COLUMNS

The Rockies might not actually be the worst team in Colorado

Sep 6, 2023, 2:05 AM | Updated: 5:45 am

The Colorado Rapids and Colorado Rockies are both in the basement, they have both had nightmare seasons and one has already fired their coach with the other maybe following in the coming weeks.

The Rapids and Rockies have a lot in common, their mid-1990s founding, a mostly bad franchise history and a miraculous appearance in a league title game—the Rapids won theirs and ended up with a championship. While they have much in common one thing is not, their entire payroll of the Rapids roster is what Kyle Freeland makes a year. Still, each are at the top tier of their sport in America and have a hardened and passionate fanbase.

It’s made Andrew Mason, longtime Denver Sports writer, and Jake Shapiro, a former beat reporter of both the Rapids and Rockies, ask the question: who is worse between Colorado’s summer teams?

The state of Colorado’s basement dwellers

Shap: Very few teams in Denver sports history have been as bad as this iteration of the Colorado Rapids. They’re stuck on three wins in league play with eight games to play. For context, the three-win pace would be less than 9.5 wins over the course of 82 games, so not even the 1997-98 11-win disaster Nuggets were quite this bad. But that doesn’t count the 10 draws the Rapids have scored in MLS play, which currently have them at 19 points—three points clear for worst in the league. Colorado’s -23 goal differential is seven worse than the next worst bad team. On top of their awful marks in MLS play, the Rapids were crushed in their two Leagues Cup games and were only able to score two wins against lower-tiered squads in the U.S. Open Cup. The Rapids’ worst season ever was in 2001 when they only scored 23 points on five wins—but that squad only had 26 MLS matches to work with, the number the Rapids are at now.

Mase: In the moment, the Rapids have the Rockies here. Denver’s MLB entry isn’t even among the two worst teams in baseball — although it sits firmly at the foot of the entire National League. So, the Rockies have never been worse. Their first 100-loss season seems assured. And although their bullpen somehow held together for three scoreless innings in a 3-2 win over the Diamondbacks on Tuesday night, such nights are the exception, not the rule. Hope exists in the form of a young core growing together. Outfielders Nolan Jones and Brenton Doyle, shortstop Ezequiel Tovar and even recently-promoted first baseman Hunter Goodman all offer flashes of brilliance … enough to make you think there’s a way out of the morass. But the pitching is another matter, and with rare exceptions, the Rockies have never been able to develop viable waves of arms on a consistent basis.

Rocky road ahead for both?

Shap: The Rapids fired yet another coach again this week, dumping Robin Fraser. Interim Chris Little will be the seventh coach to take the whistle under team executive Pádraig Smith, who joined the club in 2015. While the Rockies have some young players step up, the Rapids prospect development has halted as of late. Not only has Smith failed to replace homegrown defenseman Sam Vines who was sold to Europe, the club has struggled to replicate Auston Trusty’s value, who was moved to sister team Arsenal. Then there’s the Kellyn Acosta disaster move as well as Cole Bassett not working out in Europe and coming right back into the fold where he’s struggled. Team captain Jack Price is out for the season due to injury and hasn’t been himself in over a calendar year while striker Deigo Rubio also caught the injury bug. None of these players are even that young and the young players the Rapids have been forced to play in a big chunk of playing time are struggling badly. Their second-team is playing very well in MLS’ second-division but those will be one day supplementary players, not the ones to carry a team like Messi in Miami. The Rapids will need to spend and add big from outside, something Smith hasn’t been afforded to do by team owner Stan Kroenke. While the Avs, Nuggets, Gunners, Mammoth and Rams have spent the past few years succeeding, the Rapids can be represented by their sorry Dick’s Sporting Goods Park scoreboard—in disrepair, missing many pixels, not really able to do its job any more and out of touch with how MLS is run in 2023.

Mase: So, here’s the thing: If you win a division, you have a two-in-three chance of skipping the wild-card round. The problem is, the Rockies have never claimed the NL West. And even if things break right, the odds remain gremote. The big-budget leviathan in Los Angeles overtowers — and overpowers — the NL West. And what’s worse, the Dodgers can not only afford whatever player they desire … but they excel at the draft-and-develop process. Bill Schmidt describes the Rockies as a “draft-and-develop” organization. That’s fine and dandy … but it’s a major problem that the Dodgers are undeniably superior at this over the long haul. The Giants and Padres have no problem building budget-blasting rosters and throwing resources at a problem. And the Diamondbacks excel at developing pitching.

