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A persistent 2018 Rockies club made it into the postseason and won a chance at a divisional series, but ran into a Brewers buzzsaw. They’ll look to carry the momentum into the coming season, but will first face a somewhat tricky offseason.
- Charlie Blackmon, OF: $94MM through 2023 (final two seasons via player option)
- Ian Desmond, 1B/OF: $40MM through 2021 (includes buyout of 2022 club option)
- Wade Davis, RP: $36MM through 2020 (includes buyout of 2021 mutual option)
- Bryan Shaw, RP: $19.5MM through 2020 (includes buyout of 2021 club option)
- Jake McGee, RP: $20MM through 2020 (includes buyout of 2021 club option)
- Mike Dunn, RP: $8MM through 2019 (includes buyout of 2020 club option)
- Chris Iannetta, C: $4.75MM through 2019 (includes buyout of 2020 vesting club option)
- Seunghwan Oh, RP: $2.5MM through 2019
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Nolan Arenado (5.155) – $26.1MM
- Trevor Story (3.000) – $6.4MM
- Chad Bettis (4.096) – $3.2MM
- Jon Gray (3.062) – $3.2MM
- Tyler Anderson (3.065) – $2.9MM
- Chris Rusin (4.092) – $1.7MM
- Scott Oberg (3.063) – $1.2MM
- Tony Wolters (2.161) – $1.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Bettis, Rusin, Wolters
- Gerardo Parra, OF: Declined $12.5MM club option in favor of $1.5MM buyout
How often have we heard the refrain that the Rockies need starting pitching? It has become an annual rite both to cite the need and assume an inability to fulfill it. Yet here we are, staring at a Colorado club that appears to have an effective, affordable, homegrown staff.
There was uncertainty entering the 2018 season, but it largely resolved in the Rockies’ favor. German Marquez and Kyle Freeland emerged as high-quality rotation pieces, with the former turning in the more impressive peripherals and the latter finishing with a sub-3.00 ERA. Despite showing some susceptibility to the long ball and enduring some tough stretches, Jon Gray mostly appears to be another front-of-the-staff asset. And Tyler Anderson was a sturdy piece who turned in 32 useful starts.
That’s a strong four-man rotation group that could form an excellent building block in 2019 and beyond. Filling out the starting unit remains necessary. Antonio Senzatela and Chad Bettis (if tendered) would perhaps be the top internal options, with competition and depth provided by a handful of others who have some MLB experience or appear close to getting a first shot. Jeff Hoffman is the best-known name, but the 40-man roster also includes lefty Sam Howard and right-handers Yency Almonte, Jesus Tinoco, and Ryan Castellani.
None of these candidates is a slam dunk, so it’s certainly possible the Rox will add an arm to the mix via free agency, trade or claim. GM Jeff Bridich has not used the open market to build his rotation, though that may just be a reflection of the internal candidates and external opportunities he has encountered. It’s hard to get a read here, truly. The Rockies could justifiably seek anything from veteran depth all the way up to a top-of-the-rotation piece in the right circumstances, but odds are that a major portion of the Rockies’ resources will not be dedicated to the rotation. There are more glaring needs, after all, in other areas.
One portion of the roster that owner Dick Monfort has greenlighted spending on is the bullpen, with the Rockies bringing in a parade of free agents on fairly significant contracts — few of which have really worked out as hoped. Their best relievers in 2018 came from other avenues, with the homegrown Adam Ottavino and Scott Oberg emerging and later being joined by Seunghwan Oh in a summer trade. While the latter two will return in setup roles in front of expensive closer Wade Davis, Ottavino is now a free agent.
Davis, of course, was the biggest splurge of all the recent reliever signings. He was generally effective but not dominant in 2018, leading the National League with 43 saves and compiling 10.7 K/9 against 3.6 BB/9 but also ending with only a 4.13 ERA. A notable drop in his swinging-strike rate leaves some cause for concern, but the Rockies at least have reason to think Davis can anchor the pen in the season to come. The outlook is far murkier for the other recent free agent splashes: Shaw and McGee combined to allow more than six earned per nine innings in 2018 while Mike Dunn was injured and ineffective. Meanwhile, Chris Rusin hit a wall, Harrison Musgrave was mediocre, and no other pitcher contributed even twenty frames.
