MLBTR is publishing Offseason Outlooks for all 30 teams. Click here to read the other entries in this series.
The Rockies endured one of the more disappointing seasons of their 27-year history in 2019. It may seem hard to remember now, but just a season ago, the 91-win Rockies came within one game of derailing the Dodgers’ now-seven-year run of dominance in the NL West. This season, they floated around .500 for much of the first half before face-planting hard in July and August. Despite scoring 55 more runs overall, the 2019 Rockies finished with an inverse record of the year prior at 71-91, 35 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.
- Nolan Arenado, 3B: $234MM through 2024 (opt-out after 2021)
- Charlie Blackmon, RF: $43MM through 2021 ($21MM player option for 2022, $10MM player option for 2023)
- Wade Davis, RP: $17MM in 2020 ($15MM mutual option for 2021 with $1MM buyout, becomes player option with 30 games finished in 2020)
- Ian Desmond, 1B/OF: $23MM through 2021 ($15MM club option in 2022 with $2MM buyout)
- Daniel Murphy, 1B: $8MM in 2020 ($12MM mutual option in 2021, $6MM buyout)
- Bryan Shaw, RP:$9MM in 2020 ($9MM club option in 2021 with $2MM buyout)
- Jake McGee, RP: $9.5MM in 2020 ($9MM club option in 2021 with $2MM buyout)
- German Marquez, SP:$38MM through 2023 ($16MM club option for 2024, $2.5MM buyout)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Chad Bettis – $3.8MM (outrighted, elected free agency)
- Scott Oberg – $2.0MM
- Jon Gray – $5.6MM
- Tyler Anderson – $2.625MM (claimed by the Giants)
- Trevor Story – $11.5MM
- Tony Wolters – $2.0MM
- Carlos Estevez – $1.2MM
- David Dahl – $3.0MM
- Kyle Freeland – $2.4MM
This team is equipped with high-end, in-their-prime talent on offense, stunning regressions to reckon with in the rotation, and an overpaid bullpen still one season from financial freedom. The likeliest route to flipping the script (again) and returning to playoff form – and this won’t be fun to hear – is probably internal improvement. On that front, Bud Black and company have more questions than answers.
What’s worse, if you’ll pardon a mixed metaphor, the front office has their backs against the bottom line: per Cot’s Contracts, the Rockies ran out an Opening Day payroll of just over $145MM, a team record they’ve reset every season since 2014. Assume a $9MM jump to mirror their rise in payroll the past two offseasons, and a 2020 Opening Day payroll would land around $156MM. Unfortunately, even after the subtraction of Anderson and Bettis, Roster Resource projects their current payroll at around $159MM.
There’s just not much wiggle room in the numbers. The money owed either belongs to core members of the roster (Arenado, Story, Gray, Marquez) or unmovable veterans performing below or near replacement level (Davis, Shaw, McGee, Desmond). In another year, the commitment to those four drops from $50.5MM to $13MM, assuming Davis finishes fewer than 30 games (which shouldn’t be a problem after an 8.65 ERA in 50 outings this season).
Thinking creatively, maybe there’s an AL team out there in love with Charlie Blackmon. Despite manning right field for the Rockies, the numbers say Blackmon’s no longer a super-viable option for NL teams (he stepped down the defensive spectrum in 2019 but remained among the worst-rated defensive outfielders in the game with -9 Outs Above Average). Blackmon doesn’t steal bases anymore, though a 125 wRC+ pegs him as genuine asset at the dish – in good company with Bryce Harper, Gleyber Torres and Matt Chapman. Still, the total Blackmon package rounded down to just 2.0 fWAR in 2019 – fine production for a regular position player, but shy of true All-Star status, unfortunately, given the All-Star money still coming his way ($64MM over the next three seasons, by the end of which he’ll be 36 years old). There aren’t many teams with a need at designated hitter, and with cheaper, shorter-term alternatives on the market like Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, Howie Kendrick, Avisail Garcia, among others, it seems likely Blackmon remains in Colorado for 2020.
