One of my favorite pieces of writing about writing is Marxist cultural critic Raymond Williams’ article on science fiction (I searched “Raymond Williams baseball” on Google to see if Banished to the Pen could rightly claim the distinction of being the first baseball blog that mentioned Raymond Williams, and discovered a) probably and b) a Raymond Williams III hit .212/.289/.303 for something called the University of Mary in 2014 (other great names on that team include Shane Trattles, Clay Bassingthwaite, and Austin Grundstad)). One primary thrust of Williams’ piece is a criticism of the dystopian strain of science fiction. Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, all the books you saw on your high school reading list and were excited about until you actually read them and discovered they are mostly pretty boring. Williams contention is that those books and ones like them fail because they focus on “lone intellectuals” whose best laid plans and ideas for how people should live are undone by the ignorant masses. Perhaps instead, the best way to illustrate these future societies would instead be to focus on, well, the societies of the future. It is easy to understand, of course, why this Great Men of Future History approach to sci-fi would appeal to the Serious, Misunderstood Author Types who are responsible for writing most of it. I would contend that this same pattern applies to our baseball universe, and how we approach it.
The folk heroes of the baseball blog set are no longer just the players who we see do amazing things day in and day out, but the genius team executives who build the teams those players play on. Of course, as a practical matter front office executives are more important to the game now than they may have ever been, and obviously there is nothing wrong with appreciating the talent and acumen of those individuals. But it is easy to see shades of what Williams was talking about with the romanticization of lone intellectuals when one reads articles about Theo Epstein. Naturally, individuals who stand alone in their remarkable genius are worthy of praise, but just as in sci-fi, this romanticization can lead to condescending attitudes about “the masses.” People who are not as remarkable as our lone heroes, but typically mean well and try their best. Doesn’t emphasizing with those people give you a better understanding of the baseball universe than focusing on the genius who stands on top of that universe? No team represents “the masses” of the baseball universe quite as well as the Colorado Rockies.
For a long time the standard line about the Rockies was that they did not know what they were doing, too stubborn to commit to a rebuild and devoid of the institutional talent necessary to actually compete. This was certainly true during the Dan O’Dowd years, when the team held onto players like Jorge De La Rosa and Michael Cuddyer for the purpose of winning 76 games every year. Dan O’Dowd is gone, going on three years now, but the perception remains. Heck, I wrote about it last year! The Rockies traded Corey Dickerson to the Rays for Jake McGee and a minor league pitcher. Trading Corey Dickerson for a relief pitcher! Same old dunderheaded, directionless Rockies. Except, Corey Dickerson was not very good last year, and the minor league pitcher who we all conveniently forgot to highlight in our transaction analysis last year, German Marquez, has been moving up prospect lists and may very well be a significant part of the Rockies rotation in 2017.
Though it may be easy to consider the Rockies the same, confused team as usual, there are real reasons to think otherwise. Take, for instance, one of the most reviled moves of the offseason, the Rockies signing Ian Desmond for 5 years and $70 million. It topped Dave Cameron’s list of the worst transactions of the offseason, with him saying “This still feels just too weird to be true.” Ian Desmond to play first base for five years! Weird, wild stuff. Except the Rockies have said Ian Desmond is their first baseman this year, which could be subject to change, which may be related to this being Carlos Gonzalez’s walk year. If you look at the 2018 projected free agent class, is their an outfielder there who is as positionally flexible as Desmond who would project to hit as well? Or, imagine Story or Gonzalez get hurt in July and are out for an extended period of time, and the Rockies are playing meaningful baseball. It would be conceivable for Desmond to cover at shortstop or in the outfield part-time. It’s easier to add a helpful first baseman at the deadline than a helpful shortstop.
But, you may argue, why bring in a relatively big free agent at all? Classic Rockies, randomly spending money with no plan. Except, 2017 may be right time for the Rockies to make some moderate win-now moves. Their most important hitters, Nolan Arenado, DJ Lemahieu, and Charlie Blackmon, are in their peak, and with Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, and Tyler Chatwood, they likely feel a lot better about the front of their rotation than they have in a long time. Their Pythag record for 2016 was 80-82, five wins better than their 75-87 reality. Some of the reasons teams perform worse than their Pythag are bad luck, the grind, and bad bullpens. Obviously there’s nothing the Rockies can do about luck, but they brought in Bud Black to replace Walt Weiss as manager, who has been found to have a good impact on negating the impact of the season long grind. Plus the bullpen will likely be better, with full seasons from Miguel Castro and Adam Ottavino, a possible resurgent performance from Greg Holland, and Black’s experience and feel for pitchers replacing the sometimes disastrous bullpen management of Weiss.
The purpose of this exercise is not to craft a thinkpiece about how #actually, the Colorado Rockies are secret baseball geniuses. The Ian Desmond signing is not a masterstroke, since they are parting with their first round pick, and there are certainly holes on the roster you can point too. Those three starters I mentioned earlier? They are all very young, and all took big steps forward in 2016 that may or may not be sustainable. Jon Gray has the pedigree and stuff to inspire confidence long term, but Tyler Anderson had spent a couple years in minor league limbo, and the last time Chatwood pitched that well was 2013 and let us remember that this is a dude who has had two Tommy John surgeries. The rotation looked better before the unfortunate news that Chad Bettis’ cancer had returned. The prognosis for Bettis is fortunately good, but he will obviously be away from the team for at least part of the year. The back end of the rotation, then, will be some mix of retreads (Jordan Lyles! Chris Rusin!) and youngsters with unavoidable growing pains (Jeff Hoffman! the aforementioned German Marquez!). Perhaps Hoffman or Marquez will be great after a cup of coffee last season, but counting on it would be dangerous.
Each NL division seems to have at least two very good teams, so it would be folly to expect too much from the Rockies this year. But there are plenty of reasons to feel better about them than usual (and I haven’t even mentioned Trevor Story! Or David “17 Game Hitting Streak to Begin a Career” Dahl!). That is, if you’re willing to look.Next post: Record Index: The Misfortune of Boom-Boom Beck
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