Monday, July 28, 2014

Loyalty Or Economics: The Colorado Rockies Conundrum

It's been an extremely rough month for Dick Monfort, Owner and President of the Colorado Rockies. Actually, it's been a rough three year period between trades, organizational missteps, and an awful lot of losing. (If you haven't read it yet, check out Bryan Kilpatrick's SB Nation dissertation about front office dysfunction.) With all due respect to Bryan, I believe I actually understand the Rockies' inability to operate like a business quite clearly - it stems from the fact that the Monforts run their business from a purely ethical mindset instead of the purely economic mindset that 28 other franchises utilize (the Philadelphia Phillies don't count) and this has served to blind and handcuff the Rockies franchise for the better part of the past decade. 

Dick and Charlie Monfort have publicly declared that they are Christians and that they run their business as a Christian business. The Christian concert that they schedule every year after Faith Day is just one of the very public manifestations of this firmly held belief. And you know what? There are some really great aspects about that set of beliefs that can absolutely work in a business setting: loyalty, trust, belief in the good in others, consistency, forgiveness, identifying and retaining employees with "good" character. Michael Cuddyer was signed after 2011 because he is one of the "good guys" in baseball. I grew up in a Christian household and I believe that all of those traits are good traits. In fact, it's one of the reasons I became a Rockies fan when the organization came into town. It's much more enjoyable to root for a team full of players that aren't just good players, but seem like genuinely nice guys. No one likes justifying DUIs or domestic abuse just because of the logo on a jersey.

This leads me to the current Tulowitzki Trade Situation aka Franchise Crisis Mode. The Rockies have one of the greatest shortstops of all time on their roster, in the midst of a MVP-type season. And he's sick of losing. After Tulowitzki was seen at a New York Yankees game this weekend, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports writes:

The St. Louis Cardinals expressed significant interest in [Tulowitzki] last offseason. They continue to reach out to the Rockies, as have the New York Mets, who are prepared to offer top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard in a deal for 29-year-old. And the response is: Not yet. We’re not ready to deal him. We want to hear it from him.
Which is to say: We want him [Tulo] to be the bad guy, not us. It’s a ludicrous way to run a business, of course, and it highlights how little confidence the Rockies have in themselves to make the sort of a deal that reinvigorates and re-energizes a ball club in desperate need of both.
Tulowitzki at Yankee Stadium - courtesy of @MLBFanCave
Passan absolutely nails the front office mentality. It's an ethical decision to them, not an economic decision. The Rockies, and especially GM Dan O'Dowd, have a history of publicly disparaging their own players shortly before these players inevitably get shipped out of town. Ubaldo Jimenez was jealous over money, Dexter Fowler wasn't a team player, Seth Smith wasn't happy in his role as a bench guy. The list truly goes on and on. Notice that none of these big trades had anything to do with the player's measurable performance on the field? For so long, fans have been in utter shock as to why O'Dowd and others would publicly try to diminish the trade value of their players that are so obviously on the block.  If the Rockies have traded someone in the past four seasons, you can find a Rockies front office quote about how those players simply didn't pass the character test. They need these players to be the bad guy. There has to be some fatal character flaw that prevents them from remaining in Colorado.

We can use this reasoning to help address other complaints about transactions. The Rockies don't trade players until their trade value collapses (Garrett Atkins, Ian Stewart, Brad Hawpe). The Rockies don't trade prospects (name a top prospect that O'Dowd has swapped for a major MLB piece - you can't). In extremely basic terms, these players are not treated as assets in a purely economic sense. There is no perception of the current baseball market or their rising and falling value to other teams. Players in the organization are family members, one of us, and we cannot trade them because loyalty dictates that we help out our family. The reputation around the league is that the Rockies are a great organization to their players. Most draftees makes an effort to say as much in their first public statements.

There is, however, a dark side to this mantra. If a player fails, he gets a second chance unless he becomes the bad guy due to a poor decision. Alex White DUI? Traded for a bullpen arm because he wasn't drafted by the Rockies, he wasn't family. The reason the Rockies were so willing to give up Drew Pomeranz to Oakland? He wasn't family and publicly complained about the pitching system in Colorado. It's completely fine to no longer retain a player because of egregious off-field personnel decisions, it's another to ship a guy out of town for either manufactured causes or because you have identified a perceived character flaw that cannot be fixed by coaching. The true crime in the Rockies organization is not at all related to on-field performance, but on personality and how well you interact with the family around you.

When your team is competitive, those flaws can be covered up and kept isolated from public view. But the complete collapse of the team since 2011 has opened up some enormous cracks in Loyalty Mountain. It's hard to be a happy family member when you're surrounded by hyper-competitive players like Troy Tulowitzki who are completely done with losing 95 games a season. He's the best and most recognizable player on the team, and he's going to the local press to suggest a trade. He's spending his time on the DL going to Yankees games and sitting in prime spots. Yet what will ultimately get Tulowitzki ridden out of town (and he is most certainly gone this offseason, if the pattern holds) is this statement to Mark Kiszla in the Denver Post earlier this month:

"In Todd Helton, there's someone who's easy to look at his career here and how it played out. I have the utmost respect for Todd, but at the same time, I don't want to be the next in line as somebody who was here for a long time and didn't have a chance to win every single year," said Tulowitzki.
Just check the standings and it's easy to see why Tulowitzki would be frustrated by the team's performance. He's having the best season of his career and the team is hopelessly out of contention by June, as they have been for each of the past three seasons. But Tulowitzki does the impossible by disparaging Helton's loyalty to the franchise. Helton stayed in Colorado for his entire career and was impossibly loyal to the organization. Tulowitzki wants something more. That's his fatal flaw in the eyes of management.

It's an extreme seller's market in baseball leading up to the MLB Trading Deadline on July 31. Those few teams that have decided to sell are receiving quality pieces in return for even middling performers. Yet, I would be shocked if the Rockies traded any pieces from their MLB roster before the deadline, despite the fact that as of this writing they are 13.5 games back from a wild card spot and only one game ahead of the Chicago Cubs for worst record in the National League. Why won't the Rockies sell? They have pieces like OF Drew Stubbs, SP Jorge De La Rosa, RP LaTroy Hawkins who are all available and productive, and likely won't be on the next contending Rockies team. There are 20 MLB teams that have some postseason dreams and will absolutely compete just to overpay for a marginal upgrade.

The answer is very simple; these players are family. You trade assets. You don't trade family.


  1. Excellent piece, Matt. Sobering, but well-written.

  2. Great take. I do think things in the FO are a bit more arbitrary in decision making. It's easy to see that the Rockies view Jorge De La Rosa as a sort of adopted son. He salvaged his career in Colorado, it's the only place he's thrived, and he likes it here. It's harder to see how or why the team views LaTroy Hawkins or Drew Stubbs as family. Hawkins was here in the WS year, and Stubbs has a personal connection to Tulo, but those connections are kind of flimsy. I agree that the FO perceives ethics as a factor in decision making, which I think is fine as long as it's applied ethics rather than the symbolic, emotionally driven, and inconsistent ethics that seems to motivate them. If they actually wanted to apply Christian ethics, for instance, they would be the first organization to subsidize food and housing for all minor leaguers in the system. That won't happen, but they'll gladly subsidize the latter career years of more public big leaguers