The other fatty contract they could look to move belongs to Daniel Murphy. With just $14MM guaranteed remaining, it’s possible GM Jeff Bridich could find a taker, but it’s not the best time to sell on the soon-to-be 35-year-old. Even if someone takes the contract, after a less-than-inspiring .279/.328/.452 line, a trade won’t net much talent in return or provide enough relief to afford a difference maker in free agency. However, losing Murphy’s $8MM could be enough to grab a rotation arm on a one-year deal in the mold of Wade Miley.
They could instead explore moving Ryan McMahon, who filled out their infield quartet this season by taking on full-time responsibilities at second base. On the surface his .250/.329/.450 line with 24 home runs looks okay, but 88 wRC+ puts him 12 percent below league average without enough defensive fortitude to make up the difference. A near 30 percent strikeout rate more or less tells the tale for McMahon. Still, he and Murphy provide too much the same skillset to make their pairing on the right side a benefit, and if Bridich gets creative he might use the surplus to shuffle some pieces around.
A significant shakeup doesn’t seem possible without moving one of their core assets. It would not be easy to break up Arenado and Story, who make up, essentially, a perfect left side of the infield. They’re both plus-plus defenders and power hitters in their athletic prime who are beloved by the fan base. Arenado enjoys full no-trade protection, and the organization has shown little interest in trading Story. That said, with an estimated $11.5MM coming his way and another arbitration season to follow, it’s a logical time to move him. It won’t be fun, but a Story trade might be what’s best for the long-term health of the franchise.
Also a key part of this conversation is top prospect Brendan Rodgers, who struggled over two big league stints before a torn labrum ended his season in July. He’s not the defender at shortstop that Story is, but he can probably stick there if need be. If he becomes the full-time second baseman, that means bumping McMahon into a full-time utility role until Murphy’s contract runs out. That would make sense if the Rockies weren’t strapped for cash and in need of serious help on the pitching side. There’s definitely a trade to be made somewhere on the offensive end of the roster, but it’s doubtful any of the Rockies’ imperfect-fitting bats carry enough value to make much of a difference via trade. Story or David Dahl are exceptions, though the organization seems intent on keeping them.
Speaking of Dahl, the Rockies plan to keep him in center next year, and though he’s passable up-the-middle, he’s not exactly a profit center out there from a defensive standpoint. Offensively, he’s produced as promised, despite being continually beset by ticky-tack injuries like the high ankle sprain that cost him the second half of 2019. As a .297/.346/.521 career hitter, he is no doubt an asset on that side of the ball, but he’s also a qualified Super Two facing an arbitration raise for the first time this season despite never putting together a full season.
Outside of a successful cup of coffee from Sam Hilliard and decent play from free agent castoff Yonder Alonso, the Rockies’ offense cratered after their core four (Arenado, Story, Blackmon and Dahl). Tony Wolters and Garrett Hampson have elite skills – defense and speed, respectively – but have yet to shore up the weaker parts of their games. Ian Desmond can line up at multiple outfield positions and first base, but his bat doesn’t play at of those spots. Raimel Tapia took a full turn in left field at age 25 and came up empty, as fWAR and bWAR agree that he was worth almost a full win below replacement (-0.9). That’s not a rousing cast of characters, but the core is strong enough that the Rockies should have no trouble augmenting with cheaper veterans taking the leftover at-bats in left and behind the plate. In a perfect world, one of those veterans could also be a backup plan to Dahl in center field (Michael A. Taylor of the Nationals could be a reasonable archetype).
The real scapegoat of the Rockies’ disappointing 2019, and where they should devote most if not all of their offseason attention, is pitching. The bullpen was bad in 2019, producing the second-highest FIP and second-lowest fWAR while commanding a serious chunk of the payroll. The inherent volatility of bullpen arms will allow the Rockies to trot out Davis, Shaw and McGee with at least an outside shot of returning some of their value, while Jairo Diaz, Scott Oberg, James Pazos and Carlos Estevez will do their best not to relinquish their squatters’ rights on the other bullpen spots. As much as the bullpen is in a less-than-ideal situation, the rotation needs the most work after a collective 5.87 ERA/5.31 FIP that ranked dead last in the NL.
