For a second straight offseason, Rockies owner Dick Monfort set the stage for a tight-budgeted winter for his club. “There will be nothing normal about this offseason as the industry faces a new economic reality, and each club will have to adjust,” Monfort wrote in a letter to season ticketholders at the end of October.
- Nolan Arenado, 3B: $199MM through 2026 (Arenado can opt out of the contract after 2021)
- German Marquez, RHP: $36MM through 2023 (includes buyout of 2024 club option)
- Charlie Blackmon, OF: $21MM through 2021 (contract contains player options for 2022-23)
- Trevor Story, SS: $17.5MM through 2021
- Scott Oberg, RHP: $11MM through 2022
- Ian Desmond, INF/OF: $10MM through 2021 (includes buyout of 2022 club option)
This year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Daniel Bard — $1.7MM
- David Dahl – $2.6MM
- Elias Diaz — $850K
- Jairo Diaz – $800K
- Carlos Estevez – $1.5MM
- Kyle Freeland – $3.9MM
- Mychal Givens – $3.6MM
- Chi Chi Gonzalez – $1.2MM
- Jon Gray – $5.9MM
- Ryan McMahon – $1.7MM
- Antonio Senzatela – $2.2MM
- Raimel Tapia – $1.5MM
- Tony Wolters – $2.0MM
- Non-tender candidates: E. Diaz, J. Diaz, Estevez, Gonzalez, McMahon, Wolters
- Declined $15MM mutual option on RHP Wade Davis (paid $1MM buyout)
- Declined $12MM mutual option on 1B Daniel Murphy (paid $6MM buyout)
Despite a 91-loss season in 2019 and an offseason that lacked any meaningful additions to the roster, Monfort projected a 94-win campaign for his club in 2020. The Rox got out to a hot start, but their eventual .433 winning percentage was actually worse than their .438 mark in 2019. Now, they’re faced with similar payroll constraints and the continued awkward saga with a franchise icon, Nolan Arenado.
Monfort opened the 2019-20 offseason by declaring a lack of payroll flexibility, and while he stopped a bit short of being so on the nose, his email to fans and a quick look at Colorado’s payroll ledger show that they’re likely in a similar boat. The Rox were set to open the 2020 season with a roughly $146MM payroll prior to prorating salaries, and despite the fact that the contracts of Daniel Murphy, Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw are off the books, they’re not far from that range.
The Rox owe a combined $93MM to Arenado, Trevor Story, German Marquez, Ian Desmond and Scott Oberg. Even if they non-tender all of the candidates listed above, that figure could rise into the $115MM range. Add in pre-arbitration players and the $7MM worth of option buyouts they paid after the World Series, and the Rockies don’t seem like a club that is teeming with surplus cash. They may not quite be to 2020 levels of payroll, but that was already a franchise-record outlay. We can’t assume they’re comfortable returning to that level, so it appears spending will be measured.
It’s that financial outlook, paired with Arenado’s persistent frustration, that have led to overwhelming trade speculation. Onlookers ought to be plenty familiar with the public nature of Arenado’s dissatisfaction at this point; the five-time All-Star flatly said he felt “disrespected” by the organization last winter. Arenado was reportedly was frustrated with the team’s lack of offseason activity, despite a promise at the time of his extension to make consistent efforts to field a winning club. Arenado told Denver 7’s Troy Renck last February that general manager Jeff Bridich, in particular, is “disrespectful.”
Given another poor showing and playoff miss from the Rox, many fans and pundits alike expect an Arenado trade to be a focal point of the club’s offseason. It is indeed reasonable to expect that the club will explore the market, but the path to an actual trade is anything but straightforward. Arenado has six years and $199MM remaining on his contract — an enormous sum that is sure to cause owners around the game to balk at a time when most clubs are frantically cutting costs.
Looming beyond the overall commitment is the fact that Arenado can opt out of the contract next winter. In many ways, that creates a lose-lose situation for interested parties. Arenado could play at his customary superstar level, enjoy another lofty finish in MVP voting and bolt for free agency. Alternatively, if he struggles or sustains a major injury, any acquiring club would be left with the remaining five years and $164MM on the contract. When the best-case scenario is one year of elite play and the worst-case scenario is six years of a $33MM+ salary for a player whose production has taken a step back, how much surplus value is there for the Rockies to peddle?
The elephant in the room is that Arenado simply didn’t have a great 2020 season. He did still secure his eighth Gold Glove in his eighth Major League season, but Arenado logged a rather bleak .253/.303/.434 slash in this year’s 201 plate appearances — output that is miles from the .295/.351/.546 line he posted in his career prior to 2020. Arenado entered the year with a 120 wRC+ — production 20 percent better than a league-average hitter when weighted for home park and league — and turned in a mark of 76 in 2020 (24 percent worse than a league-average bat).
