Rockies Hoping to Win with “Circle of Trust”
Sports are cyclical. Denver was once a Broncos town and the Rockies were a cute little side attraction, serving to entertain the fan base during the dog days of summer. But, it’s been over a decade since the Broncos’ last Super Bowl and the road back for the city’s football team appears longer than ever. During those Bronco glory days, Denver’s baseball team was an enjoyable group, but never a legitimate contender. Back then, the Rockies hit like my softball team (Not at the Table Carlos), but had little regard for the fine arts of defense and pitching. Also, the farm system probably made Branch Rickey turn over in his grave. It was devoid of Latin prospects and, not so coincidently, talent.
Over the last decade, things have changed drastically. The Broncos have become a complete mess. Currently, the franchise is trying to rebound from the Josh McDaniels disaster by hiring a head coach that is coming off a two-win season in Carolina. The Nuggets made occasional appearances on scene, but I’ll spare everyone from a Nuggets discussion. The Carmelo Anthony debacle has put a really bad taste in all of our mouths. Meanwhile, the Rockies have become a picture of institutional health, building a consistently competitive team by combining tried and true methods with innovative ones.
Major League Baseball has become a league of haves and have nots, mostly because massive television markets have given some teams major advantages. The Yankees have an annual payroll of over $200M, but they spend less money per fan than most of the league. The same is true for the Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, Phillies and Mets; they all have big payrolls, but have the fan bases to support their immense financial obligations. Meanwhile, teams like the Brewers, Reds, and Royals have small television markets; a $70M payroll is far more taxing on these franchises than a $200M payroll is on the Yankees.
There is only one way for small market teams to bridge the gap: player development. While the Yankees can throw money at their problems, baseball’s less fortunate must search for answers from within their own systems. It is imperative that squads like the Royals out-draft and out-scout their more financially endowed opponents. MLB’s poor must operate under the assumption that their best players will eventually leave via free agency. The only remedy is a talent laden farm system with players ready to take the place of departing stars.
Denver is in the middle of the pack in terms of MLB television markets. While the Monforts aren’t making Yankee TV money, they aren’t exactly hurting either. Even so, for most of the past decade, the Rox have operated like a small market team. The organization learned lessons about over-spending (e.g. Mike Hampton) and worked hard to stock the minors. Their efforts finally paid off in 2007, when a group of homegrown players carried the Rox to the World Series.
The Rockies’ recent success has inspired the Monforts to open the team’s checkbook. This past off-season, no team spent more money than the Rockies. Let that sink in for a minute: the Colorado Rockies spent more money this off-season than the New York Yankees. Unlike the Yanks, the Rockies’ spending wasn’t the result of a bidding war on some overpriced free agent. In fact, most of the cash wasn’t even spent on free agents.
The past few months evidence a shift in the mindset of Colorado’s front office. The Rox have created a unique business model that could payoff enormously. Instead of letting top young players leave as free agents, the Rockies signed Tulo and CarGo to long-term contracts early, locking them up for years to come.
Despite the massive commitments to Carlos and Troy, the Rox feel like they are getting a great deal on both players. If Tulo and CarGo continue to play like they did last season, Colorado is right about that. However, these contracts carry significant risk. If either player drops off in production or has trouble staying healthy, the results could be disastrous. While the Rockies aren’t as poor as the Royals, they can’t afford to carry dead weight on the payroll.
Colorado is also spending more money in the draft, picking players that most teams avoid because of sign-ability issues. In 2009, they drafted lefty Tyler Matzek in the first round, despite reports that he would play for Oregon. The Rox were able to convince Tyler otherwise by offering him the largest signing bonus in franchise history. Last year, they drafted Kyle Parker, even though he wanted to return to Clemson for another year of football. Colorado gave Kyle a bunch of money and wisely allowed him one more year with the Tigers’ football team. He will report to the Rockies this spring to focus solely on baseball. Matzek and Parker are widely regarded as two of the finest talents in all of the minor leagues.
Because of their willingness to commit early to these players, the Rockies have created an exceptional atmosphere. Most minor leaguers could care less what team they’re with when they break into the bigs, but the Rockies have a system full of players that want to stay with the franchise. Players know that Colorado is a team that rewards allegiance. The Rox also have a group of big leaguers that have become very comfortable in Denver and are willing to sacrifice dollars to stay. It’s an interesting concept — placing loyalty and people above the bottom line. Now, if we could just convince the Monforts to lower the price of beer…
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