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September 25, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Success at Altitude

by Bryan Smith

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Colorado's eight-game win streak has propelled the team into contention and created one of the most positive seasons in the organization's existence. One of the accompanying narratives is that they are learning how to win in Coors Field. Another is the declining park factor in Colorado has allowed for a more stable pitching staff. While there is some truth to these, for me the Rockies are more than the product of an evolving ballpark-related dynamic. Rather, they are a perfect case study in proper player development.

There is one common denominator to be found among the group of star performers during the team's win streak--all are Rockies, born and bred. During the streak, the offense was led by Matt Holliday (.480/.552/1.080), Brad Hawpe (.520/.600/.960), and Ryan Spilborghs (.417/.481/.708). The starting rotation got 1.704 SNLVAR from homegrown players Franklin Morales, Jeff Francis, and Ubaldo Jimenez, against -.037 SNLVAR from Josh Fogg and Mark Redman. And while Dan O'Dowd has compiled an admirable veteran bullpen off the scrap heap, the star performer for the season has been underrated closer Manny Corpas.

If the Rockies continue their Cinderella run all the way into the playoffs, it will be because of the homegrown talent that provided six of the eight starting position players, three-fifths of the starting rotation, as well as the team's closer. Colorado is a product of effective farm system management by the triumvirate of O'Dowd, scouting director Bill Schmidt, and farm director Marc Gustafson. The trio has excelled at the three keys of proper utilization of the player development system:

1. Bring the Right Prospects Into the Organization

For me, this is largely the responsibility of the scouting director. The success of a team's draft--and their presence on the international signing market--is paramount for its future success. For a team like the Rockies, plagued with sub-.500 records for much of its existence, the key has always been making the most of early draft selections.

Before current scouting director Bill Schmidt took over, Pat Daugherty oversaw the organization's first eight drafts. The team had led their draft off with pitchers seven times, mixing mild success stories (Jake Westbrook, Jamey Wright, Jason Jennings) with relative failures (John Burke, Matt Roney, Mark Mangum), and one tragedy (Doug Million). The organization committed to building a pitching staff from within, relegating most of their bonus money towards it. The one exception? In 1995, the Rockies took two-way Tennessee star Todd Helton with the ninth overall selection, ultimately deciding that his left-handed bat had a better future in the lineup than his arm did on the mound.

Daugherty played a big part in the Rockies' current success. In addition to Helton, Daugherty also drafted Aaron Cook in the second round of the 1997 draft, and then Matt Holliday in the seventh round of the 1998 draft. By highlighting players like Cook and Westbrook and Jennings, players that made their livings with sinkers, Daugherty had brought in pitchers that might be able to succeed at Coors Field.

When Bob Gebhard left the Rockies as general manager, Bill Schmidt was hired to run O'Dowd's scouting department. Schmidt decided to veer from Daugherty's pitching-exclusive draft philosophy to focus on players that Coors Field would help; in the 2000 draft alone, Schmidt netted both Garrett Atkins and Hawpe in the middle rounds. However, he also went after pitchers, landing Canadian Jeff Francis in the first round, and signing Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales as Latin American free agents. While Daugherty's approach enjoyed only mild success because it was so nuanced, Schmidt's more holistic approach has given the Rockies their best step forward.

In his first draft in 2000, Schmidt too intently focused on pitching, drafting the unsignable Matt Harrington with the seventh overall pick; eight picks later, an athletic college infielder named Chase Utley was drafted. The subsequent maturation of Schmidt as a scouting director was perhaps reflected by his ability to pass on Wade Townsend or Mike Pelfrey in the 2005 draft to select a college middle infielder--Troy Tulowitzki.

2. Turn Prospects Into Major Leaguers on the Farm

Doug Million, the Rockies first round pick in 1994, will go down as the only member of that draft's top ten selections to not make the major leagues, but his tragic death from asthma at 21 offers a pretty compelling reason for why he did not. Since 27 of the 34 players drafted in the 1994 first round would eventually make the majors, it isn't unreasonable to wonder if he might have been the 28th. You can't really blame Daugherty for taking a chance on a tall, lanky, hard-throwing Florida phenom in the first round.

