The Rockies perpetual effort at contention came up short this year. Colorado will finish below .500 for a fourth consecutive season, and they’re likely headed for a last place finish in the NL West. With no appetite for a rebuild, they’ll make another run at competing this offseason. There are a lot of holes to fill and a sizable number of financial commitments on the books. General manager Bill Schmidt and his staff will have their work cut out for them yet again.
Additional Financial Commitments
Would owe Cardinals $5MM as part of the Nolan Arenado trade if he foregoes opt-out opportunity
Total 2023 commitments (if Blackmon exercises option and Arenado doesn’t opt out): $117.25MM
Total future commitments (if Arenado doesn’t opt out): $389.25MM
Few organizations value continuity as much as the Rockies. Even as they’re headed for a fourth straight subpar season, they’ve worked to keep the core of their roster intact. Last offseason saw a spate of extensions, with Elias Díaz, Ryan McMahon, Antonio Senzatela, C.J. Cron and, shortly after Opening Day, Kyle Freeland inked to multi-year deals. The Rox continued the pattern at the trade deadline even as it had become clear they weren’t postseason bound. Closer Daniel Bard would’ve been a slam-dunk trade candidate on most teams as he was headed towards free agency, but Colorado tacked on two years and $19MM to keep him in Denver through 2024.
The Rockies didn’t trade away anyone this summer, reinforcing their longstanding resistance to a major overhaul. It came as little surprise when general manager Bill Schmidt announced over the weekend the club had no plans to make a change atop the dugout, either. Manager Bud Black will return for a seventh season at the helm, and he’ll likely be tasked with getting better results from a roster than looks a lot like the 2022 iteration.
Colorado isn’t facing many noteworthy free agent departures. Fifth starter Chad Kuhl signed a $3MM deal last offseason after spending his career with the Pirates. That looked like a bargain after a strong first half, but he’s been crushed to the tune of an 8.42 ERA while allowing opponents to hit .318/.392/.636 since the All-Star Break. Kuhl didn’t lose any velocity, but his sinker has been hit hard in recent months. His season line is up to a career-worst 5.45 ERA with a below-average 18.1% strikeout rate over 26 starts.
The Rockies didn’t trade Kuhl this summer, ostensibly because there was mutual interest in a contract extension. Whether the team is still anxious to keep him around after his second-half performance is unclear, but they should be able to do so rather affordably if they’d like. Even if they bring Kuhl back, then adding at least another lower-cost starter in the Zach Davies mold feels like a must. Midseason signee José Ureña hasn’t pitched well and is headed back to free agency. Depth starter Ryan Feltner has an ERA pushing 6.00, while former second-round pick Peter Lambert has spent most of the season on the minor league injured list and looks like a non-tender candidate.
One can argue for the Rockies to pursue a more impactful rotation pickup than either of Kuhl or Davies. Colorado’s rotation ranks 29th in the majors in both ERA (5.29) and strikeout rate (17.1%) with a week remaining in the season. Spending half their games at Coors Field doesn’t do the Rockies’ staff any favors, but even park-adjusted metrics like ERA-minus and SIERA have been underwhelmed by the results. Six of Colorado’s seven starters have an ERA north of 5.00, while Freeland leads the club with a 4.63 mark.
In believing themselves to be contenders, the Rockies envisioned the rotation as the lifeblood of the club. They had seen varying levels of success from Germán Márquez, Freeland and Senzatela in prior seasons, and they’ve signed all three to long-term extensions. Márquez, in particular, looked like a high-quality hurler between 2018-21, but he’s had a nightmare 2022 season. Over 30 starts, he has a 5.12 ERA and has seen his strikeout (18.8%) and swinging strike (10.1%) rates fall precipitously from their above-average levels of seasons past. Márquez still throws hard and has an excellent curveball, but his slider has lost a bit of effectiveness while both his four-seam and sinking fastballs have been hit hard.
Getting Márquez back on track this offseason will be a top priority for Black and pitching coach Darryl Scott. He’s certain to get another crack in the rotation alongside Freeland. Senzatela will probably be back in the mix at some point, but he’s unlikely to be ready for Opening Day after tearing the ACL in his left knee last month. That leaves as many as three rotation spots up for grabs, at least to start the year.
