Baseball

The Team That Went Up a Hill but Fell Down a Mountain

On Monday, the Rockies announced that executive vice-president/general manager Jeff Bridich would be leaving his role with the team. Whether or not this amounts to a resignation or a “resignation” allowing a long-time employee to save face, the result is the same: there will be a new face responsible for personnel decisions in Colorado. (For now, that’s team COO Greg Feasel, who will serve as the interim GM, but the team expects to hire a full-time replacement after the end of the season.) This organization generally has had a great deal of loyalty to its general managers over the years: After nearly 30 years of existence, the team has only had three GMs in Bridich, Dan O’Dowd, and Bob Gebhard. But will this be enough to right what’s gone horribly wrong in Denver?

The Nolan Arenado trade this winter may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for the team’s chances of a longshot wild card run in 2021 and the fanbase’s feelings about the Rockies. Bridich’s relationship with Arenado soured the team’s relationship with its franchise player, but ownership was a key player in making the trade happen.

In February, the Rockies bowed to the pressure, trading Arenado and $51 million to the Cardinals for a package that included pitcher Austin Gomber and four mid- to low-level prospects. Monfort was largely the architect of the trade, sources told The Athletic, but blame fell to Bridich. There is enough to go around. Bridich was the one who alienated Arenado; Monfort is the one who allowed it.

“We lack process in so many ways,” one now-former member of Colorado’s front office said. “We lack leadership in most ways. And there’s very, very little accountability.”

So, how did the Rockies get here? Where they sit now, firmly at the bottom of the NL West, is a product of long-term decision-making failures, not just the recent drive to save money or a few poor moves in recent years.

Let’s set the time machine back a decade. In 2009, the Rockies made their second appearance in the playoffs in three years under O’Dowd. These weren’t perfect teams, but they had a solid core, with a young Troy Tulowitzki, Ubaldo Jiménez, Carlos González, and Dexter Fowler. That’s a quartet worthy of building around, and Todd Helton had not yet fallen off the cliff. To keep the run going that winter, the Rockies did, well, nothing. Or at least, almost nothing, re-signing Rafael Betancourt to a relatively inexpensive two-year deal and inking veterans like Jason Giambi, Melvin Mora, and Miguel Olivo to one-year contracts.

The team slumped to 83–79 in 2010 and, in a double-whammy, neither traded off veterans at the deadline nor signed them over the winter. The Rockies shed another 10 wins in 2011, dropping to 73–89. Jiménez was traded to Cleveland for four players, most notably Drew Pomeranz, but a larger sell-off wasn’t happening. Colorado did, however, make its first signing of a free agent to a significant contract in years, and it was a curious one: Michael Cuddyer, on a three-year, $31.5 million contract; over the previous four seasons, he averaged just 1.2 WAR for the Twins. (The compensation draft pick, meanwhile, turned into José Berríos.)

Three more years below .500 ended O’Dowd’s tenure with the team: He resigned at the end of the season, as ownership had not acted on his previous request to have himself fired a couple of years earlier. In came Bridich, the team’s senior director of player development since 2011. He had a solid record of player development, with Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and DJ LeMahieu coming up under his watch, and drafts that included, among others, Trevor Story and Jon Gray.

The long-term problem since has been the decisions made at the major league level. Whether the fault lies with Bridich or the Monforts in ownership, the team repeatedly failed to get value from their veterans in the midst of losing seasons. Colorado never got anything in return for Gonzalez, LeMahieu, Jorge De La Rosa, or Justin Morneau, and the Tulowitzki trade was more of a salary dump than a restock of the farm system. The Rockies did land Germán Márquez and Jake McGee for Corey Dickerson, but that’s better than they did for all the other departing players combined.

In free agency, the decisions made were even more disastrous. I’ve been following baseball professionally for 20 years now, and I can’t remember any team having such an epic run of failure when signing major league free agents. Let’s chart out this Kafka-esque tale of woe.

