At 39-49, the Rockies are tied with the D-backs for last place in the National League West, sitting 18 games back from the division-leading Dodgers. Only eight teams in baseball have a worse winning percentage than Colorado, and several of those eight came into the 2022 season with no intention of competing as they progressed through rebuilds. The Rockies, as has become par for the course, seem to feel their club is underperforming and don’t envision a major sell-off. General manager Bill Schmidt replied with a simple “no” when asked by Danielle Allentuck of the Denver Gazette if he expects to be a big seller at this year’s deadline.
It’s a familiar refrain for a Rockies club that has enjoyed just two winning seasons in the past decade and appears well on its way to a tenth sub-.500 finish in the past dozen seasons. The Rockies are 171-212 dating back to 2019 but have nevertheless generally eschewed even the trades of veterans on expiring contracts. They added Kevin Pillar and Mychal Givens at the 2020 deadline, for instance. The Rox eventually traded Givens last summer, but that was the sole deadline deal for a club that had Jon Gray, Trevor Story and C.J. Cron on expiring contracts — plus righty Daniel Bard, who is a free agent at the end of the current season.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a team continue to try to turn its fortunes and win in the here-and-now without embarking on an arduous multi-year rebuild (which, in itself, is not the panacea it’s often framed to be). On the other, the Rox have continually expressed ardent belief that this core can be the nucleus of a winning club but have yet to see that faith manifest in the form of consistent wins on the field.
Zealous confidence in the core has been demonstrated through far more than just words. Colorado extended Cron, infielder Ryan McMahon, lefty Kyle Freeland, righty Antonio Senzatela and catcher Elias Diaz, traded for Randal Grichuk and signed Kris Bryant to an eye-popping seven-year deal in an effort to finally turn the corner this year. Smaller deals for Jose Iglesias, Alex Colome and Chad Kuhl were meant to further bolster the roster. But at with just 20 days until the trade deadline, they find themselves in a familiar spot, and the only names among those extensions and new acquisitions who’ve performed up to expectation are Cron, Kuhl, Colome and perhaps Iglesias.
Despite the lackluster results, Schmidt tells Allentuck that he “believe[s] in these guys,” adding confidence that the farm system will soon bring about some reinforcements. The Rox indeed have some nearly MLB-ready talent on the cusp of the Majors, but the system as a whole is ranked between 23rd and 25th among all 30 teams at each of Baseball America, MLB.com, The Athletic and ESPN. Schmidt, the scouting director-turned-GM, surely views his group more favorably, but as Allentuck explores in greater detail, nearly every one of the organization’s most promising pitching prospects has dealt with injuries of varying severity this winter.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Rockies should, at the very least, be open-minded about deals involving veterans who are set to be free agents at season’s end. That would include Bard, who’s been one of the better closers in the NL this season, as well as Kuhl, Colome, Iglesias and hard-throwing but mercurial righty Carlos Estevez.
However, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported over the weekend that the Rox hope to sign the 37-year-old Bard to an extension rather than trade him. Allentuck notes that a deal between the two parties isn’t close but similarly suggests that an extension is likelier than a trade. While Nightengale wrote the Rockies could listen to offers on Kuhl, the right-hander himself tells Allentuck that he’s also open to an extension and would prefer to stay in one place rather than bounce around the league. Schmidt seemingly hinted at this when noting that the most commonly speculated trade candidates in Colorado “are the guys that want to stay here.” Based on the team’s recent rash of extensions, it’s certainly possible Kuhl re-signs on a new multi-year deal rather than changing hands in the next three weeks.
There’d obviously be plenty of risk associated with extending Bard or Kuhl. Bard is already 37, and although he’s whiffed 29.5% of opponents, limited hard contact and notched a career-best 56.4% ground-ball rate en route to a 2.14 ERA, his 2021 campaign (5.21 ERA in 65 2/3 innings) is a reminder of the overall volatility of relief pitching. Add in Bard’s age and still-ugly 12.2% walk rate, and there’s definite downside, strong as his results to date have been.
Kuhl, meanwhile, has a 4.02 ERA through 87 1/3 innings — a total that’s already the second-highest mark of the oft-injured righty’s career. The 29-year-old’s 16.9% strikeout rate ranks 71st of the 79 pitchers in MLB with at least 80 innings so far, and his 29.4% opponents’ chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone ranks 73rd. His 41.7% hard-hit rate is the highest mark he’s ever yielded. Perhaps the return wouldn’t be enough to justify a trade, and it can’t be ignored that it’s rare for free-agent pitchers to voice a willingness (or in this case, even a preference) to call Coors Field home.
Still, keeping Kuhl would effectively lock the 2023 Rockies into relying on the same rotation that has produced a 28th-ranked 5.06 ERA in 2022 (plus a 24th-ranked 4.47 FIP and 28th-ranked 4.58 SIERA). In doing so, they’d be betting heavily on improvements from German Marquez, Freeland and Senzatela — although with all three now signed to lucrative multi-year deals, there’s little choice but for the organization to hope for just that.
Last year’s deadline was Schmidt’s first in the GM chair after more than 20 years in other front office roles with the Rockies, so there was no precedent for how he’d approach the trade market. Now, between what we saw last summer and the latest comments to Allentuck, it seems likely to expect a conservative approach that’ll leave the bulk of the roster intact.
That would ostensibly set the stage for another offseason of win-now transactions for the Rockies, but there are payroll considerations to keep in mind as well. Assuming Charlie Blackmon picks up next year’s $10MM player option, they’ll already have $120.5MM in guarantees on the books. That doesn’t include potential salaries for extension candidates Bard and Kuhl, nor does it include arbitration raises for Austin Gomber, Brendan Rodgers, Tyler Kinley, Garrett Hampson and Robert Stephenson. All of that will push the Rockies much closer to their franchise-record $145MM payroll, meaning it’ll be incumbent for the current group to right the ship if they’re to truly turn their fortunes in future seasons.