It’s certainly unfair to heap an entire season’s worth of disappointment on a single player, but if we were to saddle just one man with the blame, Kyle Freeland would win the vote in a landslide. Jon Gray was last year’s demoted ace, but a redemptive campaign saw him reclaim ace-by-default status thanks to his year-over-year ERA shriveling from 5.12 in 2018 to 3.84 in 2019. Marquez is their third rotation asset, but his ERA rose to 4.76 as he stayed around the plate so often (4.9 BB%) opponents were able to barrel him up at an above-average rate (7.9%). Marquez and Gray will be counted on for mid-rotation production, at minimum, with a ceiling of a number one. The same could be said of Freeland, though with an even lower floor. That’s way too much baked-in variance for the top three of a rotation. If they produce somewhere between the 3.91 ERA they averaged in 2018 and the 5.11 ERA average of 2019, it’ll certainly help, but that alone won’t be enough to close the gap on the Dodgers.
Of the three, Gray is the most likely to be turned into a package of prospects, but the former No. 3 overall pick’s value is tough to pinpoint. By FIP and exit velo, Gray’s 2018 and 2019 were almost identical campaigns. This season saw a slight dip in strikeout rate, a third consecutive year of a rising walk rate (from 6.5% to 7.0% to 8.8%), and a career-high hard hit percentage of 43.6 % that ranks in the bottom four percent of starters league-wide. On the plus side, he did put the ball on the ground more often and dramatically lowered opposing launch angles. In sum: Gray kept the ball down, but gave up harder contact, which doesn’t profile as significantly predictive for future seasons, even if the results this season make the improvement appear significant.
That said, Gray’s stuff is good enough that if the Rockies were to dangle him, there are sure to be teams out there confident in maximizing his potential. If Bridich and company don’t want to move someone like Story or Dahl, Gray would probably land the biggest return. The Rockies need arms to compete in a National League with most clubs in go-for-it mode, and if the Rox don’t believe in the crew that crashed and burned this season, the trade market might be the only solution.
It’s certainly tough to trust the incumbents. On the whole, the 2019 pitching staff performed much like Gray. Their 48.8% groundball rate was second in the majors. With Story and Arenado on the left side, groundballs should turn into outs more frequently than for your average MLB infield, so that’s a sound strategy. Unfortunately, when they weren’t burning worms, the basically put together a perfect cocktail for a “crooked number.” The Rockies’ 7.85 K/9 rate as a team was 15th in the NL, while their 3.66 BB/9 ranked as the NL’s second-highest figure. Plus, over 20 percent of fly balls that Colorado allowed turned into homers, which was worst in the majors. Not missing bats, giving up plenty of free passes, and yielding fly balls that leave the yard at uncommonly high rates is the recipe for big innings.
Organizationally, the Rockies are in a tough spot, and they’re going to have to get creative if indeed they want to compete. A Story trade would bring the largest injection of talent to the system, but given the organization’s fondness for him and Rodgers looking more like a future second baseman, an extension seems more likely. Still, they’ll need to explore all their options on the trade market.
The Rockies already lost a couple of players from their 2019 collection, with Sam Howard, Pat Valaika, and Tyler Anderson claimed on waivers. Chad Bettis was also outrighted and is likely to enter free agency along with Tim Melville. But the issues facing this team in the offseason run much deeper than the fringes of the roster. The outlook isn’t great after a 91-loss season, but Bridich has indicated a rebuild is not forthcoming. On one hand, that seems shortsighted. On the other, urgency is understandable when you consider 2019 marked the 27th consecutive season since their inception that the Rockies failed to capture a division title.