The likely departure of Trevor Story will only hurt a team that has already struggled to generate offense, so landing some hitters who can produce both at home and on the road is the first order of business for Rockies general manager Bill Schmidt.
- Antonio Senzatela, SP: $50.5MM through 2026 ($14MM club option for 2027)
- German Marquez, SP: $28.5MM through 2023 (includes $2.5MM buyout of $16MM club option for 2024)
- C.J. Cron, 1B: $14.5MM through 2023
- Scott Oberg, RP: $7MM through 2022 ($8MM club option for 2023)
Other Financial Commitments
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Daniel Bard – $4.8MM
- Elias Diaz – $2.6MM
- Carlos Estevez – $3.2MM
- Kyle Freeland – $7.0MM
- Robert Stephenson – $1.1MM
- Raimel Tapia – $3.9MM
- Ryan McMahon – $5.5MM
- Garrett Hampson – $1.8MM
- Tyler Kinley – $1.0MM
- Peter Lambert – $600K
- Non-tender candidates: Hampson, Kinley
- Charlie Blackmon, OF: $21MM player option for 2022 (exercised; Blackmon also has a $10MM player option for 2023, and has already said he will exercise that option as well)
- Ian Desmond, IF/OF: $15MM club option for 2022 (declined, Desmond received $2MM buyout)
- Trevor Story, Jon Gray, Jhoulys Chacin, Chi Chi Gonzalez, Chris Owings, Josh Fuentes, Yency Almonte, Rio Ruiz, Jairo Diaz
When Jeff Bridich stepped down from the general manager job back in April, the Rockies announced they would look for a new head of baseball operations after the season, with an interim GM filling the role for the remainder of the 2021 campaign. As it happened, the Rox made their choice early, deciding to elevate interim GM and longtime front office employee Bill Schmidt into the full-time job during the final weekend of the regular season. As team president/COO Greg Feasel put it, Schmidt impressed upper management to the point that “he didn’t give us a choice…I mean, how many times do you need to be hit over the head with a bat? And he was the right guy for us at the right time.”
Given how the Rockies often promote from within and place such a large premium on continuity within the organization, Schmidt’s official hiring wasn’t a surprise. However, for Colorado fans frustrated by their team’s lack of overall success, Rockies owner Dick Monfort’s track record for loyalty is a double-edged sword that seems to prevent new perspectives and new strategies from filtering into the front office.
In fairness to Schmidt, he is a veteran baseball man with his own ideas, so it is maybe too easy to just presume that things will be business as usual at Coors Field. And, having their GM position decided early did allow the Rockies to get a quick jump on some notable offseason business — inking Antonio Senzatela to a five-year contract extension, and then keeping C.J. Cron off the free agent market by signing the first baseman to a new two-year, $14.5MM deal.
Cron was the more pressing concern since he was just weeks away from the open market, but it isn’t all that surprising he’d welcome staying in one place after changing teams in each of the last four offseasons. Playing in Denver certainly seemed to agree with Cron, who hit .281/.375/.530 with 28 home runs over 547 plate appearances, fueled by big home/road splits (1.073 OPS at Coors Field, .734 OPS in away games).
Cron certainly did enough to merit that extension, and keeping him in the fold helps reinforce Colorado’s lineup. That said, Cron’s performance is endemic of the 2021 season as a whole for Rockies hitters, who batted a league-worst .217/.291/.352 (73 wRC+) on the road. Colorado was only 26-54 in away games, and even at home, the Rockies’ cumulative .280/.341/.475 slash line translated to only a 90 wRC+.
It has now been several years since the Rox have had a productive offense both at home and on the road. The team’s inability to find consistent hitting has been underscored by the fact that the rotation has been perhaps as stable recently as at any point in the franchise’s history. On the rare occasions when everything is clicking, it is perhaps understandable why Monfort and Schmidt have seemed so insistent that this team isn’t as far away from contention as it seems. In practice, however, the Rockies have had three straight losing seasons, a flawed roster, a thin minor league system, and many needs to address if they’re going to make any noise in a very competitive NL West.
