01/23/12 10:53 AM EST
Subtle moves could reinvent Rockies
GM O'Dowd brings in reliable veterans to balance young club
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
First, there's third baseman Casey Blake. He's 38 years old and about to begin his 14th season in the Major Leagues. Blake has been on three teams that went to the playoffs, and he is respected around the game for his leadership and toughness.
Blake has never been an All-Star, but he's one of the players teammates respect and managers love. The moment he retires, he'll jump on the fast track to a big league managerial job.
O'Dowd acquired Blake both to play third base and to help tutor 20-year-old Nolan Arenado, one of the best prospects in the game. But there's a larger reason O'Dowd wanted Blake on his team, and we'll get to it in a moment.
O'Dowd also signed outfielder Michael Cuddyer. He wanted him badly enough that he traded his closer, Huston Street, to free up payroll. Cuddyer, 32, is the baby of this group. Despite his relative youth, he has played 11 seasons in the big leagues and had a significant role in creating Minnesota's clubhouse environment that's one of the best.
There's something about those Minnesota Twins that baseball people love. When D-backs general manager Kevin Towers signed outfielder Jason Kubel, he said some of the same things about his intangibles that O'Dowd said about Cuddyer.
O'Dowd also acquired catcher Ramon Hernandez. He's 35 years old and a 13-year veteran. This move raised some eyebrows, because Colorado has one of baseball's best catching prospects in 22-year-old Wilin Rosario.
Hernandez will be asked to mentor Rosario the way he did Ryan Hanigan in Cincinnati. And as with the others, Hernandez brings a presence and an understanding of the bigger picture O'Dowd badly wants for his team.
Finally, O'Dowd traded for Marco Scutaro on Saturday. He's 36 years old and a 10-year veteran. Scutaro will start at second base for the Rockies, but has also played short, third, first and left.
Scutaro is valued as a player who grinds out at-bats, and he is regarded as a good teammate and a winner. O'Dowd wants those intangible things almost as much as the production.
Are you sensing a trend? O'Dowd has quietly remade Colorado's roster this winter, and he has done it without any wild spending.
The Rockies' 2012 season will come down to how much they get from their starting rotation. They need to get Juan Nicasio back on the mound and are hopeful Jorge De La Rosa will return from Tommy John surgery at some point. They're taking a flyer on 49-year-old Jamie Moyer.
If Colorado is going to contend, it will need at least a couple of its young guys -- Drew Pomeranz, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood, etc. -- to contribute quality innings.
O'Dowd called his team "a work in progress." On Opening Day, the Rockies are probably not as good as the Giants and D-backs in the National League West, but they've got depth in the farm system and an interesting mix of youth and experience.
As Colorado learned last season, preseason expectations mean nothing. The Rockies were expected by many to make a playoff push in 2011, but an assortment of injuries and disappointing performances resulted in a 73-89 record.
When it ended, though, there was something about last season's club that had nothing to do with numbers that bothered O'Dowd. It's not something that's easy to identify. Good teams almost always have it, and they're not really certain where it comes from. It can vanish in an instant, too.
"You've got to build a championship culture," O'Dowd said. "The sum of the parts has to be greater than any one part. Players have to have a mindset that it's not about them; it's about the team."
In bringing in those four veterans -- all players with great reputations for understanding winning and accountability and all that stuff -- O'Dowd is hoping to change his team in a very fundamental way.
"We haven't had a sense of self accountability," he said. "You know what I'm trying to say? Your managers and coaches set guidelines and direction and accountability. But players ultimately must hold themselves accountable to each other. It's not part of our culture. We tried to find players we think have it."
O'Dowd emphasized it's not about any one player, and he says that it would be a mistake to point a finger at the guys he traded. It's just that something larger than any single player needed to change.
"It remains to be seen if we accomplished anything," O'Dowd said. "I've been humbled enough times to know nothing is certain. I thought we'd be good last year, and we stunk. I don't think we're a championship quality team as we sit here today. With young pitchers, you can have incredible inconsistency, or they can take off and run with it. That's the great unknown."
During three decades in the game, O'Dowd has come to understand that the really good teams are the ones that get four things:
Star players performing at a high level.
Surprising performances from at least one or two young players. ("Look at the Diamondbacks last year," O'Dowd said. "They didn't expect Ian Kennedy to put up Cy Young numbers. They didn't know Paul Goldschmidt was going to contribute the way he did. Every good ballclub needs that.")
"I really believe most clubs go into a season with a club that can win 82-86 games," O'Dowd said. "We're one of those clubs. If things come together, we can win 88-92 games. If things go wrong, we'll win 72-78 games. The only thing you can really control is the attitude of your club. You've got to build the right environment. You can't just focus on talent. You've got to have guys that fit a certain mold. We hope we've done that. We feel good about the guys we have. Now we'll find out."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.