The Rockies poured $106MM into their bullpen prior to the 2018 season, signing Wade Davis to a three-year, $52MM contract (the highest annual rate ever promised to a reliever) and inking right-hander Bryan Shaw and lefty Jake McGee to matching three-year, $27MM deals. To this point, none of that trio has pitched up to his abilities, with 2019 being a particularly brutal year thanks to Davis’ stunning struggles. In 42 2/3 innings, Davis posted an 8.65 ERA with career-worst walk and home run rates. Shaw, meanwhile, posted an ERA north of 5.00 for the second straight season, while McGee managed a tolerable 4.35 ERA in an injury-shortened campaign.
Those underperformances not only combined to play a significant role in Colorado’s playoff miss but have also hamstrung the Rockies entering the current offseason. Owner Dick Monfort has plainly stated that the team lacks payroll flexibility. It’s instinctual to suggest that the Rockies need to move some contracts this winter in order to help free up some payroll capacity, but that’s far easier said than done; beyond the poor showings from that high-priced trio of relievers, each has a 2021 option that further complicates matters (hat tip to Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post for the observation on Davis and Shaw).
Davis’ contract stipulates that his $15MM option for the 2021 season becomes a player option if he finishes just 30 games in 2020. He’s reached that total in each of the past four seasons. The Rockies (or another team) at least have direct control over that, however, and could simply pitch Davis in a setup or middle relief capacity. Based on his 2019 output, they’d hardly be unjustified in moving him to a lower-leverage role. They already began giving Scott Oberg save opportunities over Davis in 2019 anyhow.
The more problematic contractual options belong to Shaw and McGee, each of whom will see a $9MM option for 2021 become fully guaranteed with a full, healthy season. McGee would need to appear in 65 games next year in order to boost his combined games total from 2019-20 to 110, thus triggering that guarantee. He hasn’t appeared in 65 games since 2014, so perhaps it’s a long shot anyway, but the clause does the Rockies no favors in attempting to move him.
Shaw’s contract is probably the biggest concern. It’s structured the same as McGee’s, in that he’ll trigger his option with 110 appearances between 2019-20. Unlike McGee, though, Shaw was fully healthy in 2019 and took the ball 70 times. He only needs to appear in 40 games next season for another $9MM to be tacked onto that contract. Shaw, who’ll turn 32 this winter, has a 5.61 ERA with 8.0 K/9, 4.1 BB/9 and 1.5 HR/9 in 126 1/3 innings since signing with the Rockies. It’s arguable that they’d be better off releasing him rather than risking that $9MM salary vesting in 2021, but doing so would mean forgoing a chance to shed even a portion of that commitment in a trade.
So if those three deals are all extraordinarily difficult to move, then where else could the Rockies look to create flexibility? Charlie Blackmon’s $108MM contract still has two guaranteed years remaining before he encounters an opt-out provision. He’s owed $21MM in both 2020 and 2021 before he can opt for free agency or a $21MM salary for the 2022 season. His contract has a second player option for 2023 that was initially valued at $8MM, but he’s already well on his way to maxing out the escalators that’d push that option as high as $18MM. Those escalators are based on plate appearances, and Blackmon is already over halfway there after tallying 1330 trips to the dish over the past two seasons.
Were he still an elite all-around player, perhaps that’d be viewed in a different light. But while Blackmon is still a terrific hitter (.314/.364/.576 in 2019), he’s no longer a base-stealing threat and was widely panned by defensive statistics in 2019. Just three years after a 43-steal campaign in 2016, Blackmon went 2-for-7 in stealing bags in 2019. Defensive Runs Saved (-8), Ultimate Zone Rating (-10.6) and Outs Above Average (-9) all soured on his glovework, too, even with a shift from center field to right field.
With two years and $25MM to go on Ian Desmond’s ill-fated $70MM contract, there’s little hope of moving him. The same is true of Daniel Murphy (owed $14MM in 2020) after he logged an 87 OPS+ / 86 wRC+ in an injury-shortened season in 2019. And, of course, the Rockies would surely be loath to trade franchise icon Nolan Arenado just one year into his record-setting extension (seven years, $234MM in new money, bringing the total to eight years and $260MM).
So how can the Rockies go about cleaning up the payroll a bit while addressing some holes on the roster? Their best bet would be to trade some higher-end arbitration-eligible players. Fans would bristle at the notion of trading Trevor Story and, perhaps to a lesser extent, righty Jon Gray. But both players have just two seasons of club control remaining before free agency. An extension for either doesn’t seem especially likely when Monfort is already citing payroll issues. Story is projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $11.5MM in 2020 while Gray is pegged at $5.6MM. Not only that, but both would assuredly net some high-end young talent that could strengthen the farm. Plus, the Rockies have a premium middle-infield prospect in Brendan Rodgers who could hypothetically replace Story in 2020 (if he recovers sufficiently from shoulder surgery).
General manager Jeff Bridich’s comments at the team’s year-end press conference heavily suggested that he believes this club can turn things around, as currently constructed. That could prove to be the case, but this is a team that finished 20 games under .500 with a -123 run differential. The Rockies didn’t just finish 35 games out of first place, they finished 18 back from a Wild Card spot and 14 games back from even sitting in second place in the NL West. And they already have more money projected for next year’s payroll (including arbitration projections) than they spent on the roster in 2019. This feels like a team that needs a lot more than just a handful of rebounds to get back on track. Bridich and has staff have some tough choices this winter, but cashing in on two of his best trade assets in Story and Gray would be a logical start.