Rox big splash didn't pay off in '01 Meetings

O'Dowd made play for big-name pitching with Hampton signing

December 8th, 2017
Even with the excitement surrounding Hampton's signing, Dan O'Dowd, now a commentator with MLB Network, had misgivings. (AP)

DENVER -- Dan O'Dowd arrived at the 2001 Winter Meetings knowing the Rockies would be the talk of Dallas, Texas.

But deep down, O'Dowd, then entering his second season as Rockies general manager, feared how the mega-bucks signing of Mike Hampton would play out when he took the mound.

Hampton lasted just two seasons in purple pinstripes before going to the Braves in a three-team trade. It was clear that trying to "win" the offseason with big-money pitching -- with the effects of Coors Field on starting pitching an X-factor that's still being examined -- was a losing strategy.

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And don't expect a repeat of the Hampton deal when the 2017 Winter Meetings open on Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Under current GM Jeff Bridich, the Rockies made their first postseason appearance in eight seasons in 2016, in a year when six of their starters -- all either originally drafted or signed by the club, or targeted in trades before they reached the Majors -- entered the season with fewer than two years' service time.

Even with the excitement surrounding Hampton's signing, O'Dowd, now a commentator with MLB Network, had misgivings.

"I didn't feel great about it," O'Dowd said. "I just didn't have a good enough grasp of the challenges that we would ultimately understand."

However, surprising success the previous season and a desire to parlay that into something bigger led to the decision.

During the 2000 Winter Meetings in Anaheim, O'Dowd acquired third baseman Jeff Cirillo, who would represent the team in that season's All-Star Game, and unloaded salaries of third baseman Vinny Castilla and pitcher Jamey Wright in a flurry of moves -- which were preceded and anteceeded by other transactions -- that had folks calling him "Dealin' Dan."

O'Dowd never liked the nickname, but the Rockies shuffled through 49 players -- 25 pitchers, or enough to field a Major League roster -- and went 82-80 under manager Buddy Bell. The performance seemed an upturn after a bottoming out in 1999 that led to the departures of GM Bob Gebhard and manager Jim Leyland, who had replaced Don Baylor a year earlier. But O'Dowd believed the Rockies "didn't have the infrastructure to support [the 2000 improvement] from a development standpoint."

O'Dowd admitted that his deals that brought in veterans to make the team immediately competitive would have been better had they included prospects who could have been part of the team in the long term.

But the 2000 season had ownership, led by the late Jerry McMorris, wanting to strike big. The Rockies signed left-hander Denny Neagle for five years and $51 million. Eight days later, O'Dowd found himself in a meeting with McMorris, fellow owners Dick and Charlie Monnfort, Bell, Hampton and Hampton's agent, Mark Rodgers.

"Jerry really wanted to keep the team competitive, and he wanted to do the deal," O'Dowd said. "The Cardinals and us were the two primary players. We knew we were going to have to offer one more year and more money to get him to come to Colorado."

Hampton had gone a 22-4 with the Astros in 1999, and made a World Series appearance with the Mets in 2000 -- it took money. Hampton, of course, was widely lampooned for a comment about Denver's "school systems" when the contract was announced. But he was schooled enough in baseball at mile-high altitude to understand what it took to risk his success long term with the Rockies.

O'Dowd had worked under GM John Hart with the Indians. Hart built a winner in the 1990s with homegrown talent and money-saving, arbitration-avoiding multi-year deals to control the payroll. O'Dowd arrived in Denver with the same plan. But his bosses were understandably concerned that the early success of the franchise was dwindling, and thought the signings would reverse the spin.

Hampton had traits that made success a possibility. Hampton had used a power sinker to build an extreme ground-ball rate -- something the Rockies felt was necessary at Coors Field. But the previous four years his walk rate had climbed. And walks are always a problem in a place where hard-hit balls carry over the fence and weakly-hit balls can land in the expansive outfield.

As O'Dowd notes, "People forget he was an All-Star the first year." Hampton went 9-5 with a 3.36 ERA before the break to become the first pitcher in club history to appear in the Midsummer Classic. But gradually, the long games put a toll on Hampton and enough bad experience seemed to lead to changes in mechanics. In two seasons with the Rockies, he was 21-28 with a 5.75 ERA.

The rest of Hampton's career was slowed by injuries, but he did bounce back from Colorado. In 2004, he won 10 of his last 11 decisions with the Braves to help them make the postseason.

O'Dowd eventually put parts of his plan into action, and the Rockies rebounded with a World Series appearance in 2007 and a playoff berth in '09, based on a homegrown roster and starting pitching that, compared to the industry, was modestly compensated.

In hindsight, arguing against the big expenditure might have been the right move. But O'Dowd was in his first job as GM.

"If you don't agree, you've got to push back because you're going to be the one that wears it," O'Dowd said. "And I did for a lot of years."