Piece by piece
For Rockies, good things come to those who wait
Posted: Friday October 19, 2007 11:35AM; Updated: Friday October 19, 2007 1:54PM
Despite all that Rocky Mountain hoopla, the NL champion Colorado Rockies are not an overnight success. In fact, they're almost the polar opposite.
Colorado's blinding 21-1 run over the past month obscures the fact that this was a team that had played .624 ball (58-45) over the three months prior to firing the turbo boosters. And the abrupt turnaround of a team that had posted losing records in the previous six seasons, including 76-86 in 2006, belies how timid a makeover the Rockies put themselves through during the previous offseason.
Unlikely as it may be for a franchise down on its luck for so long, frustration and desperation went on a disappearing act in Denver. Rather, Colorado's success this year had more to do with taking long, deep breaths than with long, deep moves into the trade and free agent markets. To underscore the point, if you had to point out the five major building blocks of this year's pennant winner, they could very well be these:
1) Amateur hour
Roll call: Todd Helton (1995 first round), Aaron Cook (1997 second round), Matt Holliday (1998 seventh round), Manny Corpas (1999 amateur free agent), Garrett Atkins (2000 fifth round), Brad Hawpe (2000 11th round), Cory Sullivan (2001 seventh round), Ubaldo Jimenez (2001 amateur free agent), Ryan Speier (2001 amateur free agent), Jeff Francis (2002 first round), Jeff Baker (2002 fourth round), Ryan Spilborghs (2002 seventh round), Franklin Morales (2002 amateur free agent), Seth Smith (2004 second round), Troy Tulowitzki (2005 first round). More than half the Colorado roster was home-grown through domestic and international scouting, including the Nos. 3 through 7 hitters, starting pitcher and closer from their NL-clinching victory over Arizona on Monday.
2) Virtuous patience
Look at how long ago some of those players came into the organization. Helton's the easy one, of course; he's been the franchise anchor for nearly a decade. But outside of Tulowitzki and September callup Smith, everyone mentioned above has been in the Colorado system for at least five years. NL MVP candidate Holliday didn't make the majors until nearly six years after the Rockies drafted him. Anytime this century, Colorado could have tried to cash him in for a quick fix; instead, they grew themselves a hero.
3) Bargain shopping
The last time many folks paid attention to the Rockies was in 2001, when they were signing pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle to dreadful long-term contracts. This year's team is the epitome of economy. Colorado's version of a blockbuster move this past offseason was giving up pitchers Jason Jennings and Miguel Asencio for starting pitcher Jason Hirsh and center fielder Willy Taveras. Second baseman Kaz Matsui was signed as a free agent at a salary not even 20 percent of what the Mets paid him the previous year. The bullpen is mostly an army of castoffs, testimony to the fact that good relief pitching is mainly about finding capable hands that get hot at the right moment. It's not as if the Rockies were too paralyzed to make any trades, but they were drops in the bucket. Building as powerful a core as they did through the farm system meant that the Rockies didn't need to make huge hauls via trade and free agency to contend.
4) Handing over the reins
The Rockies continued their disciplined approach during the 2007 season, when injuries struck down most of their starting rotation: Hirsh, Cook and Lopez all vanished to the disabled list for long stretches. Perhaps it helped that Colorado was in fourth place or worse for most of the year, but the Rockies didn't rip up the core of the team in pursuit of the pennant. They did haul in journeymen Elmer Dessens, Mark Redman and Ramon Ortiz, but for the most part they were content to give key starting innings down the stretch to Jimenez and Morales. Neither pitched like a Cy Young winner, but they were more than adequate and kept the Rockies competitive. Colorado also didn't hesitate to elevate the 24-year-old Corpas to the top of their bullpen when All-Star closer Brian Fuentes faltered.
5) Not realizing it was over
They trailed 3-0 in the first. They trailed 7-5 in the sixth. They trailed 8-7 with two out and none on in the bottom of the ninth in the second game of a Sept. 18 doubleheader against arguably the best closer in the National League, Takashi Saito of the Dodgers. Suddenly, after a Holliday single, Helton blasted a game-winning home run to right field. How do you build a champion? You just keep playing ball until you get there, until talent asserts itself.
Drafting can be a crapshoot; good performances from journeymen are about as reliable as spins of the roulette wheel. Plenty of things went the Rockies' way this year that they had no right to expect. But that's true of any winning team. No one wins when luck is against them. In the meantime the Rockies have shown a history of being astute with regard to the quality of ballplayers that were available to them. It took time, but look at them now. With a payroll below $60 million Colorado has shown that you can be both thrifty and nifty. Patience has been the Rockies' sweet reward.
Jon Weisman writes about the Dodgers and baseball at Dodger Thoughts.