Another hot start raised expectations in 2014, but regression and injuries once again combined to doom the Rockies. Colorado seems intent on fielding a competitor, but it remains to be seen whether it will have the payroll flexibility needed get there.
Arbitration Eligible Players
With the Rockies, it seems, the real issues reside not in the details of roster construction, but in the philosophical and strategic direction of the organization. Critiques of the decisionmaking structure – and, in particular, owner Dick Monfort and the two key front office executives Dan O’Dowd and Bill Geivett — have migrated from fans and former players to internal sources. Yet it still seems rather unlikely that the team will undergo any kind of front office shakeup, or that the organization’s general approach will change.
Barring a major shift in front office personnel or in operating style, it is not clear what the Rockies can do to change the outlook for next year in a significant way. As things stand, the team appears stuck in a difficult middle ground – albeit one that has not gotten in the way of reliably above-average attendance figures. What are the options going forward?
On the one hand, the club has shown an utter lack of inclination to trade away any of its veterans for future resources. Despite being well out of contention this year, and having a few potential candidates (some playing on expiring contracts), Colorado did not pull the trigger on any summer deals.
Indeed, to the contrary, Monfort was said to have pulled the plug on a deal that would have sent veteran starter Jorge De La Rosa to the Orioles in exchange for a quality prospect arm in Eduardo Rodriguez. Instead of dealing the 33-year-old De La Rosa, the Rockies later inked him to a two-year, $25MM extension. To be sure, it may have been difficult for the team to convince a better arm to pitch at Coors Field for that kind of scratch, and De La Rosa has an excellent track record at altitude. But adding the promising Rodriguez and instead pursuing one of the many mid-level free agent starters (including, perhaps, De La Rosa himself) would have made for a nice alternative.
Even with De La Rosa back, contention in 2015 – while not unimaginable — would be a surprise. Colorado has few glaring holes in the lineup, but the pitching staff is coming off of a season characterized by injury and ineffectiveness.
Then, there is the payroll to consider. Player salaries are expected to land in the mid-$90MM range again, about half of which is already slated to go to De La Rosa and stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. The total guaranteed commitment lands at about $61MM, but that is before accounting for arbitration raises that could cost nearly $25MM and decisions on options the club holds over Brett Anderson and LaTroy Hawkins.
In short, the Rockies have little room for addition without first making some subtractions. But where to trim salary?
It has often been wondered whether and when the Rockies would consider dealing either of their two stars in an effort to reload. But season-ending surgeries for Tulo and CarGo make that difficult to imagine, and Monfort has sent signals that he has no such intention. Senior VP of Major League operations Bill Geivett recently shot down that idea as well: “If we’re going to win, they’re going to need to be part of it, too.”
Beyond those two cornerstones, there are any number of hypothetical possibilities to free up a little cash. Let’s take a closer look, in the context of the overall roster:
The Rockies lineup is largely in place, unless the team decides to explore some changes. Gonzalez will presumably occupy one corner outfield spot, while some combination of younger players – Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, Charlie Blackmon, and Brandon Barnes, many of whom are coming off of breakout years – can be expected to combine to make up a solid unit. Colorado reportedly has some interest in bringing back Michael Cuddyer, but that appears to be quite a luxury.
Among the outfielders, only Stubbs presents the realistic possibility of a cost-saving trade given his $5.7MM projected hit. But he is the best center field option of that group, and may not bring much in return with just one year of not-inexpensive control remaining (not to mention the fact that his big numbers last year were driven by a .440 BABIP at Coors). But his combination of power, speed, and defense could make him a reasonably marketable asset.
In the infield, the diamond appears set at three spots: short (Tulowitzki), third (Nolan Arenado), and first (Justin Morneau). Trading the veteran Morneau could deliver some savings and bolster other needs, with first base being entrusted to Wilin Rosario or prospect Kyle Parker. But that would take away one of the team’s best bats from last year, and the club seemed disinterested in shopping him at last year’s trade deadline.
