The Colorado Rockies have generally appeared to be a well-run franchise. Although they made the playoffs in the third year of their existence, they spent most of their first decade floundering around, trying to deal with the extremely hitter-friendly nature of their home park, signing ridiculous contracts with the likes of Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton, and so on. However, General Manager Dan O’Dowd (who took over in September 1999), seemed to find some answers in the last few years.

The team found pitchers better suited to their park (their use of the humidor — totally legal, by the way — was a smart move, too), drafted well (Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki being the two main examples), and even managed to find a way to work around the albatross contract for Todd Helton (a great player when it was signed, but wow, who gives a ten-year contract to anyone in baseball? At least they did not repeat that blunder. Oh, wait.). This got them into the playoffs in both 2007 and 2009, including a World Series appearance in 2007.

Like almost every front office, they made some head-scratching moves, but they seemed to have found a formula that worked well enough for them to contend every few years in the National League West. O’Dowd even managed to fleece Billy Beane in a trade that brought the Rockies Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street.

It would be a bit nit-picking to complain about one or two strange moves this off-season by any team, even given the Rockies’ rough 2011 regular season. However, it is the combination of recent moves in Colorado that is baffling. What are the Rockies doing? As Andrew Fisher said in a Twitter exchange that inspired this post, the Rockies’ off-season (and the period leading up to it) simply seems direction-less. That seems about right.

The Rockies were expected to contend in 2011. Despite a disappointing end to their 2010 season, they still had a strong rotation lead by Ubaldo Jimenez, and a good offense built around All-Star Troy Tulowitzki and 2010 breakout monster Gonzalez. For various reasons, things did not work out that way, and the 2011 Rockies ended up winning just 73 games. Sometimes that happens — injuries, random variations in performance (e.g., Jimenez), and some players just not turning out to be that good (e..g, Ian Stewart). That is not a problem. It happens, and it does not necessarily reflect poorly on the front office.

I would not have said that the Rockies needed to start rebuilding. Perhaps they could just fill some holes and take another run at a less-than-formidable division in 2012. However, when the Rockies made moves toward at least a partial rebuild, it seemed like a reasonable enough way to go. Out of the race, they traded Jimenez to Cleveland for four prospects, including star pitching prospect Drew Pomeranz. I am not sure that is quite the fleecing of Cleveland that some took it to be, but it would make sense for a team intent on rebuilding to trade Jimenez with time left on his very team-friendly contract in order to maximize his value.

After the season, the Rockies seemed to continue in the same vein by finally trading a long-time organizational catcher/scapegoat Chris Iannetta to the Angels for pitcher Tyler Chatwood. Iannetta may not have been the greatest fielder (although he was not nearly as bad as the Rockies seemed to think), but he was a good hitter for a catcher, and the Rockies had signed him to a team-friendly extension just a couple of years ago. Of course, the team benched Iannetta whenever he went on any sort of extended slump (apparently he is the only player who ever slumps), so the main question is why they waited this long to trade him.

In any case, Chatwood is not that promising (the Angels’ side of that trade has its own intrigues given the prior Mike Napoli fiasco, but that is another story), and may not be a major-league starter at all, but without getting into whether the deal itself was “good” for the Rockies overall, it again points to a plan to rebuild. Another move along the same lines of rebuilding (if not re-stocking) was the blatant salary dump of Huston Street to the Padres (again, we will not get into the pointlessness of that big extension here). And let’s not forget that Ian Stewart was finally banished from Coors after a horrific 2011 between AAA and the majors. All of these moves point to a team that was looking a bit further down the road, at least further than just 2012 contention.

Except that there is another side to the whole thing. Iannetta was originally traded to make room for not-quite-ready Wilin Rosario. However, the Rockies then turned around and gave former Reds catcher Ramon Hernandez two years and $6.5 million. That is actually more guaranteed than Iannetta (who has a 2013 club option with the Rockies that is now voided since his trade), and at best Hernandez is not a better player than Iannetta, although he is older. What was the point of jerking Iannetta around, trading him away to make room for a younger player, then replacing him with an older player for more money? More importantly, while that is not much money for Hernandez, it sort of cuts against the idea of rebuilding to pay more than stop-gap money for an aging veteran if the team is committing to a rebuild.

