Patient plan pays dividends for Rockies
Signing young stars to long-term deals key step in process
DENVER -- The Rockies' plan for building and maintaining a sustainable high-quality baseball team can be boiled down to three steps.
Step 1: Draft and develop winning players.
Step 2: Sign them to multiyear contracts early in their careers to avoid the unpredictable salary escalations that come with arbitration.
Step 3: Be patient and watch young players grow.
None of the steps, however, is as easy as it sounds. Even the best organizations make mistakes in the Draft, and that's not even counting the injury factor. The give-and-take of negotiations can lead to strained relationships. But the third step can be the most tenuous.
On the whole, there's little argument with the plan. It has resulted in two playoff performances in the last three seasons for the Rockies. But to experience that winning, the club has had to endure several pains and pratfalls.
Right-hander Aaron Cook signed a two-year, $4.55 million deal before 2006, then extended the commitment with a three-year, $30 million deal that started in 2008. Cook has been the leader of the pitching staff on and off the field and made an All-Star Game appearance in '08, but before that, he suffered an oblique strain and missed most of the late-season run to the playoffs in '07.
Before the '07 season, left-hander Jeff Francis signed a four-year, $13.25 million deal -- with a club-friendly option for a fifth year, which would have been his first year of free agency. Francis responded by going 17-9 and leading the team to the World Series in '07, but he struggled through shoulder pain and a 4-10 season in '08 and missed '09 with shoulder surgery.
Right-handed reliever Manuel Corpas' emergence as closer was an important factor in the '07 World Series trip. Before the next season, Corpas signed a four-year, $8.025 million contract. Corpas lost the job in the first month of '08, couldn't regain it in '09 and suffered an elbow injury that required two surgeries last season.
After an outstanding rookie year in '07, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki signed for six years and $31 million. By the middle of the '08 season, Tulowitzki was on the disabled list for the second time.
Right fielder Brad Hawpe's three-year, $17.25 million contract signed before the '08 season has worked out well for the most part. But after making his first All-Star Game appearance in '09, Hawpe slumped in the second half of last season. After Hawpe was benched during the playoffs, questions arose about Hawpe's future in Colorado.
Going into '10, Francis and Corpas are healthy, and Cook is still productive. Hawpe is still in the fold. And general manager Dan O'Dowd's faith in the evaluations of his players has not been shaken by slumps and injuries.
"Sometimes, if you stay patient with them, you end up getting a lot better player and more production," O'Dowd said. "We believe in that."
Tulowitzki's case shows how believing in the approach can pay dividends.
|"Sometimes, if you stay patient with them, you end up getting a lot better player and more production. We believe in that."|
|-- Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd|
Tulowitzki started slowly in '09, but by season's end he re-established himself as a rising star by finishing the year at .297 with team highs in home runs (32) and RBIs (92). Not only that, but his turnaround was one of the biggest factors in the team going from 10 games under .500 in late May to the playoffs.
Here's where the contract comes in. The '09 season would have been Tulowitzki's last season before being eligible for arbitration. It's anyone's guess whether the turnaround would have occurred, but protecting or enhancing his position in arbitration was not part of the equation.
"I think it gives you some comfort, the fact that I had a bad year but they still believed in me," Tulowitzki said. "The other part of it is because of the contract, they're going to have to stick with me."
O'Dowd doesn't mind being stuck with Tulowitzki.
"He's the leader -- 'Tulo' is our guy," O'Dowd said. "We identified that and that's something that he really wanted to do. That's a very special player and a very special person. It's unique."
Corpas' contract calmed a potentially stressful offseason.
As has been the case with many of the deals, the first two years of Corpas' deal called for salaries that were modestly above those of players who hadn't put in the three years of service time to qualify for arbitration. The '10 salary is where Corpas benefits most.
Corpas will earn $2.75 million in what would have been his first year of arbitration. By comparison among the Rockies, Taylor Buchholz, another right-handed setup man, received $1.05 million last year as a first-time arbitration-eligible player. In closer Huston Street's first year of arbitration, '08 with the Athletics, he earned $3.3 million but entered that year as clearly the team's closer.
It goes back to the Rockies' confidence in Corpas, and Corpas' decision that the Rockies' offer provided security in case something went wrong. That's exactly what happened.
