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After rocky road, future looks bright for Colorado
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DENVERThe Rockies like the foundation they have built.
And they are taking steps to keep it in place.
Colorado is coming off a franchise-record 92 wins in a 2009 regular season that began with a two-month stumble. Considered by most to be a serious contender in the NL West for 2010, the Rockies want to avoid being a short-term wonder.
"We are trying with each move we make to build something with staying power," said Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd. "We might see some moves that are a short-term fit, but this isn't about mortgaging the future. It's about trying to ensure the future."
In his early days as a baseball executive with the Cleveland Indians two decades ago, O'Dowd was a part of the Hank Peters front office that returned the Indians to a contending franchise, and that approach -- develop talent first, then try to keep the core together long-term -- provided the seeds for what O'Dowd is overseeing in Colorado.
The Rockies have only one player on their current roster -- left-handed starter Jorge De La Rosa -- who is a potential free agent candidate after the 2010 season. They have 11 players locked into multi-year contracts -- 10 of whom have signed during the last three off-seasons -- that bind them to the Rockies through at least the 2011 season.
"What you are looking for is a commitment from the organization and the player to what we are trying to build," said O'Dowd.
In the last month, the Rockies have signed catcher Chris Iannetta and closer Huston Street to three-year deals that include options on a fourth season, and outfielder Ryan Spilborghs and right-handed setup man Rafael Betancourt to two-year deals.
A year ago, right-hander Aaron Cook signed an extension that includes an option for 2011, and Ubaldo Jimenez signed a deal that includes options for 2013 and 2014. The previous year, the Rockies embarked on their current path by signing outfielder Brad Hawpe and left-hander Jeff Francis to deals that include club options for 2011, reliever Manny Corpas to a contract with options for 2012 and 2013, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to a long-term deal that extends through an option season of 2014.
And it all started with signing first baseman Todd Helton to the longest guarantee in franchise history -- a deal that could extends through an option season of 2012.
Of course, there were some hiccups along the way. Outfielder Matt Holliday and third baseman Garrett Atkins, who were key parts to the Rockies lineup, both balked at buying into the approach. That resulted in Holliday being dealt a year ago for a three-player package that includes Street, emerging outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and left-handed starter Greg Smith, and the Rockies deciding not to tender Atkins a contract this off-season. Highly regarded Ian Stewart is being counted on to step in for Atkins.
"You have to be realistic," said O'Dowd. "Some tough decisions are going to be made, but when you reach the point you hope you can add to your product with a trade (like Holliday) and you hope you have continued to do the job in your (scouting and player development) to have someone ready to step into the open spot."
The Rockies are making an impact with their scouting and player development programs, which is why they feel that despite being a middle-of-the-pack team -- at best -- in terms of payroll, they feel they can be a constant contender, along the lines of a Minnesota.
Consider that on Opening Day of the 2009 season, the Colorado Rockies were the only team that had a home-grown player at every spot in the starting lineup, and when the Rockies officially clinched the NL wild-card spot with a victory against Milwaukee on Oct. 1, each of the 10 players who appeared in the game were originally signed by the Rockies.
"It is one thing to put players on the field who are home grown," said O'Dowd. "It's another thing to put players on the field who are home grown and good."
It is similar to what O'Dowd was a part of in Cleveland.
"The evolution has been different, but the concept is the same," said O'Dowd.
In Cleveland, Peters brought a front office group from Baltimore to take over an Indians franchise that was owned by the estate of Steve O'Neill. The finances were slim, and the success had been minimal.
In Colorado, O'Dowd walked into a situation where the ownership group had shown a willingness to spend money, but in retrospect the money was often misspent (see Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle). Having enjoyed a postseason berth in 1995, the third year of franchise existence, the Rockies were constantly trying to add that high-priced missing part to get back into the playoffs.
O'Dowd convinced them to tear down the roster, and commit to a long-term building process, stressing the need for patience because of the struggles the team would face at times on the field.
"Without (Dick and Charlie Monfort) buying into the process we get nowhere," said O'Dowd. "They are the ones who had to share our vision and allow everything to develop."
The approach does require success on the field creating a deeper fan base because it does factor in projected payroll increases to keep everyone in place. With just the 11 players under contract for 2011, if the Rockies were to exercise their options on Hawpe and Francis they have to factor in a $12.45 million payroll increase for 2011.
The Rockies had their first tangible signs of success in 2007 when they advanced to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, but there was a disappointing 2008, and then an 18-28 stumble to open the 2009 season. That's when manager Clint Hurdle was fired and Jim Tracy was hired. And that's when the Rockies enjoyed a resurgence that sent them on the road back to the postseason.
"We look at what we have in place and we see not just a year or two of being a factor, but we envision a long run," said Tracy.
And the Rockies are working in the off-season to ensure that the key parts to their puzzle are around for the long run.