Rockies Free Agent Signings

Player Contract WAR
Ian Desmond $70,000,000 -1.7
Wade Davis $52,000,000 0.3
Gerardo Parra $27,500,000 -1.0
Jake McGee $27,000,000 0.6
Bryan Shaw $27,000,000 -0.5
Daniel Murphy $24,000,000 -1.0
Mike Dunn $19,000,000 -0.1
Jason Motte $10,000,000 -0.3
Chris Iannetta $8,500,000 0.1
Carlos Gonzalez $8,000,000 1.8
Nick Hundley $6,250,000 0.9
Chad Qualls $6,000,000 -0.1
Greg Holland $6,000,000 1.1
Kyle Kendrick $5,500,000 -0.9
Daniel Descalso $3,600,000 -0.4
Mark Reynolds $2,600,000 0.3
Alexi Amarista $1,100,000 -1.1
Total $304,050,000 -2.0

Paying $150 million per win would be bad enough, but this organization somehow topped that, paying $150 million per negative win. There’s no doubt that there are elements of bad luck here, such as Murphy being dragged down by injury problems. But few of these deals had any argument for them, at least if you’re a believer in modern analytics. The Desmond signing was particularly noteworthy in that the Rockies both made a gross misevaluation of his skills and used him in a manner in which success was nearly impossible. If you thought at the time that he could still play shortstop, you could squint and justify the deal; he was coming off a 3.5 win season for the Rangers despite playing a mediocre center field. But from day one, Colorado intended to use him as a first baseman — a problem given that ZiPS projected Desmond for a 101 OPS+ in 2017 and going downhill from there.

The Rockies didn’t just fail in the broad strokes. Mike Tauchman was no star, but the team had zero interest in getting a look at him, preferring instead to give playing time to up-and-coming youngsters like 38-year-old Matt Holliday. Traded to the Yankees, Tauchman’s 2.6 WAR in 2019 was a better performance than anyone the Rockies signed in free agency. Roberto Ramos didn’t get a single appearance in the majors in a lost 2019 season and left for the Korean Baseball Organization, where he hit .278/.362/.592 in 2020 for the LG Twins. Little-used Tom Murphy got a total of 210 plate appearances in four years in Colorado, was waived right before the 2019 season, and posted a 126 wRC+ in Seattle that year while Rockies catchers hit .245/.317/.360.

The point isn’t that any of these players would turn around the organization, but that the Rockies displayed absolutely no desire to see what they had to offer. The result of all this is that while they did make the playoffs for consecutive seasons in 2017 and ’18, the foundation was paper-thin. Success was based on the team’s few stars, with almost nothing to support it. With no reinforcements at the trade deadline or free agency, Colorado’s brief foray into contention was doomed to be short-lived, only lasting as long as it could ride a handful of big names.

The farm system won’t spearhead a quick turnaround. In terms of rest-of-career WAR via the current ZiPS projections, the Rockies rank 30th in baseball, just behind the Reds and Rangers. In my colleague Eric Longehagen’s top 133 prospects for 2021, only a single player, outfielder Zac Veen, makes an appearance, down at No. 70.

The long-term question the Rockies face is whether ownership has learned anything from the Bridich era. Bridich no doubt made many of the decisions on his own, but it’s nearly undeniable at this point that the Monforts, who have been the primary owners since 2005, play a key role in the choices Colorado has made. Will they allow Story and Gray to be traded rather than letting them walk at the end of the season? Would they be willing to trade Márquez, the 22nd-ranked player on our 2020 trade value list? Will they actually spend money?

That last one is a challenging obstacle. Teams can win without spending money — hi, Rays! — but it’s tough to do without a modern front office, and Colorado may have trouble attracting top talent. In the midst of a global pandemic and a shedding of jobs around baseball, two-thirds of the franchise’s minuscule analytics department quit rather than return to the team for 2021.

In a perfect world, the next GM of the Rockies could have a dream job. Denver’s a beautiful city with a fanbase that has supported winners in the past, and Coors Field is one of the best places for baseball to watch a game with unique characteristics that make it one of the most fascinating puzzles to try to solve. A new GM could put their imprint on the Rockies with a true blank slate and build the team from the ground up, from scouting to major league talent acquisition. But it would involve the organization choosing to wake up from its self-created nightmare.

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