The Rockies shipped out mega-star Troy Tulowitzki this summer in the midst of another miserable campaign. Does his departure portend more changes to the big league roster?
- Jose Reyes, SS: $48MM through 2017 (includes $4MM buyout on 2018 option)
- Carlos Gonzalez, OF: $37MM through 2017
- Jorge De La Rosa, SP: $12.5MM through 2016
- Boone Logan, RP: $6.25MM through 2016
- Nick Hundley, C: $3.15MM through 2016
- Daniel Descalso, IF: $2.1MM through 2016
- Tyler Chatwood, SP: $1MM through 2016
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- John Axford (5.170) – $6.5MM
- Adam Ottavino (4.087) – $1.6MM
- Jordan Lyles (4.060) – $2.8MM
- Rex Brothers (3.131) – $1.5MM
- DJ LeMahieu (3.128) – $3.7MM
- Wilin Rosario (3.123) – $3.2MM
- Charlie Blackmon (3.102) – $4.5MM
- Brandon Barnes (3.024) – $1.2MM
- Nolan Arenado (2.155) – $6.6MM
- Non-tender candidates: Axford, Brothers, Rosario, Barnes
- Justin Morneau, 1B: $9MM mutual option; $750K buyout
By and large, Rockies GM Jeff Bridich has maneuvered subtly since taking the helm just over a year ago. His transactional history shows a variety of fairly minor moves — with one glaring exception. This summer, of course, Bridich manufactured a stunning trade this summer that sent franchise icon Troy Tulowitzki (and veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins) to the Blue Jays in exchange for Jose Reyes and a trio of intriguing pitching prospects. That move not only signaled that Colorado was willing to embrace change, but set the course for the current offseason.
Colorado’s prior two winters featured efforts to re-work the cast surrounding Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez while carefully managing payroll. Before 2014, the club dealt for Brett Anderson and Drew Stubbs while extending Jorge De La Rosa, signing Justin Morneau and Boone Logan, but also dealing away Dexter Fowler for cheaper MLB assets. Last year involved the addition of Kyle Kendrick, Nick Hundley, Daniel Descalso, and John Axford via free agency and the shedding of pitchers Brett Anderson, Juan Nicasio, and Jhoulys Chacin. While the organization set consecutive Opening Day payroll records ($93.5MM, $97MM) in the process, the results were the same.
That seems unlikely to be repeated in the coming months. It’s not clear how much cash the club intends to dedicate to player salaries, but it would be surprising to see another group of veteran acquisitions with intentions of remaining competitive. Instead, this time around, the smart money seems to be on a continued — albeit cautious — conversion of veteran assets into younger, cheaper pieces.
Bridich played a nifty hand last fall, netting the club a draft pick by making a qualifying offer to Michael Cuddyer. He might’ve hoped to do the same with Justin Morneau, but injuries derailed that possibility. Adding young talent will have to come the old-fashioned way, via trade. So, what are the team’s options?
With Tulo now in Toronto, the attention turns to his former co-star CarGo. It probably won’t be as hard for the club to part with the latter having already moved the former, though Bridich has made clear he has no intentions of selling low. There’s a lot of cash left to go in the final two years of Gonzalez’s contract, but it’s still a much smaller commitment in terms of years and annual salary than the winter’s best free agent outfielders will command. And while the persistent injuries limit his value, Gonzalez did play a career-high 153 games and post a dramatic second-half turnaround (142 wRC+). All said, this may be the high water mark in his trade value.
Moving CarGo is the likeliest route to adding young arms to the stable. Bridich obviously feels good about the youthful pitching he’s already brought in, as he explained in his recent appearance on the MLBTR Podcast, and this approach could allow him to target more young pitching talent of the kind he believes can thrive under the organization’s unique circumstances.
Moreover, Colorado is also very well situated to fill in for the hypothetical loss of the veteran. 2014 was a lost season for Corey Dickerson, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t be penciled in for an everyday role. And Charlie Blackmon showed that he can be relied upon as an average regular. Though defensive metrics seem to prefer him in a corner spot, Blackmon can handle center. Dealing the veteran Gonzalez, then, would create an opening (on the roster and in terms of payroll) for the team to add a bounceback free agent looking for playing time and the chance to hit at altitude. The market has several possibilities, including center field capable players like Austin Jackson, who could keep a seat warm for top outfield prospect David Dahl. Such a player could, in turn, be flipped for yet more prospects depending upon how things shake out — making for a possible double dip of sorts.
