Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Water Torture Weekend
2007-02-19 15:07
by Mark T.R. Donohue

There are a couple of really terrible sports weekends on the calendar, but I feel fairly confident that whichever weekend the NBA All-Star Game falls on takes the biscuit each and every year. This Sunday's viewing options included the game itself, which I happily napped through the entirety of, plus a golf tournament Tiger Woods wasn't playing in (pointless), regular season college basketball (way pointless), and that thing with the cars (not a sport). Honestly, the only thing I saw on TV all Sunday that recalled the flames of true athletic competition was the hungry look in the eyes of all the Japanese reporters surrounding Daisuke Matsuzaka at Red Sox camp.

I'm starting to feel a little sorry for A-Rod. Not a lot, just a little. No one is on the man's side. Yankees fans love Derek Jeter and hate A-Rod; Yankees haters hate Derek Jeter...and hate A-Rod. It's funny how this works. He has to have a fanbase somewhere, right? For a couple of months recently my local Safeway stocked two and only two different-sized boxes of Wheaties, one slightly bigger with A-Rod and one slightly smaller with Steve Nash. Despite the fact the larger box is clearly the better value, I have been buying slightly less cost-effective Steve Nash Wheaties since before the World Series. A-Rod Wheaties I feel would taste funny.

The Rockies organization has long had a close relationship with the newspapers in Denver. Sure, once or twice a season a columnist for the Post or News will repost the usual list of complaints (the team is terrible and no one in Colorado except me cares about them) but these pieces always read like retreads, while the wit and vigor given to the daily spirited defense of ownership's thirty-year plan (in the second fifteen years of existence, win two playoff games) make you wonder where and when exactly the fix came in and how you yourself could get in on the action a little. And of course by "you" I mean "me." Anyway the upshot of the good working relationship between the current Colorado braintrust and the local print media is useful sometimes. The Monforts are kind of graceless operators, true, but if you scan the sports pages in Denver at least twice a week you can't really complain about any Rockies news coming out of left field. The Monforts have let "leak" their desire to trade Todd Helton at least once a month for several seasons now; in a perfect world they'd have found their patsy to dump Helton on by now and we'd be done with it. But it wouldn't have come as any kind of surprise.

If you've been scanning the news (and if you haven't, here am I to perform the function for you) you've probably noticed a developing trend in local baseball stories. At the very outset of the offseason, the word on the street was that both Dan O'Dowd and Clint Hurdle would need the 2007 Rockies to substantially exceed expectations to keep their jobs. This was less a message trickling out from headquarters than simple common sense. O'Dowd and Hurdle have gotten more time than most. They haven't accomplished much of anything, unless you count O'Dowd's Mike Hampton signing and Hurdle's pursuit of the National League record for most baserunners sacrificed to second and then stranded.

The message changed though, after a few weeks, to the strange and somewhat intermediary "un-handcuffing" step. You may remember these stories. They said that both O'Dowd and Hurdle were to be "evaluated" in 2007, but the firing of one would not necessarily come hand in hand with the dismissal of the other. This seemed at the time a strange thing to take pains to announce. It's certainly not uncommon for unsuccessful teams to launch housecleaning efforts that jettison managers, general managers, coaching staffs, and scouts all at once. Nor does it say anywhere in the rules that if your GM goes, the manager has to as well. Or vice versa. It seems kind of strange for the owners of a team, whom by definition already have the right to fire any or all employees in their organization as they see fit, to announce that they have the right to fire or not fire these two specific guys. It should go without saying.

Now it seems like the full story is finally emerging. Charlie Monfort on O'Dowd, in the Post: "I think you will see him as a our GM for quite awhile." The extrapolation here, or at least what ran on the national baseball rumor sites, is that O'Dowd's job is safe and Hurdle's, well, ain't necessarily so. Monfort Dick attempts to cover his brother's tracks a little in the most recent Post bit, but you know what they say about the appearance of smoke implying the presence of fire.

I've been following the organization for longer than a little while now, and I feel fairly safe making a guess here. Here goes: O'Dowd gets an extension, and the chance to handpick a new manager, after this season. Unlike Hurdle, O'Dowd has some real accomplishments to which he can point. The Rockies' last few drafts before last year's were excellent. Cheap productive guys like Brian Fuentes and Jamey Carroll show up on the roster every year. While it wasn't my favorite deal ever, by general acclaim the haul O'Dowd pulled in for Jason Jennings was a big plus for the Rockies. Anyway, you can construct a case for O'Dowd that nobody else could do his job any better than he's doing it. Many guys could do much worse. Building a .500 team for $40 million is kind of an accomplishment, I guess. There are certainly plenty of franchises spending more money to win fewer games.

