Wait 'Til Next Year: Rockies still offering little reason for optimism
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series. Next up: the Colorado Rockies.
Current Record: 61–84 (.421, fifth in the NL West)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 13
What went right in 2015: A funny thing happened to the Rockies in 2015: Both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez stayed healthy, but neither managed to be terribly productive in the first half of the season. Instead, third baseman Nolan Arenado and second baseman DJ LeMahieu, both excellent fielders shy of their peak seasons, emerged as the team’s two best everyday players in the first half. LeMahieu, who turned 27 in July, took a nice step forward at the plate, increasing his power and walk rate and proving an effective base stealer. However, it was the 24-year-old Arenado’s ascension to stardom that would prove to be the high point of the season for Colorado.
Arenado’s walk and strikeout rates actually went in the wrong direction this year, but he made a huge leap in his power production. As of Wednesday, he leads the National League in home runs (39, tied with Bryce Harper) and total bases (319), and that’s not a Coors Field mirage. Arenado has hit 21 of his 39 homers on the road, slugging .530 outside of Denver. Combine that production with his solid mid-.280s batting average and elite defense, and Arenado is likely to draw some mid-ballot MVP votes this year. If he can retain that power and find a way to get on base more often in the coming seasons, he’ll be one of the game’s best players, a worthy successor to Tulowitzki as the Rockies’ centerpiece and a rival to Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado in the conversation about the game’s best third baseman.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, found his power stroke after the All-Star break and has since set a career high with 37 home runs, third best in the league behind Harper and Arenado, though his .266 average and typically underwhelming showing on the road (.236/.291/.456 with 15 home runs) undermine that performance and potentially his off-season trade value.
Which brings us to the other major event of the Rockies' season: the trade that sent Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays for Jose Reyes and three minor-league pitchers. It was a move Colorado had to make. The team was getting nowhere with Tulowitzki, who is owed $100 million over the next five years, will turn 31 in October and has been both healthy and productive in the same season just once in the last six years. Even taking on Reyes’s contract, the Rockies freed up $52 million in payroll beyond this season while adding three live arms to their farm system in Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco. Hoffman, the Jays’ top pick in the 2014 draft (ninth overall) made Baseball Prospectus' and MLB.com’s top-100 prospects lists prior to this season and has pitched well at Double A since a midseason promotion to that level. Castro is a 20-year-old fireballing reliever who has already seen major league action, and Tinoco is a 20-year-old righthanded starter who has pitched well in the Sally League since the trade. That might seem like a low return for the consensus best shortstop in baseball, but Tulowitzki’s contract and injury history made him a hard sell; the Rockies needed to cash in before his value fell any further.
What went wrong in 2015: In last year's "Wait 'Til Next Year" on the Rockies, I cited Arenado, leftfielder Corey Dickerson and starting pitchers Tyler Matzek and Jordan Lyles as “young, cost-controlled players to build around.” Arenado exceeded expectations this season, but the 26-year-old Dickerson was unable to stay healthy, missing a combined 89 games across three disabled list stints due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot and a fractured rib. Twenty-four-year-old righties Matzek and Lyles, meanwhile, combined for just 15 starts and a 4.82 ERA. Matzek lasted just four starts before control problems sent him to Triple A, where things only got worse, prompting the Rockies to send him home for a mental break at the end of June. He returned in mid-August as a reliever but has walked 10 men in 10 1/3 innings since and seems unlikely to receive a September callup. Lyles got off to a poor start, then tore a ligament in his left big toe in late May, prompting season-ending surgery.
Meanwhile, the team’s top two pitching prospects again failed to justify that billing. Eddie Butler, also 24, opened the season in the Rockies' rotation but pitched his way back to Triple A by early June and fared no better when given a second chance in late July and into August. On the season, he is 3–10 with a 5.90 ERA in the majors. With Matzek, Lyles and Butler all having gone bust, the Rockies decided to give top prospect Jon Gray a crack in August despite an underwhelming Triple A performance. He has managed just one quality start in eight turns, posting a 5.00 ERA, albeit with decent peripherals.
Elsewhere, Justin Morneau’s concussion issues returned after he dove for a ball on May 13, ultimately costing him 103 games, though, happily, he returned earlier this month. Drew Stubbs, who had a comeback season for the Rockies last year, played his way out of the majors by mid-May and, after being recalled in July, drew his release in August. Free-agent starter Kyle Kendrick was as bad as expected, going 6–12 with a 6.15 ERA to this point and missing August with shoulder inflammation. For the second straight year, the Rockies have allowed more runs (754) and posted a higher team Fielding Independent Pitching figure (4.62) than any other team in baseball.
Overall outlook: Despite finally trading Tulowitzki, the Rockies’ future looks no brighter now than it did a year ago. If anything, it looks even bleaker. Arenado may be a budding superstar, LeMahieu may be maturing into a fine player and prospect Trevor Story may be ready to take over shortstop next year. But Gonzalez will turn 30 in October, Charlie Blackmon is already 29, and Dickerson will be 27 next May without ever having qualified for a batting title.
The pitching, meanwhile, is a disaster. The team’s most valuable pitcher this year has been Jorge De La Rosa, a 34-year-old with a 4.28 ERA. Butler looks like a bust, and Gray has not impressed. Lyles didn’t look good before getting hurt, and everyone’s trying not to mention Steve Blass around Matzek. The Rockies' top pick in the 2014 draft, lefty Kyle Freeland, didn’t make his '15 debut until late July due to surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow, as well as shoulder fatigue, and has struggled in seven high A starts since returning to action. Tyler Anderson, the team’s top pick in the 2011 draft, has missed the entire season due to problems stemming from a stress fracture in his pitching elbow initially suffered in '13. It’s no wonder Colorado took whatever arms it could get from Toronto in the Tulowitzki trade, but the team didn’t land an elite prospect in the deal.
Coming off their fifth straight losing season, there’s little reason to be optimistic about the Rockies. A year ago, I wrote that they looked like a team hitting bottom without a plan for how to climb back up. A year later, with new general manager Jeff Bridich having done nothing other than trading Tulowitzki to indicate a change in direction, that remains the case.