Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich might have penned his own epitaph last week.
Pressed to explain the club’s unpopular decision to trade star third baseman Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals, and pushed to explain the Rockies’ recent failures, Bridich said: “If you’re going to pass blame, you can blame me. It’s the job of the GM to create a team that competes and wins as much as humanly possible.”
For now, Bridich’s job appears secure, despite an ugly rift with Arenado that was a major factor in the third baseman’s departure, despite a slew of failed free-agent signings and despite allowing star second baseman DJ LeMahieu to walk away after the 2018 season when LeMahieu told the club he was interested in staying.
And despite the perception by many within the baseball industry who say Bridich can be arrogant and difficult to work with, and who view the Rockies as a team lacking direction.
Nevertheless, owner Dick Monfort said last week he has not thought about firing Bridich, who was promoted to GM in October 2014. Under Bridich, the Rockies have had four losing seasons sandwiched around playoff runs in 2017-18.
So what would it take for the Rockies to move on from Bridich? A lot, apparently, given Colorado’s history.
Since the Rockies began play in 1993, they have employed only three general managers: Bob Gebhard (1993-99), Dan O’Dowd (2000-14) and Bridich. Rival teams in the National League West have been quicker to change course. The Los Angeles Dodgers, one of baseball’s elite franchises, have employed six GMs (plus two interim bosses) since 1993. The San Francisco Giants have had four and the San Diego Padres five, while the Arizona Diamondbacks have had five (including two interim GMs) since their inception in 1998.
Monfort, however, is a fiercely loyal man, at times to a fault, something he admitted back in 2012 when he defended O’Dowd in the midst of the worst season in franchise history. That was the year in which Colorado experimented with their four-man “piggyback” rotation, moved assistant GM Bill Geivett’s desk into the clubhouse, lost a club-record 98 games, and saw exasperated manager Jim Tracy walk away at the end of the season, leaving $1.4 million on the table.
At that point, O’Dowd’s Rockies resume included four winning seasons, two playoff appearances and one World Series appearance in his first 12 full seasons as GM.
In the spring of 2012, Monfort created a firestorm when he praised O’Dowd, telling The Denver Post: “He’s a tremendous asset. I can’t think of a general manager in baseball that’s as good as him. Granted, I don’t know all of them. I do get a chance every once in a while to speak with them, but I just think (O’Dowd) is head and shoulders above everybody else.”
Two years later, after a 96-loss season, O’Dowd and Geivett (considered co-general managers at the time) were forced to resign, in part because they simply could not work together.
The late Jerry McMorris, one of the Rockies’ original owners and their first team president and CEO, was not as patient as Monfort has been. He fired Gebhard late in the 1999 season, even though it was Gebhard who cobbled together the 1993 expansion team with a total payroll of $8 million and a $300,000 budget for his scouting department. And even though Gebhard’s 1995 Rockies qualified for the playoffs as an NL wild-card team, making the postseason faster than any expansion team in modern baseball history.
“The general rule is that a general manager gets two field managers and ‘Geb’ had had his two,” McMorris, referring to Don Baylor and Jim Leyland, said in Tony DeMarco’s book, “Tales From the Colorado Rockies.” “Things were going in the wrong direction. We still had exceptional fan support, and it was time to let somebody else see if they could take it and go.”
The decision crushed Gebhard at the time but he now says that he understands the need for change.
“Expectations were so high after we made the playoff as a wild card in that third year,” Gebhard recalled. “From that point on, Jerry thought we were very close to being world champions. When we didn’t improve toward that, he felt it was time to bring in somebody with fresh ideas.”
Gebhard, who began his front-office career with the Montreal Expos in 1976, knows just how tough the sports business can be.
“Look, it’s tough for all 30 teams in the majors,” he said. “Fans and the media, in any sport, aren’t patient. Just look at John Elway with the Broncos.”
Gebhard can relate to the struggles endured by both O’Dowd and Bridich. O’Dowd used to refer to baseball at altitude as a “Goliath.”
“Colorado is a tough place to find a winning combination,” Gebhard said. “Coors Field is a tough place to play. Look what happened to (reliever) Bryan Shaw. We had him in Arizona and he was good, and he was good in Cleveland. Then he got to Colorado (in 2018) and he looked like a totally different pitcher.
“You can’t predict what players are going to do. I mean, Nolan might go to St. Louis and be a good hitter but not a great hitter like he was in Colorado.”
Gebhard lists a number of qualities that a successful GM must possess. Near the top of the list is the ability to relate to people.
“That’s key. I always made it a point to get along with my players and staff — at least most of them,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid to go down to the clubhouse and talk to the players and let them know how I felt. But I wanted to show them respect.”
In 2014, when Bridich was promoted from farm director to GM, at age 37, there were some in the organization who questioned whether he was ready for the job and doubted that he had the right people skills for the job.
On the day he was promoted, Bridich, when asked about his philosophy, answered: “Winning at the major league level through a multi-faceted approach … Bringing everyone on board with a shared vision. Right now there’s no specific blueprint. It’s going to be an ongoing process.”
Entering the seventh season of the Bridich era, with Arenado gone and the likelihood that starting shortstop Trevor Story will depart after this season as a free agent, Bridich surely must be feeling the heat.
“Could I have done a better job in certain areas? You bet,” he admitted last week.
Still, Monfort’s patience and loyalty provide some modicum of security.
That’s not true in San Diego, where executive chairman Ron Fowler demanded a quick turnaround. In 2019, the Padres lost 92 games and finished last in the NL West, leading to the firing of manager Andy Green with two years remaining on his deal.
In 2015, A.J. Preller, the “Rockstar GM,” went on a spending spree in his first season in San Diego, but those moves bombed. He was given a second chance, but he was also put on notice.
“I watched the team on the field. You saw the team on the field, and we were an embarrassment the last three or four weeks of the season, and we’re not going to do that again,” Fowler said when Jayce Tingler was introduced as the new manager in the fall of 2019. “If we don’t perform better in 2020 and 2021, we will make changes. That’s absolutely it. A.J. knows that and is comfortable with it, and so is Ting. We’ve got to win, and we’ve got to win now. That’s the expectation.”
This offseason, Fowler sold a portion of his stake in the team to general partner Peter Seidler, which gave Seidler a controlling interest in the Padres. Seidler retained Fowler’s vision and expectations.
While most teams, including the Rockies, have reduced payroll and gone into a shell during the offseason, the cash-rich Padres have been one of baseball’s most aggressive teams. A playoff team in 2020, they’re viewed as a legitimate threat to end the Dodgers’ eight-year run atop the NL West. They’ve added pitchers Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove, as well as infielder Ha-Seong Kim, while retaining talented utility man Jurickson Profar.
The Rockies, meanwhile, despite Monfort’s insistence that they are “built to compete,” are treading water. If they can’t stay afloat, the Bridich era could well be over.
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