Before I write anything I want to pump two really great baseball websites/podcasts for you to go to. Covering the Hartford Motel 6s…wait, that was last year, I mean the Hartford Yard Goats, there is a great podcast that you will enjoy. It makes fun of the fiasco that was Dunkin Donuts Park (how can a ballpark sponsored by the ultimate wake-you-up coffee and meal be a whole season late?), called “The Second First Season.” http://wnpr.org/programs/second-first-season
The issue from early June covers the ideal of “prospect” versus “organizational cannon fodder.” Sorry, that isn’t nice, because some of my favorite players through the years – we live 20 minutes or so from Sky Sox Stadium and I got to see the best of the 90s Cleveland Indians players (including sadly Steve Olin, tragically killed in a boating accident on an off-day in Spring Training over 20 years ago (would the Indians have won the World Series in 1997 had Steve lived and been pitching the late innings instead of the former Rockies (2006…yeah, I almost forgot him too) Jose Mesa (who at least always had a cool colored glove). If he had, maybe the fact the Rox hadn’t won a World Series would feel a bit better knowing the Marlins won only one (though former Rox Craig Counsell scored the winning run so…sort of cool). Wait…lost the thread.
In the podcast he talks about the difference between the Ryan McMahons of the world and the Ashley Graeters of the world (who…yeah, I didn’t know him either…undrafted and is in his second season with the Yard Goats and 6th with the organization as a super-utility guy playing all the infield save pitcher…but evidently can throw a pickoff throw through his legs so…maybe that too). As a huge fan of the now departed Stephen Cardullo, I love organizational guys. And I love to see them make it to “The Show,” even for a game. One of my all-time favorite players is Trinidad Hubbard. Who? Trinidad is now 53, but back in the 1990s he tore up AAA. He only played in 476 big league games and 864 plate appearances (16 homers, 72 RBI and a .257 average), but a .979 OPS in 1994…that’s pretty awesome. But, in the end, even for an expansion club, just organizational depth. So while Ashely Graeter might never make it to the big time – though Dustin Garneau is a great model – he has made it a lot further than a guy who WASN’T DRAFTED IN THE 2 MILLION ROUNDS OF THE MLB DRAFT!!!. Stephen Cardullo was at least drafted, and not at the end but in the 24th Round (Chris Rusin who was just dumped by the Cubs back on September 27, 2014, was a 4th rounder just 5 years earlier). At the end of the day only about 35 players for each team will make it to the big that year. And for lots of players once you are over 26, your chance of ever seeing Coors or Fenway or Wrigley is limited to buying a ticket. The podcast does a great job with that and is pretty high quality overall. Hartford has a competitive team but not only likely to win the league. Actually while Lancaster is doing pretty decent none of the minor league teams is likely to win a championship, which while the not the primary thing in the minors, is a good thing to do.
The second place to go and check out is InsidetheSeams.com with writing by fan-favorite Tracy Ringolsby (mostly about the Rox it appears) and Tom Helmer. Tracy has his “Write-up Cowboy” section and Helmer has his Hot Corner podcast. Check it out for some great writing and talking from some of the best who know that baseball is played in the Mountain Time Zone.
Now, to the big issue. The Rox are slowly developing one of the most enviable problems in baseball. They have position blockage.
One of the things I have noticed about Jeff Bridich is that he prefers to cover a weakness even knowing it could become a strength so that the ballclub isn’t undone by one injury or slow player development. We saw this last year when he signed Gerardo Parra to a 3-year, $27 million contract. This despite having Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez under contract and two very highly thought-of prospects starting last year in AA – David Dahl and Ramiel Tapia (and the 6th best is Jordan Patterson who…hits left-handed). Now, the idea of having your top 5 outfielders all be left-handed…is, not a smart situation. Not with lefties like Clayton Kershaw and Madison Baumgarner in the division. But rather than count on Brandon Barnes to play every day, or even be your 4th outfielder, or rush one of the young players, he made a significant but not bankrupting deal with Parra. Now, if Parra is healthy (and in shape, both of which were untrue last year) and he has 400 AB not 600, with the vast majority against right-handed pitchers, then you have a good setup. As it turned out David Dahl pushed his way into the big leagues last year and was great. I broke a rib on my right front side almost 2 years ago and what it has created by the way it pulled over the muscles to protect it, and has created horrible back and shoulder pain. Not sure that is the same as what Dahl has but if it is, can see why he’s still in Arizona just starting baseball practice again. But by signing Parra the team has been covered for a Dahl injury and the lack of development at the big league level by Tapia (and the down season by Patterson). So Bridich, without breaking the bank has tried to protect the team. The one negative is that Tapia is clearly blocked at least until next year when CarGo is playing for someone else.
