When I think back on the 2011 Colorado Rockies season – not that I'll ever do so intentionally, but when circumstance or an evening on Baseball Reference lead my mind in that direction – I'll think about a lot of different players. I'll think about Troy Tulowitzki's Sisyphean efforts to keep the Rockies pointed in the right direction, even as he too showed his own flaws. I'll think about Carlos Gonzalez's five-tool wizardry leaving me shaking my head in amazement, even though the magic that won him the batting crown in 2010 never fully re-emerged. I'll think about all the young players who debuted throughout the season, hopefully with a great deal of fondness as a prelude to fine major league careers and not with a rueful chuckle and a "Geez, what happened to that guy?" But mostly, I'll think about Ubaldo Jimenez.
That may not make sense. Jimenez escaped the Rockies season around the time when most of us fans wish we could have, one day before the trade deadline when he was traded to Cleveland. But this was a season that ended with a lot more questions about the Rockies than answers, and all of them were questions I asked of Jimenez this year, mostly out loud in front of the TV.
"This can't be happening, can it?"
"They'll turn it around, right?"
"How did this happen?"
Twenty eleven was not supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be a year where the Rockies contended for a flag – maybe even the biggest flag of them all. And it wasn't just us fans who thought so – a simple review of preseason predictions by some of the most prominent baseball writers and analysts before the season would reveal their own high expectations for the Rockies.
And one month into the season, that looked to be right on the money. The Rockies roared to an 11-2 start, and a 17-8 April. I remember watching games that month and believing that this was the kind of team you dream about – the kind of team that could run rampant through the league through an entire season. And then May came, and it all fell apart with seemingly no logical explanation.
Every one of Ubaldo Jimenez's starts in the first two months of the season defied explanation, too. He was the National League's best pitcher in 2010, and entered this season as a major part of the high hopes for the team. But ... something wasn't right. Jimenez was 0-5 in the season's first two months. He couldn't be counted on to even keep his team in the game when he started. And watching Ubaldo – the guy who started the previous year 15-1, the guy with the best fastball in the game and an array of breaking stuff most pitchers would give their non-throwing arm for – struggle so badly ... I mean, that couldn't be happening.
Jimenez bounced back to pitch better in June and July, but he didn't last in purple pinstripes for August. The trade with Cleveland was the final, clearest signal that 2011 was a total loss, and that the franchise needed to regroup for 2012 and beyond. The denouement to the Jimenez trade came slowly and awkwardly. The only thing more painful than watching Jimenez labor through an inning in San Diego the night of the deal was watching the two months of baseball that came afterwards.
By the end, the Rockies were running out lineups that wouldn't have been out of place on the minor league fields at Salt River during this year's spring training. Guys like Chris Nelson and Kevin Kouzmanoff were getting to bat cleanup. Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Todd Helton essentially sat out the final three weeks, giving the Rockies much less than a puncher's chance in their final 15 to 20 games. So while those losses suffered in those games – and there were many of them – may not have been fair to the body of work of the 2011 Rockies as a whole, they did produce a final record that feels like an accurate assessment. The worst season in seven years – the worst since the 2005 season that was clearly meant to be a rebuilding year. And the first year I can remember where I have actively been wishing for the final day to arrive.
So yes, this could be happening. No, they won't be turning it around. But that last question – how did this happen? - that's the big question. That's what will contribute to the unease we'll feel throughout the fall and the long, cold winter until the boys return to Talking Stick. Because this season gave the lie to everything we had thought about the progress of the franchise, and the process by which talent was being evaluated and developed. This is the season that gives rise to a new skepticism among the faithful, a distrust of the decision makers in the front office and dugout, all of whom will return in 2012 to try and prove that they were right along, and we were right to believe in them.
Tulo and CarGo will be back, scintillating as ever, both worth the price of admission to that beautiful yard in LoDo 81 times. Todd Helton will try to chase the sunset for one more year. Jhoulys Chacin assumes the great responsibility of fronting the rotation, whether he's ready for it or not. Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Rex Brothers, and other young players will try and show that there's a future being made for the Rockies after all. I will wait impatiently, as ever, for the new season to arrive.
But while I will wait, as ever, with excitement, I will wait with uncertainty, and worry, and hope rather than expectation. And I will hope that the answers to next year's questions come much easier.