chance to win more games than we lose, but I think we’ve still got a ways to go before we can say we’re going to win a World Series. A lot of things would have to go right for us, in our development of certain players and the maturation and improvement of players that we currently have at the big league level.

Q: Any sense of how active you’ll be over the next several months?

A: Well, we’ve tried to be active. We’ve been aggressive on a ton of different fronts. It’s really hard to make trades and, in this market, it’s really hard to sign free agents. So we’re going to continue to be aggressive and we’ll try to build the team in aggregate, not just necessarily add individual stars. We’re trying to add the right kind of players into the mix.


Dick Monfort rejected Dan O’Dowd’s proposal to fire Dan O’Dowd

In the midst of the most disappointing season in Rockies history, general manager Dan O’Dowd offered owner Dick Monfort the solution many fans desire: Fire the GM.

“I sat with Dick and said, ‘Hey, listen, it would make it easier on you, just throw me under the bus here. In some ways, I’ll be better off for it, too,'” O’Dowd told me after the club announced its latest organizational shakeup this week.

“But he won’t do that and I can’t leave him because no one knows more about this place than I do. You bring another GM here and it will take him years just to get up to speed on the issues we have here, how different it is. I don’t have all the answers, but the only way you find answers is you’ve got to try different things. You can’t think traditionally.”

This is the crux of the difference in perception inside and outside the organization. Many fans believe playing at altitude is a minor or negligible issue, just another variable like the short porch at Yankee Stadium or the wind at Wrigley Field. Even mentioning it is just an excuse for poor performance, they believe.

Within the organization, it is considered the central challenge of operating the ball club. O’Dowd calls it the Rockies’ “Goliath.” The reason they don’t talk about it more publicly is it’s already next to impossible to get free agent pitchers to come to Colorado. Emphasizing the difficulty of succeeding here as a pitcher will only make that situation worse.

But the challenge of pitching at altitude has never been clearer than this year, when O’Dowd acquired four starters from other teams — Jeremy Guthrie, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman and Tyler Chatwood — and not one of them proved able to survive at Coors Field.

We have nearly 20 years worth of major league data now, and the numbers are revealing.

Try this exercise: Imagine an average major league ballclub. Over a 20-year span, how many starting pitchers on this team would put up at least three seasons of 100 or more innings pitched with an earned-run average below 4.75? Pretty low bar, right? There should be plenty.

Over the past 20 years, the average National League club has had eight such pitchers. The average club in the NL West, the Rockies’ division, has had 10.

In their entire history, the Rocks have had two: Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez.

“We worked as hard as anybody trying to find pitchers,” said Bob Gebhard, the Rocks’ general manager from 1993-99. “Our first pick in the expansion draft was David Nied, who did a nice job for us but unfortunately he got hurt. So you do the best you can in trying to add pitchers but it was extremely difficult to convince free agent pitchers to come to Denver and pitch.”

“I’ll put it this way,” said Clint Hurdle, the Rockies’ longest-serving manager, from 2002 to 2009. “This is the most challenging venue to coach, manage, perform at in major league baseball. 5280 (feet above sea level) 81 times a year, there’s nothing like it anywhere else. There are dramatic changes you’ve got to make to things.”

Hence the latest attempt to think outside the box in seeking a solution to the high-altitude riddle. Six weeks ago, O’Dowd implemented a four-man starting rotation with pitch limits on those starters, an attempt to address the Rockies’ 20-year history of injury and/or rapid deterioration among their pitchers. This week it was installing a front office executive — Bill Geivett, O’Dowd’s right-hand man — in the clubhouse, in part because the first experiment got such a lukewarm response there.

“I understand how some people are going to look at this,” O’Dowd said. “But you tell me how you look at anything traditionally in this place. What may work anywhere else is just not going to work here. If anybody knows that, I do. So I’ve got two choices. Hell, I could resign and move on. I’ll get another job. But I’ve got an owner that embraces change. He loves to look and try to do things differently. He’s not a traditional thinker.”

Many fans point to anecdotal evidence that altitude really isn’t such a big deal. C.J. Wilson comes in and throws eight innings of five-hit ball for the Angels. Cole Hamels throws eight innings of six-hit ball for the Phillies. Everybody’s pitching in the same conditions, right? Why can’t Rockies starters do that?

Of course, some of them have. That’s the problem relying on anecdotal evidence. You notice what you want to notice and ignore what you want to ignore.

Few remember that Mike Hampton was terrific in his first half-season in Colorado, going 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA through his first 13 starts in 2001. He was never the same pitcher after that. Ubaldo Jimenez was 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA through 18 starts in 2010. He’s not been the same since.

“It’s a lot different coming here and starting one time per season or two times per season or even three times per season, which is the max someone will have, than starting 16, 17, or 18 times per season,” O’Dowd said.

Fans don’t tend to notice when opposing pitchers blow up. In fact, hard as it may be to believe given the current staff’s woes, the Rocks have a better ERA at Coors Field than visiting teams since 2006.

The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, has a career ERA of 2.89. His ERA at Coors Field is 5.91. Greg Maddux had a Coors Field ERA of 5.19. Curt Schilling’s was 5.51.

The Rocks have had one year in which they were able to deploy a consistent, traditional five-man rotation all season: 2009, the last time they went to the playoffs. Jimenez and Jason Marquis each started 33 times; Jorge De La Rosa, 32; Jason Hammel, 30; Cook, 27. With the exception of Hammel, each has suffered a major injury or a massive deterioration in performance since then.

