If Rockies rebound, talent will be the reason

Above chemistry, Colorado needs big years from guys like Marco Scutaro, left, and Michael Cuddyer. Getty Images/US Presswire

Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd has spent the offseason remaking the Rockies' lineup and rotation.

Wait, I take that back: He's spent the offseason remaking the Rockies' clubhouse culture.

"Changing the culture motivated the changes," O'Dowd told Troy Renck of the Denver Post. "And one change led to another. There was a vision of what we wanted, but all the dots kind of connected on their own."

"We stunk and it was a bad clubhouse," O'Dowd told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci. "Last year guys went their own way and didn't hold each other accountable. We pride ourselves on an 'all-for-one' mentality. And last year we didn't have that. It bugged everybody -- not just me."

"Quite honestly, I just feel like we needed to address our culture more than anything," O'Dowd told a Denver radio station in January. "We certainly need to address our talent, but I think talent becomes secondary if your culture is not where it needs to be. I think we had too many players, not naming anybody, that were more worried about collecting service time than actually worried about winning and playing the game the right way."

So O'Dowd signed Michael Cuddyer and Casey Blake. He traded for Marco Scutaro, saying, "He fits in well. He's another guy with a slow heartbeat that is a winning player." He just traded for Jeremy Guthrie and invited Jamie Moyer to spring training. All veterans. All regarded as good clubhouse guys.

Now, I don't know what happened in the Rockies' clubhouse last season. But from the outside, it appears to me that O'Dowd is making excuses for the team's 73-89 record. He's not calling out himself for constructing a bad team, or manager Jim Tracy for not making sure the team played "the game the right way" or even veterans like Todd Helton or Troy Tulowitzki for failing, you know, to build a winning clubhouse atmosphere.

Look at some of his moves:

  • He signed Ty Wigginton, a player who had put up minus-1.7 WAR over the previous two seasons. The Rockies gave him 446 plate appearances and he predictably was terrible, putting up minus-1.1 WAR.

  • The team broke camp with Jose Lopez, coming off a season with a .270 OBP, as its starting second baseman. Predictably, he was terrible and the Rockies released him in June with a .233 OBP.

  • The team began the season with Esmil Rogers in the rotation. Rogers has a nice arm, but no secondary pitches, no idea of how to pitch, had pitched poorly with the Rockies in 2010, and didn't have much of a track record of success in the minors. Predictably, he was terrible, posting a 7.05 ERA.

  • He'd traded Clint Barmes in the offseason for strong-armed Felipe Paulino, but the Rockies gave up on Paulino after 14 innings and sold him to the Royals, where he pitched well. Paulino would certainly have been a better option than some of the other guys the Rockies tried in the rotation.

  • The team continued to count on the aging Helton to be a key part of the lineup. Helton hit .302 and gets on base; but while he's still a decent player, he doesn't provide the power you prefer from a first baseman, and he's going to miss time (38 games in 2011, 44 in 2010).

Yes, the Rockies suffered some injuries to the rotation -- Jorge De La Rosa went down after 10 starts and Juan Nicasio after 13 starts, and then O'Dowd traded Ubaldo Jimenez. But no team makes it through the year with five starters. In the end, the Rockies just weren't a good team. O'Dowd's desire to seemingly blame the season on "clubhouse culture" is as embarrassing as Red Sox management blaming fried chicken for their collapse.

Of course, this is nothing new for the Rockies. Back in 2006, USA Today ran a story headlined "Baseball's Rockies seek revival on two levels." Bob Nightengale's story focused on how the Rockies had become an "organization guided by Christianity," as Nightengale wrote.

"We started to go after character six or seven years ago, but we didn't follow that like we should have," chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort says in the piece (he's now listed as owner/general partner). "I don't want to offend anyone, but I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. Christians, and what they've endured, are some of the strongest people in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those."

Going after "character" guys didn't really work; the Rockies had losing seasons every year from 2001 through 2006. The club did finally break through in 2007, winning 90 games and reaching the World Series. Not coincidentally, Tulowitzki and Jimenez were rookies that year. Matt Holliday had his best season and finished second in the MVP vote. Brad Hawpe had his best season. Helton played in 154 games.

I'm reminded of a couple of quotes. Jim Leyland, while managing Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh, said something along the lines of, "Leadership? Leadership is 30 home runs, 30 steals and a .300 batting average." Billy Martin once said there are mules and there are racehorses, and no matter how much you kick the mule in the ass he's not going to become a racehorse.

Maybe O'Dowd's moves will work out. I have my doubts -- Helton and Blake will be 38 and Scutaro 36. In 2011, only three position players older than 35 had a Baseball-Reference WAR of 2.0 or higher -- Johnny Damon, Chipper Jones and Helton. Cuddyer is 33 and coming off one of his best seasons, but his cumulative 2009-2010 WAR was just 2.2.

If the moves do work, I suspect it won't be because of some magic clubhouse elixir. It will be because Helton stays healthy, Cuddyer has a big year, Scutaro gives the team a good second baseman, and three guys in the rotation step up and pitch 200 innings. In the end, it's about the talent.