The Colorado Rockies waited eight years to make the playoffs but found themselves heading home after losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2017 National League Wild Card game. While not moving further on was deemed unfortunate, a lot went right for the club in 2017.
Thanks to some strong drafts and player development, the Rockies competed in a very tough NL Western Division. The club finished third with 87 wins, behind the 93-win Diamondbacks and eventual pennant-winning Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a matter for unlucky timing for the Rockies to find themselves competing again with Dodgers and Diamondbacks enjoying strong seasons.
The Rockies offense, in typical fashion, finished third in runs scored, but when you adjust for context, they had the fourth worst wRC+(87) among all offenses. Nolan Arenado (5.6 fWAR, 129 wRC+) and Charlie Blackmon (6.5 fWAR, 141 wRC+), both home-grown stars, led the way again and both finished top five in MVP voting. Those two were the only high-end offensive performers as DJ LeMahieu had a down year (1.8 fWAR, 93 wRC+) and Trevor Story endured a sophomore slump (1.3 fWAR, .307 OBP, 81 wRC+).
The pitching staff, however, had a very strong season. The group finished seventh in fWAR and their 4.51 ERA ranked 16th in baseball, an impressive feat for a team that plays half of their games at Coors Field. Jon Gray led the Rockies pitchers with a sparkling 3.67 ERA and 3.2 fWAR in just 110 innings, further establishing himself as a frontline starter. German Marquez (2.4 fWAR) and Kyle Freeland (2.0 fWAR) both tossed quality innings, while Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Anderson, and Jeff Hoffman provided decent back-end innings. Greg Holland, Chris Rusin, Jake McGee, and mid-season acquisition Pat Neshek were a very effective group out of the bullpen, helping lead the unit to the sixth best bullpen WAR.
Here’s the Rockies problem: the Dodgers aren’t going anywhere, Arizona has a solid group, and the Giants will surely bounce back to competitiveness in 2018. Adding to the fire, Blackmon and LeMahieu are free agents after 2018, Arenado can leave after 2019, and the team lost three key relievers to free agency this year (Holland, McGee, and Neshek). The Rockies quality farm system (including prospects Brendan Rodgers and Ryan McMahon) gives the organization some options, but the team will need to lock some of these players up to keep up in a highly competitive division.
1. Get Arenado a long-term deal
Arenado is a franchise icon for the Rockies and one of the most talented players in baseball. After coming through the minors as a glove-first, bat-second type of player, Arenado has continued to dazzle with the glove but has also turned himself into one of the better hitters in baseball. Over the last three years, Arenado has hit .297/.353/.577 and ranks 29th with a 125 wRC+ over that timeframe. He’s a certifiable monster on both sides of the ball and will be asking for a big contract when 2019 ends.
The concern for Colorado is the biggest deal they’ve ever handed out was a 10-year, $157.75 million deal to Troy Tulowitzki and Arenado will easily surpass that total. Revenue is up in baseball and with skyrocketing prices, Colorado could be willing to pay up, but Arenado should easily surpass $200 million. Given that next year will only be his age 27 season, there are still plenty of good seasons left in this profile and if the Rockies are unable to lock him up, it’ll be a detrimental blow to the organization.
If the Rockies are smart, they’ll approach Arenado soon and offer him a deal he can’t pass up, one that buys out his two remaining years of arbitration and keeps him in Colorado for the next decade.
2. Find room for Brendan Rodgers and Ryan McMahon on the roster at some point in 2018
With so much potential roster turnover coming in the next few years, the Rockies have some nice fallback options in Rodgers and McMahon. Rodgers hit .336/.373/.567 with 18 home runs in High-A Ball and Double-A in 2017 and ranked seventh on Baseball America’s Midseason Top 100 Prospects List. McMahon doesn’t have quite the same impact profile, but he slashed .355/.403/.583 in the minors in 2017 and had a cup of coffee with the big league club. He ranked 91st on Baseball America’s Midseason Prospect List.
