All the front office tomfoolery going on with the Rockies these days justifiably relegates the ball club and its losing ways to the background of every Rockies blog on the web, as they face yet another series defeat at home.
The Rockies finish up their four-game series with the Washington Nationals tonight at Coors Field, so it’s an opportune time to look back at the final stadium stop on our cross-country baseball tour – Nationals Park – and to do a little compare/contrast between the Nats and Rox.
I’ll save the game summaries and ballpark report for part 3 of this series and instead focus on organizational differences between the Rox and Nats for this, part 2 of the Battles Along the Beltway.
For, interestingly, the Nats and Rox seem to be the polar opposites of each other. The Rockies are notoriously bad on the road, while the Nats are the best road team in all of baseball since last September.
Since 2009, the two teams have done 180-degree turnarounds in opposite directions.
And although both fan bases are all too familiar with prolonged periods of suffering, they have also had their brief time to shine, though not at the same time.
For Washington, that time is now.
Back in 2009, the Rox were lauded for their ability to cultivate all-star caliber players within the organization, even including a few pitchers (one of whom even started the All-Star game, lest we forget). They made it to the playoffs that year and were picked by many to win their first NL West division title in 2010.
We all know what’s happened since then.
Conversely, several sports writers considered the Washington Nationals to be the worst organization in all of baseball in 2009. Not only did they field the shoddiest team on the diamond (59-103), the Nats franchise also had to deal with General Manager Jim Bowden, widely regarded as the worst GM in the majors.
Today, the Nats have gone from worst to first in many ways, and now boast having the best player development, the best scouting, arguably one of the best managers in baseball, and now find themselves in first place in the NL East.
How did they do it?
Well, let’s take a gander at some possible explanations.
1. Replace the GM
After the FBI began investigating former GM Jim Bowden, the Nats got a new GM in Mike Rizzo (former VP of baseball operations). As this recent Fangraphs interview illustrates, upon assuming control of the Nats organization in 2010, Rizzo has righted the ship with help from some of the brightest minds in baseball. The Nats organization seems to have a clear vision of where they want to take the team and the resources to get them there.
In Denver, the disdainful, pitiful tone with which Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd now speaks best exemplifies the mood in the front office these days. O’Dowd’s radio interview with Mike Rice on Rockies Dugout from the other day was full of scorn for anybody who hasn’t “lived” Coors Field.
Moreover, one could sense the uncertainty with which O’Dowd referred to both his own future with the club and the way in which the organization will have to operate in the future.
“Whoever is here with the Rockies…whoever’s running it at any point in time in the future, the reality is…that plans are going to be ever-changing. I don’t think you’ll be able to think traditionally. It’s going to be an ebb-and-flow; I think things are going to morph from one thing to another. I think you’re always going to have to be changing and looking at different ways to do things because altitude baseball just creates so many unique things that no other venue in the game lends itself to do.”
2. Drafting, scouting and player development
Harper and Strasburg might’ve been no-brainer number one picks, but Rizzo still had a major hand in scouting, signing, and developing these guys – two of the best young players in the game – who’ve provided the Nats with immediate results, despite their lack of big league experience.
*Stephen Strasburg – $15.5 mill over 4 years
*Bryce Harper – $9.9mill over 5 years
The Rockies draft woes have been well documented here at the BSB, so I won’t rub any more salt in the proverbial wound. Suffice it to say, other than Tulo, we haven’t had any draft picks that come close to the Washington studs.
Regarding player development, as recently as two years ago the Rockies got an organizational ranking of #7 in all of baseball. The homegrown philosophy looked to be coming into fruition and Colorado was the popular pick to win the NL West.
Two years on, our minor league system ranks a lousy 21st out of 30.
Rockies fans are left asking, “what the hell happened?”
3. The manager and the team philosophy
The Nats have a good thing going here. They hired the legendary Davey Johnson in 2009 as a consultant, then as special assistant to the GM. They then promoted this mathemagician to become manager for the Nats exactly one year ago this week, after Jim Riggleman resigned suddenly. Things couldn’t have worked out any better.
