About this time last year — Oct. 1 to be precise — owner Dick Monfort talked in glowing terms about the Rockies’ future, despite the fact that the team was coming off a 71-91 season.
“When some teams don’t play good over a long period of time, they choose to do a (rebuild), but our goal is to play better and to win,” Monfort said. “I also hear — what is the phrase? ‘You have a window of time’ — I think we have a huge window of time.”
A year later, that window has slammed shut after the Rockies exhibited multiple issues during a disappointing 2020 season, which comes to an end Sunday at Arizona.
The Rockies (25-33 entering Saturday) failed to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season — a reality made harsher by the fact the postseason was expanded to include eight of 15 National League teams in this strange, 60-game season cut short by COVID-19.
“Eight teams make the playoffs and if we’re not one of those eight teams that’s not a very good sign,” star third baseman Nolan Arenado said before his season was ended last week by a lingering left shoulder injury.
The fact that the Rockies opened the season with an 11-3 record only to dramatically plummet out of contention adds salt to the wound. Their .431 winning percentage is worse than last season’s .438.
Monfort, general manager Jeff Bridich and manager Bud Black all insisted the pieces were in place for the Rockies to be a contender in 2020. Clearly, they miscalculated.
The offense needs an upgrade. Despite playing at hitter-friendly Coors Field, where Colorado finished 12-18, the Rockies posted an OPS of .715 entering Saturday, ranking 18th in the majors. With runners in scoring position, they hit .245, tied for the worst in history with the 2011 club. Colorado’s 61 home runs ranked 22rd in the majors, while its .312 on-base percentage was 24th and the worst in franchise history.
The bullpen was a disaster, with a 6.81 ERA and .300 batting average against, both of which ranked second-worst in the majors.
Despite relatively solid seasons from its top-three starters — Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and German Marquez — lack of depth in the rotation hurt the team, especially when right-hander Jon Gray slumped and was placed on the injured list Sept. 4 with a strained shoulder.
Still, the rotation’s 4.80 ERA (20th best) and 311 innings pitched (third-most) shows a bit of promise. But the question must be asked: is the team squandering the best years of Freeland, Márquez and Senzatela, all of whom are young, affordable starters?
So, where do the Rockies go from here? It’s a difficult question to answer because the pandemic has changed the financial landscape of the game. “Rebuild” is not in the team’s vocabulary or philosophy, but change is needed, especially with the Dodgers winning their eighth consecutive NL West title and San Diego’s aggressive moves turning it into a powerhouse.
The elephant in the front office remains Arenado, who signed an eight-year, $260-million contract prior to the 2019 season, but can opt out of the deal after the 2021 season. An ugly rift with Bridich had made the third baseman’s departure seem likely.
But the situation is muddier now. The Rockies, and most other teams, won’t have a lot of money to spend this offseason. Arenado will make $35 million in 2021, and that’s a hefty salary for any team to pick up. Plus, he’s owed $161 million from 2022-26, so it’s difficult to see him opting out and leaving that kind of money on the table.
Keep in mind Arenado’s 2020 season was a huge disappointment. He tried to play through shoulder pain and the result was a .738 OPS, far below his career .890 OPS. He hit only eight homers in 182 at-bats. Usually, one of the best clutch hitters in the game, his average with runners in scoring position was .175, way down from his career average (.323) in such situations.
According to FanGraphs, Arenado’s average exit velocity of 87.8 mph was his lowest mark of the Statcast era (since 2015) and 1.6 mph below last year’s mark.
According to a number of agents, the Rockies’ most-coveted position player in a trade could well be star shortstop Trevor Story. He’s owed $17.5 million next season and is scheduled to become a free agent after 2021. Monfort has previously said he would like to sign Story to a long-term deal, but the financial reality and the need to add impactful players could change that.
Monfort doesn’t like to trade fan favorites such as Story, but he’s signed off on it before, most notably in November 2008 when the Rockies, unable to come to contract terms with outfielder Matt Holliday, shipped the all-star slugger to Oakland for closer Huston Street, left-handed starter Greg Smith and an uber-talented 23-year-old outfielder named Carlos Gonzalez.
Colorado’s other big contract on the books is outfielder Charlie Blackmon, who’ll make $21 million in 2021. That means the Rockies have committed $74.5 million next season to their three biggest stars — Blackmon, Arenado and Story.
The Rockies, however, will be rid of the big money-contracts paid to three relievers no longer with the team — Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee — who collectively signed three-year deals worth $106 million prior to the 2018 season.
But other questionable contracts still linger. Outfielder Ian Desmond, who opted out of this season because of the pandemic, will be owed $8 million in 2021 unless he decides to retire. Underperforming first baseman Daniel Murphy, who lost his job to up-and-coming rookie Josh Fuentes, made $8 million this season. Even though he won’t be with the team next season, Murphy is owed a $6 million buyout.
Plus, several other key players — including starting pitchers Freeland, Senzatela and Gray, reliever Carlos Estevez, outfielders David Dahl and Raimel Tapia, and second baseman Ryan McMahon — are due raises through arbitration.
The Rockies do have a new television deal with AT&T SportsNet that will add more money to the coffers, but the question is whether that will offset money lost to a season played without fans during the pandemic.
The Rockies, of course, always need pitching, but given their lack of power at the plate, acquiring a slugger would seem to be a top priority, especially given the struggles of McMahon and Dahl (who’s battling a shoulder injury) and the power that never came from the soon-to-be-departed Murphy.
Black, however, isn’t sure a home run hitter is the team’s top priority.
“Power is great. Love power, love the ball going out of the ballpark,” he said. “But I think it’s about scoring runs. That’s the thing that stands out to me. We have to do a better job of getting on base.
“The big culprit this year has been our average with runners in scoring position. When we have runners on, it’s been our inability to get that one big hit to change the complexion of the game. So that’s something that has to change for next year.”
Whether or not Colorado has the money or desire to dramatically reshape 2021 remains to be seen. History says it’s unlikely.
Since Bridich assumed command after the 2014 season, the Rockies have signed only eight free agents to guarantees worth $10 million or more. Most of those deals did not significantly improve the Rockies:
- In the 2015-16 offseason, they signed outfielder Gerardo Parra for three years at $27.5 million and reliever Jason Motte for two years, $10 million. Parra was reasonably productive and a positive presence in the clubhouse. Motte, rarely healthy, was a bust.
- The next year, Bridich signed Desmond for five years, $70 million. That move did not pay off. They also signed lefty reliever Mike Dunn for three years, $19 million. Injuries limited Dunn to just under 35 combined innings over his final two seasons.
- The 2017-18 offseason produced the disappointing bullpen trio of Davis, Shaw and McGee.
- The lone big-money move of 2018-19 was signing Murphy to a two-year, $24 contract — which came after not attempting to re-sign all-star second baseman DJ LeMahieu, who inked a two-year, $24 million deal with the Yankees, for whom he’s become one of the American League’s best players.
- Last offseason, Colorado signed only one major league free agent, right-hander Jose Mujica, for $563,000.
Last year at this time, Bridich said he was comfortable with the basic makeup of his team.
“A lot of times, the easy thing is to say, ‘Let’s just move on, get rid (of players), get new faces in here and sweep in changes,’” he said. “But that’s not realistic for us. That’s not who we are. And sometimes the patience pays off.”
It didn’t pay off in the truncated 2020 season. Whether or not the Rockies follow that same patient blueprint in 2021 remains to be seen.