So, will the Rockies dare return to free agency to buttress this unit? Perhaps, but there’s already so much cash tied up in the relief corps that it’d be hard to keep throwing money at the problem. Plus, there are some in-house possibilities to consider. The aforementioned Almonte did have a strong showing in 14 appearances, though the club did not see fit to utilize him in the postseason. Tinoco showed some promise as a relief candidate in the Arizona Fall League. And southpaw DJ Johnson had an interesting season that could suggest he’s ready for a full go at the bigs.
It’s arguable, then, that the bullpen ought to be approached in much the same way as the rotation: if an opportunity arises to achieve good value in making an improvement, then it ought to be considered. Certainly, the org could reinvest money that would have gone to Bettis and Rusin if they are non-tendered; picking up a few relievers on low-cost MLB or low-risk minors contracts seems wise. But perhaps it’s time the Rockies retired the strategy of targeting certain veteran pen pieces and out-bidding the market to get them.
If the Rockies are to make a true splash, then, it will likely be on a bat of some kind. The 2018 lineup simply had too many holes, with only four players accumulating two or more wins above replacement by measure of Fangraphs. One of those, second baseman DJ LeMahieu, barely reached that level and is in any event a free agent. He’ll be joined on the open market by the Rockies’ fifth-best overall performer from the position-player side, long-time outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. The already porous group, then, has yet more openings to account for.
The left side of the infield is the one place without any questions — at least, that is, unless you’re wondering whether Nolan Arenado or Trevor Story might be willing to sign a long-term contract. Bridich and Monfort have ample reason to open talks with both players this winter. Keeping Arenado from the open market, as they did Charlie Blackmon, will be a major challenge that will present some major risks. Leverage will be tough to come by, but the Rockies decisionmakers may be more inclined to stick to their valuations due to the presence of top prospect Brendan Rodgers, who is steadily rising and could be a significant MLB option in the 2019 season.
Arenado and Story have already earned big 2019 arb raises with their excellent play, the precise amounts of which still need to be negotiated, meaning the club has some tough financial decisions to make elsewhere on the roster. Last year, the Rockies opened with a club-record Opening Day payroll of about $137MM. They’re already close to having that amount committed to the 2019 roster, at least assuming they tender their entire arb class and pay it something close to MLBTR’s $45.8MM cumulative estimate. Even trimming a few of the marginal members of the group would only open a few million dollars of space. Likewise, some kind of bad contract swap is always imaginable, but the Rockies could largely be stuck with their undesirable reliever commitments.
In addition to internal promotions, that leaves two ways to improve the remaining areas of the roster: trading for or signing relatively inexpensive players, on the one hand, or boosting payroll, on the other. A legitimate spending increase would move the Rockies into the upper third of league payroll, breaking new ground for the organization.
Whatever the means are, the Rockies need boosts at several positions. The catching situation stands out, as veteran Chris Iannetta did not excel at the plate in his first season in Colorado. He’s assured of one spot, but it’d be disappointing to continue fielding the anemic bat of Tony Wolters or simply to hope that Tom Murphy will make good on his promise. The Rockies are one of a handful or two of contenders that ought to make serious inquiries on Marlins backstop J.T. Realmuto, although there’s little question the Fish would clamor for Rodgers in return. Though free agent Wilson Ramos seems a poor match, given the lack of a DH and his history of leg injuries, long-time division rival Yasmani Grandal would make for a fine target — if Monfort finds some money under the mattress. Robinson Chirinos or Martin Maldonado might be the right fit, balancing quality and cost, or the club could roll the dice a bit on Matt Wieters or Brian McCann to set up some platoon balance, with Murphy’s presence helping to diversify the risk. One intriguing option might be for the Rockies to send one of their underperforming relievers in a salary-swapping deal of some kind for a player such as Jason Castro or Alex Avila.
