TUCSON, Ariz. – A year ago, it was Matt Holliday who said goodbye to his teammates in Colorado, dealt to Oakland in a trade that turned into a bonanza for the Rockies after the front office decided it was not going to be able to agree on a multi-year deal to keep Holliday away from free agency.
The Rockies responded last season by claiming their third postseason berth in history, the second in three years.
This spring, it is Garrett Atkins who is missing, having been non-tendered, and eventually signing with Baltimore. The front office opted to turn the third base job over to Ian Stewart after deciding it was not going to be able to agree on a multi-year deal to keep Atkins away from free agency.
The Rockies' response this spring is to talk about the anticipation of finally winning a division title that has eluded them in their first 17 years of existence.
Holliday and Atkins were two popular players who had spent their entire careers with the Rockies.
Their absence, however, has never been a clubhouse issue among the Rockies, who have created a unique mentality in this pro sports era of multi-million-dollar, multi-year contracts.
"From the time you start playing this game you play to win a World Series, and the only way to get that done is to get together a group of guys who know how to play the game right,'' shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. "We have a group of guys here who are not concerned about contracts and things outside of baseball.
"They are committed to not just winning, but winning with the Rockies. We had some great guys who left and I know they wanted to win as much as the next guy, but they had other things that they felt were important and we respect that. We wish them well.''
There is no whining in Rockies baseball.
It is a mindset the Rockies feel they have been able to create in part because of their commitment to building from within. This was, after all, a team that in its postseason-clinching victory last September against Milwaukee had 10 players appear in the game. All 10 were home-grown. It was the only team that on Opening Day last season featured a lineup in which every player was a product of its farm system.
"The only way a mid-market team can win over a sustained period is to have a core group of guys that are willing to work within the parameters of the organization,'' general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "They may not get as much money as they could find in other places, but they have to be driven by more than money.
"They are still going to be paid well, don't get me wrong. But each of them is willing to give up something for the benefit of the whole.''
And it's a concept that the Rockies reinforce by remaining committed to their players. There was erroneous media speculation early in the offseason that the Rockies would look to move outfielder Brad Hawpe given their glut of left-handed-hitting outfielders and Hawpe's 2010 salary of $7.5 million and the option of $10 million his contract carries for next year.
O'Dowd, however, immediately assured Hawpe he was not being shopped.
Yes, the Rockies do have a lineup that will feature left-handed hitters at first base (Todd Helton), third base (Ian Stewart), in left field (Carlos Gonzalez) and right field (Hawpe) along with switch-hitting Dexter Fowler in center field and the left-handed-hitting Seth Smith as the fourth outfielder.
The front office, however, knew that Hawpe also is one of 11 players currently on a contract which the team controls through at least 2011, and that to trade Hawpe would send a strong message. It would have told players that the franchise wanted the players to make concessions to be a part of the big picture in Colorado, but as soon as it was convenient for management, the player could be dealt even if he did go out of his way to fit into the overall scheme.
"We have to be consistent in our actions,'' said O'Dowd.
The hope is that it will allow the Rockies to be consistent on the field. They did claim the NL wild card two of the last three years, but in between they stumbled back below .500. The expectation is that the Rockies will be a major factor in the postseason battles each year.
"What you want to create is a situation where you can bring up a young player and they can be fit into a core of veterans instead of a case (that many mid-market and small market teams face) of breaking in a number of young players at the same time, meaning you go through a learning curve where you have no chance to win initially,'' O'Dowd said.
"I'm not passing judgment on players who have moved on, but most of our players have stepped up and bought into the concept. It's not about worth. That's arbitrary. It's about what we can afford to try and keep the core of players together. And if a player feels he is better served moving on, then we have to hope we have younger players ready to take their place or we get younger players in return.''
For Holliday, the Rockies received the young players – closer Huston Street, Gonzalez and left-handed starting pitcher Greg Smith. With Atkins, the Rockies had Stewart, a former first-round draft choice, who was ready to get his opportunity.
Todd Helton is the graybeard of the core group. His current contract, which includes an option for 2012, was signed at the end of spring training in 2001.
This past winter, the Rockies signed Street and Chris Iannetta to three-year contracts that include an option on a fourth year. They also signed Ryan Spilborghs and Rafael Betancourt to two-year deals.
Hawpe, Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis are in the final year of their guaranteed deals, but the Rockies hold options for 2011 on all three. Tulowitzki and Ubaldo Jimenez are both signed to deals that tie them to the Rockies through 2014, one year longer than Manny Corpas.
"The key is that the player has to be an active participant in the process,'' said O'Dowd. "He has to have a desire of what we are trying to build.''