The club had hoped Austin Gomber could plug one of those holes, but the key piece of the Nolan Arenado trade struggled to a 5.85 ERA through 16 starts before being moved to the bullpen in July. He’s pitched a little better as a long reliever but not dramatically so. Gomber may get another chance to compete for a rotation spot come Spring Training, but it’s hard to bank on him. Former first-rounder Ryan Rolison could get an opportunity as well, but he’s yet to make his major league debut and missed most of this season after undergoing shoulder surgery in early June.
It’s one of the thinner rotation outlooks in the majors, but the Rockies may not have a ton of room to add notable upgrades from the outside. Colorado will have roughly $112MM in player payroll committed to their 2023 roster once Charlie Blackmon exercises his $15MM player option (which is an inevitability). That’s before accounting for potential additional future payments to the Cardinals as part of the Arenado swap. As the Associated Press reported in April 2021, the Rox will owe St. Louis an additional $5MM annually through 2025 if Arenado declines to opt out of his contract at the end of the season. There’s a chance the Rockies are on the hook for around $117MM before getting to their arbitration class or considering any outside additions.
The franchise-record payroll is a hair north of $145MM, which they reached back in 2019, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. It seems likely they’ll set a new franchise mark next season. That’s particularly true if they tender an arbitration contract to Dinelson Lamet, whom they claimed off waivers from the Brewers in early August. Lamet had struggled with injuries and underperformance his past couple seasons as a Padre, but he’s pitched to a 3.00 ERA with a hefty 32.5% strikeout rate in 18 innings of relief for Colorado. The right-hander is making $4.775MM this season and would be due a salary north of $5MM in 2023 if tendered a contract.
Those payroll limitations could lead Colorado to look towards the trade market in search of more affordable starting pitching. The Rockies farm system isn’t especially robust, particularly on the pitching side, but Colorado has seen the emergence of a few lower-level position players. Colorado has four of the top 53 prospects on Baseball America’s most recent Top 100 update. Their top prospect, shortstop Ezequiel Tovar, likely isn’t going anywhere now that he’s in the majors. Corner outfielder Zac Veen, catcher Drew Romo and shortstop Adael Amador are among the better minor league talents in the sport, though, and lower level hitters like Warming Bernabel, Yanquiel Fernandez and recent first-rounder Benny Montgomery have all had solid seasons. Dealing from that group to add an arbitration-eligible or pre-arb starter to the mix isn’t out of the question.
Aside from any external pickups, Lamet could be an option to battle Rolison, Gomber and Feltner for jobs in the rotation. It may be tempting to keep Lamet in the bullpen, where he’s been successful of late. Colorado will need a few quality arms to bridge the gap to Bard in the ninth inning. Among Rockies relievers with 15+ innings, the only four with a sub-4.00 ERA this season are Bard, Lamet, Carlos Estévez and Tyler Kinley. Estévez is set to hit free agency, while Kinley underwent elbow surgery this summer and might not return before the All-Star Break.
Left-hander Lucas Gilbreath has shown an intriguing enough combination of strikeouts and grounders to warrant a spot in next year’s bullpen, but there’s opportunity here as well. Estévez’s intriguing power arsenal makes him a candidate for a multi-year deal that might price out of Colorado’s range, given the various other holes on the roster. The Rox will probably bring in a veteran middle reliever or two, likely a lower-cost type like their $4.1MM flier on Alex Colomé last winter. Colomé himself will be a free agent and seems unlikely to return after a tough year.
Just as the Rockies are committed to bounceback years from a good chunk of their starting rotation, they’ll have to hope for better from many on the position player side. No player is more integral to the lineup than Kris Bryant, of course. Signed to a seven-year, $182MM free-agent deal last offseason, Bryant only appeared in 42 games because of a host of injuries. None was more impactful than the plantar fasciitis in his right foot that ended his season. The former MVP did hit well when healthy enough to take the field (.306/.376/.475). A full season from Bryant is critical if the Rox are to have any chance of competing, as he was brought in to serve as the lineup anchor the club lost when Arenado and Trevor Story departed.
Bryant will be back in left field, where he was supposed to see the bulk of playing time this year. Right field, Blackmon’s primary home for the past few seasons, is more of a question mark. Blackmon will be back for another year on the player option, but he’s seen more action at designated hitter than in the outfield in his age-35 campaign and will undergo knee surgery next week to repair a torn meniscus. He’ll presumably continue to see a bit of right field work, but the Rockies could also look outside the organization for help.
