Tuesday, June 16, 2009

But This One Goes To Eleven

Your Colorado Rockies play a baseball game tonight, and if they win that baseball game it will be their twelfth straight victory.

This is a pretty big deal. The Rockies have never won 12 games in a row, even during their fluke mystical magical 2007 Series run. Only three teams since 1900 have won 20 straight, and one of those--the 1916 Giants--mixed in a tie during their streak. That's right, a tie. Streaks this long don't happen every day.

So as well as they're playing, Colorado ought be breathing right down the necks of the NL West-leading Dodgers, right? Sure, if you consider third place, 10 1/2 games out to be hot pursuit. In fact, should the Rox take their dirty dozen tonight they'll run their season record all the way to 32-32. You have to be incredibly shitty to win 11 consecutive games and still be under .500. These Rockies were that shitty, so shitty that their previously untouchable manager, Clint Hurdle, got canned. Now Jim Tracy has Hurdle's club playing like the 1906 Cubs. What, exactly, has been the difference?

I'd argue that there is no difference, and that Colorado is neither as bad as they played before this run nor as good as they've been amidst it. They've pitched, by franchise standards, spectacularly well the last two weeks, and that will eventually regress. Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammell have the ability to win in the bigs, Jason Marquis is a focused veteran, and Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez can serve as low-grade aces. But this staff, especially the youngsters, is incapable of sustaining the 2- and 3-run outings they've produced under Tracy.

The timely hitting and stellar defense that have rounded out the streak are even more puzzling. Where, exactly, were these position players when Hurdle was trying to stay employed? Specifically, what in the world got into Troy Tulowitzki? How can this shortstop fucking stink for his entire sophomore campaign and two months of the '09 season then morph into the Cal Ripken clone we all envisioned back in 2007? To play that poorly, then that well, with no environmental change other than a new manager, this to me says that Tulo is immature and prone to distraction. Not qualities you want in a supposed leader during a 162-game season.

As for the other alleged leaders on this team, why has no one ever singled out Brad Hawpe or--especially--Todd Helton for the Rockies' underachievement the past year and a half? Helton has a pristine image in the game and is the face of the entire franchise. And don't misunderstand me, I love Todd Helton's approach to the game of baseball. But a 13-year veteran has to be more accountable for the stretch of ineptitude displayed by the Rockies until June 4. Don Mattingly, another sweet-swinging first baseman who toiled for a mostly inept club his entire career, was judged by his team's won-loss record. Todd Helton should bear the same burden.

Why does it have to be this way? Why does this team have to be either historically awful or historically hot? Why can't they just be pretty good, or average, or at least competent? It's well documented around here, I am not a full-blooded Rockies fan. I do care about this franchise, however. I care very much about the viability of professional baseball in this state, and I've pondered at length what it will take to consistently win at altitude. I've happily ridden all these winning streaks and suffered through all the busted pitchers and prospects. I want this team to be legitimate.

I must acknowledge, for the record, that the franchise is run far better than it once was. The rosters and farm systems of the 90s and early years in this decade were comically stuffed with free-swinging sluggers and one-note arms. There was no organizational philosophy, no low-minor development, and a shocking failure rate of player development. Before the current regime, Shawn Chacon was arguably the best pitcher the franchise had ever produced.

That's changed for the better. These Rockies draft better and develop better. The average kid coming up from Tulsa or Colorado Springs is fairly polished and ready to play. Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart--in previous years these guys would have been wasted or lost. Now they contribute.

On the mound, the combination of the Coors Field humidor and the same developmental standards have produced an amazing result: the Rockies' starter pitches a decent game almost every time out. Sure, there are occasional blowups, but it's no longer a given that this club is last in the NL in ERA every single year. They've found ways to deliver guys like Cook, Jimenez and Jeff Francis to the bigs. They've identified castoffs like Marquis and Josh Fogg who can come in cheap and not kill the team. And the bullpen has been more than acceptable the past few years, a testament to the Rockies' attention to detail.

