So, I keep starting to write little hot stove entries and giving up a paragraph or two after I begin. How can you possibly feign enthusiasm in such news as Kaz Matsui's new contract, or the pickup of Jason Jennings' option? You can't, really, and I don't wish to insult the intelligence of you discerning baseball followers out there by trying to do so. But I have felt more the last few weeks like something ought to be happening. If you write about a have-not team like Colorado closely enough for a long period of time eventually your brain starts buying into some of the small-market smallmindedness. It would be depressing indeed if I really believed that the Rockies were doing the exact opposite thing of what they need to finally win convincingly and persistently. Especially since they have been doing it since right around when I moved to Colorado and decided that for better or worse I was going to throw my lot in with this team, correctly gauging that after two decades as a Cubs fan there was no way things could imaginably get any worse.
Okay, let me first mention again an assumption that I think we all deep down are maintaining, as Rockies fans. The assumption is as follows: one day, in our lifetimes, the Rockies will spend some money again. Not a ton of money. When they break the $100 million payroll barrier, they will be one of the last teams to do so. In all likelihood MLB's Denver franchise is never again going to be among the top third in player personnel spending, barring a huge systemic change like a salary cap. A second assumption running parallel to the first is that this is not a terrible thing. When it is most beneficial to do so and the Rockies have players worth the investment, they will ramp up into the $70-$80 million range where shoestring contenders like Oakland and Minnesota dwell and seeing as they are not in the AL East and have little to no danger of being soon so realigned, they'll make the playoffs.
This is fine. This is a good plan. Between bad luck, mismanagement, and appalling oversight of minor league development in their first decade of existence, the Rockies squandered the built-in revenue streams and ticket sales that came along with bringing baseball to the isolated, fairly wealthy, occasionally loyal Denver market. If there is one reality that current Colorado management understands above all, it is that spending lots of money and not winning is a poor strategy for this market. Leave that for the Cubs and Giants. It took the 90's Rockies way too long to figure out that while it's not impossible to win with bought players, they almost without fail bought the wrong ones, and by the time this lesson was tardily absorbed the Rockies' nascent fanbase was gone. Nobody cares about the Rockies in Denver, and no free-agent signing will correct this in one fell swoop. Dan O'Dowd's first major attempt to resuscitate the team's fortunes was the 2000 offseason -- Hampton/Neagle. Catastrophe.
Since no one around here has ever really seen enough good baseball to know what it's supposed to look like, Denver's reaction to the Rockies' free agency folly has been oddly muddled. For certain, fans are not going to be fooled again. Were the Rockies suddenly to open up the checkbooks and spend an outlandish amount of money on say, Barry Zito this offseason fans would not immediately begin rushing back to Coors Field based on the strength of the signing alone. But on the other hand popular opinion has never quite come around on just how massively misguided the Hampton and Neagle contracts really were. Baseball fans in Denver, despite having several times climbed all the way up the electric fence and being hurled repeatedly numb and smoldering back to the ground think that this next time, by the gods, we're going to sign a bunch of free agents, start clambering back up that fence again, and only this time nobody is going to switch on the power and we're going to scuttle right over to the promised land. In the Hampton example, a lot of folks think that management, the altitude, the atmosphere, the barometric pressure, and two hundred other things all just combined against us in that one case. No. Enormous multi-year deals for aging free agent pitchers are very, very close to never worth it. Offensive players, which is what most fans wish the Rockies were shopping for now, are a different story, but how different? Teams sign guys, every year they do, who have just turned 29 to five- and six-year deals with the plainly absurd assumption that each of the years these new hires will serve under contract will be equally as productive if not more so than their peak age 27-28 seasons which have already happened. At least this is what the dollar figures suggest.
This is however, quite wrong. The list of offensive players who suddenly experienced enormous performance spikes in their thirties is very, very short. Depending on how you feel about the validity of statistics accumulated with an assist from extrachemical augmentation (in all of its wonder of forms), the list might be indeed completely empty.
And there is a nagging question still. Much of the research in statistics of the last several years -- no, really, all of the research in baseball stats, ever -- has been undertaken with the ultimate goal of uncovering some sort of unified field theory, pitchers-and-catchers style. How much better, quantitatively, is this guy than that guy? Tether that thread to the game's ever-twisting economic state and you've arrived at the imponderable that keeps GMs bleary-eyed, their fingers raw from autodial. How much difference can one guy make, really?
And that's why I'm torn. On one hand, I look at the long list of Colorado players who will be out the door after 2007. Matt Holliday, Jason Jennings, Brian Fuentes. These are core guys. Replacing the equivalent players on the Yankees or Mets would cost the entire Rockies payroll and then some. My math is as always fuzzy, but it seems that no amount of reasonable spending is going to be able to make the Rockies as good in 2008 as they will be in 2007. If the team isn't good enough in 2007 -- meaning, they don't make the playoffs, pretty much -- it's pretty hard to see how they are possibly going to generate the new revenue streams required to stay even as mediocre as they are on into '08. So, why not spend money now? I'm not saying go crazy, nine-figure deals all around, but wouldn't taking a one-year loss be worth raising the payroll $15-20 million to shore up the bullpen, grab another starter, and most importantly get one more real-deal bat in the middle of the order? Seems like. Perhaps the Rockies are marshaling their resources to extend their current stars. Still, boy, if I am charting the progress of the franchise's history on a graph, 2007 looks for all the world like an inflection point.
The trouble with all I've just written is that trying to apply rational business decision-making principles to baseball doesn't work. At all. The Rockies might have the smartest, clearest-eyed scouts in the business and an absolutely foolproof risk-reward scheme. But it only takes one moron owner to completely blow the bottom out of an underwhelming free agent class, and at last census there is manifestly more than one moron owner in MLB. The guy in Texas might count as two all by his lonesome, given his proven ability to engage in a ruinous bidding war with himself. Also (since with every passing year he makes himself more and more of a singular towering nemesis among formidable company, the evil baseball owner who makes all the other evil baseball owners look sympathetic and misunderstood by comparison): Peter Angelos.
And that's the trouble of it, really. If the Rockies had fifteen million to spend, and I don't know if they do, they would be lucky to get five million's worth out of it on this market. This is a bad free agent class. The last couple have been pretty awful, and they don't appear to be getting any better. Teams are locking up their young talent, much as Colorado says they're going to do, and dealing from positions of organizational depth to make upgrades, as the Tigers did in the young pitching/Gary Sheffield deal with New York. So after all of that, I don't know what. It seems like if they were ever going to spend money, now would be a good time to do it, in terms of the team's growth curve. But as far as the baseball macroeconomy is concerned, it's the same as I wrote at about this time last year. Salary inflation is rampant, especially among veteran middle-class players who aren't significantly different from all the first- to third-year seatfillers currently wearing the purple except in paycheck digit count.
I could go on about this subject for hours, and indeed I just may do so if Colorado's hot stove period doesn't provide more invigorating topics on its own. Since the firmest free-agent name currently being paired with the Rockies is Dan Kolb, you may set your own odds as to the likelihood of that happening.
One final divisional thought. The new Diamondbacks uniforms are ugly. Real ugly. They used to be unique, at the very least, albeit hideous, now they look exactly like the Angels, Astros, Nationals, and pretty much all of the other teams that wear red and white. Only with a package of logos that ranges from huh? to ewwww.