Winter Report Card: Rockies bet big on Ian Desmond in confusing off-season
- Handing a five-year, $70 million deal to Desmond was strange enough, but Colorado's inaction elsewhere is what makes its winter a true failure.
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Colorado Rockies.
75–87 (.463), third place in National League West
LHP Jorge De La Rosa*, IF Daniel Descalso*, C Nick Hundley, LHP Boone Logan*, OF Ryan Raburn*, 1B Mark Reynolds*
IF Alexi Amarista, 1B Ian Desmond, OF Chris Denorfia, LHP Mike Dunn, RHP Greg Holland
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
Ian Desmond’s bet paid off. Stuck doing a one-year stint in Texas after last winter's free-agent bid flopped, Desmond finally got the big contract he was looking for when he signed a five-year, $70 million deal with the Rockies in early December. After an awful 2015 with the Nationals (a .233/.290/.384 batting line, an 82 OPS+, 27 errors at shortstop and a WAR of just 2.0), Desmond rebounded with the Rangers, posting numbers similar to his career bests. Take these two years of Desmond’s career:
Season A: .292/.335/.511, 25 HR, 73 RBIs, 21 SB, 33 2B
Season B: .285/.335/.446, 22 HR, 86 RBIs, 21 SB, 29 2B
Season A is 2012, when Desmond made the All-Star game and finished 16th in the MVP voting. Season B is 2016, his lone year in Texas. His strong year earned him All-Star honors once again, and all of that came in his first year playing centerfield. Interestingly, though, with Colorado, Desmond is slated for another position he's never before played: first base. His ability to take to centerfield last year is a good sign that he can handle the change, though it's worth wondering why the Rockies chose to invest five years and $70 million (and give up a draft pick thanks to Desmond's qualifying offer) in a 31-year-old player whose offensive output is on the light side for first base and who fell apart in the second half last season (.237/.283/.347 after the All-Star break). It's an especially odd move given a free-agent market that offered Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo, two of the game's best power hitters and both with experience at first base. At least Desmond, whose career high in homers is 25, might see a power boost in Denver’s thin air. Assuming he sticks at first base, he joins an impressive infield featuring second baseman and last year's batting champ, DJ LeMahieu; shortstop Trevor Story, who cranked 27 home runs in just 97 games last year as a rookie before a thumb injury cut his season short; and perennial MVP candidate Nolan Arenado at third base.
Besides Desmond, the Rockies decided to work on the margins. Their other addition of note was free-agent closer Greg Holland, who was inked to a one-year deal with a vesting option for 2018. Holland was arguably the best closer in baseball in 2013 and '14, posting a sub-1.50 ERA in both seasons and striking out 193 hitters over 129 1/3 innings, but slipped in '15 (3.83 ERA, 49 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings) before undergoing Tommy John surgery that October and missing all of last season. How he'll come back from his elbow injury and procedure remains to be seen, but if he's anything close to what he was in '13 and '14, the Rockies will have gotten a steal.
As for the others: Amarista is a poor hitter (.257/.295/.271 in 150 plate appearances with San Diego last year, .230/.276/.320 in his career) but brings positional versatility off the bench, and Denorfia (who spent the back half of 2016 with the Giants' Triple A team) is a welcome righthanded bat in a lefty-heavy outfield. Dunn was signed as a middle relief option after posting a 3.40 ERA in 42 1/3 innings with the Marlins. He'll replace Logan as lefthanded depth; the 32-year-old flopped after inexplicably getting a three-year deal from Colorado in the 2013 off-season, though he was useful out of the bullpen last season (57 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings, albeit with 20 walks).
Logan isn't the only free agent the Rockies have let walk. Colorado has declined to re-sign most of its bench from last season, most notably Reynolds (.282/.356/.450 but just 14 home runs despite playing at Coors Field), Raburn (.220/.309/.404), and Descalso (.264/.349/.424). All remain unsigned as of this writing, as does Logan.
Unfinished Business: Fifth starter, bench depth
Veteran lefty De La Rosa was terrible last year (a 5.51 ERA in 134 innings) in his ninth and likely final season with Colorado, and his departure leaves an open spot in the starting five. After several high-profile–free-agent starter failures, the Rockies have embraced youth in the last couple of years, with Chad Bettis (27), former first-round picks Jon Gray (25) and Tyler Anderson (27) and Tyler Chatwood (27)—all home-grown products—atop the rotation depth chart. But the fifth spot is an open question, with fellow young arms Eddie Butler, Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez likely in the running. None of those three have much if any major league experience or success: Butler was roughed up for a 7.17 ERA in 64 innings last year; Marquez is just 21 and has all of 20 2/3 innings to his name; and Hoffman, the biggest piece of 2015's Troy Tulowitzki trade, is coming off '14 Tommy John surgery and tossed just 31 1/3 innings for Colorado last season, walking 17.
Bringing in a veteran to take the load off the youngsters and let them develop might not be a terrible idea. The rotation as a whole needs an upgrade, but there isn’t anyone on the market who could provide immediate help. The best options—Jason Hammel and Doug Fister, for example—aren’t likely to be panaceas.
On the bench, the additions of Amorista and Denorfia provide some needed depth, but there is no true first baseman should Desmond falter at his new position. The Rockies had been linked to Trumbo before he re-signed with the Orioles, as well as White Sox slugger Jose Abreu. Someone like Chris Carter, Mitch Moreland or even Reynolds would work well as a backup.
Preliminary Grade: D+
Desmond was the big-ticket signing, but it’s not clear if he qualifies as a big ticket. He is, at best, a good hitter with positional versatility, and while he should benefit from playing at Coors Field, he is not a superstar. The Rockies remain far behind both the Dodgers and Giants in the division, but adding Desmond and Holland doesn't seem to be enough to make up last year’s 16-game deficit. On the plus side, the Rockies possess a fine infield quartet, and the outfield—Charlie Blackmon, David Dahl and Carlos Gonzalez—is young and talented. But, as always, Colorado's pitching remains a problem. Last year's Rockies had a 4.91 ERA, fourth-worst in baseball, but the front office more or less avoided making any moves to bolster the rotation, and Holland is too much of an unknown to move the needle in the bullpen. Once again, the Rockies are likely to be consigned to that contradictory status: great offense, terrible pitching.