Jon Gray rejected an extension offer the Rockies made him before the end of the regular season, reports Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. Gray continues to have interest in sticking with Colorado long-term, Saunders adds, although the expectation is now that he’ll at least test the open market.
There’s been reported mutual interest between the Rox and Gray in a long-term deal for months, but the sides have yet to line up on acceptable terms. Saunders suggests the right-hander could target a three or four-year deal with an average annual value in the $9-10MM range on the open market. Whether that kind of deal would be attainable could depend upon whether the Rockies tag Gray with a qualifying offer. Doing so would entitle the Rockies to draft pick compensation were he to sign elsewhere, although he’d be a strong candidate to accept an $18.4MM offer to return in 2022.
Perhaps that’d be a mutually agreeable outcome, since Colorado clearly has interest in retaining Gray. Despite already being out of postseason contention by late July, the Rockies seemingly made Gray unavailable relatively early on trade deadline day. That course of action makes little sense unless the team wants to keep him around, and subsequent reports made clear that’s the case.
Gray bounced back from an injury-plagued 2020 to post a solid season this year. Over 149 innings, the 29-year-old worked to a 4.59 ERA with average or better strikeout (24.4%), walk (9%) and ground-ball (48.4%) rates. He thrived at Coors Field, tossing 78 1/3 frames of 4.02 ERA ball while holding opponents to a .205/.291/.365 line in home starts. With how difficult it has proven for the Rockies to find pitchers capable of succeeding in the game’s most hitter-friendly environment, it’s easy to see why general manager Bill Schmidt and his staff have continually expressed interest in keeping Gray around.
Saunders adds some additional context on Colorado’s offseason priorities, writing that the club is expected to target “at least two impactful players.” What constitutes an impact addition is open to interpretation, but Saunders suggests the club will look for a power-hitting bat this winter, preferably an outfielder. He floats Nick Castellanos (almost certain to opt out of his contract with the Reds), Michael Conforto and utilityman Chris Taylor as possible targets.
That’s a varied collection of potential players of interest. Castellanos looks like a candidate for a nine-figure deal. Taylor has a strong case for a four-year contract in the $65+MM range. Conforto could land three or four years himself, but it’s also possible he looks for a one-year bounceback deal after a mediocre 2021 campaign. Signing any of that group would probably cost the Rockies a draft choice, as they’re all likely qualifying offer recipients.
As for other areas of need for the Rockies, Saunders floats the bullpen and middle infield. Shortstop Trevor Story is expected to reject a QO and sign elsewhere, leaving a middle infield vacancy. Former top prospect Brendan Rodgers has seemingly locked down one spot after hitting .284/.328/.470 across 415 plate appearances this past season. Rodgers is capable of manning either of shortstop or second base, leaving some flexibility for Schmidt and company in addressing the dirt.
Plugging all those position player gaps and/or retaining Gray would certainly make for a costly winter. Earlier this month, Colorado president Greg Feasel said the club was planning to increase payroll over the course of the next two offseasons — eventually pushing from 2021’s $118MM figure closer to their franchise-record $145MM mark from 2019. Colorado should indeed have spending room to work with, as Jason Martinez of Roster Resource estimates they have around $79MM in 2022 commitments at the moment — including projected arbitration salaries.
That financial flexibility should give the front office real room for upgrades, but they’ll have a tall task in constructing a contender. The Rockies have finished in fourth place in the NL West in each of the past three seasons, and the impending departure of Story only makes a return to contention in that loaded division harder. Despite those challenges, Saunders’ report reinforces that the Rockies aren’t planning to take a step back this winter. They’re at least plotting a hopeful win-now course of action that could see them remain in the market for some of the offseason’s top free agent hitters.