He took a similar approach with the signing of Ian Desmond. Now yes, they lost out on a first-round pick and the slot money that would have gone with it. But they knew organizationally the team has had an issue with developing first basemen and right-hand hitting outfielders. Desmond filled both, allowing time for the team to develop someone else at both positions. Plus by forgoing the draft-pick it was a signal, the time to win is now. The team needs players who understand winning. Mark Reynolds and Desmond know about that. As does Greg Holland. And yes, it isn’t measurable but teams that only know losing…tend to find ways to keep on losing. But most importantly, he gave them a first-baseman where they had none.
Except Mark Reynolds. Who they brought back too. Because that was just smart. Like grabbing Rusin and Wolters and Holland off the trash heap. He’s the best (wait, Qualls and Motte? Never heard of them…)
The truth is that with money to spend Bridich pursued a player who can play first, play any of the three outfield positions (better in left and right) and provide another right-handed bat, and could be moved even to second should the need arrive (though I think that Tony Wolters would be the preference there). Yes, just like a few years back everyone tried to copy the Royals bullpen (since finding five starters is actually really hard…not that finding 8 good arms that can throw at least 1 inning is easy), now since my favorite ballplayer – Ben Zobrist – won the MVP last year in the World Series, everyone wants a Ben Zobrist. Actually, the Rox have to have a Ben Zobrist type player because they will always have to play one-down on the bench. Pitching at Coors simply makes it necessary (both because of usage and recovery time between starts/appearances). So Ian Desmond was the perfect signing (though I wouldn’t have signed him based on age and his post-All Star swoon, but, good reasons to grab a guy like that…and these days $15 million is not a ton of money…weird world).
And…took pressure off the farm players so they can develop at their natural pace. If a player develops and pushes his way forward – as Dahl did last year (and you can argue, Murphy did last year hitting .400 for July and August), then great. Otherwise…you have time. It is why the team was experimenting with Forrest Wall in center, to take advantage of his speed and his gap-power. It was working too, with Wall showing up much better his second season in High-A. Until he found a wall that didn’t appreciate sharing a family tree (sorry for the world-play). So it looks like he’s out till late August at the earliest. He may be able to appear in the Arizona Fall League, maybe.
But right now there are two players who are pushing themselves forward to make the protection plan that Bridich put in place potentially unnecessary. We have all probably heard about what Brenden Rodgers is doing in High-A Lancaster. Yes, it is an offensive league. But his current .387/.407/.675 slash for a 1.082 OPS – as a young player for the league – is 182 points higher than the #2 in the league. His batting average is higher than all but 4 players OBP! Yes, the 5 walks to 24K looks Parra-esque but when you are killing the ball, why sit back and take a walk. Walks don’t usually get yourself moved to AA. You have to figure that he’s ticketed for AA in the next couple of weeks.
Two other guys playing at High A who could get mid-season jumps are 2015 7th Rounder Brian Mundell (who set the minor league record for doubles last year) who is hitting .305/.376/.520 for a .902 OPS (that’s right, the second highest OPS in the league…is Rodgers third-baseman/first-baseman. Mundell is a 2019 earliest possible showing, and only if he keeps outperforming his pedigree. Sam Hillard, a 2015 15th rounder who plays right-field (and yep…bats left) who is 23 – just about right-on for league age, is hitting .299/.375/.490 for a solid .865 OPS. Again, his pedigree says he might get the whole year at High-A but if they see he’s handling things and to see a true measure of his quality want to move him to Double-A, that could happen in early July. Mundell has intrigued the Rox since signing (he skipped right to Boise in 2015, hit for a .765 OPS then .888 last year so…he has their eye and plays 1B and best of all…hits right-handed!).
But the guy who might force the Rox to make a decision this season like Dahl last is Ryan McMahon. All of us last year watched him just struggle all year in Hartford, after only struggling on defense (hard to measure in the minors when many infields are more like pinball machines than the surface at Coors). I still wonder how much playing on the road all-year impacted a guy like McMahon who was just 21 last year, a bit young for AA. After hitting for a .984 OPS at Grand Junction, an .860 at Ashville and an .892 at High-A, all as his power is just beginning to assert itself, last year he fell to earth with a .724 OPS. He was better in the second half, but nowhere near the quality we saw earlier in this career. Worst of all he was a strikeout machine, as in 161K in 466 AB with only 55BB. He dropped from some of the prospect lists that litter the internet. Some people began to whisper…was he going to just be a great A-ball player?
But you know what, Nolan Arenado struggled at Tulsa in his AA year. Trevor Story had to repeat after an awful first time to AA. And David Dahl…well Dahl was mostly hurt but also didn’t take the bull by the horns and make them promote him either. So McMahon struggles are not new to the Rockies, or to Jeff Bridich who has overseen player development for years. The expected a player who was on the road all year, who was learning to play 1st, who was young for his league to…perhaps struggle. Look, struggling stinks, but it isn’t the worst thing to happen to a good prospect.