Corpas earned 19 saves in the regular season and two in the postseason in '07 but lost his sharpness in '08 and eventually underwent surgery in '09 to remove a bone chip from his elbow. A follow-up surgery was required to clear an infection in the elbow.
Instead of sweating out whether he would be tendered a contract offer or what his salary would be after two difficult years, Corpas spent the winter getting healthy. He made three appearances in the Dominican Winter League and should be healthy for the upcoming season.
"The back end of the bullpen is a very volatile position, and it's tough to maintain that high level as a closer," Corpas' veteran agent, Tom O'Connell, said. "When you're looking at a player that signed at 16 for $15,000, that stability was a major factor when we discussed his contract options.
"The biggest thing is that a) Manny loves it in Colorado and b) he felt the team was gong to be around, contending, for a long time. He has two more years left, and if things work out, Manny could be back on top as a closer in Colorado."
O'Dowd believes the deal can pay off for the club. The Rockies are trying to sign Street, who is eligible for free agency next year, to a multiyear deal as well. If that doesn't happen and Corpas regains his '07 form, he can slide into the spot. If Street does sign, the Rockies will have two closer types in the fold.
"It removes uncertainty as we move forward," O'Dowd said of Corpas. "A year from now, he might be our closer, at a very fair number for us [a $3.75 million guarantee in '11, with club options the next two years]."
Catcher Chris Iannetta is the latest to benefit from the strategy. He struggled and lost the catching job last season, but the Rockies have seen enough potential to sign him to a three-year, $8.3 million deal this winter with a club option for '13, which would have been his first year of free agency.
"I like the direction we're going in," Iannetta said. "Other teams go about things differently, like the Yankees. They won the World Series this year, but they've had their ups and downs. We're trying to build from within, and it's worked out well. I think we're very close."
The Rockies' approach is not new.
O'Dowd was on the ground floor of a similar plan with the Indians in 1990. After an expensive and unsuccessful arbitration tussle with pitcher Greg Swindell, O'Dowd and general manager John Hart developed the plan. The Indians signed stalwarts such as second baseman Carlos Baerga, catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., slugger Albert Belle and pitcher Charles Nagy. They also gave multiyear deals to players who didn't hit the same heights, like Mark Whiten, Scott Scudder and current Rockies first-base coach Glenallen Hill.
The background is even deeper. Early in his career, Hank Peters, who built perennial contenders with the Orioles and was Hart's predecessor as GM, mentored O'Dowd. In the early days of free agency, Peters kept the Orioles' payroll manageable by locking up core players for years, and O'Dowd has emulated that strategy.
Players, and their agents, have to buy the philosophy. To that end, some safeguards have been built into the deals. Tulowitzki, Hawpe and Iannetta have clauses that allow them to void parts of the deal if traded, and Cook's yearly salary grows by $1 million if he's dealt, which could discourage other teams from pursuing them. It's all part of working together to keep a team together.
Tulowitzki experiences his first major salary increase this year (from $1 million to $3.5 million). But his salary could be below market value in '13 and the club option year of '14, which without the contract would be his first two years of free agency.
"For myself, it came down to when I was a little kid, and if someone had told me I could play this game for six more years at the Major League level, make a living and raise a family, I would have taken it in a heartbeat," Tulowitzki said
Not every player takes the multiyear deal.
Usually, that means the player is not with the club long-term. The Rockies traded outfield standout Matt Holliday -- for Street, rising outfield star Carlos Gonzalez and pitcher Greg Smith -- rather than risk losing him as a free agent. This winter, the Rockies non-tendered third baseman Garrett Atkins, who signed with the Orioles.
Many clubs have cut ties with core players for similar reasons. The Pirates dealt Jason Bay in '08 rather than risk losing him for nothing, and didn't offer a contract to closer Matt Capps (now with the Nationals) rather than face a dramatic arbitration raise. O'Dowd, who has talked about multiyear agreements with Street, reliever Rafael Betancourt and second baseman Clint Barmes, said the club's goals go beyond the obvious attempt to manage the payroll.
"Many times it's trying to reflect the value you put on team rather than individual statistics, which is what the arbitration process represents," O'Dowd said. "That doesn't mean that if they turn it down, they're not still part of our team.
"I think if players do step up and want to be part of that, it's more a reflection of their commitment to stay here."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.