I'm sorry, though, these improvements are not good enough. The results on the field bear that out. There are LOTS of teams that are well-run, and only a few anymore that are not. Income is not an excuse, the combination of revenue sharing and new sources of cash put teams like the Rockies on a firm business footing. You can win with what they have. What's needed is a commitment from the top, which is where this team falls short.

I know, I blame the Monforts for everything wrong with the Rockies in every piece I write about the team. Guilty. It simply cannot be overstated how much negative impact their approach has on the franchise. They will never convince me that they own this team simply to impress their hayseed rancher buddies. They like the seats. I implore you, Dick and Charlie, sell the team. Sell it to someone who cares about winning, someone who'll instill a philosophy of success at every level. You can keep your fucking seats.

I'll never forgive the Monforts for wasting the 2007 World Series. Flush with the cash of postseason gate receipts and the goodwill of an entire region, they had the opportunity to take a suspect division and grab it by the throat. San Diego had faded, Arizona was not yet ready to grab the mantle, and Los Angeles was still in flux--Torre was not yet hired and Mannywood was not yet built. They had the pieces to get better, yet instead they stood pat. They allowed the Diamondbacks to trade for Dan Haren, thinking that their young (and cheap) rotation could be good enough.

Haren cost the D'Bags some of their best prospects, of course. Rockies fans know these prospects well, because Oakland sent the same guys (Carlos Gonzalez and Greg Smith) to Denver in exchange for Matt Holliday a year later. The kids are OK, but the move was a salary dump and an attempt to get something out of Holliday, who's scheduled to hit free agency this winter. Tell me this: if the same players were traded for Dan Haren in 2007 and Matt Holliday in 2008, why didn't the Rockies simply trade Matt Holliday for Dan Haren?

I'll tell you why, it's because the Monforts were scared of Mike Hampton. Hampton was one of a slew of big-money free agents the club inked a decade ago who went bust in the pre-humidor elevation at Coors. The Monforts are afraid of signing pitchers as a result.

They also gave a $126 million contract to Helton, who subsequently stopped doing steroids and hitting home runs. That contract is now an albatross, and therefore the Monforts are afraid of signing hitters as well.

They also hired one big-time manager, Jim Leyland in 1999. Leyland took their money, smoked a lot of Winstons and literally mailed in the season. Seriously, he watched most games from a post office on Champa Street. The Leyland experience made the Monforts reluctant to go after a name manager, and in my opinion kept Clint Hurdle on the job well past his expiration date.

So if you're afraid to pay any good pitchers, good hitters or good managers, how exactly do you run a good baseball team? Heck of a question, and something to chew on while watching the Rockies go for No. 12 tonight.


bankmeister said...

If you think that was really long, you should look in my pants.

Cecil said...

The best example of the Monforts' Greeley-centric hee-hyuk mentality: they just drafted one Sterling Monfort.

That's right, they drafted the son of one of the owners. Not because he's going to be a major league player. He isn't. But because "he deserved it."

Hey Sterling, not only do you get a new Lexus for graduating high school, but you can tell all the chicks at (insert state college here) that you're a professional ballplayer! Way to be born rich, kid--you deserve it.

old no. 7 said...

I forgot about all the draft shenanigans. They drafted Monfort's kid as well as Jim Tracy's kid and a guy named Heath Holliday. Heath is Matt's cousin, as well as the son of Dave Holliday, special assistant to GM Dan O'Dowd.

Look, I know these are late, late rounds (45, 47 & 49 for the super-nepotistic picks). All you're looking for is upside, and once in a blue moon you find Mike Piazza (drafted in the 62nd round because his dad was chummy with Tommy Lasorda). But if you want to be a serious team, take the draft seriously. You can always throw Spalding Smails a few bucks as a rookie-league free agent, I guarantee there was someone worth actually drafting in those slots.