For better or worse, Jeff Bridich left an impression on the Rockies and their fans that will be felt for a long time
Well… it happened.
For many Rockies fans, Jeff Bridich stepping down from his general manager position is a breath of fresh air — the dawning of a new age, so to speak. It’s fair to say Bridich’s time in Colorado was an up and down affair, marred by controversy towards the end. From the high of Tony Wolters’ RBI single in the 2018 NL Wild Card game to… that trade… let’s remember the career of the most memorable GM in recent history.
Bridich began his career with the Rockies in 2004, as the manager of minor league operations. That move was a no-brainer for the Rockies, as Bridich had been working in the MLB commissioner’s office assisting major league teams with minor league signings and transactions. After three seasons in this role, he was promoted to senior director of baseball operations, and then senior director of player development. This ascension was a clear indicator that the Rockies organization believed in Bridich, who would now be serving directly under then-GM Dan O’Dowd. Bridich was clearly happy to take on this role, saying the following:
“There is no one person who has impacted my career with the Rockies more than Dan,” Bridich said. “He has been a father figure and a willing and interested mentor who has generously shared his time, energy and wisdom.”
O’Dowd was not exactly popular at the time. In 2014, the year O’Dowd stepped down, the Rockies had just lost 96 games, their fifth straight losing season. Their star shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, was aging. They needed a change. It was time to start anew, to get some fresh faces both in the office and on the field. And Jeff Bridich was the man for the job.
The Learning Curve
Change happened quickly. In 2015, the Rockies bid goodbye to Tulo — a move that brought in prospects to an organization that needed to replenish its pitching identity (though that didn’t quite pan out in the way the Rockies would have hoped). Moving Tulowitzki was as much about creating an opportunity for youngster Trevor Story as anything, and in that regard the trade was overwhelmingly successful. Nolan Arenado also took over and cemented himself at the hot corner, making his first All-Star appearance, and Denver fans got their first look at a young Jon Gray. Mark Reynolds was a not-amazing-but-solid-enough first baseman. Though the Rockies still lost 94 games, there were wheels turning.
2016 was… weird. Bridich orchestrated a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays: Corey Dickerson and Kevin Padlo for Jake McGee and Germán Márquez. This deal has since aged well for the Rockies, as Márquez has established himself as the staff ace in their rotation. His upside is high, and he continues to impress as he matures and gains more experience in The Show. But the other moves made that offseason were head scratchers. Signing Ian Desmond to play first base (a position he’d never played before) for $70M over five years was alarming to see, and Desmond has struggled to live up to that amount of cash since. Moves were made to improve the bullpen, such as signing Mike Dunn to add to Chad Qualls and Jason Motte, who were brought in the year before. None of those three pitchers were elite, but maybe they could be serviceable. With these pieces to surround the young, talented core of the likes of Arenado, Story, Charlie Blackmon, and DJ LeMahieu, the Rockies were doing something. But would it be enough?
It kind of was, actually.
The Postseason Runs
The 2017 Rockies were an odd bunch. The aforementioned core played very well, and newly-signed closer Greg Holland saved 41 games, tying José Jiménez’s record from 2002. The bullpen wasn’t great (only Chris Rusin and Pat Neshek had ERAs under 3.50, and Neshek pitched just 22 innings), but they did well enough to bring the Rockies 87 wins and a postseason spot for the first time in eight years. Never mind how it ended, these were real, tangible results. Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, Germán Márquez were the backbone of a pitching staff that was good this season, and could be great the next. Bridich had successfully rebuilt the Rockies into something special. His eye for player development was paying dividends. They got a taste of October, and they wanted more.
2018 was the last season that Bridich really dipped into the free agent market. The departure of Pat Neshek, Tyler Chatwood and Greg Holland meant that the pitching staff would have a new look this season, especially in the later innings. He therefore struck deals with Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee (McGee was resigned), as well as another former Royals closer and recent World Series champion Wade Davis. Davis’ deal was the largest ever for a reliever, and Bridich spent another $5M ($8M with incentives) on bringing back Carlos González to the outfield. CarGo’s contributions to Colorado’s baseball history are well-known, but his recent seasons called into question his ability to play the game at an elite (or even replacement) level. After another reunion signing in the form of Chris Iannetta, the Rockies were ready to start the season.
