The Rockies’ 59-103 record in 2023 was third-worst in baseball, leaving general manager Bill Schmidt no shortage of paths to explore when searching for upgrades. However, although the Rockies were somewhat surprisingly one of MLB’s lightest-hitting clubs in ’23 — 17th in batting average, 25th in on-base percentage, 20th in slugging percentage and 30th in wRC+ — Schmidt said at this week’s Winter Meetings that pursuing a power bat isn’t high on his list of priorities (via Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post). Upgrading the pitching staff and deepening manager Bud Black’s bench will be the greater focus, per Schmidt. Specifically, he’d like to add a veteran backup catcher behind Elias Diaz (via DNVR’s Patrick Lyons).
Both areas could clearly use augmentation. The pitching staff, in particular, was dreadful — due in no small part to injuries. An already shaky Rockies staff lost both German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela to Tommy John surgery last year. Each of Kyle Freeland, Austin Gomber, Ryan Feltner, Connor Seabold, Chase Anderson, Ty Blach, Peter Lambert and Chris Flexen started at least 10 games for the Rox. None did so with an ERA lower than Freeland’s 5.03. Colorado starters posted an MLB-worst 5.91 ERA, and things weren’t any better in the bullpen, where the Rockies sported an MLB-worst 5.41 ERA and a 29th-ranked 20.4% strikeout rate.
Schmidt has already added one arm to the rotation mix, buying low on Guardians righty Cal Quantrill following a down season. Coors Field isn’t exactly an ideal spot for a pitcher to try to rebuild his value, but Quantrill did post a 3.08 ERA in 368 innings from 2020-22. Shoulder inflammation limited him to 19 starts in 2023 (and perhaps contributed to an ugly 5.24 ERA), but Quantrill took the ball 32 times as recently as 2022. He was a perfectly sensible addition for a Rockies team that’s desperate for arms but lacking in high-end prospects needed to acquire difference-making pitchers. Most available high-end trade targets are controllable for two or even just one year anyhow, and a Rockies team that’s at best an extreme long-shot to contend probably doesn’t want to sacrifice too much long-term value for short-term upgrades.
Because of their long odds at playoff contention, it seems the Rockies are intent on taking a look at a series of young players rather than displacing them with more expensive free agents. Shortstop Ezequiel Tovar will get another opportunity to provide some value with his bat after a brilliant defensive showing in his rookie season but a lackluster offensive performance (.253/.287/.408). The 2024 season will be something of a mulligan for second baseman Brendan Rodgers, who missed much of the 2023 season on the injured list. Nolan Jones will look to build on an impressive rookie showing, likely in right field.
Schmidt indicated that first base will likely belong to Kris Bryant, though occasional right field work is also on the table (link via Lyons). Ryan McMahon, signed through 2027, is locked in at the hot corner. The Rox re-signed veteran Charlie Blackmon to serve as their primary DH before the season even opened, guaranteeing him a surprisingly strong $13MM salary in the process.
Saunders writes that the Rockies also have higher hopes for outfielders Sean Bouchard and Brenton Doyle. The former suffered a ruptured biceps tendon prior to the season and missed most of the year, but he’s produced a massive .304/.429/.563 slash in 140 plate appearances between 2022-23. Doyle was perhaps baseball’s least-productive hitter in 2023, batting .203/.250/.343 with a 35% strikeout rate in 431 plate appearances. He also posted flat-out elite defensive grades, however, drawing enormous positives from Defensive Runs Saved (19), Ultimate Zone Rating (24.5) and Outs Above Average (16) in well south of a full season’s worth of innings. With that type of defensive wizardry, he only needs to clear a low bar at the plate to be a valuable everyday player, but last year’s output wasn’t enough.
Improving the bench shouldn’t be a difficult proposition. Brian Serven is the current favorite for backup catching work but carries just a .195/.248/.314 line in 228 MLB plate appearances. Bouchard and/or 24-year-old Hunter Goodman could get regular work in right field or carve out a bench role, but both have minor league options remaining. Utility infielder Alan Trejo has hit .243/.292/.367 in 402 MLB plate appearances over the past three seasons. He’s versatile but also out of options, and a more productive utility infielder should be available.
The main question for the Rockies’ bench could pertain to former top prospect Elehuris Montero, who’s yet to cement himself at either infield corner. The presence of McMahon, Bryant and Blackmon leaves the 26-year-old Montero, who’s hit just .239/.283/.428 in 492 MLB plate appearances, without a path to regular playing time. But Montero is also out of minor league options, so he’ll have to crack the big league roster or else be either traded or exposed to waivers. Montero was a notable piece of the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado return from the Cardinals, but he’s something of an odd man out with regard to the current allotment of playing time. Then again, Bryant has spent ample time on the injured list in recent seasons, and Montero could be the first man up should he again need time on the shelf.
The Rockies currently project for a payroll of about $142MM, per Roster Resource, which is around $30MM shy of last year’s franchise-record Opening Day payroll (a bit more than $172MM). There’s room for the club to spend, but convincing free agent pitchers to sign on the dotted line and call Coors Field home is no small feat. And the Rockies’ farm system generally isn’t well regarded, which makes adding arms on the trade market difficult, too (hence the buy-low pickup of Quantrill).