Rocky Mountain Lows: Inside Colorado’s Disastrous Season

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Good luck trying to settle on the low point for the 2014 Colorado Rockies.

After getting off to a 22-14 start that had them tied for first place on May 7, they’ve gone 22-54 since, the worst record in the majors during that span. If they played at that pace across a full season, they’d post the seventh-worst showing for any National League team since 1900. As it is, they’ve got the worst overall NL mark on the year, and are likely on their way to a third consecutive last-place finish in the NL West. They might post the worst record in the franchise’s 22-year history.

In short, it’s been a miserable season in Denver, and the lowlights are innumerable. Blame a toxic combination of injuries, poor run prevention, and incompetent ownership.

Let’s start with the health problems. It’s tempting to chalk up the Rockies’ woes to injuries, which have decimated the roster almost practically since day one. At the moment, the Rockies are without their best player, Troy Tulowitzki; their 2013 All-Star right fielder, Michael Cuddyer; and three starting pitchers … and that represents a relative high point for team health.

The injuries began long before this recent batch. Carlos Gonzalez’s trip to the DL was particularly nasty, reading like something out of a Lovecraft story. After doctors removed a tumor from CarGo’s finger, head athletic trainer Keith Dugger described the growth as a “fatty mass with tentacles.” Gonzalez’s finger healed, but now a bum ankle has him out of the lineup again.

Eddie Butler’s trip to the DL was cruel. As the season slowly started to slip away, optimists pointed to the coming of the organization’s top two pitching prospects (Butler and Jon Gray) as a sign of hope. When Butler got called up to make his major league debut against the Dodgers on June 6, the excitement at Coors Field was palpable. Then he got rocked, giving up six runs on 10 hits while walking three in 5.1 innings. Three days later, he hit the DL with rotator cuff inflammation, and he hasn’t returned to the majors since.

Tulowitzki’s trip to the DL was inevitable. On May 7, I wrote about Tulo’s unfathomably great start to the season, with lots of fancy stats to describe his early dominance. The nugget that might’ve stood out the most to Rockies fans: Tulowitzki had played 150 or more games in a season only twice … in what happened to be the only seasons the Rockies have made the playoffs during his career. When he finally hit the DL on July 22 with a thigh injury, the sentiment around 20th and Blake was more resignation and acceptance than anything else.

While every team suffers its share of injuries, losing Tulo, CarGo, Cuddyer, Nolan Arenado, and half of the pitching staff for extended stretches was bound to severely dent the Rockies’ chances. Before a recent game, I asked manager Walt Weiss where Colorado might be in a parallel universe in which it hadn’t been ravaged by injuries. Weiss paused for a second, furrowed his brow slightly, then shook off the idea. “It’s tough to say and I don’t want to speculate. The toughest part of our circumstance was the number of injuries to our pitchers. You lose six starters to the DL, that’s going to hit the hardest.”

Those injuries have become the go-to talking point, but they ignore the bigger problems that have plagued the team over the last few years, and especially this season.

The bigger issue remains the team’s inability to prevent runs. Opponents are scoring 5.2 runs per game against the Rockies this year, the worst mark for any club. Obviously, that stems in part from the hostile pitching environment of Coors Field, which dramatically inflates offense. Coors boasts the deepest outfield dimensions of any major league park in an attempt to keep homer totals down, but the net effect is more doubles and triples blasted into the park’s spacious gaps, and more singles blooped in front of outfielders forced to play deep.

Even after adjusting for those punitive park factors, though, the Rockies’ pitching looks awful: Only the Rangers have posted a higher park-adjusted ERA, and only the Pirates have fared worse by park-adjusted, fielding-independent numbers.

Armchair GMs have suggested various strategies for the Rockies, including: (a) kicking out all curveball pitchers, because breaking pitches don’t break properly at 5,280 feet, (b) focusing on defense instead, so that when the pitchers inevitably struggle, there are at least guys out there who can catch the ball, and (c) embracing Coors’s wacky effects, building a monstrous lineup to rival the Blake Street Bombers of the mid-’90s, and hoping that today’s version of that slugging offense can deliver similar playoff-making results.

Though he doesn’t officially hold the general manager title (owing to ownership’s unbreakable loyalty to Dan O’Dowd — more on that in a minute), Bill Geivett serves as the Rockies’ de facto GM, running the major league side of baseball operations. Like the rest of the baseball world, he’s yet to find any definitive answers when it comes to playing at altitude. I interviewed Geivett about the altitude issue in September 2012, two months after he moved into his current role. His suggestions included focusing on depth up and down the roster, since he theorized that playing a mile high would cause more injuries, especially to pitchers; tailoring training methods to adapt to altitude rather than focusing on traditional strength-and-conditioning regimens; and even going with a four-man rotation that would be severely pitch-count limited, which the Rockies tried, then quickly scrapped, two years ago.

Nothing seems to work. The defense, in particular, has improved significantly this season, with D.J. LeMahieu, Tulowitzki, and Arenado forming perhaps the best defensive 2B-SS-3B combination in the league. Yet teams are still scoring in droves against a pitching staff that lacked front-line talent at the start of the season, and looks that much worse with so many arms shackled to the DL.

