The signature Colorado Rockies game from the 2011 season isn't actually just one game, but one of the many dog day afternoons (and evenings) that the Rockies spent muddling their way to an 89-loss campaign. With only five walkoff wins to their credit all summer, the Rockies spent much of the season unable to catch up to any kind of deficit. A typical Rockies loss saw a small early lead squandered, a base running blunder, a series of horrendous at-bats with runners in scoring position, and a feeble attempt at late offense ending in defeat.
The 2011 Rockies had talent. At least, we thought so. The front office did, too. So did rival front offices and other league observers. What they did not have – what they so glaringly lacked – was any fight to them. When they were beaten, they could not drag themselves off the canvas. Once down, they waited for the 10-count, then stirred, trudging back to the clubhouse on the wrong end. When the 2011 Rockies met adversity of any kind, they turtled.
This winter, a clear message has already been sent that a repeat of the 2011 performance won't be acceptable. Talented underachievers Chris Iannetta and Ian Stewart are gone. Seth Smith seems likely to follow them out the door. The Rockies have zeroed in on former Twin Michael Cuddyer as their man free agent target, seemingly as much for his personality as for his playing ability. Dan O'Dowd and company are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. Or something.
On the surface, it's a commitment to placing intangibles on an equal level, if not above, talent. This is nothing new to the Rockies, who have done their best to try and foster a good clubhouse environment, going so far as to employ Jason Giambi as a pinch hitter/sage/everybody's big brother for as long as he feels like hanging around a big league team. But after clubhouse good guys Iannetta and Stewart, to say nothing of Smith and the also-departed Huston Street, underperformed relative to expectations in 2011, the focus shifted. It's not enough to have guys who like each other anymore.
The question remains – is this a viable way to improve a team? Baseball fans are the stat-savviest of all four major sports, and the quickest to diminish, if not dismiss outright, the impact of intangibles. They'll tell you all the 'grit' and 'toughness' and 'accountability' in the world doesn't help if you just can't hit. And they're right, of course, to an extent. But there does seem to be, anecdotally at least, a difference in the teams that seem to have those intangibles in bunches. Last season's Arizona Diamondbacks would seem to be a convenient Exhibit A for the argument that a change in attitude can result in a reversal of fortunes, as the D-Backs repeatedly dug themselves out of holes and seemed to have a walk-off win every week of the season on their way to the NL West flag.
Michael Cuddyer's nobody's idea of a superstar, but he's a solidly above average hitter with power than can play all four corners of the diamond and would provide some right-handed lineup protection that the Rockies have sorely lacked. Perhaps his attitude and influence would prove equally important to the team as his bat. (Perhaps he chooses to play elsewhere and the Rockies end up with Carlos Beltran. Or maybe they settle for Cody Ross instead, who would see his batting average drop 200 points strictly because he would no longer have the benefit of facing Rockies pitching.)
But if the Rockies truly are as short on talent as their 73-89 record would suggest, no change in attitude could possibly get them over the hump. Therein lies the wager Dan O'Dowd has made this winter. He has bet on his talent, one more time. He is betting that having two of the game's 15 best players in the middle of his lineup and a growing pool of precocious young pitchers can put his team in position to contend in an NL West that isn't daunting in the least. He is betting that a threshing of last year's roster, along with an added bat (or two), can move the Rockies up the standings. He is not betting, but demanding, that a change in mindset sweep through the clubhouse and that win or lose, the Rockies never mentally fold the tents like they did repeatedly in 2011.
Dan O'Dowd believes he has the talent to make the intangibles matter. He'd better be right.