It’s debatable where the next-most-pressing need lies, in no small part because the remaining openings overlap. Let’s start by setting the stage: even after CarGo’s departure, the Rockies’ three best outfielders are all left-handed hitters (Blackmon, David Dahl, and Raimel Tapia). Ian Desmond has unfortunately been a deficient offensive performer since arriving, and is blocking a more potent bat at first base. And there’s a vacancy at second base, with the left-handed-hitting Ryan McMahon and righty swinging Garrett Hampson factoring strongly while Rodgers looms.
From my vantage point, it seems clear that Desmond ought to stuff his first baseman’s mitt into the back of his locker as a starting point. The club should not continue to put a marginal hitter in a spot that can easily (and cheaply) support much greater offensive output. Even if he doesn’t bounce back much at the plate, though, Desmond could be a sensible-enough fourth outfielder who’d limit the exposure of the existing top trio to left-handed pitching. Or, instead, Noel Cuevas or some outside acquisition — Cameron Maybin, say, or a buy-low trade candidate like Aaron Altherr, Domingo Santana, or Keon Broxton — could take the duty of right-handed-hitting fourth outfielder, leaving Desmond to serve as more of a true utility piece who could appear all over the diamond.
Moving Desmond off of first base would leave the Rockies free to pursue any number of bigger bats. C.J. Cron, for instance, is available right now with a meager projected salary of $5.2MM (potentially less if he clears waivers) after being dumped by the Rays. He out-hit all but two Rockies players in 2018. And the market is loaded with alternatives. Justin Smoak would make for a plausible trade target, while perhaps a wild Carlos Santana salary-swapping arrangement isn’t out of the question. Greg Bird of the Yankees may be out of time there but thrived as an amateur in Colorado. Justin Bour is a free agent now, along with fellow lefty swingers Matt Adams, Lucas Duda, and Logan Morrison as well as right-handed-hitting old friend Mark Reynolds.
It’s also possible that the Rockies could go without a true first baseman or a single, regular second bagger — particularly if they prefer to maintain greater defensive flexibility. Beyond Desmond, Hampson can play short or second, perhaps obviating the need for Pat Valaika or another glove-only infield reserve, and has also dabbled in the outfield. McMahon hasn’t yet appeared on the grass but does have experience at the 3-4-5 infield spots. Perhaps the club should seek yet more variability in targeting new players. Daniel Murphy would be an intriguing fit as a player who can line up at second or first while providing a lineup boost, or Neil Walker could do so at a lower rate of pay. (Brad Miller might be a minor-league-contract version of that concept.) Likewise, the righty-swinging Brian Dozier could be worth a look as a buy-low candidate who could see time in either spot on the right side of the infield. We’ve already heard of the Rockies’ interest in Marwin Gonzalez. He’d be a wonderful fit in this sort of a scheme, though he’s not going to come cheap. Josh Harrison might offer a more budget-friendly version of the same profile. Undesirable contracts (e.g., Dee Gordon, Jason Kipnis, Starlin Castro) and potential cast-away arb-eligible players (e.g., Joe Panik, Devon Travis) could also provide avenues.
When the Rockies signed Desmond, the team said it had targeted a baseball player rather than a position, noting that his versatility would come in handy over the life of the contract. Using him more loosely now would free up an immense number of possibilities, opening the door to more offensive production (including through greater platoon usage) in a cost-efficient manner (not least of which because they’ll be selling free agent hitters on a chance to bat at altitude). It’d be great if the Rockies could figure a way to spend or finagle their way to a true regular at first, second, the outfield, and/or behind the dish. If not, though, they can use some flexible existing resources and combine them with versatile outside assets to make an intriguing supporting cast for the strong rotation and trio of star position players. Keeping up with the Dodgers will not be an easy feat, particularly with resource limitations, but there seem to be some creative avenues that make it imaginable.