One could argue that there’s some bad luck at play, and that could be partly true. However, Arenado’s 87.3 mph average exit velocity, 33.7 percent hard-hit rate and 5.4 percent barrel rate were all far and away the lowest of his career. Paired with his enormous salary and the opt-out downside, some clubs may not feel Arenado has much positive trade value. That’s an outlandish-looking comment at first blush, but at the very least, the Rockies won’t be getting a king’s ransom in a trade. They’ll quite possibly have trouble convincing another team to pay the full freight of the contract.
If the Rox are looking to offload salary while adding some controllable young talent, shortstop Trevor Story is the easier piece to market, as MLBTR’s Jeff Todd recently explored. We’ll avoid rehashing his argument at too great a length, but suffice it to say that a 28-year-old career .277/.343/.535 hitter (114 wRC+) with high-end defense of his own is a pretty desirable player under any circumstance — but certainly when he is playing on an eminently more reasonable one-year, $17.5MM pact. Any of the Phillies, Reds or Angels would stand out as a clear fit, and other contenders like the Yankees, Twins or Blue Jays could make sense if they shuffle some pieces around. Top prospect Brendan Rodgers, meanwhile, is on hand for the Rox as a potential heir to Story’s spot.
Of course, while the focus of this outlook thus far has been on the possibility of dealing away a star infielder, that would be a dramatic 180-degree turn from how this organization has operated. Monfort has been almost fatally optimistic about the players the Rockies have in house. In addition to last year’s 94-win proclamation, the Rockies functioned as buyers at this year’s trade deadline, dealing from an already thin farm to acquire Kevin Pillar and Mychal Givens. Monfort may yet hold out the belief that this core group can put together a legitimate World Series run.
Should that prove to be the case, it’s not clear just how the Rockies can piece together the requisite upgrades to supplement a flawed core. Even if the Rockies are able to clear some payroll space, the work needed is considerable.
Colorado starters ranked 20th in the Majors in both ERA (4.83) and FIP (4.88), and their bullpen was only spared from being the game’s worst because of a historically bad group in Philadelphia. Rox relievers logged a combined 6.77 ERA and 5.56 FIP this past season, and Oberg, their best reliever, is a question mark for the 2021 season after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery in September. (He did not pitch in 2020.) Yency Almonte and Daniel Bard were the only two Rockies relievers with 10-plus innings pitched and an ERA south of 5.00.
If there’s a silver lining for the Rockies in all of this, it’s that the market for relievers looks decidedly harsh for players. Brad Hand already went unclaimed on waivers at a rate of one year and $10MM, and we’ve seen several seemingly reasonable club options bought out. The Rox could have their share of affordable bullpen pieces to pursue — although they likely need to add several arms to pair with Bard, Givens, Oberg and perhaps Almonte to make this a serviceable unit. Waiting out the market and striking gold on some Bard-esque minor league pacts feels like a necessity.
In the rotation, the Rockies have several arms who have had success at various points, but only German Marquez has been particularly consistent. The trio of Gray, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela have all had intermittent success but also endured brutal stretches. With little to no help on the horizon in the farm, the Rockies would likely need to add a veteran option if they plan to continue in win-now mode. It’s difficult to convince free agents to come pitch at Coors Field, though, which will impact their pursuits both in the ’pen and rotation. Then again, if money is as tight as it appears, they’d likely be shopping in the lower tiers of the market anyhow, or perhaps trying to acquire some non-tender candidates in buy-low trades prior to the tender deadline.
On the position-player side of the roster, the Rockies got no production whatsoever out of their catcher position in 2020, but that’s become par for the course as the club has steadfastly remained committed to light-hitting Tony Wolters. He’s a non-tender candidate again, though, and a solid defender with more ability at the dish (e.g. Jason Castro) might not cost that much more than Wolters’ projected arbitration price.
First base reps could be offered to any of Ryan McMahon (if he is tendered a contract), Josh Fuentes or prospect Colton Welker, and the free-agent market should have some affordable names (e.g. Carlos Santana, Mitch Moreland, C.J. Cron, Justin Smoak). Some outfield support behind David Dahl, who struggled in 2020 before undergoing shoulder surgery, would make sense as well; a Pillar reunion or a similar pursuit doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Frankly, however, the Rockies seem as though they’d be better served to take a step back. Marquez would instantly become one of the prizes of the trade market were he made available, and Story could return some young talent as well. Other Rox arms — Freeland and Givens among them — would hold ample appeal themselves. That has not been how this franchise operates, and while it’s commendable to see a team continue to push for competitive teams year-in and year-out, the process becomes more questionable when financial limitations prevent the front office from making any meaningful changes to the current group’s composition.
Perhaps the club will try to thread the needle of a long-term talent acquisition while still fielding a hopeful contender in 2021. If Bridich is able to find an Arenado trade, for instance, the Rox could reallocate some of those dollars to short-term deals for players to fill needs.
It’s still hard to envision this group contending with the World Champion Dodgers or upstart Padres in 2021, however. The Giants also continue to make strides, while the D-backs retain their own talented core in need of a rebound. The NL West looks like an increasingly tough division, and the Rockies’ avenues to assemble a competitive unit are limited if Monfort again opts not to spend this winter.