Regardless of what the team (if anything) does with Gonzalez, there’s Jose Reyes to consider. The organization might’ve hoped that the thin air would do the 32-year-old Reyes some good, but the early returns weren’t positive. He hit just .259/.291/.368, was caught in four of twelve stolen base attempts, and continued to put up uninspired defensive marks. There would surely be some teams with interest in rostering him, but will any give up young talent or take on a lot of salary to do so? While Colorado could ship out Reyes and hand the reins to Christian Adames and/or Trevor Story, the club might prefer to see if the veteran can rebuild some value over the first half before doing so.
It’s not clear that there is a ton to be gained from dealing from other parts of the roster. Players such as Blackmon, emerging star third baseman Nolan Arenado, and solid second bagger DJ LeMahieu all have real value, of course, but there’s little impetus to trade them. Colorado would surely be willing to part with underwhelming and now-arb-eligible players such as Wilin Rosario and Brandon Barnes, but they are just as likely to end up being non-tendered or kept in reserve roles.
That brings us to two positions of most uncertainty: catcher and first base. Behind the dish, the 32-year-old Nick Hundley turned in a sturdy campaign and is under contract for another season. With Michael McKenry cut loose, the Rockies will presumably give a chance to Tom Murphy, who performed well in a short MLB stint last year. Dustin Garneau provides yet another, younger option. But defense is a concern. Hundley has rated well overall behind the dish, but is charged with some of the worst framing numbers in the league. And Murphy is known as a bat-first backstop. As Colorado increasingly transitions young arms into the hostile environment of Coors Field, there’s good reason to wonder if a more highly-regarded defender needs to be found.
First base, too, is a spot that the club can cover internally. It all starts with a decision on Morneau, who has been a solid performer when healthy but just missed most of the 2015 season with rather scary head and neck issues. His mutual option will cost $9MM (against a $750K buyout). That’s hardly an unimaginable price, but the 34-year-old comes with an awful lot of risk given that he’d occupy nearly one-tenth of the club’s payroll. If he isn’t dealt or non-tendered, with the latter perhaps being likely, Rosario could look to rebound while continuing to learn to field on the infield dirt. He’d make for a natural platoon partner with the left-handed-hitting Ben Paulsen, though that doesn’t make for the most exciting situation.
Those possibilities at catcher and first are certainly reasonable enough, so there’s no urgency to act here. But the Rockies could look to act boldly in free agency, if they are so inclined, at those positions. The organization has reportedly had interest in players like Brian McCann and Russell Martin behind the dish and Jose Abreu at first in recent years, and there are some interesting possibilities available this winter. The 2015-16 free agent pool includes a quality defensive backstop with some upside at the plate in Matt Wieters, and one can’t help but be intrigued by what he could do in the power department at altitude. (And Hundley could probably draw a decent trade return from catching-needy team.) With his cost held down by injury issues, it might be an opportune time to pounce. Likewise, at first, KBO sensation Byung-ho Park may be posted this year, and might make for an Abreu-like signing (even if expectations of Abreu-like results are unwise). Otherwise, the Rox would be a highly appealing landing spot for any number of sluggers in need of a place to re-launch, with both first base and the corner outfield potentially open to accommodate the acquisition of possible summer trade chips.
Time, then, to move on to the pitching staff. You might’ve thought that this discussion should start here, as Colorado continues to struggle to keep runs off of the board. No doubt there’s an immense amount of work to be done, as Bridich signaled in parting with Tulowitzki for the right to three high-upside young pitchers.
Despite the need for improved pitching, though, it isn’t immediately clear that there is much for the Rockies to do — other than trying to work deals, as discussed above — in addressing this area in the hot stove season. It’s hardly novel to observe that the team struggles to draw free agent pitching. Its most recent open-market pitching signings, starter Kyle Kendrick and reliever Boone Logan, have been distinct failures. That’s not to say that Colorado should shy away from that approach entirely, but it needs to be targeted when it does.
Looking at the rotation, as things stand, the Rockies don’t hold much promise for a quality outfit in the near-term. But they also don’t seem much in need of another overpay just to add an arm. Jorge De La Rosa will be back for one more go. It isn’t possible to go back in time and trade him during the 2013 season, and he’s not that valuable a commodity at $12MM, so keeping him for sake of stability (with a possible deadline flip in mind) is probably the best route at this point. Chad Bettis had a solid 115-inning run, with ERA estimators pegging his 4.23 earned run mark as slightly unlucky, and has probably done enough to warrant a presumption of a slot. Righty Tyler Chatwood will be making his way back from Tommy John, with the club looking to make good on the two-year arb deal it gave him last winter. Jordan Lyles has been serviceable, should be healed from a toe injury, and will play all of 2016 at 25 years of age.
