A Primer for What's On Deck With Rockies This Off-Season
Now that the Boston Red Sox have laid claim to the world championship, and pending free agents have officially filed to test the open market, the baseball off-season has officially begun.
The game’s general managers will gather in Carlsbad, Ca., beginning on Monday, where they will have sessions discussing the state of the game, handling of arbitration cases, and a vision of what is on the horizon.
More importantly, however, when they are outside the meeting room, they will mingle, not only with their counterparts but also the plethora of agents who will be hanging around, looking to lay the groundwork for the off-season moves.
That includes Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich, who has seen the Rockies advance to the post-season in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history, but by his own admission they came up shy of expectations when they were swept by the Brewers in the NL Division Series.
“I do believe that in 2018 we had a roster and a team that was good enough to go to the World Series, but there were certain opportunities in September and October that we did not take advantage of,” Bridich said in a conference call with media members on Friday. “We have nobody to blame but ourselves to blame for that.”
So what’s on the winter agenda?
Third is First
The Rockies control Nolan Arenado for another season, although he will have the leverage of arbitration this off-season and could conceivably surpass the $23 million deal Josh Donaldson signed with the Blue Jays a year ago, which set a record for a one-year deal given to a player with arbitration eligibility.
The Rockies show no signs of being in a hurry to move Arenado, and Arenado has said he expects to be with the team next spring. Beyond that? The Rockies won’t be cheap in their bidding, but they aren’t likely to break records, either, so it could come down to whether remaining with the Rockies or getting the biggest deal possible becomes a lure for Arenado.
The Rockies did establish a model for compromise with pending free agents last spring with the signing of Charlie Blackmon to a deal that has sizable salaries in the final two years, but gives Blackmon the ability to opt out if he wants to test free agency.
“We are pretty realistic and pragmatic as an organization,” said Bridich. “We understand what could happen. We are focused on Nolan being here, with us, and competing for the plays again, competing for the NL West title like we did last year. That’s part of our short-term vision.”
Jump Start the Offense
Try this on for size. The Rockies finished the 162-game scheduled tied with the Dodgers for first-place in the NL West, and then lost a Game 163 to wind up a wild-card. They did that despite arguably the worst offense in franchise history.
Not only did they hit a franchise-worst .256 with the second lowest on-base percentage in franchise history (.322) and a .435 slugging percentage, which was the 10th lowest in the 26 years of Rockies existence, but for the first time ever the Rockies did not have a .300 hitter.
In the previous 25 years, they had 61 seasons in which a player hit .300, including five in 1996, and four each in 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2006.
“We have very talented, young players, and their level of talent is not lost on us, but being a playoff team and having those expectations. …,” said Bridich. “Hopefully these young players are improving and helping us win games int he future, but it is tough to predict now, at the beginning of free agency.”
DJ LeMahieu became a free agent last week. The Rockies do have in-house options with prospects Garrett Hampson and possibly even Ryan McMahon, who was signed as a third baseman, has seen extensive duty at first base recently, and has played some second base.
Having those options actually allows them to wait and watch the LeMahieu situation, as opposed to a year ago when they quickly signed catcher Chris Iannetta after Jonathan Lucroy’s new agent made an initial contract proposal of five years for $60 million. Iannetta was the only other proven big-league catcher on the market, and the Rockies didn’t want to find themselves in a position come February where they had no option.
Now, they have very real options with Hampson and McMahon, and the fact Brendan Rodgers, the organization’s No. 1 prospect, is most likely less than a year away from the big leagues. So this time they can afford to stay in touch with LeMahieu, monitor the market, and make an eventual run at re-signing LeMahieu.
“His presence on the team and quiet leadership in the clubhouse, all those positive attributes we have talked about in the past are true,” said Bridich. “They have been important to us as we developed into a playoff relevant team.”
