The Rockies front office has no doubt done little to improve the team so far this offseason. The question is could they? Have they ignored opportunities to improve the team? I do not believe they have; and this offseason shows the unique challenge the Rockies franchise faces.
Yes the Rockies need pitching. But what free agent pitcher are they missing out on? The Rockies are in the miserable position of being at a huge handicap in signing free agent pitchers. Even if the Rockies were willing to put up significant long term money for a pitcher the price would be steeper for the Rockies. Consider the top free agent starting pitchers in play for more than one year deals according to Jeff Passan’s free agent tracker: Obviously Grienke money is out of the picture. The Rockies making a serious play for Anibal Sanchez? His $80 million payday probably has to go closer to $85 or $90 million for the Rockies to sign him. Edwin Jackson? Would take 4 years $55-60 million dollars. Brandon McCarthy and Scott Baker? A SP trying to rebuild value after injury would never sign with the Rockies unless they overpaid significantly and guaranteed more years. Ryan Dempster would probably have demanded a 3rd year to sign with the Rockies, probably at about the same money so a total deal of 3 years, $40 million. Kyle Lohse may not even be a fit for Coors, and the 34 year old will probably be looking for 3 years, $35 million this offseason, so make that 3 years, $40 million for the Rockies.
Beyond this top tier of the FA list it gets awfully difficult to find pitchers who can pitch effectively in the big leagues for the next 2-3 years. So are any of the above contracts ones you would have wanted the Rockies to give out? Are the Rockies better off with Sanchez or Jackson in the rotation? Of course. Is it worth the risk the overpay would require? I don’t know, but it is certainly a difficult quandary for the front office. The team needs pitching but if the Rockies overpay they absolutely must hit the target. Even with MLB-wide revenues increasing this franchise can’t afford an underperforming high paid starter or the dead weight of enduring that dreaded extra year the Rockies might have to offer. Obviously the Rockies have the Nagle/Hampton affair in their history in regards to hoping an overpay works. The flexibility is just not there to absorb a possible bad signing the way higher revenue teams can.
So what other options to the Rockies have? There are two. Trade for pitching or use homegrown pitching. The Rockies are smack dab in the middle of the latter plan. It is a tenuous position to be in. Of course the talent is there to dream on, but depending on young developing pitching prospects is just simply very hard. In addition those prospects then have to pitch in Coors Field for their welcome to MLB which can intimidate and change their pitching style and aggressiveness.
Trading for pitching has many of the same issues. The Rockies would want young, cost controlled pitching in a trade so the talented yet unproven prospects the team would receive have the same risks and issues as the homegrown pitchers. A small number of talented pitching prospects become average or above average starting pitchers. Given the Rockies handicap in signing free agents the team needs more pitching prospects to increase the odds of developing major league regulars. The team needs to take its risks in trading for more young pitching instead of taking risks on free agent pitchers. The Rockies can lure free agent position players for more reasonable costs, so the team’s strategy should reflect this.
Front office strategy:
- Look to turn value in position players into young cost controlled pitching
- Replace position players with free agents; both short term deals and occasionally long term if there is a fit
- Only consider extending a free agent pitching contract once the team is near contention
What this would look like right now:
- Trade Dexter Fowler. Take Julio Teheran if you can get him from the Braves or Randall Delgado plus other younger arms.
- For 2013 the team could use Carlos Gonzalez in CF. Alternatively if the odd market that has led to Michael Bourn losing a game of musical chairs results in him taking a shorter term contact (3 years) the team could replace (or improve upon) Fowler’s production while adding possible starters. Part of the money could be made up by trading away Michael Cuddyer. It comes down to me believing the team has a better chance of getting return on spending money on position players rather than starting pitchers. I believe reasonable contracts to position players in Coors have a better chance of succeeding than overpays for 2nd tier starting pitchers.
- Consider trading Carlos Gonzalez. Look, you don’t like this. I don’t like this. But consider the Rockies offense without Gonzalez. It is still a competitive offense. The Rockies offense has been competitive nearly every year. The pitching has not been competitive. Offenses less impressive than the Rockies have obviously made the playoffs frequently over the last decade of baseball. The offense needs to be sacrificed to some extent to increase the competitiveness of the pitching. Cargo’s contract is team friendly and his age during the contract would deliver a huge return. Texas and Seattle are two teams that could be a fit for Cargo in this offseason. A deal with Seattle could yield 2-3 very high grade arms. A deal with Texas could bring one high grade arm (Martin Perez) and other position players (Mike Olt or Leonys Martin) that could then be turned around individually to other teams.
- Tyler Colvin could take Cargo’s spot. Or sign Cody Ross (or even Nick Swisher if you want to go big) with the money saved from trading Cargo.
This strategy is of course risky. You are taking known commodities that are producing and trading them for prospects that could flame out. But the flipside is risky as well. Hoping that the current young pitching develops while Cargo and Tulo’s contracts get more expensive could be disastrous as it could lead to overpaying free agent pitchers to try to seize on the Cargo-Tulo prime window. Restocking the pitching prospects will increase the odds that the Rockies can have a rotation of 5 average or above average pitchers. Right now the young pitchers the team is hoping on are: Drew Pomeranz, Juan Nicasio, Christian Friedrich, Chad Bettis, Tyler Matzek, Tyler Anderson, Edwar Cabrera, Tyler Chatwood, and perhaps the #3 pick in the 2013 draft. That is 9 pitchers. A few of those will get hurt. A few of those will underperform (Alex White). Hopefully a few become solid pitchers. But if that crop also had a few out of the group of Randall Delgado, Martin Perez, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, or James Paxton, I like the odds to develop a young rotation a lot better.
It is clear that the Rockies have a natural handicap in putting together a pitching staff. In the same way the Mariners or Padres would have to overpay an above average hitter, the Rockies will always have to overpay free agent pitchers. The team cannot sit by idly and hope that it hits the jackpot with pitching drafting and developing. Even the best developers of young pitching have a low success rate. The Rockies cannot hope their group of 9 yields a staff. There are a few opportunities to acquire some excellent pitching talent and the organization should begin to look to spend most of its free agent money on position players and acquire all of the young cost controlled pitching it can get its hands on.
Is it scary? Of course. Risky? Yep. But what other choice do the Rockies have?