Let’s begin with the rotation, as German Marquez is the ace of a staff that will return Senzatela, Austin Gomber, and Kyle Freeland. This quartet was collectively decent if unspectacular in 2021. Senzatela’s extension now locks him in with Marquez (controlled through 2024 via his own extension) and Gomber (controlled through 2025 via arbitration) as long-term pieces for Colorado, even if guaranteeing $50.5MM to Senzatela seemed a little surprising since the righty has had some ups-and-downs over his five MLB seasons.
Extending a pitcher who has had some success at Coors Field does seem like a logical move for the Rockies, considering their difficulties in bringing any premium free agent arms to the thin air. Barring a big and unlikely overpay, the Rox will be looking to add starting depth through minor league signings and veterans perhaps looking for a bounce-back year. In-house starting options include Peter Lambert back from Tommy John surgery, rookie Ryan Feltner, and top pitching prospect Ryan Rolison should make his MLB debut in 2022, though none of that group can be counted on to reliably fill a rotation spot just yet.
Trading for a veteran hurler who can eat innings and keep the ball on the ground would be a good idea, and this is one area where Schmidt can easily distinguish himself. Bridich didn’t make many trades over his six-plus years as the GM, and there weren’t a lot of clear wins in that limited number (the Marquez/Jake McGee deal notwithstanding).
Of course, re-signing Jon Gray would also address that rotation need, though it remains to be seen if a reunion is feasible now that Gray has reached free agency. The Rockies resisted dealing Gray at the trade deadline because they were so intent on keeping him, and then made an extension offer in the area of $35-$40MM over three years. This late-season offer was seemingly the only deal officially presented to Gray and his representatives, and when it was rejected, the Rockies then didn’t issue Gray a one-year, $18.4MM qualifying offer. The right-hander now doesn’t have any draft pick compensation attached to his services, making him an even more attractive option for other teams in need of rotation help.
It all adds up to a curious sequence of events, as now Colorado risks losing Gray for nothing. The Denver Post’s Patrick Saunders reported that Gray “likely would have accepted” the QO, so the Rockies would’ve been paying Gray roughly $5MM more in average annual value than they were comfortable with, given the parameters of their extension offer. Yet, would this have really been that unpalatable a situation, considering how seriously the club seemed to want to retain Gray? Then again, perhaps even that intent could be called into question if the Rox did make Gray just that one offer, unless the Rockies simply put way too much faith in Gray accepting that three-year extension.
Paying an extra $5MM than expected for Gray would’ve had an impact on Colorado’s payroll availability, but Feasel has stated that the team plans to slowly increase its spending over the next two years. With roughly $103MM (as per Roster Resource) committed to the 2022 payroll, Feasel said the Rox plan to be back in the $150MM range by 2023, which was what the club was spending in 2018-19 before the pandemic. That $47MM spending bump isn’t small, though it remains to be seen if the majority of that increase may happen next winter instead of over the coming few months, particularly since the collective bargaining agreement talks could significantly alter baseball’s business rules going forward.
It could also be that spending extra money on a starting pitcher didn’t fit the team’s greatest needs, as Schmidt has said that improving the bullpen and adding power to the lineup are the top priorities. On the relief pitching front, don’t expect to see any expensive names added, as the Rockies have many of the same issues in attracting relievers as they do in attracting prominent starters (plus, the McGee/Wade Davis/Bryan Shaw contracts undoubtedly still linger in the front office’s memory).
Carlos Estevez enters the offseason as the closer, with Lucas Gilbreath and Robert Stephenson doing the most in 2021 to lay claims on setup roles or even occasional save opportunities. Daniel Bard’s projected $4.8MM arbitration number is boosted by the saves he did accumulate before losing the closer’s job, but Bard pitched decently well outside the ninth inning and will likely be retained. Tyler Kinley might be a non-tender candidate, but he isn’t expensive and offers some durability. Along those same lines, Jhoulys Chacin ate some innings and posted decent numbers in his return to Colorado as a reliever, so the Rox could look to re-sign the veteran. Since Gilbreath is the only left-hander among any of these bullpen names mentioned, the Rockies will probably target a southpaw or two.
This brings us to the position player mix, and the big gap that exists at shortstop since Trevor Story will be playing elsewhere in 2022. Story is another of the many pending free agents the Rockies chose to keep at their quiet trade deadline, as Schmidt stated that rival teams didn’t present any offers more attractive than the compensatory draft pick Colorado will receive via the qualifying offer when Story signs with a new team.
