When Jim Tracy took over as manager of the Rockies 46 games into the 2009 season, Ian Stewart was hitting .187, sharing time as third base with veteran Garrett Atkins and playing a little bit in left field and second base as well. Tracy made Stewart pretty much his everyday third baseman, and Ian played in 102 of the remaining 116 games. He rewarded Tracy by hitting 18 homers and driving in 50 runs in just over half a season.
And the Rockies posted the best record in their history.
Stewart got off to another slow start this year, after getting hurt and missing almost all of spring training. This time, though, Tracy was not willing to be patient and inserted the mediocre veteran Ty Wigginton as his starting third baseman after giving Ian Stewart a grand total of 52 plate appearances.
Carlos Gonzalez was called up from the minors shortly after Tracy took over the team in 2009, but showed very little early on. On the 4th of July, when the Rockies reached the midpoint of the season, CarGo was hitting .194 with one homer in 74 plate appearances. Yet Tracy stuck with him, and Gonzalez played like an MVP the rest of the way, hitting .313 with 12 homers in less than half a season. This year, Dexter Fowler was hitting much better than CarGo's early-2011 performance when Tracy decided to exile him to Colorado Springs.
The point is, Jim Tracy didn't use to solve his problems by getting rid of players who were underperforming. His greatest strength with those 2009 Rockies was his patience: He decided who could play, and he let them go out there and do it, no matter what their numbers said.
Tracy has been charged with always favoring a crappy veteran over a younger player, but that certainly hasn't been the case this year. Yes, Ty Wigginton is the epitome of the crappy veteran, but Fowler was replaced by the rookie Charlie Blackmon, and the crappy veteran second baseman Jose Lopez was replaced by the less-experienced Jonathan Herrera, who has now apparently been replaced by the even-less-experienced Chris Nelson.
The problem with Tracy, as I see it, is that he's not deciding who he wants to have on the field so much as he's deciding who he doesn't want out there. Particularly with Dexter Fowler, one got the sense that he didn't care whether or not he had a better player than Dexter, just so long as he got Dexter and all his strikeouts out of the lineup. Charlie Blackmon is not a better player than Dexter Fowler, and has never been a better player or a better prospect, but Tracy made the decision not to play Dexter, then looked around to see if there was anyone else he could put in the lineup. Similarly, he's decided that Seth Smith shouldn't play against lefties - without asking himself whether he had a better rightfielder than Smith who should play against lefties. That's how we got such ludicrous decisions as Eric Young Jr. starting in right field against the Yankees on Saturday.
The key question to ask yourself about Dexter Fowler, or about Ian Stewart, isn't "Do I want this player in the lineup?" The important question is, "Do I have a better player than this guy, or is he my best option?" Jim Tracy needs to start asking himself the latter question. It really doesn't matter who isn't playing center field. It very much does matter who is playing center field.