Winter Report Card: Rockies' off-season focused on 2017 and beyond
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Colorado Rockies.
64–98 (.420), fifth place in National League West (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
When you’re a rebuilding team that leads the NL in scoring but is still outscored by 107 runs and ranks last in both starter and reliever ERA, it's not a bad idea to clean house—at least if you're opposed to setting said domicile on fire and collecting the insurance money. To be fair, the Rockies do have promising young pitchers still trying to find their footing at the major league level; in Eddie Butler, Jon Gray, Jordan Lyles and Tyler Chatwood, Colorado has a group that's battled injuries and the steep learning curve that comes with pitching at altitude. Thus there's no reason to fret over the loss of Kyle Kendrick (6.52 ERA in 27 starts in 2015, now with Atlanta) or middle relievers such as Tommy Kahnle (traded to the White Sox for minor-league righty Yency Almonte) and Brooks Brown (lost on waivers to the Dodgers).
There's slightly more to lament with the departures of relievers John Axford (25 saves and a 4.20 ERA) and Rex Brothers (19 saves and a 1.74 ERA in 2013 but just 10 1/3 innings last year due to control issues). They at least had figured out how to survive Coors Field, and they were hardly expensive. Axford, who made $2.6 million last year and was arbitration eligible yet again, signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Athletics. Brothers, meanwhile, was traded to the Cubs for 18-year-old lefty Wander Cabrera, who spent last year in the Dominican Summer League; call that a lottery ticket.
That Axford and Brothers been replaced by Jason Motte and Chad Qualls—signed to two-year deals of $10 million and $6 million, respectively—amounts to not only shuffling the deck chairs but nailing them in place while heading into a typhoon. The 34-year-old Motte pitched to a 3.91 ERA with just 6.3 strikeouts per nine in 48 1/3 innings for the Cubs in a season that ended due to a late August shoulder strain; even before that, his velocity was still a couple clicks off where it was before 2013 Tommy John surgery. The 37-year-old Qualls posted a 4.38 ERA with 8.4 strikeouts per nine—his highest since 2008—in 49 1/3 innings with the Astros, but despite a typical 59% ground-ball rate, he struggled to keep the ball in the park, yielding an all-too-typical 1.1 homers per nine. What kind of general manager goes shopping for grizzled closer options, sees that pair still on the racks and goes, "Two years! For both!"? Jeff Bridich, that's who.
Thankfully, Bridich's moves to date with regards to position players make more sense. While Morneau, who snuck in a batting title in 2014, hit .310/.363/.458 last year, he was limited to 49 games due to a cervical neck strain and yet another concussion. That the team declined its end of a $9 million mutual option was sensible, but here's hoping the 34-year-old first baseman lands on his feet, whether it's to continue his career—a return apparently isn't out of the question—or to let his battered brain and body heal in retirement. Whether he returns or fellow lefty Ben Paulsen, who emerged in his absence, continues to man first, righty-swinging Mark Reynolds, who was signed to a one-year, $2.6 million deal, makes a certain sense as a platoon partner. Reynolds hit just .230/.315/.398 with 13 homers in far too much exposure (432 plate appearances) with the Cardinals, but limited to lefty mashing, he might hit a few tape-measure shots in that thin air—at least, when he's not moving larger volumes of it with his notorious swings and misses.
Production-wise and for sheer entertainment value, Reynolds is a modest upgrade on Wilin Rosario, who hit just .268/.295/.416 after transitioning from catcher to first base, where his defense was every bit as dreadful en route to -1.3 WAR. That said, Reynolds was 0.6 wins below replacement in 2015 and has netted just 1.0 WAR over the past six seasons, so you can tamp down those expectations. Rosario, like backup catcher Michael McKenry, refused assignment to Triple A after being outrighted off the 40-man roster; McKenry ended up in Texas.
The Rockies' biggest move of the winter came down earlier this week via the signing of Gerardo Parra to a three-year, $27.5 million deal that includes a $12 million option and $1.5 million buyout for 2019. The 28-year-old rightfielder (29 on May 6) has been rather inconsistent with the bat, though his .291/.328/.452 with 14 homers and 14 steals en route to a 110 OPS+ was his best showing since 2011. His defensive value has been way down since his off-the-charts 2013 (+41 DRS that year, compared to -10 in '15), but he gets a pass for enduring a shifting cast of ballparks and outfield neighbors after being traded from Arizona to Milwaukee to Baltimore on the last two trade deadlines. He's relatively inexpensive, and his presence allows Bridich to trade another outfielder, more on which below.
Unfinished Business: Unloading Carlos Gonzalez
With the signing of Parra, there simply isn't going to be a better time for Colorado to deal Gonzalez. The 30-year-old CarGo—a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner—rebounded from a dismal, injury-plagued 2014 to set career highs with 153 games and 40 homers last season, batting .271/.325/.540. He's owed $37 million over the next two years—chump change relative to the top-line free agents still available—and should bring back a useful part or two, assuming the Rockies aren't just trying to dump his salary. The Orioles, Cardinals, White Sox and Angels are among the teams showing interest; Baltimore has been unwilling to part with Kevin Gausman, but from the Rockies' standpoint, prying away someone with that kind of upside is the right idea.
If the Rockies can't find a fit for Gonzalez at this juncture, they could deal him in July and instead part with either Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson, a pair for whom club control is a considerable selling point. Blackmon, who hit .287/.347/.450 with 17 homers and 43 steals en route to 2.4 WAR in his age-28 season, is arbitration eligible for the first time. Dickerson, who hit .304/.333/.536 with 10 homers but played in just 65 games due to plantar fasciitis and broken ribs, is 26 and still a year away from arbitration eligibility.
As for cargo the Rockies can't unload, the team is still awaiting word on whether Jose Reyes will be disciplined in connection with a November arrest in Hawaii on domestic abuse charges. He did plead not guilty and is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Jan. 14, so it’s unclear when his legal status will be resolved. With regards to his standing in the eyes of MLB’s new policy, a decision is expected no later than March 1, though the combination of Reyes’s questionable status, poor 2015 and the $48 million remaining on his deal through next season suggests that if Colorado wants to salvage some on-field value out of him, it will have to hold onto him for a while.
Preliminary Grade: C-
With the July trade of Troy Tulowitzki, the Rockies have explicitly shifted into a long-overdue rebuild. They haven't done anything particularly impressive this winter, but between trimming the roster's deadwood and making relatively inexpensive additions, they haven't done anything that should impede them, either. Moving Gonzalez—likely after some combination of Justin Upton, Chris Davis and Yoenis Cespedes find homes—should yield a solid return, but this team isn't going to be pretty to watch in 2016.