The infield vacancy does look like it will be at shortstop, as while Brendan Rodgers has played plenty of shortstop in the minors, the expectation is that the Rockies will keep him at second base. Rodgers’ first full MLB season was pretty successful, as he hit .284/.328/.470 with 15 homers over 415 PA after a hamstring strain delayed his season debut until May 21. The former third overall pick now looks like a player to be counted on for regular work going forward, giving Colorado one building block in place.
In fact, the Rockies’ infield mix is pretty settled apart from shortstop. Cron is at first base, Rodgers at second, Ryan McMahon is at third base, and Elias Diaz is lined up for regular catching duties with Dom Nunez as either the backup or as a platoon partner if his hitting improves. It isn’t a bad group on paper, yet they were only truly dangerous at Coors Field — Rodgers was the only regular who really hit well in away games, though he countered those splits with subpar production at home.
Ezequiel Tovar looks on pace to be Colorado’s shortstop of the future, though since he’s only 20 years old and hasn’t even played Double-A ball, he isn’t a realistic option until 2023 at the earliest. If the Rockies have enough confidence in Tovar’s bat to project him as an everyday player, they might only be looking for a short-term shortstop addition to serve as a bridge for the next year or two. This could put the Rox in line for a relatively inexpensive veteran free agent in the Andrelton Simmons/Freddy Galvis tier, or a utilityman like Leury Garcia or Marwin Gonzalez could help at shortstop and at other positions. Keeping with the utility theme, re-signing Chris Owings would also seem like a realistic option, even if Owings hasn’t played much shortstop in the last few years.
If the Rockies are going to add some offensive pop and are willing to spend some money to do it, the outfield is the obvious target area. Longtime Rockie Charlie Blackmon exercised his player option and looks to have one of the corner spots (probably right field) accounted for the next two years, leaving two slots open to a collection of players that includes Sam Hilliard, Raimel Tapia, Connor Joe, Yonathan Daza, and Ryan Vilade. This group isn’t bereft of talent or potential, but there also isn’t anyone there who would or should preclude the Rox from adding a proven veteran slugger, particularly if the National League adds the DH next year.
Starling Marte is the clear choice as the top center fielder on the market, though a versatile player like Chris Taylor could handle center field, shortstop, and several other spots around the diamond. Taylor, for what it’s worth, has consistently torched the Rockies and hit well at Coors Field as a visiting player.
Signing Taylor would cost the Rox a compensatory draft pick, however, as would other big-hitting QO free agent outfielders like Nick Castellanos or Michael Conforto. This could be a sacrifice Colorado is willing to make, figuring that the Story compensatory pick will make up for it, but it probably seems likelier that the Rockies will first look to non-QO outfielders like Avisail Garcia, Kyle Schwarber, or Mark Canha.
The list of targets obviously hinges on what exactly the Rockies are willing to spend, and of course, it also takes two to tango in free agent signings. The names at the top of the outfield market have flexibility in choosing their next team, and unless Colorado strongly outbids the other suitors, would their top choice be a Rockies team that doesn’t seem like an obvious contender in 2022 (or even 2023)? Also, the “Coors Field Effect” may turn off hitters as much as pitchers, given how much recent evidence exists that playing in Denver may mess up a hitter’s production from one ballpark to the next.
This same factor also influences the trade market. As mentioned earlier, Bridich didn’t make many trades as Colorado’s general manager, but that could partially stem from the difficulty in properly evaluating players who spend half their time at Coors Field, especially if many of those same players then struggle on the road. If the Rox acquired a new outfielder, for example, players like Tapia, Hilliard, or Garrett Hampson might become expendable trade chips. But, for both Schmidt and rival GMs, how do you properly gauge the value of a player when their home ballpark may have such an outsized impact on their performance?
There’s no question that the Rockies face plenty of difficulties unique to their team alone, yet their situation hasn’t been helped by some self-inflicted wounds, such as the hard feelings that surrounded Nolan Arenado’s departure and how Story seemed openly displeased that he wasn’t moved at the trade deadline. This offseason will be very instructive in illustrating Schmidt’s direction for the team and how it differs from the Bridich era, and in lieu of substantive changes, Rox fans may continue to be wary at the future outlook.