Rockies Continue To Search For Answers
DENVER—On the afternoon of Aug. 1, hours before dropping their fifth straight game and continuing their descent toward a franchise-record 98 losses, the Rockies held an unusual press conference at Coors Field. Owner Dick Monfort and Bill Geivett were there to discuss Geivett being named senior vice president of major league operations.
Conspicuously absent was general manager Dan O'Dowd.
His title didn't change—he still has the final say on trades—but his focus did. Geivett took responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the big league club and with it, a desk in the conference room adjacent to the manager's office. O'Dowd would become more involved in player development, which he called "my passion."
Six weeks before this executive shuffle, the Rockies had gone to a four-man rotation, the starters limited to about 75 pitches as part of what the front office termed a paired pitching system. It was a radical move, an attempt to conquer Coors Field, which O'Dowd termed the club's "Goliath." It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision but one reached via voluminous data the Rockies compiled over two decades on the debilitating effects of the Coors Field workload on their starting pitchers.
The pitch limit was not popular among the starting pitchers, naturally, or position players. Manager Jim Tracy felt his chances of getting to use his bullpen in the late innings to seal a win were compromised by having to rely on a formulaic approach. The starter frequently was lifted before five innings after reaching his pitch limit. The multiple-inning reliever, called a hybrid by the Rockies, assigned to pitch that day replaced him and could throw 50 pitches.
In part because of the tepid reaction to the new plan, O'Dowd, who is fourth in seniority among major league general managers, sent Geivett, his top assistant, to the clubhouse. In Geivett, who reached the Double-A level during four seasons in the minor leagues and has been with the Rockies since November 2000, O'Dowd saw someone with a unique skillset. In addition to a broad-based knowledge of the organization, Geivett is better able to relate it on a daily basis to those in the clubhouse.
O'Dowd, who never played professionally, is very intellectual and generates and processes ideas quickly. He can overwhelm people in uniform, unlike Geivett, whose approach is more engaging and inviting.
O'Dowd said studies of payroll models show a club like the Rockies will win 2.7 times in 10 years. Since O'Dowd became general manager in September 1999, the Rockies have reached the postseason twice—in 2007 when they began an improbable surge in mid-September that carried them to the World Series, and in 2009 when the climb was steadier after Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle as manager in late May. In addition to those years, the Rockies also finished above .500 in 2000 and 2010.
But in their 20 years of existence, the Rockies are the only NL West club to have never won a division title. They have finished 20 or more games behind eight times, including each of the past two seasons with a combined record of 137-187. O'Dowd has been frustrated by the franchise's wide swings and would like to even out the vast peaks and valleys that result from playing at Coors Field. He's convinced it's not a ballpark conducive to traditional thinking, and any model for success there is going to require creativity and adaptability.
O'Dowd has become much more involved in player development, which had been overseen by Geivett and where operational changes are being instituted. Rockies area scouts and members of the player development staff say they're glad O'Dowd is devoting more attention to the farm system. Freed of daily responsibilities with the major league club, O'Dowd was able to be at instructional league and guide that program.
After the 2011 season, Marcel Lachemann left the Rockies organization he had joined in 2000. His disagreement about how they develop pitchers had been building for several years. Lachemann was a highly respected pitching coach, a position he held for two seasons with the Rockies before becoming a special assistant to O'Dowd.
In October, O'Dowd hired Mark Wiley to be director of pitching operations for the entire organization. He worked twice previously for the Rockies and has a long history with O'Dowd going back to Cleveland in the late 1980s. The Rockies have not drafted and developed a starting pitcher who has made an impact in the big leagues since they took Jeff Francis ninth overall in the 2002 draft.
It's not for lack of trying. The Rockies drafted college pitchers in the first round three straight years from 2006-2008, but Greg Reynolds (No. 2 overall, '06) and Casey Weathers (No. 8, '07) failed to make an impact in Colorado, as injuries and modest performances did them in. Lefty Christian Friedrich (No. 25, '08) will try to break the pattern and went 5-8, 6.17 in his rookie season in 2012 before a stress fracture in his back ended his season in late July. Those drafts produced big league role players such as utility infielder Jordan Pacheco and catcher Michael McKenry (now with the Pirates), but unless Friedrich comes through, the Rockies are likely to get very little production, particularly on the mound, from three straight draft classes.
Francis, who returned to the Rockies last June after beginning the 2012 season at Cincinnati's Triple-A Louisville affiliate, was surrounded by youth and inexperience in the Rockies rotation and the only starter to have success in the four-man set-up. So it wasn't surprising that just three weeks after the Aug. 1 press conference where Geivett's new role was announced, the Rockies scrapped their four-man rotation when Jhoulys Chacin came off the disabled list. The young starters were too cognizant of the effect of a long inning on their pitch counts. Not surprisingly, they were perturbed about pitching fewer than five innings and not having a chance to earn a victory. And they were unable to get as much side work between starts, which lessened the opportunity to work on correcting mistakes.
The Rockies will go with a five-man rotation this year, the starters throwing about 90 pitches and rarely expected to top 100. There will be three hybrid relievers, with the four remaining members of the bullpen filling the set-up and closer roles.
Taking A Chance On Weiss
Tracy won't be making the pitching changes this year. He resigned four days after the 2012 season ended, walking away from the $1.4 million he had coming in 2013 because he felt constrained in his job, marginalized by the role given Geivett. The Rockies hired Walt Weiss, an interesting choice and perhaps an inspired one. He has never coached or managed at the professional level, so meshing with Geivett, whom he knows well from his time in the Rockies organization, will be easier than it was for Tracy.
Weiss, who played 14 seasons in the majors, was the Rockies' shortstop from 1994-1997 and a special assistant to O'Dowd from 2002-2008. He learned from managers he played for such as Tony La Russa in Oakland and Bobby Cox in Atlanta. He was head coach last year at Regis Jesuit High in the Denver area after two years as an assistant there. He has lived in the Denver area for 19 years, so even after leaving the Rockies organization, Weiss was well aware of the challenges he was inheriting.
When Weiss interviewed and was asked about complex issues faced by a major league manager, Geivett said, "To watch him think and respond, you'd really think more along the lines of being with a more experienced major league manager."
The Rockies gave Weiss, 49, a one-year contract, which he called "really a non-issue." The Rockies have been exceedingly loyal—some would say to a fault—to their baseball people. And Weiss, likening his situation to that of a player not yet far enough along in his career to get a multi-year deal, said, "Those are some of the stripes I have to earn."
He'll have to earn them in perhaps the major leagues' most challenging ballpark. It's one the Rockies are still trying to figure out, with most of the same people trying to come up with new solutions to old problems.