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If I were GM of the Rockies: How to turn Colorado into a contender

It’s a tough time to be a sports fan in the Mile High City. For the most part, the local teams are mired in a championship drought, one that is moving into its third decade.

Since the turn of the century, the biggest programs and franchises in the Denver area have won just two championships. The Avalanche hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2001, while the Broncos lifted a Lombardi Trophy in 2015.

In that same time, fans in the Boston area have attended 12 championship parades. Those in Los Angeles have been to nine, the Bay Area has seen six, and Pittsburgh and Chicago have had five each.

During these lean years, most of the teams haven’t even been close to winning a title. The Avs haven’t returned to the Stanley Cup Finals in 20 years. The Nuggets have never been to the NBA Finals. The Rockies played in one World Series. The Broncos have reached a pair of Super Bowls. And the Buffs haven’t been in the national championship conversation since barely missing out on the title game after the 2001 season.

It wasn’t always like this. When Y2K was the biggest worry in America, the Avalanche were a perennial contender, the Broncos were a year removed from winning back-to-back Super Bowls, CU was a national power and the Rockies were spending big on free agents. Only the Nuggets were lagging behind.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There simply needs to be a shift in mindset. A championship mentality has to return.

How does that happen? Well, one of the keys is having the right person in charge of building the teams. People who can make the most out of their circumstances, rather than complain about them (Dan O’Dowd), need to be in place.

In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at what that kind of general manager would look like in a five-part series. Today’s installment…

If I was the GM of the Rockies

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Embrace the Altitude

In the 28 years that the Rockies have been in existence, the organization hasn’t enjoyed a lot of success. They’ve reached the postseason five times, won two playoff series, hoisted one pennant and have never captured the National League West.

This is because they’ve never been able to decode the problem of having to play 81 games per year at 5,280 feet. They’ve tried a humidor and the “Bridich Barrier,” but they’ve never solved the riddle.

Part of the problem is the mindset. The Rockies have always seen the fact that they play half of their games a mile above sea level as a challenge. They’ve never flipped the script and turned it into an advantage.

Why? Because they’ve always applied traditional baseball thinking to the problem. And given how the game is impacted by a change in altitude – from pitching to hitting – that’s never going to work.

Conventional thinking won’t lead to grand results. Instead, the Rockies need to work differently. They need to buck tradition and come up with new approaches to the game. That’s the only way to turn the enigma into a magic recipe.

***

Train at Altitude

Every team that calls Colorado home spends most of its time in the Centennial State. As a result, their bodies become accustomed to living a mile above sea level.

When the travel for road games, this gives them an advantage. After all, there’s a reason why endurance athletes train at altitude; it allows for better performance at sea level.

And at home, it also tilts the scales. While other teams are literally and figuratively gasping for air, the local teams are quite comfortable.

This has helped the Avalanche, Broncos and Nuggets over the years. It’s provided a home-ice, -field and -court advantage for years.

The Rockies, however, have failed to enjoy the fruits of playing at 5,280 feet. Quite the contrary. They’ve constantly been plagued by having to play 81 games at Coors Field.

In part, that’s because their no different than the visiting teams during those homestands. But while those clubs get to leave town after three or four days, trying to recover from the effects of the altitude, the Rockies play 10 or 11 games in a row in those conditions. It takes a toll.

Why? Because Colorado’s players never get accustomed to living, working and playing in Denver.

They don’t train in town during the offseason. They bolt to Scottsdale for spring training in February. And they bounce around the country during the season. They’re never at altitude for the 21 days it takes for the body to adjust.

That has to change. The Rockies should require their players to live and train in town during the offseason; it makes no sense for them to no ready themselves for the conditions they’ll experience in 50 percent of their games.

Spring training should also be held at altitude. Colorado should move their preseason prep from the Phoenix area to Albuquerque, elevation 5,300 feet. This may sound crazy, but it wouldn’t have a negative impact.

Players no longer need to spend six weeks getting back into shape. Spring training is a vestige of the past, a link to a bygone era when ballplayers spent the offseason drinking beer, eating hot dogs and working a side job. That’s no longer the case.

And they’d get plenty of competition playing intrasquad games. Anyone who has been to spring training knows how the games go; it’s a bunch of pitchers with numbers in the 70s throwing to a group of hitters who will be playing in triple-A come April. That level of play can easily be simulated without facing a team from another organization.

By the time the Rockies hit the regular season, they’ll have spent weeks, if not months, training at altitude. They’ll be accustomed to the toll it can take on the human body. And this will help them endure the lengthy season and the rigors of playing games at Coors Field.

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Focus on On-Base Percentage, Speed and Defense

When it comes to building the roster of everyday players, the Rockies need to focus on areas that don’t show huge splits between road and home. Thus, they need to steer away from building a team based on power numbers.

Those stats are always going to be inflated at Coors Field. Colorado won’t have trouble finding players who can hit the ball out of the ballpark at 20th and Blake.

In the past, however, they’ve suffered when those home runs at home turn into long flyouts on the road. The bats suddenly go silent, as the Rockies transform from a team putting up seven or eight runs per night to one that can barely scratch out one or two. It seems as though every road trip starts with a game where they have two hits and zero runs through six innings against some journeyman starter.

In addition, power numbers tend to be overvalued. They garner hefty contracts, the type that the Rockies can’t afford.

That’s why they need to stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. Let the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Dodgers overpay for home run hitters. Instead, the Rockies need to focus on an undervalued offensive traits, ones that translates well from home to the road – on-base percentage and speed.

