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May 24, 2006

Prospectus Q&A

Bill Geivett

by Jonah Keri

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Bill Geivett played several seasons in the Angels' minor league system before hanging up his cleats. He quickly caught on with the Yankees as an area scout. Geivett has logged multiple stops since then. He served as farm director for the Expos; he went to Tampa Bay before the Rays ever took the field; he spent two years with the Dodgers, ascending to the role of Assistant General Manager. Geivett joined the Rockies after the 2000 season. His tenure in Colorado started on the major league scouting side. After two years he took over minor league operations. For the last two years Geivett has held the title of Assistant General Manager, Vice President of Baseball Operations for the Rockies.

Geivett recently chatted with Baseball Prospectus about the Rockies' fast start this season (the team sits one game out of first place in the NL West through Tuesday night's games), the team leading the league by a wide margin in sacrifice bunts, and of course, the challenges of winning at altitude.

Baseball Prospectus: This was before you joined the Rockies organization, but one element of the 1995 Blake Street Bombers team that made the playoffs that gets overlooked is its outstanding bullpen. The team's off to a hot start this year, and one of its biggest success stories has been the bullpen (the Rockies lead the majors in team Expected Wins added over a Replacement Level pitcher, or WXRL). Given how unpredictable starting pitching has been at altitude, does the organization believe that strong relief pitching is the key to winning at a mile above sea level?

Bill Geivett: A big factor for any club that wins, no matter where you play, is the strength of the bullpen. So many of these games are won and lost at the end. Not all clubs have tremendous starting pitching where every guy puts up 200 innings and completes games--really no one does, unless you're the White Sox. So the bullpen is going to be the reason you succeed or fail.

People like to look at our bullpen last year and point to some of the struggles we had. But last year was an attempt to sort out who we had, to figure out who was going to be part of our future. We were about giving opportunities, not only in the bullpen, but also for position players. We'd had a few guys settle in as major leaguers, and last year was also a chance for Brian Fuentes to emerge as a closer. This year our strength is definitely in our bullpen. It's something we're going to rely on all year long.

BP: And of course the other big component to the Blake Street Bombers was its hitting, especially its ability to hit home runs. Has the team given any thought to returning to that model? Rather than trying to unlock the mystery of what makes a successful starting rotation at altitude, wouldn't it be easier in many ways to just round up a bunch of bashers, try to score 1100 runs every year and beat teams 8-7 every night?

Geivett: It's a strategy that's been discussed. In terms of a function of your payroll and what you can do, what you can put on the field, there so many decisions involved. You still have to have balance, no matter where you play. The bullpen's not going to do much good if you're pitching from behind every game, and that can happen if you ignore starting pitching. It's always been about balance, that should be at the forefront--you need to have credible starting pitching. Trying to invest in one area or another is going to cause you problems.

Some people say that with the difficulty of playing at this elevation, the big thing is being able to last all year, handling the wear and tear that's higher than at sea level. Youth and athleticism should then be at a premium. That speaks to balance too. It's not just about loading up on good young hitters, but also good young starting pitching.

BP: �and then with youth you get the advantage of keeping the team's payroll in check. But youth brings its own set of challenges--managing service time clocks, trying to get all the young talent to peak around the same time�

Geivett: You have to manage when you create opportunities for young players. When you put players out there, you don't want to force the issue. You want young players to show they're ready for the major league level. Some teams push them too quickly, and that creates a deeper hole. We've tried to be as patient as possible, bringing guys along at the right pace. For us, it creates excitement with the fan base. And yes, payroll certainly is an issue, along with the idea of having younger, more athletic players. It's also a matter of what can this guy achieve, given a full opportunity to play. In some organizations, it's very difficult to get in there and get a legitimate shot. We don't want to worry about who to trade for to fill that slot, or forcing that young player into platooning. It's about investing in the player and his future.

BP: The team has gone through all types of different pitchers and struggled to find a formula that works. Pitchers who throw hard were thought to be able to overcome the elements, then change-up pitchers such as Denny Neagle, and other combinations. Is there one ideal type that you think would work best?