2018 was probably the season with the highest expectations in recent memory. This team — the core that Bridich had scouted and developed plus the veterans that he brought in — was primed and ready for success. And somehow, despite playing in arguably the toughest division in baseball, they did succeed. Finishing with 91 wins (just one shy of the club record from 2009) and behind the Dodgers by the slimmest of margins, this Rockies team was special. One chink in the armor, however, was that season’s trade deadline. With the Rockies clearly contending and looking for impact pieces, Bridich made some low-intensity moves, dealing for bullpen arm Seung-hwan Oh and catcher Drew Butera, and bringing back veteran outfielder Matt Holiday. This puzzled some — with Colorado so close to legitimacy, had these moves been enough? The Dodgers had just traded for Manny Machado, a move that sent shockwaves around MLB. Where was that for the Rockies? This was arguably Bridich’s biggest misstep in his role yet, and a definite point of contention for fans. Regardless, the Rockies made the playoffs, Tony Wolters became a hero, and they were swept by the Brewers in three games with little opposition. Sunrise, sunset.
But all was not lost. A disappointing end, yes, but the Rockies had just made the postseason for the second year in a row, something they had never done before. All Jeff Bridich needed to do was retain his strong core, continue to supplement them with some veteran talent, and keep the organization on this positive path. Unfortunately, things took a very different turn.
Letting DJ LeMahieu leave after the 2018 season was probably the start of the downward spiral. LeMahieu had established himself as one of the premier second basemen in the sport. An extension with Colorado was hard to gauge. While it’s true that the lauded infield of Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and LeMahieu was phenomenal, the Rockies also had prospects Brendan Rodgers, Garrett Hampson, and Ryan McMahon waiting for an opportunity. This is one of those “what-ifs” that looks easy in hindsight, but maybe was not so black and white at the time. Regardless, DJ departed, and the Rockies signed Daniel Murphy to the same deal to which the New York Yankees signed LeMahieu. Bridich also dealt for lefties James Pazos and Phillip Diehl, neither of which worked out in the long term. It wasn’t the signings that made the biggest splash, though. The significance of this offseason were the extensions of Germán Márquez and Nolan Arenado.
The Arenado deal is, obviously, incredibly complicated, as is any real breakdown of that situation. As of February 26, 2019, though, Nolan Arenado was to be a stalwart at Colorado’s third base for the foreseeable future. The extension of Márquez, locking him in through the 2023 season, was an indicator of the belief the Rockies had (and continue to have) that their young rotation would be the backbone of their future. With those moves — and only these moves — done, Colorado’s season was then derailed. Their 91 wins in the season prior became 91 losses, and the once-heralded pitching staff became a shadow of its former self. Only barely escaping last place, Bridich needed to quickly reestablish the Rockies’ identity, and clearly decide how to proceed. The window was still there — he just had to climb through it.
The Rockies did not sign any major league talent in the 2020 offseason other than Tyler Kinley, who had had very limited MLB work to that point. Bridich and the Rockies front office believed that essentially the same team that had lost 91 games the season prior would be able to compete in 2020. In the pandemic-shortened season, they did not. They started hot but fizzled quickly, and other than the addition of Kevin Pillar in a trade with the Boston Red Sox, the season was largely forgettable. The fanbase was not happy with this regression, and it was up to Bridich to right the ship.
And that more or less brings us here. The Arenado trade aside (read Travis Rowland’s writeup here for all the complexities), it was again a fairly quiet offseason for Colorado. The team added Jhoulys Chacín, Robert Stephenson, and Jordan Sheffield to supplement the bullpen, and Austin Gomber was the headliner from the Arenado trade and is now the fourth starter in the rotation. Some veterans like C.J. Cron, Chris Owings, and Greg Bird were brought on via minor league deals, with the former two making the major league squad following spring training. Bridich and team owner Dick Monfort insisted the Rockies were not rebuilding, but there’s little evidence to show that that’s the case. The team is trying to find its identity, and hopefully be able to identify long-term components in what may be a very long season.
Jeff Bridich presided over the Rockies’ back-to-back playoff runs and also arguably ousted their franchise player. At the end of the day, he’s someone who tried to do an objectively hard job. Was he successful? That’s up to you. Regardless of everything — the scouting that produced superstars, and the trades that lost them — he will go down in Rockies history.
For better or worse, that’s something to reflect on.