Center of Attention
|Rockies Free Agents|
|(service time) Projected Salary|
|Nolan Arenado (5.155) – $26.1MM|
|Trevor Story (3.000) – $6.4MM|
|Chad Bettis (4.096) – $3.2MM|
|Jon Gray (3.062) – $3.2MM|
|Tyler Anderson (3.065) – $2.9MM|
|Chris Rusin (4.092) – $1.7MM|
|Scott Oberg (3.063) – $1.2MM|
|Tony Wolters (2.161) – $1.1MM|
With Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra filed for free agency, Charlie Blackmon is the one established incumbent outfielder. Now, that doesn’t mean the Rockies couldn’t re-sign Gonzalez, who agreed to a $5 million base salary in the middle of spring training a year ago or even Parra, who the Rockies could have interest in, but not for the $12 million figure in the option they declined, choosing instead to pay a $1.5 million buyout.
In addition to Blackmon, the Rockies do return David Dahl, who split time between the big-leagues and Triple-A Albuquerque, but in the final months of the season showed the potential the Rockies envisioned when the Rockies selected him 10th overall in the 2012 draft. He has the tools to be the most complete player in franchise history, and the skill set to move into center field. Blackmon became a target for the metrics folks in 2018 as far as center fielders go, but has plenty of offense to move to a corner.
With the top four outfielders a year ago all left-handed hitters, the Rockies would benefit from better balance, and could have an in-house answer by moving Ian Desmond from first base back to the outfield, where he was impressive for the Rangers in 2016 and the Rockies in 2017. And they do have McMahon, who could step in at first base.
The Rockies do have intriguing outfield prospects who could be ready, but Raimel Tapia, Sam Hilliard, Mike Tauchman and Jordan Patterson are all left-handed hitters.
The Rockies would like to provide a lift to their catching corps, but that’s easier said than done. Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto became the hot topic for fans of teams in need of catching — and there are plenty of them — when his agent said Realmuto wouldn’t sign a long-term deal with the Marlins, and predicted he would not be with the team by the start of spring training.
Maybe, but Realmuto is going to carry a very high cost, particularly if he is dealt this off-season. Consider that when teams were looking for help before the trading deadline last year, the only player on the Marlins roster considered untouchable was Realmuto. Also consider that it’s not like Realmuto is expected to break the bank in arbitration — the projected salary is $6.1 million, according to Trade Rumors. What’s more, Realmuto is not a free agent in waiting. The Marlins control him for two more years, and who knows what he might decide about staying with the Marlins between now and, say, July of 2020.
Hey, Lucroy is a free agent again, and after last year, there most likely will be a more realistic expectation on his part in terms of what his market value will be.
Relief in Sight
The Rockies major move last off-season was to strengthen the late-inning bullpen situation by signing three year deals with Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw. Davis had a handful of ugly outings, but did lead the NL in saves. McGee and Shaw, however, struggled. The Rockies salvation was the fact Adam Ottavino, a free agent this off-season, rebounded from a coyote ugly 2017 to provide dominant eighth-inning work, and Scott Oberg made the anticipated emergence as a bullpen handyman.
History, however, would tell the Rockies not to panic. McGee and Shaw have enough of a track record of success the odds are they will rebound in 2019, much like Ottavino did last year. The Rockies also have a club-friendly, $2.5 million contract with trade-deadline addition Seunghwan Oh, who is expected to be in the seventh- or eighth-inning role in 2019.
In the Dugout
Manager Bud Black signed a three-year guarantee when he was hired by the Rockies, and in the first two years has taken the team to the post-season both times. He has been a good fit with the front office, and his ability to handle pitching, along with his confidence in pitching coach Steve Foster and bullpen coach Darren Holmes, has underscored that he is a good fit for the franchise.
There, however, is not an urgent deadline. There is a mutual option in the contract for 2020, which gives both sides time to work out details on a deal that could be completed before the end of spring training, if not sooner, but won’t create panic if the season opens with Black still working under terms of his current deal.
The elephant in the corner is the status of hitting coach Duane Espy and assistant hitting coach Jeff Salazar. Do they become the victims of the sub-par offensive play of the Rockies last season, or are Bridich and Black still confident the Espy/Salazar combination can help the offense rebound?