So, that means shooting for a wild card amid a thicket of rivals inside and outside of the division. Yes, the expanded postseason format means wild-card qualification ensures that the Rockies don’t automatically go into the one-game, random-chance fire pit that existed from 2012-19 and again in 2021. But being a wild-card means a two-in-three chance of having to go on the road to advance. Not impossible … but not ideal for a team that historically has massive home-away splits.

How deep is the despair?

Shap: The Rapids do not have a single player who has scored three goals this season, there are 122 players league-wide with at least three scores. This offensive futility can be laid out as such, the Rapids have only led matches for 187 minutes this season of more than 2,340 minutes played—or better put, Colorado’s only had the lead 8% of the time and has spent 57% of the season trailing.

The injuries to Price, who powered an offense mostly reliant on set pieces and Rubio, who scored 16 goals last season and 11 in 2019 are admittedly a lot to overcome. The two, along with Vines, Trusty, Acosta and Bassett led the Rapids to the best record in the Western Conference in 2021, but the team was bounced from the playoffs after not scoring in their first match. They’ve never addressed the lack of goal-scoring or chance creation, and Fraser didn’t instill a system that could overcome ownership’s lack of spending. The team has quickly fallen to the basement, where it has been much of the last decade and a half. Colorado last won a playoff game in 2016 and has been under .500 in five of the seven seasons since.

Mase: Rockies fans can’t point to any level of success since before COVID-19 struck. At least the Rapids gave their supporters the tantalizing hope and hype of being the No. 1 seed in the West two years ago, and a prime Thanksgiving Day time slot to rest in the spotlight of that afore-mentioned playoff game … and then missed early chances allowed Portland to steal the win in the 90th minute. It hasn’t been the same in Commerce City since.

In terms of form, the Rockies are at their lowest ebb. They are 9-23 since Aug. 1, if they remain on that pace with a slew of playoff contenders remaining on the schedule, they’ll reach the 100-loss plateau by four full games.

At Coors Field, intriguing pieces abound. Tovar could be a star in the making. Jones’ power stroke plays well at Coors Field, where’s he’s smashed some of the longest home runs in MLB this season. Doyle seems to be improving at the plate and his defense will soon vault him into Gold Glove territory. Another Gold Glove winner, Brendan Rodgers, is back at second base. But the Rockies have the anvil of Kris Bryant’s $182 million contract hanging over the budget — and the potential loss of revenue from the demise of AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain.

Are the Rapids or Rockies worse?

Shap: While Coors Field is little more than Denver’s best-themed bar at the moment the Rapids don’t even have that in DSGP. It’s a fun place to go watch a game, when the team is exciting and the weather is good—neither of which has happened once this year. Dick Monfort has shown over and over again he will spend money on improving his stadium, the area around it and the team—though this is often misguided. The Kroenkes have shown little to no interest in the Rapids with Stan and Josh only spotted in Commerce City a handful of times in years. KSE has failed many times at developing the area around DSGP, and while it was the first soccer-specific stadium built in MLS, it’s quickly been outdated and it’s outclassed by many Texas High School Football stadiums. On top of all that, the Rapids truly are the minor league team that Rockies fans sometimes accuse them of being—the Rapids sell to Europe and MLS’ bigger team with little hope of gaining top talent back. The Rockies may be worse than ever right now but the latest Rapids rut is just the latest in a club that’s lacked direction for nearly a decade.

Mase: To his credit, Monfort does not close the checkbook. And the Rockies matter to him in a way that the Rapids likely envy. But the Rockies continue to look within more than they turn outside. Could you imagine where the Rockies could be if they had the Tampa Bay Rays’ brain trust running the show? With even a mid-to-upper-mid-level budget like the Rockies possess, Rays-level development quality would ensure the Rockies go punch for punch with the Dodgers. Instead, the modest goal of two postseasons every five years remains elusive; even since the 2007 Rocktober run, the Rockies have averaged just two playoff spots every 8.5 seasons, with just two postseason trips in the last 14. Baseball fortunes can change, no doubt. And perhaps the college-pitching-heavy draft class of this summer — along with an emphasis on pitching prospects acquired in every pre-deadline deal — give the Rockies plenty of darts with which to find a few pitchers who can hit the target and help at the major-league level. But while there appears to be hope that a potential 100-loss season is an outlier, title aspirations remain far away.

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