This is an exciting time to be a baseball fan. The trade deadline has seen big stars change addresses and leagues, altering the shape of pennant races from East to (especially) West. Young talent is debuting and lighting up the highlight reels. The addition of a second wild card may yet seem like an unneeded contrivance once October comes, but for the time being it's yet another carrot for teams to reach for, meaning even more teams can feel the thrill of meaningful baseball as the calendar prepares to flip to August. Cities like Washington, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are watching their best teams in decades. Yes, it's a thrilling year, and it's only going to get more fun as we get into the final two months.
Unless, of course, you're a Rockies fan, where "fun" and "exciting" left tread marks leaving Denver weeks ago. On Sunday, the Rockies lost their 63rd game out of 100 played, a lethargic 7-2 defeat at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds in which the Rockies were so mentally absent that they forgot how many outs had been recorded in the fifth inning, staying on the field and whipping the ball around the horn after out No. 3 as if they've needed to make it any more difficult on themselves to retire the side this season. It was a perfect moment to represent a mind-numbing season, loss after dispiriting loss long having given way to the sort of crushing ennui only mildly mitigated by the start of NFL training camp.
In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. Rockies fans should have known 2012 had a very good chance of being a very trying season. We should have known a pitching staff built on youth would go through growing pains, that the cruel injury bug would make its way to Denver, and that those two factors would, in large part, lead to us watching the other team shake hands after games a lot more often than the purple pinstripes.
And I know I don't speak for every fan, but I can deal with a bad season if I know it's coming. The first few Rockies teams I followed ardently after the switch flipped from "fan" to "obsessed fan" in my teens were the rebuilding clubs in 2003, 2004, and 2005. Those, in case you've forgotten, were some really bad baseball teams. But they were young, and thus offered something to dream on, as guys like Jeff Francis, Matt Holliday, and Garrett Atkins took their opening bows in the Show.
The first rebuilding period in Dan O'Dowd's tenure as Rockies general manager was an undeniable necessity with a clear endgame - bottom out, build from within, and contend with young, cost-controlled talent. And, lest we forget amidst some of the revisionist history being written of late that would have you believe O'Dowd has been nothing but an incompetent boob for twelve years, it bore fruit. The Rockies went to a World Series. It feels like ages ago, but it happened. Then after the club bobbled the 2008 season and after Clint Hurdle lost a more veteran clubhouse, they regrouped, were the best team in the National League from June to September in 2009, and made the playoffs again. And though the 2010 team met a demise like Wile E. Coyote in the last two weeks, falling off a cliff and landing just seconds before an anvil dropped on the same spot, that was a pretty good ballclub, too.
I felt like that four-year run gave O'Dowd a certain amount of credibility when it came to A) calling for a rebuild and B) guiding the club through the process. And though nobody said it publicly before this season began, this season represented something like a rebuilding process right from the jump, and it became more evident as the losses mounted that the Rockies were headed for a season of non-contention.
Which, again, I can handle as a fan. They aren't any fun, of course, but as long as I can see a clear vision for the future, I can keep believing. The Rockies aren't ever going to be a franchise that loads up in the free agent market, spending like a big-market team to wallpaper over any mistakes made on the scouting and player development end. The process of building a winner in Denver will always require some patience, and the occasional sacrifice of short-term results in anticipation of a bountiful future. If you don't, or can't, or won't trust that process, you're going to be even more frustrated with seasons like these.
But what I can't handle is an unclear vision for the future, and I'm afraid that's the crossroads at which the Rockies find themselves. From a talent perspective, it looks like the core of the lineup is solidly in place for years to come, and I'd like to think some better luck in the health department can merge with the growth of the organization's well-regarded young pitchers to produce a pitching staff that's at least competent.
However, that talent is in the hands of a general manager who has spent all his capital from his first successful rebuilding job on an unorthodox "paired pitching system" that so far seems to be doing as much, if not more, harm than good. And it's in the hands of Jim Tracy, whose honeymoon expired long ago, who can't keep his players focused on a day-in, day-out basis and occasionally treats the cleanup spot in his lineup like a prize to be won in a clubhouse raffle.
There is hope, of course. There is always hope. And there is potential, real potential, on display every time Wilin Rosario turns on a fastball or Josh Rutledge sends a line drive through the infield or Drew Pomeranz paints the inside corner. But there is so much that is uncertain, so much that is cloudy, because there is so much that is just plain not working. And the uncertainty stems from a pitching system that has landed with a thud and a manager whose presence on the bench stopped being a positive the moment the 2009 regular season ended.
Compounding the frustration, the futures of O'Dowd and Tracy are in the hands of the Brothers Monfort. Now, I don't blame Dick or Charlie for the failings of the on-field product, and I respect the value system that has built a top-notch organizational environment, which has given the Rockies a deserved reputation as a classy franchise. But the great fear regarding the Monforts is that they are loyal to a fault, and that their loyalty to O'Dowd and Tracy may lead them to keep them established in the same chairs even after this meltdown of a season. It's true that O'Dowd and Tracy are well-regarded in the game, and seem to be the kind of men you want representing your ballclub. But can the Monforts divorce character from results? (Ironically, O'Dowd's inability to do just that has contributed to this malaise.) Can they prove once and for all that winning on the field is the top priority beyond the goal, admirable as it may be, of building a "culture of value?"
It's a very real concern as this lost season limps to what may be an unprecedented end - the first 100-loss season in franchise history. There's no shame in a rebuilding process. There's no shame in wanting to employ respectable individuals to represent your franchise. But the way this season has come apart at the seams has shown once and for all that the expiration date on O'Dowd and Tracy has come and gone. And the greatest shame would be if this organization is too proud to see that it's time to move on, and so wedded to a character ideal that it would sacrifice on-field results.