A season after locking superstar Nolan Arenado into a long-term deal, the Rockies entered the offseason with a payroll bordering on the highest in team history. Despite flirting with the idea of moving Arenado and his mega deal, Colorado largely stood pat. When the 2020 season begins, they will confront their rivals in the NL West with close to the same team that racked up 91 losses a year ago.
- Jose Mujica, RHP: $563K, split contract
- Total spend: $563K
Trades and Claims
- Trevor Story, SS: Two years, $27.5MM (includes $2MM signing bonus, $8MM salary in 2020, $17.5MM salary in 2021)
- Scott Oberg, RHP: Three years, $13MM deal ($2MM in 2020, $4MM in 2021, $7MM in 2022, $8MM team option for 2023)
Notable Minor League Signings
- Eric Stamets, Daniel Bard, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Collins, Elias Diaz, Kelby Tomlinson, Chris Owings, Mike Gerber, Tim Melville (re-signed), Zac Rosscup
- Yonder Alonso, Rico Garcia, Tyler Anderson, DJ Johnson, Chad Bettis, Drew Butera, Sam Howard, Pat Valaika, Harrison Musgrave, Roberto Ramos
It’s been a long offseason for Rockies’ fans, even before COVID-19 put the season on temporary hold. The team that lost 91 games in 2019 didn’t get anything in the way of reinforcements over the winter. Executive VP & GM Jeff Bridich handed out just one major league contract — to Jose Mujica, a candidate for the rotation, though he has yet to make his major league debut. Mujica, 23, became a minor league free agent after six seasons in the Rays’ system. The 2019 season would have been his seventh with Tampa had he not undergone Tommy John and missed the entire year. In 2018, Mujica ascended as high as Triple-A where he notched a 2.80 ERA/2.81 FIP across 36 2/3 innings. He enjoyed good luck in the home run department over that span, as just 2.6% of the flyballs he allowed left the yard, but there’s at least a reasonable expectation for Mujica to join the pool of rotation candidates in Colorado, especially given their uncertainty in that department.
Colorado pitching, after all, has proven one of the more frustrating team-building challenges in the major leagues. The Sisyphean task of constructing even a league-average pitching staff at Coors Field persists year-after-year. Over the course of their 27-season history, the Rockies posted a league-average or better team ERA just three times (2010, 2009, 2007). In 2010, Jim Tracy’s 83-win squad finished with an exactly-league-average ERA, but those other two seasons — 2009, 2007 — happen to be two of the only three seasons in which the Rockies won 90 games in their history.
The third would be 2018. The Rockies pulled off a 91-win season the year before last, and though the pitching staff finished with a 4.33 ERA — slightly higher than the league average at 4.27 — they outplayed their pythagorean record by six wins and came within a play-in game of stealing the divisional crown from the Dodgers. Last season, the team ERA ballooned to 5.66, and Bud Black’s crew reversed their fortunes from a year before. The Rox weren’t the only pitchers to struggle last season, of course, as the league’s ERA on the whole ballooned from 4.27 in 2018 to 4.62 in 2019, but few staffs did so as mightily as the Rockies.
Regardless of where the league ERA falls in 2020, the blueprint is clear: if the Rockies can eek out average production from their pitchers, they’ll have a shot at contention. Unfortunately, the only additions from outside the organization this winter (beyond Mujica) were minor league signings like Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Collins, Daniel Bard and Zac Rosscup. Jimenez made his debut in the rotation for that 2007 team, and he fronted the staff by 2009. Maybe there’s some wisdom he can impart about how to manage in Coors Field, but he’s unlikely to make much of a contribution on the hill. The 36-year-old last pitched in the majors in 2017 for the Orioles.
Collins may actually help in the bullpen, as he’s put up consistently solid ERAs when healthy. He shouldn’t be affected by the new three-batter rule either, with near identical splits versus lefties (.226/.339/.381) and versus righties (.235/.332/.358). That said, he’s yet to really re-establish himself after missing all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons after undergoing, you guessed it, Tommy John.
Worse yet for the Rockies, the messaging out of Colorado immediately after the season ended was that of befuddlement and frustration. Given that they didn’t spend much effort pursuing free agents, perhaps they’ve had time to figure out if the new baseball really was unduly launch-able in Colorado’s thin air, but as of November, the organization was still reeling and seemingly at a loss. Of course, a lot of time has passed since then, and time will tell if more stringent adherence to mechanical repetition can return Colorado hurlers like Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, and German Marquez to unleashing better versions of themselves. Without bounce-back campaigns from their rotation – as well as closer Wade Davis, who was recently re-minted the ninth-inning man despite a 8.65 ERA/5.56 FIP in 2019 – the Rockies will have a tough time recording outs with consistency enough to compete in an increasingly competitive NL West.
On the position-player side, the Rockies should remain competitive, though their activity this winter was hardy encouraging. Mostly, they spent the winter engaged in a cold war with their franchise player, who felt “disrespected” by the organization while expressly voicing his desire to play for a contender. All is not lost, however, and Arenado remains an extremely valuable asset, even while raking in $35MM a year. He’s that good.
And yet, the rift between Arenado and the club is unsettling. For now, the Rockies have probably the best left side of the infield in all of baseball, but Trevor Story may not be a lifer in Colorado either. Story signed an extension this winter, which on its face may seem like a positive, but it merely preserves an existing window of control before he’s slated to qualify for free agency. Story’s deal settled his final two seasons of arbitration without buying out any free agent years.
Then there’s this: The expiration date of Story’s new deal coincides with a lot of money coming off the books in Colorado. Barring a long-term agreement, he’ll be a free agent after the 2021 season, at which time the Rockies will also be free of current upscale rosterees like Daniel Murphy, Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, Ian Desmond, as well as Gray, the presumptive staff ace, who enters his final arbitration season in 2021. Arenado, as well, has an opt out that same offseason. The Rockies essentially have two seasons before they could face a complete organizational reset – which means the clock is ticking on any opportunities to get out in front of these free agent departures.
The offseason, however, felt anything but urgent. Having ramped up salaries in the past several years, Colorado doesn’t appear willing to spend beyond the current level. With an opening day payroll set to be around $156MM, per Fangraphs’ Roster Resource, the payroll remains exactly where it was at the start of this offseason.
Despite their overall stagnancy, the Rockies did extend their best bullpen arm in Scott Oberg. Bridich has poured a lot of money into the bullpen in recent years, and the results haven’t exactly been gold-star worthy. But the Oberg investment looks solid. Over 105 games the last two seasons, he’s put up a 2.35 ERA/3.20 FIP with 9.0 K/9 versus 2.7 BB/9, and the financial terms are modest.
It’s bound to be a tough season in Colorado. If they struggle out of the gate, the frigidity between the club and Arenado isn’t likely to improve, and the trade rumors will continue to swirl. They’ve shown no inclination towards dealing any of their top trade chips (Arenado, Story, Gray, David Dahl), but if the pitching doesn’t make an immediate and drastic 180 at the start of the season, Bridich may be forced to consider his options.
How would you grade the Rockies’ offseason moves? (Link for app users.)