And that’s all before getting to the more exciting group of younger arms coming up through the system. True, Tyler Matzek and Eddie Butler had more or less disastrous seasons, but both (especially the latter) still hold some promise and deserve opportunities. The highly-regarded Jonathan Gray actually showed quite a bit of promise when you look past the unsightly ERA from his first forty or so big league frames. And Jeff Hoffman, the crown jewel of the Tulo swap, ought to be knocking on the big league door by mid-season, if not before. (Fellow 2014 first-rounder Kyle Freeland might have been right there with him, but last year was basically a lost season due to injury and he’ll probably be delayed. The same is true of 2011 first-round choice Tyler Anderson, who seems in even more dire injury straits.)
With that array of pitchers, which doesn’t even consider the organizational depth options who have picked up big league experience in recent years, there’s just not much reason to go blowing cash on a low-upside free agent arm. (That’s especially true if the club is able to get an MLB-ready starter back for Gonzalez.) Instead, perhaps, the Rockies can wait for an appealing opportunity to arise. The Brett Anderson deal potentially provides a model to add an MLB-level arm with some upside, even if it didn’t work out as hoped. While there’s little chance of a veteran turning to the Rockies for an opportunity to rebuild their value, a later-career hurler such as Rich Hill might be wooed by the opportunity to start even without a market-busting offer. And Colorado could wait to bail out one of the many quality pitchers who are on this year’s market, as there’s a possibility that a player or two could fall through the cracks. But another Kendrick-like investment just doesn’t seem all that necessary.
Much the same holds true of the bullpen, though perhaps Colorado can woo a ding-and-dent late-inning arm on a reasonable deal with the promise of save opportunities. The exciting Adam Ottavino likely won’t be available for a good piece of the season. And while John Axford has been solid, unless the team can strike a deal, he seems like a luxury at his projected arb salary (though indications are that the team may want him back). Justin Miller and Jairo Diaz showed some real promise, but there’s no reason to boost their earning power with too much late-inning work if it can be avoided.
Otherwise, a veteran depth addition is always useful, but there isn’t much reason to do more. Tulo trade piece Miguel Castro may go back for some altitude training at Albuquerque, but is another live-armed option. And the club has other veterans to be called upon, including the overpriced but useful Logan, Christian Friedrich and Christian Bergman. And then there are wild cards such as former Rule 5 pick Tommy Kahnle and Scott Oberg. It’s worth noting that Rex Brothers could be sent packing now that he’s qualified for arbitration. That’s a tough call since he had so much success earlier in his career, but Brothers has walked more than six batters per nine innings since the start of 2014 (at both the major and minor league level).
Bottom line: tempting as it is to invest in pitching, the Rockies’ dollars may go to better use elsewhere, at least for 2016. The club could look instead to invest in some buy-low bats, for example. Paying Morneau $12MM over two years made him into a nice trade chip last summer, though the team never cashed him in. Taking some risks on players of that ilk at least holds out the promise of a positive ROI. The team almost certainly won’t contend regardless. And there won’t be much room to maneuver, barring some big-salary shedding, with $65MM in guarantees and upwards of $30MM in potential arb payouts coming down the line in 2016 (in the unlikely even that all eligible players are tendered).
Another way to invest would be in extensions. Both the Tulo and CarGo early-career deals worked out, at least giving the organization the chance to try to build around two reasonably-priced superstars. The increasingly awesome Arenado is the chief candidate now, and his startlingly steep arbitration projection as a Super Two provides good cause to begin talking about a deal. (Check out MLBTR arbitration projection expert Matt Swartz’s appearance on a recent MLBTR Podcast episode to understand why his number is so high.) Of course, Arenado is a Scott Boras client, though that didn’t prevent the team from getting something done with Gonzalez.
Locking up Arenado and making him the team’s new central star might be good business in more ways than one. The attendance at Coors Field seems somewhat impervious to record, and the new party deck surely helping to keep the fans streaming in. But there’s a real sense of negativity around the franchise, and knighting Arenado could help to assuage it. Certainly, it’s a better use of the team’s resources than trying to patch over holes with duct tape while wishing away the inevitable growing pains of an organization that is seeking to accumulate young talent with a new GM.