Baseball, as we all know, is about failure. Great pitchers still give up 2 runs in a 6 inning game. Great hitters get on base only 4 in 10 times, a rate of shooting in the NBA, even from 3-point land that might get you in the D-League. If they were kickers, they would fail out of Arena League. So baseball players who are going to be great major leaguers have to learn to fail, overcome adversity, learn to listen to good baseball wisdom, and keep changing and adjusting as the baseball world adjust to them. For me, seeing McMahon fail last year (as did Wall and Dom Nunez…who still is unfortunately), was disappointing but not…bad.
Especially because of the player who showed up in Arizona. All reports were he was calmer, more confident, had worked hard on his game and athleticism, and who was ready to force the Rox to think about the future sooner rather than later. And in 49 games in AA, split between 3B, 1B and for the first time 2B, he hit .326/.390/.536 for a .926 OPS. He stole 7 bases without getting caught. And this time in 181 AB he only struck out 39 times, or less than one a game. And he had 20 walks, attacking his biggest weakness even in his best years without sacrificing power (6-HR, 16-2B, 2-3B). He forced the game, much like Dahl did last year and Story the year before. And so on May 31 he got to visit the Mountain Time Zone to start playing games…which will hopefully be true for him for many years to come…but from a better stadium. In his first 8 games at AAA he is hitting .326/.390/.536 for a .926 OPS, or basically, keeping things going as they were in Hartford, yes in better offensive parks but against players 3 or more years older than him. He hasn’t hit a homer yet, but 4 doubles (and added another stolen base). Now, this isn’t David Dahl’s where last year he hit .484/.529/.887 for 1.417 OPS with 5 homers and 13 total extra-base hits in 16 games…and then hit in his first 17 in the big leagues. But, this is a great sign. And now, because of Bridich protection plan, he can spend as much time as they want in AAA learning the game. Especially 2B.
Because more and more, I believe that DJ LeMahieu isn’t going to be resigned after 2018. The Rox have two players they think can take that position, play equal level of defense…in time…and provide even more pop. Brenden Rodgers and Ryan McMahon are both heading towards a potential future as the Rox 2B. McMahon, if the power keeps developing, could be the future at first. Or Story could slide to second and Rodgers play short but, considering the growth in his defensive game, Story looks more and more like the shortstop that will play to the left of Nolan Arenado (we hope) for at least the next 6 years.
And what of Desmond? Well, that is the great thing about protection plans. Not only does he make this team better by pushing guys like Cristhian Adaames and Stephen Cardullo to the minors, he also means that when an injury like Parra occurs, they have it covered with a quality major league player. Just like Parra meant they could wait on David Dahl making them promote him and had things covered when Dahl got hurt.
Now, if the Rox get a run of great health…are there issues? Might you have another situation like last year where Tom Murphy was killing the ball in AAA but the Rox rolled out Nick Hundley. That was unfortunate (and one of the few times I really have questioned the Rox developmental approach, given that his catcher’s ERA wasn’t very good, his bat was below league average and the catcher of the future – or one of two – was simply living off meal money in AAA. But…I am sure they had a plan and they stuck to it. Right now, a similar situation exists with Tapia, who has done all he can at AAA save continue work on his defense. But with Blackmon having an MVP season so far, Desmond getting paid $15 million and CarGo $20 million, there simply isn’t a place for him. And he needs regular at-bats. Once he does, the hitting will come in the majors that has appeared in the minors at every level. If McMahon gets a chance to come to the big leagues this year and produce, could it mean that the DJ is traded in the off-season? Perish the thought but…better before Free Agency. And Blackmon…would they resign a then 32-year old center fielder to a 4-year deal like the Royals did with Gordon? Wait…that hasn’t worked out great.
We know they have to get Nolan signed. After that…resign Reynolds for 2 more years? Or Blackmon for 4? How about Jake McGee? And DJ? As the Royals know…and the Rox appear to have more payroll flexibility than the Royals do…you can’t keep everyone. So you need guys to force existing players out of their way. Dahl and Tapia may in the end be the future left and centerfielders, with resigning of Blackmon and an eventual move to left. Perhaps Parra’s 4th outfield slot taken by a Forrest Wall? Assuming that Nolan remains, DJ and Reynolds would be replaced by Rodgers and McMahon. Or maybe even a Brian Mundell. And the young catching tandem set for the next few years. And the likes of Ian Desmond now there to provide protection against injuries, failures and more.
So give Bridich a lot of credit (and Dan O’Dowd since he drafted some of these guys). They keep building genuine prospect backlog while fine-tuning the roster with the likes of Parra and Desmond, so guys are allowed to flourish in their own time, not fail when rushed. Pretty smart…
Now…if that bullpen can just get the same sort of prospect pileup, this might be a repeat of the last 15 years or so of the Cardinals. I can live with 2 World Series and 4 appearances. Yeah…I like that.
It makes me happy. And a smile goes great with my purple-tinted glasses on.