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From Worst To Wild Card: How the Rockies improved by 20 games in two years

Jake Shapiro Avatar
October 1, 2017

DENVER – On February 3, 2015, the Colorado Rockies signed eight-year veteran righty Kyle Kendrick to a one-year contract worth $5.5 million. Kendrick, a member of the Phillies 2007 club that lost to Colorado in the NLDS, carried a 74-68 career record with a 4.42 ERA in 1,138.2 innings.

The Rockies’ soul purpose for signing Kendrick was to eat innings. It was an arranged marriage, but truthfully it was the Rockies’ best option. He started on opening day in a rotation that included Jorge De La Rosa, Eddie Buttler, Chad Bettis and David Hale.

Kendrick was not a good pitcher for the Rockies but he was one of Jeff Bridich’s first signings as general manager and he gave Bridich the opportunity to do something that he was never able to do while serving as senior director of player development under Dan O’Dowd.

The mere presence of Kendrick allowed Bridich to keep Jon Gray in the minors, learning and developing, unlike the many prospects before him who were rushed to the majors in the midst of mid-season failure.

Tied up by injuries in 2014, the once No. 24 prospect in all of baseball, Eddie Butler, was forcibly promoted from Double-A, due to lack of organizational depth. The move was made based on the recommendation of Bridich, who would later say this was one of the biggest mistakes of his career.

Kendrick ate innings for a team that would go on to win 68 games.

But the biggest story that season came on July, 28. Superstar shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was finally dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays after years of rumors. It was quite the bold blockbuster, especially just a few months into Bridich’s tenure.

Fans quit caring and the product and experience left such a bad taste in people’s mouth’s that even budding third baseman Nolan Arenado was on the record, saying he was bummed out that Colorado didn’t appear to pick up anything that would help them in the immediate future. Fans and media largely agreed, seeing no clear future direction for the team.

Seven days later Jon Gray made his debut.

Kendrick would soon be out of the majors but his 27 starts were enough to not force the latest Rockies’ top prospect to the big leagues before he was ready.

That one decision in 2014 appears to have paid off.

On Wednesday night, Jon Gray will have the ball, riding a hotter hand than 2015’s Cy Young runner-up Zack Greinke. The two will meet on a mound in Phoenix, each representing their given franchise’s most important duel in this current decade.

A lot has changed since 2015.

When Gray stepped out on a big league mound for the first time, throwing four innings of two-run ball against Seattle, he was doing so in front of an empty Coors Field. It was just the second home game after Tulo was traded.

Gray went from a cool story on a team nobody wanted to hear from again to getting the ball on the game’s biggest stage, in a season in which the Rockies just won their 87th game.

Start by start, Gray represented the club’s rise from being a laughing stock to a playoff contender, and now he’s here.

No team in baseball is great because of one player. And honestly, Gray hasn’t even been one of the Rockies’ two best players this season. But he has been the symbol of Colorado’s organizational shift and change in attitude, which refuted any excuses for failure.

Gray became the blueprint for success, proof that pitching at altitude was something that was not only possible but best achieved by in-house development. The flame-throwing, slider-wielding, Wolf on the mound, provided the roadmap for Tyler Anderson, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Jeff Hoffman, Antonio Senzatela and more to come.

It is a roadmap that Bridich learned after his big blunder in 2014.

With the franchise’s change in outlook on pitching, coupled with the talent that Bridich has drafted, signed, and developed, the Rockies have organizational depth for the first time in a long time, and it’s allowing them to succeed.

Bud Black has expertly used that depth and has made no excuses while doing so. The attitude that has been instilled at the minor league level is the same Bud Black brought to the big leagues; No excuses, execute or be sent down.

Black himself said on Friday, “Pitching drives the train. Once we got to spring training, about halfway through, I really started to see the talent and the depth. Then, the season started and I saw Senzatela and Freeland and Gray and thought ‘if we can keep this up, we can stay in it all year.'”

It takes a long-term look to see it but it’s the one Bridich had all along. One pitch, game or even draft pick—although that one in 2013 certainly helped—wasn’t going to change the Rockies. It took an adjustment from the top down, one that’s clearly been implanted since his first day in late 2014.

The hurdles may be abstract and unclear to the public, but in hindsight, it’s really easy to see how the Rockies have improved 20 games in two seasons and made the playoffs for the first time in eight.

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