In the event that Arenado and LeMahieu leave in free agency in the next few seasons, having two youngsters in Rodgers and McMahon helps. McMahon may warrant a spot out of spring training next year, potentially filling in at first base, and Rodgers will likely be ready at some point in 2018. Getting these two some time in 2018 will give the Rockies a better idea of what type of talent they have and how they can approach their roster moving forward.
A potential Arenado-Story-Rodgers-McMahon infield in 2019 could be a tremendous group that could stick around for a long time if Arenado is signed long-term. Colorado could supplement this infield with a plethora of young starting pitchers, headed by Gray, and possibly have a young, controllable team that competes for the next half-decade.
3. Work out deals for Blackmon and LeMahieu, or move them via trade
Blackmon hit .331/.399/.601, finished ninth in fWAR (6.5), and was a top five MVP finalist in 2017. LeMahieu has hit .319/.383/.430 over the past three seasons and provides quality defense on a yearly basis. These two players are scheduled to be free agents after the 2018 season. At the end of the season, Blackmon will be 32 and LeMahieu will be 30.
If these two aren’t in the plans for the future, and the team finds themselves not contending in the middle of next season, the Rockies will have some decisions to make. LeMahieu is more easily replaceable with the aforementioned Rodgers, but there isn’t a clear replacement for Blackmon.
With Carlos Gonzalez hitting free agency this year, Blackmon will be accompanied in the outfield by Gerardo Parra, Ian Desmond, David Dahl, and Raimel Tapia. The latter two are potential everyday outfielders for the future, but Desmond and Parra look like role players as they enter their 30’s. If Blackmon has another strong season, he could price himself out of the Rockies range and create a gaping hole in the outfield moving forward.
With Blackmon and LeMahieu entering their 30’s, letting them leave isn’t necessarily the worst idea, but they’ll still have to replace their production. If both players can fetch good returns next summer, perhaps the club can obtain more young talent to supplement a potentially great infield and solid core of young pitchers moving forward.
4. See continued growth from their young starters
Pitching in Colorado is akin to trying to throw against MLB hitters in Williamsport. The thin altitude in Colorado has made it borderline impossible for the club to develop pitchers, but they my be onto something. Gray has blossomed into a frontline starter, but he has some help behind him in pitchers like Anderson, Marquez, Hoffman, Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, and Chad Bettis.
For the first time in club history, the pitching may be a bright spot at some point in the future, but there needs to be some development in 2018. All of those pitchers have had some degree of success in the majors but if a few of them can join Gray as reliable arms, there could be something brewing in Colorado (and we’re not talking about the Coors beer). There are also a handful of interesting arms in the minors (Riley Pint, Peter Lambert, Ryan Castellani, and Yency Almonte) who could be ready in the next few years, adding to the young collection of arms.
5. Rebuild the bullpen
As mentioned in the intro, the Rockies have to replace three key members from the 2017 bullpen. Holland and Neshek were high-leverage right-handed options and McGee was a very solid left-handed option. The club has already shown signs of replacing some of these arms, namely replacing Holland’s closer role. The club is actively pursuing a closer, including arms such as Wade Davis and Zach Britton.
Adding one legitimate arm to the bullpen will surely help as Rusin (2.65 ERA, 1.1 fWAR) is the only other reliable reliever in the projected 2018 bullpen. Mike Dunn (4.47 ERA, 0.2 fWAR) was mediocre in the first year of a three-year deal, and Adam Ottavino‘s command fell apart (16.1 BB%). The Rockies have the luxury of having some excess starters, so they could slide an arm or two into the bullpen. Senzatela had some success out of the bullpen in 2017 and Hoffman could succeed with his high-octane stuff.
The volatile nature of bullpens means the Rockies could have just as good of a bullpen in 2018 but they’ll need some good luck. With Coors Field playing home to half of their games, it becomes that much tougher to try to rebuild a bullpen. Manager Bud Black did a fine job handling his group in 2017 but he’ll have a much tougher task next season.