At Coors Field, these two things would drive opposing pitchers mad. A constant barrage of baserunners, especially ones with the ability to turn walks and singles into doubles or triples by stealing a base or two, would turn long nights at the ballpark into nightmares. Colorado’s offensive approach would be like gnats, just constantly buzzing around and causing problems.

Away from home, this skillset would also work. The distance between bases is 90 feet in Colorado, San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles or anywhere else the Rockies play. And the ability to run between those bags doesn’t waver based on location.

Get on base and be a pest. That’s the offensive mantra.

Defensively, it’s all about not giving teams extra outs. At Coors Field, that especially important, given that errors tend to lead to big innings. Blunders in the field seem to multiply in Colorado.

It’s no coincidence that the best teams in franchise history have all been very good in the field. When the Rockies reach the postseason, they’re almost always among the best defensive teams in baseball.

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Implement a Tiered-Rotation for Road Trips

Rockies pitchers have always had trouble adjusting to being away from Coors Field at the start of road trips, as well as readjusting back to altitude when the team returns home. This is especially true for the first two or three games at the start of a either scenario.

In order to avoid this situation, Colorado needs to employ a tiered-rotation for road trips. This will involve six starters, bundled into two groups of three. To avoid a huge imbalance between the two tiers, putting the team’s Nos. 1, 3 and 5 starters together, as well as their Nos. 2, 4 and 6, makes the most sense.

As a homestand winds down, the tier that will start the first three games of a road trip will travel ahead of the rest of the team to the initial stop. They’ll spend three days getting acclimated to the lower altitude, so they’re ready to go for game one.

Along the same lines, the group that will start the first three games of a homestand will leave the road trip early, returning to Colorado in order to get readjusted Denver’s thinner air.

This easy-to-implement system will avoid a situation where 20 to 30 percent of the games on any homestand or road trip are a crapshoot because of pitchers who aren’t adjusted to the altitude. Colorado will be much more competitive, as a result, as no other team in baseball has to spend so many games per season adjusting and readjusting to the conditions.

The downside to this approach is that it adds an extra arm to the rotation. Given that the Rockies have had trouble finding a viable fourth or fifth starter in most seasons, the idea of trying to add a sixth seems daunting.

The trade-off, however, is that every other arm in the rotation stays fresher. This will help avoid the annual June swoon, when the Rockies falter as arms get tired prior to the All-Star break.

And if implement properly, the No. 6 spot in the rotation won’t have to pitch an equal number of games as the others in the rotation. It’s simply an arm that is used to balance things out if a third pitcher is needed for those first three games on the road or upon returning home.

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Build a Bullpen of Flamethrowers

In recent seasons, the Rockies have seen what happens when their bullpen is comprised of pitchers who throw in the lower 90s and nibble on the corners. They fall behind in the count and wind up getting belted around the yard, especially at Coors Field.

Eventually, this approach catches up with even the most-seasoned relievers. It happened with Huston Street, Greg Holland and Wade Davis. All suffered the same fate once hitters learned to lay off breaking balls.

That’s why Colorado needs to build a bullpen of pitchers with one trait in common – they can throw heat. Nothing cute. Nothing artistic. Just pure power.

It works at Coors Field. It works on the road. Fastballs in the high 90s are the same in every ballpark.

Occasionally, these types of hurlers will get tagged with a long ball. But if an opposing hitter can turn on a 99 MPH fastball, so be it. That’s a lot better fate than watching Davis miss with three breaking balls in the dirt, only to then see hit 89 MPH “heater” leave a dent in the outfield wall.

Challenge the hitter. And take your chances, especially with the speed and defense (see above) in the field behind the flamethrower.

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Don’t Have a Top-Heavy Roster

In recent years, the Rockies payroll hasn’t been an embarrassment. They’ve been right near the middle of MLB in total player expenditures, a respectable place for a mid-market team.

The problem has been the way the money has been allocated. By and large, Colorado’s payroll has been top-heavy, with most of the dollars tied up in a few star players. Meanwhile, the median salary is near the league minimum. In other words, most of the roster is among the lowest-paid players in MLB.

That provides little margin for error. If the big-money players don’t perform, see 2019 and 2020, the Rockies don’t have anyone behind them who can step up and fill the void. If injuries ravish the top of the ranks, Colorado doesn’t have the depth to absorb the losses.

This situation has to change. Tying 75 to 80 percent of the overall payroll up in six or seven players is ludicrous. The total expenditures is fine; it’s the way it’s allocated that needs to change, with the money being spread out over more members of the roster.

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Don’t Be So Pompous

Baseball isn’t rocket science. It also isn’t brain surgery. So there’s no need for the general manager of the Rockies to act as though he’s the smartest guy in the room at all times, as if no one can possibly understand the ways in which he’s pulling the levers behind closed doors.

Be upfront. Be honest. Be humble. And be someone who has a plan.

That’s all the fan base asks. They’re loyal, perhaps to a fault. They just don’t want to be played as fools.

That’s also all of the media asks. They’re lenient, perhaps to a fault. They just want to be treated with respect.

Show an earnest desire to win. Believe that it’s possible, even in Colorado. And everyone will be on board.

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There might not be a more high-profile, yet forgiving job in the entire state. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with responsibility. The GM of the Rockies is a great gig, one with a very low bar. The above plan would make exceeding expectations the norm.