Plus, though no other team plays in a park as extreme as Coors, plenty of clubs do operate in stadiums that either significantly enhance or depress offense. Before cratering this year, the Rangers had won 90 or more games in each of the past four seasons despite playing their home games in the American League’s roughest park for pitchers. Even after moving the fences in last year, the Mariners continue to deal with a home park that can squash offensive production, yet they’re in the thick of this year’s AL wild-card race. The Rangers built a powerful roster through a combination of strong scouting and player development (Ian Kinsler, Derek Holland, C.J. Wilson), smart trades (Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, Cliff Lee, plus Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia — thanks, Braves!), and big investments in premium free agents (Adrian Beltre, Yu Darvish). Ditto for the Mariners, who developed Felix Hernandez, Mike Zunino, Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders, and several quality relief pitchers, and reeled in Robinson Cano with $240 million and all the Top Pot maple bars he can eat.

The Rockies, in contrast, have shown neither the inclination to spend with the big boys nor (with rare exceptions) the ability to make the kind of shrewd, low-cost moves that have helped transform the even lower-budget A’s into the best team in baseball. On that first point, the Monfort family ownership often gets accused locally of being cheap, given that about 2.8 million fans have packed Coors Field annually over the past four seasons to see a team that’s ranged from half-decent to terrible. Head to Coors on a summer night and hike up to the new rooftop patio installed this year, and you’d swear the Monforts were minting money, one cheeseburger and vodka soda at a time.

But that accusation isn’t completely fair. Denver is a midsize market by MLB standards, one that can’t support huge ticket prices. Moreover, the Rockies are playing out the end of a weak local TV contract, which makes them one of baseball’s poorest teams by that standard. That $20 million–a-year deal is due to expire at season’s end and could portend a far more lucrative new contract, but the Rockies don’t have that money in hand yet, and they can’t spend what they don’t have.

On the other hand, the Rockies deserve every bit of criticism for how they’ve spent the money they do have. They don’t spend big money on free agents, and while that level of caution can be beneficial — as any Rockies fan who bought Mike Hampton or Denny Neagle jerseys back in the day can attest — that approach also places an artificial ceiling on offseason moves and leads to pissing away $16.5 million on Boone Logan. To be fair, the Rockies did show a rare sliver of interest in a real investment last winter, when they reportedly made a run at Jose Abreu. But they don’t get a consolation prize for either not trusting Abreu’s talent enough or not calculating the market well enough to produce a winning bid for a player who now has a shot at AL MVP honors in his rookie season.

Instead, the Rockies have chosen to spend the biggest chunks of their money to retain their own top players. They did it with Jorge De La Rosa, the team’s highest-paid pitcher, who showed enough ability to dodge the Coors Field demons that the Rockies gave him a two-year deal (plus a player option) that has him making $11 million in this, his walk year. They did it with Gonzalez, buying out multiple arbitration years, plus three years beyond his free-agency date, with a seven-year, $80 million pact. And they did it with Tulowitzki, who’s signed through 2020 on a deal that will pay him at least $134 million when all’s said and done.

There’s nothing wrong with believing in and committing to internal talent. However, the Monforts have gone beyond that level of pride, exhibiting stubbornness that’s damaging the Rockies’ ability to improve. When the Orioles inquired about De La Rosa at this year’s trade deadline, they were reportedly told it would cost Kevin Gausman, a ludicrous demand given that De La Rosa is a free agent at the end of this year, while Gausman is in his first full season and might already be Baltimore’s best pitcher.

As for Tulowitzki, fans and talking heads can concoct all the fake trade scenarios they want, but the highly image-conscious Monforts have little to no interest in trading their franchise player. The only statue outside of Coors Field is of an anonymous ballplayer in front of the home plate entrance, but the Monforts apparently envision using Tulo’s likeness for the next bronze body in LoDo.

There’s a healthy debate to be had about whether to trade Tulowitzki, who’s one of the top five players in the league when he’s healthy, but who’s also an injury-prone player entering his thirties and making a ton of money. Still, the intractability of the Tulo situation is just one concern. What should really concern fans is the team’s broader, rigid approach to player procurement and roster construction.

As I wrote after that inauspicious Butler debut, the two-pronged GM approach that has Geivett running the major league side (a position that might not be ideal for his talents, given he made his bones as an excellent player development man) and O’Dowd running the minor league end (after years of unimpressive results as the clear man in charge) hasn’t worked. The Monforts, who aren’t seasoned baseball men, have exerted far more influence on baseball operations decisions than they should, a situation that’s festered since team president Keli McGregor’s death in 2010. The result is a team that’s both tough to watch on the field and mostly forgettable in the baseball world.

Mostly, but not entirely. The Rockies’ incompetence has stretched so far this year that even casual fans haven’t been able to ignore it.

There was the Great T-shirt Mishap:

The Hall of Fame–caliber bloopers:

Tulowitzki showing up at Yankee Stadium while on the disabled list to cheer on Derek Jeter:

And the thin-skinned Dick Monfort responding to one fan’s criticism of the team by saying, “Maybe Denver doesn’t deserve a franchise.”

If anything, Denver deserves a team that can rival its gem of a ballpark. But as long as the Rockies’ decision-makers keep misfiring on talent acquisition and ownership keeps getting in the way, the team’s chances for success will remain as thin as the air the players breathe.

Filed Under: MLB, Colorado Rockies, NL West, Coors Field, Coors Effect, The Monforts, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gomez, Home Runs, Botched Giveaways, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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