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Rockies won't deal away future again
by Tracy Ringolsby
DENVER—As bad the numbers look at season's end for the Rockies—and there's not much pretty about the second-worst record in club history—the franchise is finally moving forward.
Colorado is working its way through the first long-term commitment to building a solid foundation from within.
It hasn't always been this way.
From day one, there was a desire for a quick fix to a long-term problem.
Even that moment of excitement in 1995, the third year of the franchise's existence, carried a steep price. By making it into the postseason that year as the National League wild card, Rockies management convinced itself the team was thisclose to being a consistent contender. It wasn't.
During the 2003 season, however, the Rockies made a commitment to quit chasing dreams. They accepted the concept that to be a championship team they have to be patient, and build from within. Ownership even guaranteed the contracts of general manager Dan O'Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle through the 2006 season so they wouldn't feel they had to take shortcuts to keep their jobs.
The Rockies made the commitment to avoid trying to get a little bit better today at the cost of being a whole lot better tomorrow.
No more trades of Brad Ausmus for Greg Harris, Craig Counsell for Mark Hutton, Jody Gerut and Josh Bard for Jacob Cruz, or Chone Figgins for Kimera Bartee. No more signing of long-term, multimillion deals with the likes of Mike Hampton or Denny Neagle.
A veteran might make the Rockies a smidgen better, but management now is willing to take the heat for short-term struggles with the hope of a long-term payoff.
The hope is to be better and younger at the same time. But if not, the Rockies are willing to be younger with the idea that they will eventually be better.
"Certainly in the last 18 months, it's been tempting at times," O'Dowd said. "Instead of winning 70 games we might be winning 77, 78 games. But what we are looking to do is turn 70 this year into 90 or 95."
What the Rockies are looking for is what O'Dowd saw when he was with the Indians, and what the Athletics and Twins have been able to accomplish by committing to player development and creating a homegrown nucleus.
The Rockies were willing to give righthander Jamey Wright, a veteran but still only 29, a long late-season look in the rotation in place of Jeff Fassero, 41, who became so disgruntled with his situation that he wound up released with 10 days remaining in the season.
They may have $9 million in salary tied up in Charles Johnson in 2005, but they were willing to push him aside in September and look closely at rookie J.D. Closser with the idea that Closser, not Johnson, will be the primary catcher in 2005.
Closser and shortstop Clint Barmes are being counted on next season and join a lineup that added left fielder Matt Holliday and second baseman Aaron Miles in 2004.
Rolling Back The Years
The Rockies are definitely getting younger.
A team that had seven of its eight everyday players opening 2004 at the age of 30 or older is looking at a 2005 Opening Day lineup in which Vinny Castilla (37), Preston Wilson (30) and Todd Helton (31) are the only regulars 30 or older. The 2005 roster should shave 71 years of age off the roster that began 2004, when the average age was 31 years old.
They project a rotation with four starters 26 or younger—Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook, 26, Joe Kennedy, 25, and Jeff Francis, 24—and a bullpen in which Steve Reed, if he returns, could be the only 30-plus reliever.
The Rockies know money will play a part in how much they can do this offseason. They have one year remaining before they are out from under the contracts of Neagle ($10 million salary for 2005), Johnson ($9 million) and Wilson ($12.5 million) in addition to being committed to pay $6.75 million of Larry Walker's salary with the Cardinals.
"This is a tough period of time," O'Dowd said. "As hard as it is for the fans to deal with, it is even harder for the people who live it day in and day out."
It is an investment of emotions and efforts into a future with the lure of a championship payoff looming down the road.
Tracy Ringolsby is the national baseball writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. You can contact him by sending e-mail to [email protected].