Again, that move in isolation is not that puzzling. It is the sort of thing that happens all of the time. But then we turn to the infield, where the Rockies need a third baseman to fill a hole after the departure of Ian Stewart. Second base is also a concern given that the team has such confidence in Jonathan Herrera and Eric Young, Jr. that they acquired Zombie Mark Ellis last season.

Well, actually, we do not turn to the infield, because despite the holes there, the Rockies seemed more concerned with right field, where Seth Smith’s average numbers were apparently not enough for the team. Smith is far from a perfect player, but his problems are not as big as some make of them, as discussed elsewhere. He is not that difficult to upgrade upon, but one would imagine if the Rockies were going to address holes, they would look at second and third base first. Instead, after some noises about trading for the Braves’ Martin Prado (to play third), they went out and gave Michael Cuddyer three years and $31.5 million.

Aside for the horrifying possibility of Cuddyer playing third (too terrifying to contemplate here, but I doubt it will happen anyway), with two fairly gaping holes in the infield, the Rockies went for what is probably a minor upgrade in right field. I will not even make jokes about Cuddyer’s allegedly great clubhouse presence, or comment about there being equally good or better alternatives (like David DeJesus or Josh Willingham) available for less money if they were really as disgusted with Smith as they were with Iannetta.

They could have spent far less money and gotten even more production by finding a right-handed-hitting platoon partner for Smith like Scott Hairston (cheap alternative) or Andruw Jones (more expensive, but still much cheaper than signing Cuddyer), which would have fit the “stopgap” mold better and left money for other alternatives. The holes are still there on the infield (I guess the recently-signed Casey Blake could still surprise us, but yeah, probably not), and now they really need to move Smith, since he does not really have a role on the team (they are not going to platoon Cuddyer or Gonzalez). They would really like to move him for an infielder, but that is not likely to happen, especially since teams see just how little the Rockies think of Smith.

To repeat: the point is not to go over the problems with the Cuddyer deal any further. The issue is the “big picture.”

On one hand, we have moves that point to rebuilding for beyond 2012: trading Jimenez for prospects (the best of whom, Pomeranz, probably will not make much of a major-league impact until 2013), trading Iannetta for a “prospect,” and dumping Street’s salary (which would not have been an issue if O’Dowd hadn’t given him such a pointlessly big extension to begin with).

On the other hand, we have moves that look more like “win now” transactions: burying and giving up on Ian Stewart (perhaps justified, but if they are not looking at 2012 seriously, why bury him in 2011 then refuse to move him until after the season?), signing Hernandez, and signing Michael Cuddyer (yes, it is for multiple years, but Cuddyer’s age and skill level indicate that he is really only going to be valuable relative to his salary the first year of the deal — he is not going to be much of a trade chip down the road, either). And the “win now” portion also suffers from the more immediate problems on the infield. The 2012 season also suffers from the lack of top-of-the-rotation starters.

The problem is not that a team cannot contend and rebuild at the same time. Indeed, most contenders (except for maybe the Yankees) need to be making at least some “rebuilding” moves all of the time to sustain their success. However, the Rockies’ moves the last part of 2011 and the subsequent off-season just do not add up in either direction. They traded away a good pitcher and catcher who could have helped them the next two years for prospects that probably will not, while acquiring an outfielder who does not upgrade them much if at all and will only help the next year or two. They dumped salary in some areas while mostly spending the savings. They “fixed” immediate non-problems at catcher and right field while leaving others (so far) at second, third, and the rotation.

This seems less like a plan than a bunch of moves connected only by their incoherence when taken as a whole. Then again, I am unqualified to play GM. Maybe someone else can explain it to me, preferably in cartoon form.