Pete Vuckovich was not blessed with a cannon for an arm or an Intel processor for a brain. He became a Cy Young winner and led the American League in wins in 1981 because he was above average in both areas, but most importantly, he was adaptable.
Vuck told me once that the key to his surviving and excelling for 12 Major League seasons was his willingness to take what he had learned the season before and make alterations to the way he approached the next season. “Every offseason I came up with something different: A different way to throw a pitch, different delivery, something. The hitters were collecting information on me all season. I had to do something different to stay ahead of them.”
The key was Vuck’s ability to take his experiences and learn from them. That’s something Rockies fans have to hope has happened in the minds of a few of the key members of the 2016 Rockies. We all like to blame the front office for not spending enough on free agents, or the minor league system for not producing enough star talent, or even Walt Weiss and his staff for not pushing the right buttons. Truth be told, a whole lot depends on the players themselves – on their commitment to improving and taking the talent and coaching they’ve already had and maximizing it.
There are several players who figure to be on the big league roster this season who have hopefully learned some lessons from what’s happened to them prior to this point in their careers.
For example, let’s hope that Carlos Gonzalez has learned he needs to bring his “A” game during the first half of the season and not wait until the second half to begin to produce at the plate. By coasting through the first half of 2015, Cargo may have cost himself a chance to be traded to a playoff team like Troy Tulowitzki was. (And despite Tulo’s gripes, the Rockies did him a HUGE favor.)
Case in point: Just prior to last season’s All-Star game, Kansas City Royals star left fielder Alex Gordon injured his groin trying to make a diving catch and ended up on the disabled list. He missed the next two months. Just a few days after Gordon was hurt, I asked a Royals scout if the club would be looking to make a trade to replace Gordon and if they’d be interested in Gonzalez. The scout immediately dismissed the idea, despite agreeing that Cargo was among the most-talented players in the game. The Royals, he said, do not like his lackadaisical approach. (Things certainly worked out for KC when they won the World Series.) The fact of the matter is that “first-half CarGo” was a major disappointment, while “second-half CarGo” could have been a starter for any MLB team, including those Royals.
Has that message gotten through to CarGo?
And has the light bulb gone on for Jon Gray and Eddie Butler? With all the talk about Jeff Hoffman and Kyle Freeland being the next star pitchers for Colorado, you’d think that both Butler and Gray had been shipped out of town already. The fact of the matter is both still have the same tools they had two seasons ago when everyone was talking them up. The issues with both young pitchers – who were coddled badly by the organization all the way up the ladder – are between their ears. Both young players could still become great if they first figured out what they have to do physically to stay in elite condition (Gray being out with an “abdominal strain” is disconcerting) to handle the unique playing conditions here, and second figured out how each can maximize his ability to get big league hitters out consistently. It’s time for both guys to grow up and take ownership of their careers. Both could still be outstanding big league pitchers. It’s up to them now.
One guy who might have the opposite problem from Gray and Butler is Tyler Chatwood. Coming off two Tommy John elbow surgeries, the hope is that Chatwood has learned that being physically limited – he’s well under six feet tall and lacking the girth to use his body to propel pitches at 95 mph for seven innings – means he will learn to back off a tick. Pace himself more. Stop trying to throw every single pitch at maximum velocity.
Chatwood needs to dial down the macho, accept his physical limitations and pitch accordingly. If he is determined to be a big league starter, Chatwood has to adjust his approach. If he doesn’t, Tommy John No. 3 is right around the corner and the Rockies have wasted a lot of salary and rehab time already.
Every Rockies player (with the exception of Nolan Arenado) should be expected to improve on 2015. That’s not an unreasonable expectation. It’s not about the front office or the manager or the minor league development at this point. It’s about the players taking responsibility for their performance and doing all they can to become great.