The natives are three exits past restless. The boos aren't of frustration, but of anger. Cries for a scapegoat -- multiple scapegoats -- have grown insistent, almost threatening. The last two and a half weeks have made it abundantly clear that the Colorado Rockies will not be participating in the postseason for the third consecutive year, and for the crime of not having the decency to at least wait until Memorial Day before pulling the plug on October dreams, the Rockies are paying dearly in the court of public opinion.
After a 12-12 start that featured more exciting finishes than all of the previous season and provided some glimmers of optimism, the Rockies have fallen into an abyss. A sweep at home by the lowly Seattle Mariners -- three games which were largely dominated by the AL West's basement dwellers -- has dropped the Rox to 15-25, ten games below .500 and into the NL West cellar. Where 2011's miserable May was a cold bucket of ice water that extinguished a hot start, 2012's May has been a persistent downpour, with no end in sight to the clouds hanging heavily over a seemingly regressive franchise.
Rockies fans, in turn, want heads on platters. They want manager Jim Tracy and pitching coach Bob Apodaca handed their walking papers, and they want general manager Dan O'Dowd on the same flight out of DIA. Even some members of the fanbase less inclined to demand a scapegoat have acknowledged that even change for change's sake would represent an improvement from the losing baseball the Rockies have played, without interruption, since the final two weeks of the 2010 season. (I'm of the mind that Tracy is on borrowed time, but his ouster won't make the Rockies young pitching any more experienced overnight, or recharge what has been a curiously underperforming offense. Some things are just going to have to happen on their own, no matter whose writing is on the lineup card.)
The most dispiriting facet of all of this mad chatter, though, is just how recently that same management group was beyond reproach. In baseball terms, three years isn't that long ago, and it was only that long ago when Tracy was the NL Manager of the Year and O'Dowd had overseen two playoff teams (including one pennant winner) in three seasons. To understand how things got from the Rockies being one blown call in the ninth inning away from a 2-1 NLDS lead over the Phillies in '09 to the bottom of the old well in '12, you have to understand that the Rockies' team-building philosophy hasn't changed. It's not the blueprint, so to speak, that's the problem.
When Dan O'Dowd had been on the job for four seasons, he'd seen the Rockies go from 82-80 in his first season to 74-88 in 2003. The franchise was absolutely spinning its wheels, crowds were shrinking in size, and the only way to get things moving forward was to take a step back. The Rockies committed to a full-scale rebuild in 2004. With Clint Hurdle, respected as a human if not as a tactician, overseeing progress from the dugout, the Rockies proceeded to play two of the three worst seasons in franchise history - 68 wins in 2004, one fewer the next year. But a plan was in motion -- a plan to come up with a core of young talent drafted and developed in-house. By the end of 2004, Matt Holliday and Garrett Atkins were in the everyday lineup and Jeff Francis was in the starting rotation. Brad Hawpe took over everyday duties in 2005, and Aaron Cook returned from injury for the final two months.
The Rockies won 76 games in 2006, their most wins since O'Dowd's first year. Troy Tulowitzki and Ubaldo Jimenez debuted in September of that season. The core was locked in for its first full year together, and success came ahead of schedule in the form of 90 wins, a Wild Card, and a World Series appearance. The vision was coming true -- a pipeline of homegrown talent had made the Rockies competitive without having to break the bank, a sensible and necessary approach for a team based in the 20th largest market in Major League Baseball.
So what happened? The pipeline dried up. The Rockies had been on the cutting edge of scouting and development in Latin America, but other teams began to catch up, costing the Rockies a valuable advantage. And the draft, which had been bountiful for the Rockies up through 2005, became nightmarish. The Rockies' drafts from 2005 to 2007 produced only six players who ever saw the big leagues for the team that drafted them: Tulowitzki, who's turned out OK; Mike McKenry and Bruce Billings, who hardly count; Greg Reynolds, about whom the less said, the better; and current Rockies Jordan Pacheco and Matt Reynolds, who define 'fungible.' Early returns on the 2008 class aren't a lot better, though it's too early to write off Christian Friedrich and Charlie Blackmon, who have shown promise while wearing the big league uniform.
Those four drafts were supposed to supply the Rockies with the complimentary players that the 2007 and 2009 teams had -- guys like Seth Smith, Chris Iannetta, Clint Barmes, and Ryan Spilborghs, who weren't stars by any stretch but were comfortably above-average regulars who supplemented star performances from the likes of Holliday and Tulowitzki. And to this point, that has not been the case.
The failure of the 2011 Rockies made it clear that O'Dowd's pipeline pipe-dream had run dry. The Rockies do have two outstanding players in the prime of their career, but very little else in the way of 'comfortably above-average' on the 2012 roster. And it was this understanding that led to the construction of the 2012 Rockies as a team that only the most optimistic fan could see returning to postseason play.
The 2012 season isn't quite a push of the reset button, as in 2004, but it's clear that it's Dan O'Dowd's last stand. By the end of this season, we will know if the pipeline is flowing again. We will know if Friedrich, Alex White, Drew Pomeranz can be rotation regulars. We will know if Wilin Rosario can be the answer behind the plate, and we might just catch our first glimpses of Nolan Arenado, Josh Rutledge, and other position prospects. And if the answers come back negative, if the scouting/player development side of the Rockies organization continues to show regression, then I believe the team will head into 2013 with a brand new front office.
But this is a story that will take the full 162 games to write. Not 40, not 50, not 81, but an entire season. I can't speak to who will serve out the season in the dugout, or who will be making mid-inning visits to the pitcher's mound, but I do believe that 2012 is more of an experimental season than we'd all wanted to admit back in March. It will be a test of endurance in the stands and in front of the nightly ROOT Sports telecast. Like a battered starter left in to absorb innings to protect a tired bullpen, Rockies fans are going to have to wear it. Time will tell if the men in charge will, too.