Quite often, the forgotten member of the front office food chain is the Farm Director, whose responsibility is to mold the players the scouting director provides into major league-caliber talent for the general manager. It is a very difficult position to gauge success for, but there are occasionally signs of a job well done. For example, the team recently turned failed Dominican shortstop import Pedro Strop into a reliever, and the right-hander looks destined for a future spot with the bullpen. Successful position changes are just one example, but here are a few others:

  • Manny Corpas was signed from Panama at the end of the 1999 season. The organization decided not to bring Corpas into professional baseball in the United States until 2002, and for two more seasons kept him out of full season ball. In 2003, Corpas struggled in 15 starts in the Pioneer League, posting a 5.0 K/9 and 10.5 H/9. The team switched Corpas to relief, and he began his progression towards becoming a closer.
  • I previously mentioned Matt Holliday as a feather in the cap of Bill Schmidt, but Holliday probably owes the player development system more for his ultimate success. Holliday played in the minor leagues for more than six seasons, and handled delicately as his power and contact skills were slowly honed. In 2000, Holliday managed just a .115 ISO in his first stint in the Carolina League, but the organization was nevertheless patient, and continued to be when, despite injuries in 2001, his power began to show. Moved up to Double-A in 2002, Holliday struck out 102 times in 463 at-bats, but the team kept him at that level, and the next season, Holliday struck out just 74 times in 522 at-bats--he learned.
  • Holliday isn't the only member of the Rockies to be found in the middle rounds and then polished in the minor leagues. Atkins and Hawpe were drafted in the fifth and 11th rounds of the 2000 draft. Hawpe needed years in the minor leagues to become a passable outfielder after starting out at first base, and to improve his patience at the plate. The next draft, Schmidt took Cory Sullivan in the seventh round, and then Ryan Spilborghs was taken in that same round in 2002. While Schmidt's scouting department found these players, Gustafson's system developed them.
  • It can't hurt that the Rockies have a system built to help boost position player confidence, as the team's full-season affiliate's park factors entering the season were (going up the ladder): 1110, 983 (in the Cal League, no easy feat), 1004 (in the hitter-friendly Texas League), and 1067.

3. Trade the Right Players at the Right Time

If there is one thing that kept the Atlanta Braves successful for so many seasons--and turned John Schuerholz into such a legend--it was the Braves' seemingly sixth sense for identifying the proper players to trade. Every season a General Manager has the responsibility to improve his Major League team at the cost of minor leaguers; the hard part is deciding who's untradable.

At the end of the 1997 season, Jake Westbrook was showing signs of being a first-round bust after striking out just 92 batters in 170 innings at Low-A. Bob Gebhard felt comfortable trading Westbrook that winter for Mike Lansing, who was coming off a career year with the Expos. Lansing was bad in 1998, injured in 1999, and traded in 2000, while Westbrook went on to have a good career. in contrast, the team also traded Jamey Wright while he was early into his career, landing the last two years of Jeff Cirillo's peak for their troubles. Then, at the right time, Cirillo was traded to the Mariners for three pitchers, one of whom was Brian Fuentes. In a series of shrewd moves, the team landed four seasons of All-Star representatives at very little cost.

These are merely examples of one of Dan O'Dowd's biggest pressures, and also, one of his greatest feats from last winter: his sensing that Jason Jennings might never be as good again as he was in 2006. Jennings--the last first round pick by Pat Daugherty--moved quickly from Baylor University to the majors, winning the Rookie of the Year in his third professional season. He skated along as a pretty average pitcher until last season, when he struck out the most, and allowed the fewest hits of any point in his career. The Rockies were to have just one more cheap season with him, having exercised his 2007 option for a relatively modest $5.5 million. Rather than allow Jennings to finish his contract as a Rockie, O'Dowd swapped him to Houston. The team had gotten 941 innings of Jennings over six seasons for under $10 million, including the draft bonus paid to him in 1999.

Thanks to making the move, the benefit of Jennings' selection will continue on into the future. By trading the pre-free agency Jennings in a pitching-crazed market, O'Dowd got three young players who have all contributed to the 2007 club: Willy Taveras (15.9 VORP), Jason Hirsh (13.0 VORP) and Taylor Buchholz (13.6 VORP). Jennings, meanwhile, crashed to -8.4 VORP before going under the knife, all while making more than five times the combined salary of the players he was traded for.

O'Dowd also had the sense to trade Ryan Shealy while his value was at the highest, using the first baseman's gaudy park-driven Colorado Springs numbers as the bait to swing a deal for Jeremy Affeldt and Denny Bautista. So, by including the ability to use prospects as trades, we can say the Rockies' three best relievers (Corpas, Fuentes, Affeldt) were all products of their player development effort.

Radical developments have been proposed for years about how the Rockies could win in Denver, at altitude. Instead, the easiest solution was a universal one: proper player development management.

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

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