Geivett: Basically we want tough guys. If you're going to look at something that's going to provide success in an offensive ballpark, it's the makeup of the pitcher. It's being able to give up some hits and runs, have a bad inning�does he then fold, or toughen up? In the past, the effects of pitching at Coors Field have sent people downhill; this park is tough on you mentally. You have to accept that you're going to give up runs, as long as you win. A pitcher worried about his ERA is going to get into trouble. This whole idea speaks to some degree about trying to bring in the right guys as free agents, and how free agency often hasn't worked for pitchers coming here. A big reason for that is that a pitcher may be used to having an ERA in the threes or fours, and now it's in the fives. Pitchers can feel like there's something they need to change, when it's just a function of the ballpark.

For guys coming through our minor league system, even from the moment they sign, we prepare them for this. They come up through the system with the goal that they want to pitch in the big leagues--and with us, that's Coors Field. So they develop a mindset where they know what to expect a little better than a veteran coming over from another team. Discussions of Coors Field are part of every developmental, winter league and spring training program. We teach kids that their job is to beat the other guy, and not worry about anything else.

We position our minor league clubs like this too, especially having a team in Colorado Springs. Tulsa isn't the best offensive park, but it's in a big offensive league. The Cal League is the same way. With our Asheville club we're in the mountains as best as we can in the South Atlantic League.

BP: Wouldn't playing in parks and leagues like that have negative effects on hitters, like teaching them bad habits?

Geivett: It definitely can. In Asheville there's a big right-field wall, like a reverse Fenway. It can be a struggle for younger hitters, trying to hit the ball out of park all the time, getting too pull-happy. You'll see clubs come into Coors Field the same way. They come in as the visiting team, and on the plane ride over, everybody's ankle suddenly got better, and all the hitters are ready to play. You can see it right from batting practice, where guys let it loose, trying to hit the ball as far as they can. That can cause problems for teams that roll in here, getting away from a good approach at the plate. For us, we try to teach more of an at-bat mentality than a home-run mentality. That's always a struggle with young hitters.

BP: What's interesting about Coors Field is that the way the park is laid out, especially with that huge outfield, batting averages go way up. You'd think a hitter would be excited about the prospect of hitting .330, just as he would about hitting 30 or 40 homers, no?

Geivett: You'd think so. And when you can drive the ball to the opposite field the way you can as a right-handed hitter at Coors, you'd think that would help as a hitter. Some hitters get this, others take longer to learn.

BP: The farm system has gone in fits and starts at times, producing some quality major league players, then going through some rough patches. Do you view the current group of players in the organization as one of the better talent crops? Which position do you see as the deepest right now?

Geivett: Right now as an organization we've gotten to the point where I'd like to see us become self-sufficient--that if we need anything at the major league level, we can go down to the minor leagues and pull that up. I think we're close to that. You're probably never fully there as an organization, but I think we're getting to be as close as we can hope to get. I'm impressed with our depth throughout the organization. We've got good pitching prospects, both starting and relieving. Catching is also a strength. We've got Danny Ardoin, Miguel Ojeda, Yorvit Torrealba. J.D. Closser's playing very well at Triple-A, and we've got Chris Iannetta behind him. At third base we've got Jeff Baker, Ian Stewart and Garrett Atkins. We've got Baker playing in the outfield now, with Stewart behind him.

BP: Any concerns about the effects of having players switch positions?

Geivett: Well if you think of someone like Brad Hawpe, he was a first baseman all the way to Double-A. We had Todd Helton at first base, so he ended making the transition successfully to the outfield. We've tried Ryan Shealy a little in the outfield too, but he hurt his elbow. In his case it's probably in the best interests and in the best interests of his career to be a first baseman. As far as our philosophy, we're looking for the best players we can find. We're trying to get the best players on the field, whatever their positions.

BP: What do you see as the organization's biggest strengths right now?

Geivett: Commitment to character and accountability throughout the organization. We really hone in on that, whether it's hiring a staff member or bringing a player into the organization. We want people committed to the Rockies and the success of the Rockies, and people with the character to follow through. If we're really firing on all cylinders in terms of scouting and player development it'll be because of that character and commitment.