But Hurdle. What's he bringing to the table, besides the soul patch and the hot daughter from his first marriage? Lots of bunts, pretty much, and a certain indelicacy when it comes to making pitching changes that the Rockies have not yet been good enough for it to really hurt them. The Monforts' propaganda arm has stressed that the team will bunt less in 2007, which is kind of taking Clint down a peg right out of the box. Hurdle, like O'Dowd, is under contract only through the end of this next season. If the Rockies have another seventy-five win season (which they almost certainly will; the team's incremental gains on offense and in the bullpen for next season are almost perfectly counterbalanced by what they've lost in the rotation), it seems highly likely that some kind of change will be made, if only for appearances' sake. The 2007 Rockies could very easily have a terrific year for O'Dowd -- say, Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Ianetta both establish themselves as real-deal regulars and Jason Hirsh is in the rotation to stay by September -- and a terrible year for Hurdle. I don't even want to start catastrophizing here (the spectre of Willy Taveras getting caught stealing 40 times is creeping across the back panel of my mind), but you can see how the team could make quote-unquote organizational progress in 2007 while stagnating on the more bottom-line goal of maybe trying to win a couple more games than they have the last few seasons.

I don't think managers matter a whole lot, and while they don't seem at first analysis to have a lot in common ideologically, O'Dowd and Hurdle seem to have a functioning working relationship. That is more than you can say for a lot of GM/manager combos in the game. Should ownership just go ahead and extend them both for two or three years now? Well, what's the rush? The dynamic Monforts argue, in the article linked above, that they wouldn't want either guy's contract status becoming a "distraction" in the upcoming season. I don't know about that. This is Rockies baseball, not Dallas Cowboys football. No one is obsessing over who will hold the reins in Denver year after next. Very, very few of the people who will buy tickets to Rockies games this year are even aware of who is allegedly holding the reins now. Like me, I don't think they'd mind a dramatic decrease in sacrifice attempts in 2008. But the major reason to leave Hurdle dangling is simpler still. There always exists the remote possibility that Ozzie Guillen might become available.

In my view there are three kinds of managers: the awful ones who are actually able to make their teams worse through careful application of effort, the ones who make absolutely no difference at all, and the ones who make absolutely no difference at all but are amusing public speakers. Hurdle is in one of the first two categories for sure. Let's try and get an Ozzie. It would make my job way easier.

Elsewhere: The Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers breaks down the NL West. I noted from this story that Chin-Hui Tsao, who still has a lot of well-wishers among the Rockies faithful, is attempting to come back from the shoulder injury that ended his Colorado career with the Dodgers. Tsao probably could have made things easier on himself by choosing a less pitching-rich organization...meaning pretty much anybody BUT the Dodgers. Well, good luck anyway. Also, make sure to pay close attention to all Rockies entries in these season preview-type things, because nobody fact-checks the bottom feeders. Rogers, who's usually pretty sharp, names Sunny Kim as a rotation candidate for the Rockies...not Byung-Hyun Kim, the pitching Kim the team actually re-signed. Sun-Woo Kim is in Giants camp this spring.

2007-02-20 10:21:21
1.   Kels
Helton should take over as manager, it can't be that hard, it will bring some national attention, plus he could earn some of that $17 Mil he's getting.
2007-02-20 21:22:54
2.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Helton would be a disastrous major league manager, and I'm sure he'd be the first one to tell you that. Todd is one of Those Guys. You know the guys I'm talking about. The ones to whom every element of the game come so naturally and easily that they're at a complete loss as to how to pass on any of their skills. Every time one of these guys manages or coaches -- be it Ted Williams or Michael Jordan -- the only thing that ends up happening is much unhappy raising of voices. It would be a terrible thing to scorch Todd's destiny as a lifelong ambassador of Rockies goodwill, the way Ron Santo is for the Cubs or Willie McCovey is for the Giants. If ownership and Helton have a falling-out the way Jordan and the Bulls did, no way I'm settling for Vinny Castilla.

The thing is, the Rockies can trade Todd and not jeopardize this future. Lots of guys leave the team with which they're most closely associated at the very end of their playing careers only to go right back once they retire. In fact, if Dan O'Dowd does ever manage to move Helton, I rather suspect he might be back on the playing field for the Rockies after his Contract of Doom expires in 2011.

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