Randal Grichuk, acquired from the Blue Jays for Raimel Tapia just before Opening Day, is under contract for one more year but didn’t play particularly well during his debut campaign with the team. He’s in the center field mix but could also play right field regularly if the Rockies wanted to give the speedy Yonathan Daza a chance in center. Daza makes a ton of contact and hits for high batting averages, but his power impact is limited enough he’s better suited for fourth outfield work. Younger players like Elehuris Montero, Michael Toglia and Sean Bouchard could play their way into DH reps if the Rockies eschew an outfield addition and are comfortable plugging Blackmon back in right field regularly. Bouchard had the least prospect hype of that trio coming through the minors, but he’s the only one who has impressed in his limited big league work this year.
If Colorado were to look to free agency, there are a few mid-tier corner outfielders from which to choose. Adam Duvall and Joey Gallo are buy-low types whose huge power would make them interesting fits in Coors Field. Tyler Naquin has hit at a slightly above-average level for the second straight season. The Padres are sure to buy out Wil Myers, who wouldn’t be especially expensive.
The infield mix looks to be the most straightforward area of the roster. Cron has tailed off in the second half after an excellent start to the year, but he’s under contract for another season and should return as the primary first baseman. Former top prospect Brendan Rodgers has been up-and-down offensively as a major leaguer, but he’ll probably get another opportunity at second base. McMahon is the best player on the infield and will be back at the hot corner, while Tovar should be ready to step in at shortstop.
Colorado signed José Iglesias as a stopgap shortstop for the 2022 season. Iglesias had a fine year but will hit free agency this winter, and Colorado figures to move on and turn things over to the 21-year-old Tovar before long. Regarded by scouts as a plus defender, Tovar skyrocketed up prospect rankings after hitting .318/.386/.545 with 13 home runs and 17 stolen bases through 295 plate appearances at Double-A Hartford. He has almost no Triple-A experience, but Colorado brought him up for his MLB debut last week.
Carrying Tovar on next season’s Opening Day roster could have the added bonus of gaining the Rockies some extra draft capital down the line if he hits the ground running. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, players with less than 60 days of service who appear among two preseason Top 100 lists at Baseball America, ESPN or MLB Pipeline can net their team a bonus amateur draft choice based on their early-career finishes in awards voting, so long as their club carries them on the MLB roster for a full service year. Tovar seems certain to qualify as a top prospect this winter, so there’s a bit of additional incentive to have him play regularly from the outset.
If the Rockies did want Tovar to get some run in Triple-A, they could sign someone like Elvis Andrus as a temporary shortstop option. When Tovar is ready for everyday reps, that player could kick to the bench and upgrade the infield depth over Garrett Hampson, who might be non-tendered this winter.
Behind the plate, the Rockies have relied upon a combination of Díaz and Brian Serven. Neither has played well enough the team should be satisfied running it back with that duo, but the Rox’s surprising decision to sign Díaz to a three-year extension last fall means he’s still due $11.5MM through 2024. Much of this winter’s free agent catching class is coming off down years, with Willson Contreras handily topping the market. It’d be a surprise to see the Rockies go to the level it’d take to bring in Contreras, unless owner Dick Monfort is prepared to shatter the organization’s previous spending levels. They could consider a run at a second-tier option like Christian Vázquez while relegating Díaz to the bench, even if doing so not long after signing the latter to an extension isn’t the outcome they had in mind. As with much of the roster, there’s room on paper for an addition, but budgetary limitations could lead the Rox to stick with an underperforming in-house option.
The Rockies are locked in to this core, and they’re clearly still of the belief the group can salvage better results. In Colorado’s defense, their visions of a Bryant-anchored lineup never got a chance to come to fruition this season. Even an MVP-caliber season from Bryant wouldn’t have gotten this team close to the postseason, but things wouldn’t have looked quite so bleak had he’d stayed healthy. Of course, Bryant’s durability (or lack thereof) was one of the primary red flags against him in free agency to begin with, and he’s now played in just 66% of his teams’ possible games dating back to 2018.
Most of the players in whom the club invested last year didn’t play up to the team’s expectations. They’ll need the bulk of that group to bounce back, since the Rockies have invested heavily enough in the roster there’s not likely to be a ton of room to supplement from the outside. Modest additions in the rotation, bullpen, outfield and behind the dish are all viable, but it’s unlikely they’ll make a splash at the top of the free agent market for a second consecutive winter. So much would need to break right it’s hard to envision the Rockies competing next season, but they’ve got little recourse but to hope for more from their top starters and last year’s big free agent addition.
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