Despite being one of the ancient elders of the game, Davey Johnson remains sharp, adaptable, and open-minded – especially evident to those who have followed the Nats this year. He’s also primarily responsible for creating the lineup, which features 19-yr. old phenom Bryce Harper in the two-spot every night. No demotions to AAA, no benching after going 0 for 7 with 5 Ks, and no head games. Oh, and Davey knows how to win: a World Series championship, a handful of pennants, several LCS appearances, etc.
One of the team’s explicit philosophies is that of self-evaluation. As Rizzo notes in the aforementioned interview, “You need to know what your own strengths and weaknesses are — not only on a player level, but on a personnel level — the people who are in positions to affect your players.” The Rockies front office should be so bold. It’s time for Dick Monfort, Dan O’Dowd, and Jim Tracy to look in the mirror.
Quite simply, the Rox have been more concerned with clubhouse character this off-season as opposed to evaluating players in order to build a competitive team. The front office deserves all the blame there; that much is obvious. And the ineptitude of manager Jim Tracy also knows no bounds. His failures have been duly noted, as has his reputation for being one of the worst strategic managers in the majors.
With Bob Apodaca now too tired to coach the pitching staff, is it only a matter of time before the Weltschmerz gets to JT, too? Or perhaps he’ll also be re-assigned to another job within the organization: special Character Assistant to the clubhouse, perhaps?
But at the end of the day, the ultimate responsibility lies with ownership, embodied in the person of Dick Monfort, heretofore held unaccountable for his failures, and profiting every day off the fans’ patient optimism and persistent attendance.
4. Trade for top pitching, not just position players
Rizzo did a good job scouting and trading for Gio Gonzalez. The Nats traded four prospects to Oakland for Gonzalez last winter, and the deal seems to be paying off immensely, at least in the short term: Gio is one of the top pitchers in the NL this season. Rizzo also engineered trades for Tyler Clippard and Michael Morse, which cost the Nats close to nothing.
The Rox traded for pitching, but nobody good. Not even remotely good. We’ve already noted countless times on the BSB how senseless it was to acquire fly-ball pitchers who would ostensibly eat up innings at Coors Field (Guthrie, Moscosco, Outman, et al). Uhhh, how exactly? And the three big free-agent signings in the past (Saberhagen, Hampton, and Neagle) seem to have prevented the Rox from ever exploring that route again. Perhaps more research into advanced pitching metrics will someday reveal which free agent pitchers might actually thrive at Coors Field.
(I’m envisioning an all-knuckleballer rotation at Coors Field in a few years time, led by R.A. Dickey and his future apprentices).
And the acquisition of Michael Cuddyer – a poor defensive player suddenly asked to roam the expansive outfield at Coors – at an extraordinary cost in relation to his value (3 yrs/ $31.5 mill, now sporting a -0.2 WAR), has always seemed ludicrous in comparison to what a Seth Smith/Ryan Spilborghs platoon could’ve produced at one-fifth of the cost. Not to mention it diverted the focus away from the core problem: starting pitching.
Perhaps I’ll eat my words when the sabermetricians come up with a metric that quantifies “Clubhouse Character” and shows how it contributes to team wins. Then again, with baseball analytics becoming mainstream, perhaps the Rockies front office views such contemporary metrics as already too traditional for their tastes. Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd isn’t just thinking outside the box, he’s thinking out in foul territory.
When asked by Mike Rice how difficult it will be for DOD to think untraditionally, he replied,
“I don’t know if it’s that difficult for me…Everybody has a different personality and approach…I’ve always been something of an untraditional thinker…Kelly McGregor taught me that one of the greatest vision-killers is tradition because it thwarts so many good ideas…But I think it’s much more difficult for other people.”
I guess he means all of us.
So for the third and final installment of the Battles Along the Beltway, I’ll get us back to the traditional diamond, where it’s easier for the rest of us philistines to think.