BP: What are the Rockies' biggest weaknesses? In this case I'm thinking more about on-field than off-field issues like character�

Geivett: Well, first of all, character is definitely an on-field issue, that shows up every time a player takes the field. Anyway, I'd say that we're not a finished product at the major league level--I don't think we're as good as we're going to be. We're always looking to improve in every area. One thing I'd like to see throughout our minor league system: we're extremely aggressive swinging the bat, where our players tend to swing at tough pitches early in the count. This happens at the major league level, too. It's an area we want to address. Another thing I'd like to have more of is upper-level starting pitching prospects, major league-ready ones. There's still some work to do there.

BP: You talk about the upper levels of the organization being thin when it comes to starting pitching, and the major league rotation doesn't necessarily have five top-tier starters, either. The Rockies have tried so many other strategies and failed to develop a deep starting staff. Given the unique challenge of trying to find good pitchers in Colorado, has there been any talk about moving to a four-man rotation? Carefully monitor pitch counts and workload, and the upshot is you get to use only your four best starters, and create an extra roster spot elsewhere?

Geivett: We've discussed it a lot. In fact I know the pitching coach in Kansas City, Bob McClure, has also discussed it a lot, and he finds a lot of merit in it�

BP: Is a four-man rotation the kind of plan that might sound great in theory then, but no team's going to be willing to take the risk? Unless say, it's a team with a GM that has a lot of job security, like a John Schuerholz or Billy Beane, or a team that's really struggling and may be willing to try almost anything, like the Royals?

Geivett: I've always been on the side of finding it difficult to execute, for sure. It's so different from what other teams do. How our pitchers grow up in the game, not even to mention the veteran players who have been on the five-man schedule�this is an idea that has stood for some time, from when they switched from four to five. It's a lot more complex in how you handle that, how you go about doing that. The first time you run into issues with it, are people going to want to go back? And then where do you go from there? There are all the normal problems with pitching to begin with. Then you've got new challenges on the field. Off the field there's dealing with agents, trying to sign pitchers to come play for you when they may not want to pitch in a different system. It'd be tough.

Then you get into the tandem starting pitching system (where four pairs of pitchers work on a four-day rotation) and now you have the problem of guy who throws four shutout innings, then a guy comes in and gets knocked around in the 5th. The appearance of your statistics, the fans' reaction, players' reaction, agents' reaction, these things would be tough to manage. Both of these are certainly creative ideas, things that should be looked at and studied. But putting together a legitimate pitching staff with great balance in terms of starting pitchers getting relatively deep into the game, having a structured bullpen with roles, I think that's the way to go.

I study the game and have respect for everything that went on in the past. There's a reason why it went from four to five. As the game evolved, things started becoming a little different. I respect the things that have happened in the past that have turned the game into what it is.

BP: The Rockies lead the majors by a wide margin with 31 sacrifice bunts this season. What's the rationale behind all the sacrificing with non-pitchers at bat?

Geivett: It's an interesting tactic. It's one that [Manager] Clint [Hurdle] has, where his philosophy is to teach a mentality. It's not only to get on base, but also to move runners over and score runners. We're extremely successful at it. We get [sacrifice bunts] down a lot. It's a way that Clint teaches our players how to play. We've all seen playoff games, where late in games things get decided by one run, and it can rest on teams trying to bunt with the game on the line.

BP: Of course one could argue that Coors Field is the best hitter's park in the majors, so why sacrifice and waste those precious outs?

Geivett: There are situations early in the game where Clint may want to get on the board first. He may use the sacrifice bunt as a weapon, as a way to score first. It's a philosophy of knowing how to play offense, not just going up and slugging. In today's game, if you don't slug, you lose. Maybe we get into situations where we don't slug, but we execute, and we still win.

BP: Has the team's fast start led to the temptation to stray from the current rebuilding plan? Is there a scenario where you'd consider trading away a chunk of the farm system to make a big run at winning this year?

Geivett: We're blessed with a lot of options. With those options come decisions. That would be a very good situation for us, having a decision on whether to add or trade players to help the major league club. It's been a little while since we've been in that spot, and we'd welcome that. At the same time, this is a club that's building from within. It's a homegrown product, one that's played together. That's a strength of our organization, and it would be difficult for us to trade our young players today. Any trading of younger players would certainly tear at the fabric of the future in an effort to try and win now. This is an organization on the rise, where we're going to have lasting success in the future, and we want to have that for the long haul. We've charted the course to this point, it would be hard to believe we'd trade away the strength of our future. But of course time will tell.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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