Before breaking down every team’s assets and needs in full detail, we’re looking at big-picture areas of concern for those clubs that weren’t really in contention down the stretch.
Up now is a Rockies team that dabbled with a .500 record but ended up 11 games under (entering today) and buried in the NL West. The best way to describe the 2016 results, in most regards, is “middling.” Colorado rated as below-average, but not terrible, in basically every facet of the game. (And yes, that includes hitting.)
Here are three significant areas of focus for the Rox this winter:
1. Trade Carlos Gonzalez.
Well, now my feelings are known on that subject. While he wasn’t as good as he has been in the past, Gonzalez certainly wasn’t a problem for the team. He was healthy, hitting .298/.351/.511 (good for a 109 wRC+ and 112 OPS+) with 25 home runs over 618 plate appearances and accumulating 2.1 fWAR and 2.5 rWAR on the year.
Accordingly, he has some trade value — albeit nothing close to what some seem to think, in my estimation. Gonzalez, who’ll soon turn 31, is owed $20MM next year — a fair rate, particularly given that it involves a limited commitment in length. That reduces concern over his checkered injury history, with the hefty single-year salary still leaving some room for upside given Gonzalez’s demonstrated ceiling.
The thing is, the Rockies can’t afford to keep that much cash tied up in a left-handed hitting outfielder — not with Charlie Blackmon, Gerardo Parra, and the promising David Dahl on hand, at least. Colorado ran up a franchise-high $112MM Opening Day payroll this year, but it wasn’t enough to stem the tide of losing seasons. The club already has $66MM committed for 2017, with arb raises coming for Blackmon, Nolan Arenado, Tyler Chatwood, and — if they are tendered — Jake McGee and Jordan Lyles.
Certainly, you could argue for trading another of the southpaw-swinging outfielders instead. But none make as much sense: Blackmon is needed in center, Parra would be a salary dump after a rough year, and Dahl is the kind of cheap, controllable asset the Rockies need given where they set their payroll.
The better use of the team’s resources — assuming further spending increases won’t be approved — would be to take the best offer they can get in a prospect return for Gonzalez while freeing themselves of his salary. That’s because, in part, of the next need on this list …
2. Improve the roster depth.
Colorado has a nice core in place, including several of the players just named as well as a strong, young up-the-middle infield duo in Trevor Story and DJ LeMahieu. But the 2016 team suffered from a huge fall-off outside of its best players, and putting a winner on the field may well mean making several targeted investments (whether through trade or free agency) to shore things up in multiple areas.
In terms of position players, the Rockies received six strong performances, a decent year from utilityman Daniel Descalso, middling work from the catching unit, and little else. A few solid-or-better performances from role players — a first baseman (or platoon at the position) and right-handed-hitting outfielder, in particular — would go a long way. That and a solid backstop to go with the seemingly-useful Tony Wolters and interesting Tom Murphy, along with a replacement for the free agent Descalso, and Colorado could well feature a stellar lineup.
The situation actually isn’t all that different in the pitching staff. You can’t just focus on earned run average here, of course. The fact is that the rotation received a highly promising performance from Jon Gray along with useful innings from Chatwood, Chad Bettis, and Tyler Anderson. Likewise, the bullpen had some bright spots: Adam Ottavino was great in his return from Tommy John surgery, Chris Rusin provided a pleasant surprise in a relief capacity, and Carlos Estevez showed plenty of promise (if also a need for some further refinement).
The results were mostly rough behind that — excepting the departed Boone Logan — but the club can hope for bouncebacks from at least a few veterans (such as McGee, Jason Motte, and Chad Qualls) while hoping that some young arms (e.g., Jeff Hoffman) make strides. But ultimately, the staff too is in need of a few steady arms. Presumably, that’s what the club thought it was getting in Motte and Qualls, but those failures (at least, at this point) shouldn’t deter the team from trying to do better this time around.
If the Rockies want to bet on their core, the best way to do so may be to take my proposed Gonzalez savings and spread them out to add at-least-serviceable options in the multiple areas of need, rather than aiming for one or two larger (and riskier) strikes while leaving other spots unaddressed.
3. Pursue offseason extensions.
Beyond the immediate positions that are ripe for addition, the Rockies need to be thinking of ways to manage their future payroll to keep a productive core in place at reasonable salaries. The future balance sheet is largely clean after 2017, so there’s plenty of room to plug in some guaranteed money if the price is right.
It all starts in the infield, where Arenado’s salary will soon skyrocket. He may not be a reasonable extension target, but it’s probably at least worth a try, and he’s not alone. LeMahieu is already plugged in for a reasonable $4.8MM next year, with one more season of control left thereafter via arbitration, and could be a worthwhile player to pursue. And the team could look to lock in Story at a bargain rate — it wasn’t afraid to extend Ottavino during his own injury rehab, after all, and this may be the only chance to tamp down his sure-to-be significant arb earnings.
There are other possibilities, too. Gray is the obvious target, though perhaps it’s a bit early to tackle that. Chatwood will be a free agent after 2017, and his earnings have been limited by injury, so a fairly modest commitment could make sense for both sides. Even Bettis — who underperformed his peripherals this year but largely followed up on a strong 2015 when you look beyond the ERA — might represent an under-the-radar target.
Then, there’s Blackmon, who somewhat quietly broke out this year. Sure, he’s been plenty productive in the past, but he is now wrapping up a true breakout campaign with a monster .319/.376/.543 slash to go with 28 home runs and 17 steals. Though Blackmon’s base thievery fell off, he remained a strong positive by measure on the basepaths by measure of Fangraphs’ BsR. With two years of arb control to go, this may be the time to decide if he’s the long-term solution up the middle.
In large part, the pursuit of extensions is about seeing whether there’s opportunity to be had. Fundamentally, the purpose of the undertaking for a team is to improve a player-asset by taking advantage of leverage (which typically arises through remaining control along with a given player’s personal preferences and risk assessment). That may or may not lead to anything once the dialogue starts, but the Rockies proved willing to think outside the box with Ottavino and ought to see if there are more worthwhile chances to take with regard to other quality players.