The Rockies are not without options at the other infield positions, but they offer the greatest possibility for movement. At the keystone, DJ LeMahieu is a reliable defender who just has not contributed much with the stick (career 76 OPS+). Josh Rutledge offers more promise at the plate, but defensive metrics have little regard for his glove. With free agent pickings looking slim, the Rockies might be best served by dealing away one of these still-young players while pursuing a left-handed-hitting utility option – the late-blooming Rafael Ynoa is an in-house possibility — to platoon with whoever remains.
Most interesting, perhaps, is the situation at catcher. Rosario has failed to impress the team behind the dish, and took a step back offensively in 2014. He appears to be a trade candidate, though Colorado would certainly not be selling at an opportune time. And while Michael McKenry was a nice surprise last year, he seems more likely headed for a backup or platoon role. If the Rockies are to make a run at a top free agent, Russell Martin looks like an excellent fit on paper, but he figures to draw strong interest elsewhere and may be out of Colorado’s comfort zone financially.
Ultimately, the possibilities noted above could be driven by whether a pitching acquisition requires cash or a trade chip. As things stand, improving upon the team’s uninspiring group of arms is surely the priority.
In the rotation, De La Rosa will likely be joined by two players who had relative breakout years in Jordan Lyles and Tyler Matzek. That trio contains enough questions of its own, but things get even less clear thereafter. Tyler Chatwood is shelved with his second Tommy John procedure, Jhoulys Chacin looks like a lottery ticket (shoulder problems) or non-tender candidate, and Juan Nicasio is said to be slated for the bullpen. Younger arms like Jon Gray, Eddie Butler, and (to a lesser extent) Christian Bergman and Tyler Anderson offer some hope in the relatively near future. But it would be optimistic to expect too much of that group in 2015. Otherwise, the team is left with questionable depth options like Yohan Flande.
So, what can the Rockies do to bolster that group? The option over Anderson is too risky to be considered seriously: $12.5MM for a full season of a healthy Anderson is an attractive enough proposition, but the lefty has not thrown even 50 frames in a MLB campaign since 2011.
Convincing Anderson to return for a lesser amount makes theoretical sense, but runs into a major practical concern: why would he choose to take a pillow contract to throw half his innings at Coors Field? This same problem, of course, could limit Colorado’s ability to take advantage of the rest of a deep market for mid-tier starters – including some, like Justin Masterson and Brandon McCarthy, who induce ground balls at a solid clip. Even if Colorado can clear enough salary next year to afford an arm of that nature, it would likely need to make a multi-year commitment that could hamstring the organization when it is more likely to be in a position to contend.
The trade route is an alternative to free agency. One could imagine the Rockies matching up with a team like the Mets on some kind of swap of an outfielder for an arm. Rosario probably has enough upside to be an important part of a deal for a useful pitcher. To be sure, adding a reliable hurler with an attractive contract situation would presumably require the sacrifice of some significant portion of the organization’s best prospect talent. But Geivett has said that the team wants to add “impact” even if that means getting an aging hurler.
Relief pitching was every bit as problematic for Colorado last year. Two lefties remain in place — the disappointing Boone Logan and the struggling Rex Brothers – leaving the team with the option either to fiddle with that area or simply hope for improvement. Hawkins is expected to occupy the ninth inning to start the year, which at least provides a ready answer to the question of who will close. Former closer Rafael Betancourt is said to be a possible re-acquisition. And the team has options for right-handed setup men and middle relievers, including Nicasio, Adam Ottavino (who pitched well in 2014), Rule 5 pickup Tommy Kahnle, and surprising 29-year-old rookie Brooks Brown. Improving the production from the pen, then, could be as straightforward or as complicated as the team prefers. With every dollar being watched, it might make the most sense to let the market shake out and pluck a few veterans who miss out on the deals they hoped for.
The difficulty for the Rockies is, in the end, not hard to assess: the team is in position to add a piece or two, but it is more than a piece or two away from being a reliable contender. Stretching future resources to add a player like Martin, or overpaying in AAV and/or years to convince a starter to pitch in Denver, increases the risk of a prolonged malaise. From a competitive perspective, it probably makes sense to craft a strategy of exchanging veterans for future talent. But, then, that was already clear this summer.