—On Opening Day of the 2009 season, the Colorado Rockies were the only team that had a homegrown player at every spot in the starting lineup.
And when the Rockies officially clinched the National League wild-card spot with a victory against Milwaukee on Oct. 1, each of the 10 players who appeared in the game had been originally signed by the Rockies.
A decade after taking over as general manager of the Rockies, Dan O’Dowd’s long-term plan for success had produced its own resounding endorsement.
“It is one thing to put players on the field who are homegrown,” O’Dowd said. “It’s another thing to put players on the field who are homegrown and good.”
The Rockies have become another thing. They are a team built around players from their own farm system, and that homegrown foundation has allowed the Rockies to enjoy the success of advancing to the postseason in two of the last three seasons. What’s more, what the Rockies farm system has not been able to provide, O’Dowd was able to get from the outside, in part by using pieces that came from within the organization.
It is an approach that has earned O’Dowd Baseball America’s Major League Executive of the Year Award, an honor that he says is more a tribute to the people he works with than anything he has done—which isn’t really true.
Ownership certainly deserves some credit for having been patient with O’Dowd, ignoring the urge to make changes when the team struggled earlier in the decade, and remaining committed to the long-term building process instead of creating turmoil that so often comes from impatient owners.
“Without (Dick and Charlie Monfort) buying into the process we get nowhere,” O’Dowd said. “They are the ones who had to share our vision and allow everything to develop.”
It is O’Dowd, however, who hired the decision-makers throughout the organization, and it is O’Dowd who provided the framework for how each job is handled.
“Bottom line,” he said, “is baseball is a team sport, and the team extends well past the field. The key to what we have been able to do is the quality of the leadership we have in place, particularly in scouting and player development.”
Fitting The Bills
O’Dowd’s key lieutenants are Bill Schmidt, vice president of scouting, and Bill Geivett, vice president and assistant GM for baseball operations, who are friends as much as coworkers. And that, said O’Dowd, has been a benefit for the Rockies in the way their scouting and farm departments have worked together in building the big league team.
“They are talented people, first of all, but they have a long, trusting relationship and they believe in what each other is capable of doing,” O’Dowd said. “Having them working together made the organization have the same vision. There is a seamless transition for the players when they move from scouting to player development.
“We have tremendous communications and trust between those two departments. I believe that separates the organization from others. And it starts with the relationship those two have.”
Schmidt was one of O’Dowd’s first hires when he replaced Bob Gebhard as Rockies GM in September 1999. Geivett joined the Rockies a year later as director of player personnel, and in January 2005 O’Dowd promoted him into his current role, which opened when Josh Byrnes resigned to join the Red Sox.
The emergence of Geivett as the player development equal of Schmidt in scouting was a boost to the organization’s cooperative efforts. The two men are neighbors in the south Denver suburb of Parker. They drive to and from the ballpark together when both are in town. The families even vacation together.
Schmidt was an assistant coach at Arizona State when he first noticed Geivett, who was a third baseman at UC Santa Barbara. Later, when Schmidt was scouting for the Yankees, he recommended Geivett to fill a scouting position, and the relationship has grown from there. While Schmidt went to the Indians before joining the Rockies, Geivett spent time with the Expos, Devil Rays and Dodgers.
“I can’t tell you how many hours we spent on the phone talking each other through situations we each faced,” Schmidt said. “I was a sounding board for him, and he was a sounding board for me.”
And that relationship has grown in Colorado.
“We share the same goal,” Schmidt said. “We want to be part of the success of the Rockies.”
Building From Within
The success is beginning to come, but it hasn’t been easy.
When O’Dowd first was hired in Colorado, he wanted to follow the plan he had learned in Cleveland, where he was an assistant to then-GM John Hart. They oversaw a total dismantling of the Indians, then building up a franchise that ended a 41-year postseason drought in 1995, the first of what became six postseason appearances in a seven-year stretch.
Rockies ownership, however, was hesitant. The franchise had reached the postseason in its third season in 1995, faster than any previous expansion team, and then went on a lengthy period of thinking all it had to do was plug a couple of holes to return to baseball’s fall stage.
“The mindset was for us to try to rebuild and be competitive at the same time,” O’Dowd said. “The only clubs that can do that are ones with a revenue base of more than $200 million a year. We are not one of those franchises.”
When the Rockies had a winning record in 2000—albeit just 82-80—in O’Dowd’s first year on the job, it only added to the hope that they could plug holes and win. Then came a defining moment in Rockies history: Ownership approved the signing of multi-year, high-priced deals for free-agent lefthanders Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. The ensuing on-field failures finally convinced ownership that the franchise had to start over.
There were moments of doubt. The Rockies lost 95 games in 2005, equaling the 1993 team for the worst record in franchise history. O’Dowd, however, was so convinced of a pending revival thanks to the farm system that he was able to convince the owners to remain calm.
“I think it is easier once you have been through (a major rebuilding), and I had seen it up close and personal in Cleveland,” he said. “You know it can work. You have to stay patient, make good decisions and have some good fortune.”
All three of those came together in 2009. There was that homegrown nucleus that included catcher Chris Iannetta, first baseman Todd Helton, second baseman Clint Barmes, third basemen Garrett Atkins and Ian Stewart, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and outfielders Brad Hawpe, Dexter Fowler, Ryan Spilborghs and Seth Smith, as well as starting pitchers Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez, and relievers Matt Daley and Franklin Morales.
Then O’Dowd had the wisdom to unload the unwanted contract of reliever Luis Vizcaino on the Cubs for innings-eating starter Jason Marquis, who played a critical role when, as the Rockies expected, Jeff Francis had shoulder surgery and missed the entire season.
He also traded players developed within the organization, most notably sending Matt Holliday to the Athletics for a package that included outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and closer Huston Street. He also got righthander Jason Hammel (from the Rays for Aneury Rodriguez), and found in-season reinforcements that included set-up man Rafael Betancourt (from the Indians for Connor Graham), lefthander Joe Beimel (from the Nationals for Ryan Mattheus and Robinson Fabian), and righthander Jose Contreras (from the White Sox for Brandon Hynick).
“It’s all part of building from within,” O’Dowd said. “The players you develop may not be on your roster, but they can allow you to acquire players to fill your needs. The key is having the organizational depth so you can make a move for short-term depth without creating a long-term void.”