“The purpose of limiting the pitch counts is that through the studies I’ve done with our trainers, Steadman-Hawkins and all of our medical people, we believe that injuries happen with load,” O’Dowd said. “When you pile on load and you are throwing pitches at the point of fatigue, that’s when the muscle tears and the tendons begin to get stretched, and that’s what causes injuries.

“This was a lost year. I wasn’t trying to develop a model to save this season. I’m trying to develop a model that has a chance to work here long after I’m gone. Because the environmental parts of this aren’t going to change.”

But experimenting with baseball orthodoxy requires an experimental mindset that baseball players, coaches and managers don’t often have. Playing every day for six months, baseball is a game of routine, of doing the same thing over and over and over again.

“My conclusion is we have to do it differently,” O’Dowd said. “We can’t do it traditionally the same way. That doesn’t mean we don’t get back to that at some point in time, but right now where we’re at, with the inexperience we have,  we are going to have to pitch differently. We are going to have to have a different concept and it’s going to have to be an ever-changing one.

“This is a ballpark about adaptability. I did not anticipate the ballpark was going to play the way it did this year because it hadn’t for the last four years. Why it is? Hell, I don’t know. There are other things that come up in this ballpark that I’ll never be able to truly understand but we’re going to have to be able to adapt to it a hell of a lot quicker than we did this year without fighting so many battles to be able to try something different and unique.

“We have to have a thought process of adaptability. We cannot think traditionally if we’re ever going to have any kind of sustained success here. If we do nothing, every ten years we’ll win twice, guarantee you. Every ten years, everything will fall into place and we’ll win twice. I’d like to have something that stands for a little more than that.”

They call the NFL a copycat league but no sport worships conformity more than baseball. In the early 1970s, most teams used four-man starting rotations. When the conversion to five-man rotations began, every single team fell rapidly in line. So when O’Dowd began tinkering with accepted norms, beginning with the four-man rotation and pitch limits, he found resistance not only among the chattering class, but also in his own clubhouse. That’s why Geivett is now taking up residence there — to help sell the experimental approaches the Rocks expect to try.

O’Dowd recognized that he needed a diplomat in this role. He also recognized that diplomacy is not his forte.

“The bottom line is we have to come up with a different model,” he said. “The altitude’s not going to change. Do you realize that even if we dome this place, we could not create enough barometric pressure to come close to normalizing the environment indoors? You couldn’t pump enough air in here to make that happen. You could bring it down some, but we’re at 5,183 feet above sea level. The next closest club is the Diamondbacks at 1,040 feet. Do you see how well we play every spring (in Arizona)?”

Strange but true: The elevations of other NL stadiums are minuscule compared to Coors Field, but the Rocks persistently play better at the stadiums that are relatively higher and worse at those comparatively lower. While most of the focus is on their pitching, their hitters consistently struggle with the transition from altitude to sea level at the end of each home stand, adjusting each time to the greater break of the pitches they face.

“We were certainly aware of the splits in the averages,” Gebhard said of the Rockies’ early days. “The great hitters, the Larry Walkers and the Andres Galarragas, at times would have as much as a 100-point spread between home and away.

“Dante Bichette, way back when, had his own little pitching machine. It was a curve ball machine that he would take with him on the road trip and get into a batting tunnel at the stadium and have it throw nothing but curve balls.

“That was a very true issue because playing at Coors Field, you’d see a curve ball and it would be a spinner and it might be good one time and not so good the next time. And all of a sudden the next day you’re playing in Chicago or you’re playing in Atlanta and that same curve ball is a quality pitch. We struggled with that. I can’t say that we came up with a sound solution but we were well aware of that and hitters were frustrated because they would go on the road and the first couple days we didn’t hit very good.”

Many outsiders, clearly, don’t buy any of it. In some cases, this is because they haven’t studied it. Nobody in the game thinks it is an insignificant factor. They just don’t have any idea what to do about it. Most of them are glad to play here only occasionally.

“We’ve only got to be here three days and we’re getting out of town,” Hurdle said with a laugh when he visited Coors last month with his current team, the Pirates. “We don’t have to worry about it.”

If he can find the right candidate, O’Dowd plans to create another new position in the organization when the season is over: director of pitching operations. He wants someone to supervise the way the Rocks develop pitchers throughout their system rather than having a different pitching coach doing his own thing at every level.

He knows that all of this will be seen as an excuse or worse by many who don’t walk in his shoes.

“Hey, listen: At 52, turning 53, I realize I’m on the back end of my career. I’m just at a point in time where I want to do what I think is right and I’m not all that concerned what people say about me.

“I know I’m throwing myself under the bus from a perception standpoint. I know what I’m doing. But I also think it’s the right thing to do. So what do you do? You talk the talk or you walk the walk. Whatever everybody’s going to say, they’re going to say. The only thing that matters is if we find something here that works better than what’s working right now, and has ever worked.

“A market our size, and our payroll, you win more than you lose every 2.7 years. The goal of this thing for me is not winning defined that way. The goal for me is to find something that has a chance to have sustainable success so the peaks aren’t so high and the valleys aren’t so low. That has nothing to do with our personnel model. That has everything to do with the Goliath we face every single day.”