Philosophy shift has shaped Rockies
Eschewing an obsession with power made Colorado stronger
DENVER -- Clint Hurdle determined not long after being named manager in 2002 that the Rockies needed to win with pitching and defense. But with Coors Field producing greater offensive numbers than any park, ever, the response was head-scratching.
"I heard from a number of people for a number of years that we had to come in here and bash the ball, that's the only way to win," Hurdle said. "I disagreed, and I was actually the hitting coach for a lot of that.
"Bashing the ball is actually easier said than done, because, push comes to shove, good pitching beats good hitting."
Through those guiding principles, the Rockies have constructed exactly what Hurdle was talking about -- a team that is more than just a collection of sluggers -- and the World Series is coming to Denver. The Rockies were built mostly through the Draft and Latin American signings, with some shrewd trades and low-cost free agents. It all adds up to a cost-effective approach, with the Rockies meeting their priorities this season with a payroll of $54.5 million, which ranks 25th among baseball's 30 teams.
Doing so was time-consuming. Years were spent signing free agents as placeholders as the Rockies were putting the pieces in place to execute the plan. Often, the team came under criticism for seeming to constantly be changing plans. But general manager Dan O'Dowd, on the job since September 1999, and Hurdle had the trust of ownership that they'd find the answers.
"There were a lot of dark moments as it relates to when and if it would work out," O'Dowd said. "It was a matter of having the persistence and the patience to stick with it.
"It all comes down to ownership and leadership in the organization. I've said this over and over again: In most other cases, I wouldn't be standing here right now."
A look at how the Rockies shape up shows that improving the pitching and fielding a consistent defense guided the way the club was developed and how this year's roster was put together.
With pitching the top priority, the Rockies entered the season with a first-round Draft pick in the rotation in left-hander Jeff Francis and a second-round pick in right-hander Aaron Cook, who suffered an oblique strain in August but could be back for the World Series.
A heavy emphasis on scouting Latin America, with program coordinator Rolando Fernandez having developed a knack for predicting how young pitchers will develop physically, netted two late-season rookie sensations, right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, 23, from the Dominican Republic, and left-hander Franklin Morales, 21, from Venezuela. Both signed as 16-year-olds.
Two first-round Draft picks are key to the infield defense.
The other first-round pick in the infield, rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, was so far ahead of the norm as a leader and a fielder that the club had him skip Triple-A late last season. This season, his aptitude for getting to balls and making simple and spectacular plays has made him worthy of consideration for a Gold Glove, something no rookie shortstop has won.
How unusual was the quick rise for Tulowitzki, the top pick in 2005? Of the current regulars, the only one that came close to skipping Triple-A was left fielder Matt Holliday, a National League Most Valuable Player candidate. Holliday, however, was slated for more than the six games he spent at Colorado Springs in 2004. An injury led to his promotion to the Majors.
"[Tulowitzki], I don't think, surprises anybody," O'Dowd said. "I think that's why we brought him up last year when we did, to give him a feel for the speed of the game at this level."
In a roundabout way, center field -- considered by the Rockies a key defensive position because of the amount of ground to cover in Coors Field -- came as a result of a first-round pick. The Rockies traded pitcher Jason Jennings (1999), the former staff ace, to the Astros for a package that included center fielder Willy Taveras, who also filled the leadoff role.
As a result of emphasizing pitching and defense, the Rockies led the National League after the All-Star break with a 3.86 team ERA, and their .98925 fielding percentage set a Major League record, with more fielding chances than any of the four previous best percentages.
|"These guys, they all bring something."|
|-- Manager Clint Hurdle, on Rockies' relievers|
The Rockies were small players in last winter's money market, but they turned out to be shrewd.
Kazuo Matsui was a bust for the Mets, who signed him in 2004 for three years and $20.1 million to play shortstop, but a bargain and a major contributor at second base at one year and $1.5 million.
The Rockies paid more than they anticipated for right-hander Josh Fogg, at an arbitration-induced $3.6 million, but he's become a major contributor. He and righty Rodrigo Lopez, paid $4.325 million and a solid starter before suffering a season-ending elbow injury, were as useful as many of the pitchers that signed for far more dollars.
The Rockies spent some money in the bullpen, but didn't go crazy doing it.
Their original closer, Brian Fuentes, and setup man, righty LaTroy Hawkins, each came at $3.5 million. Fuentes was a bargain, considering his strong performance the previous two years. Hawkins had earned more money the previous two seasons.
Their modest salaries made other decisions easier. When right-hander Manny Corpas, in his first full season, surpassed both, the Rockies weren't paying the veteran relievers so much money that they had to make a salary dump. Fuentes and Hawkins proved to be steady hands during the stretch run, as were left-hander Jeremy Affeldt and reinforcements from the Minors such as veteran Matt Herges and youngster Ryan Speier.
"From a managerial standpoint, it's way easier when you've got more arms and got more skills and got more options," Hurdle said. "These guys, they all bring something. A plus is the experience we had toward the back end, guys who have closed games and are now getting used to different situations." While the good investments obviously paid dividends, Colorado's worst investments didn't derail the club.
Byung-Hyun Kim, unhappy at not being chosen for the original rotation, contributed little at $1.5 million. But the Rockies traded him to the Marlins for right-hander Jorge Julio and cash. Julio, who has been out with a strained muscle near his neck during the playoffs, had several strong performances during the Rockies' late run.
On the bench, veterans Steve Finley and John Mabry made a combined $1.75 million but neither hit over .200. However, the performances of callups Ryan Spilborghs, Cory Sullivan and Seth Smith, and the gradual improvement of Jeff Baker in his first full season, made their struggles easier to swallow.
Now, because of attention to pitching and defense and cost-effective decisions in other places, the Rockies are tasting their first World Series.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.