Rockies Ignite Hot Stove Early, Sign Senzatela and Cron to New Deals

A few hours before Tuesday’s Red Sox-Yankees Wild Card tilt, the Colorado Rockies announced that they had agreed to two new contracts, getting baseball’s offseason started just a little bit early. First, the club and right-handed starter Antonio Senzatela came to terms on a five-year contract extension, one that guarantees him $50.5 million and includes a $14 million club option for 2027. The team also agreed to bring back first baseman C.J. Cron on a two-year, $14.5 million deal.

Though both contracts were announced on the same day, they accomplish different goals. Senzatela, for one, was not a free agent until after the 2023 season; the new contract buys out his two remaining arbitration years at $7.25 million apiece, while valuing the three free agent seasons that would have come after at $12 million each. Cron’s contract, on the other hand, can be considered an extension in name only (since players are under contract until five days following the World Series), as he was set to hit the open market in just a few weeks. Interestingly — though it’s almost certainly just a coincidence — Cron’s contract will also pay him exactly $7.25 million in each of the next two seasons.

Also notably, the two deals represent the first moves made by the team’s new permanent general manager, Bill Schmidt, who officially shed the interim title on Saturday. He had been serving in the role since May 3, following Jeff Bridich’s late-April resignation. Prior to assuming the interim role, Schmidt had led the Rockies’ scouting department, a position he had held since 1999.

As the higher-value of the two extensions, it makes sense to turn to Senzatela first. He’s been in the Rockies organization since 2011, when he signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela. Debuting four years later, he has since turned himself into one of the more reliable members of the Rockies’ rotation, tossing 579.2 innings over the last five seasons, the fourth-highest total among all Colorado pitchers in that stretch. He is not a strikeout guy by any means, with a career rate below 16%, but a very solid groundball rate aids in his success while pitching at Coors Field. All told, he has a 4.84 ERA and a 4.42 FIP over his career to date, both figures that put him at right around league average after adjusting for ballpark (99 ERA-, 97 FIP-).

In 2021, Senzatela pitched better than he had in years past, posting 3.5 WAR over his 156.2 innings. Somehow, he avoided the long ball, which could raise some eyebrows in predicting his future performance: Senzatela’s 8.7% home run-per-fly ball rate was the 17th-lowest single-season mark by a Rockies pitcher to log at least 100 innings (total of 84) since 2002, the first year our database includes such information. Here’s what happened to the seven Rockies pitchers who posted a lower home run-per-fly ball rate than Senzatela did in 2021 and threw 100 innings for Colorado the subsequent year:

Low HR/FB%, Rockies Pitchers
Name Season HR/FB% Next Yr HR/FB% Difference
Ubaldo Jiménez 2010 5.1% 8.9% 3.8%
Ubaldo Jiménez 2008 6.9% 7.8% 0.9%
Aaron Cook 2008 7.6% 14.2% 6.6%
Jorge De La Rosa 2013 7.7% 12.9% 5.2%
Ubaldo Jiménez 2009 7.8% 5.1% -2.7%
Jeff Francis 2006 7.9% 10.0% 2.1%
Kyle Freeland 2018 8.5% 21.7% 13.2%

Six of the seven pitchers here experienced an increase in home run-per-fly ball rate, with an average of a 4.2 percentage point jump. Senzatela’s figure is likely to go up, though hopefully for his sake, it won’t balloon to where it was in 2019, when it nearly hit 20%. (He posted a 6.71 ERA in 124.2 innings that season.) In fairness to him, though, Senzatela may be able to withstand an increase in his home run-per-fly ball rate with better BABIP luck and a higher strand rate. His BABIP this season was 24 points above his career average coming into this year, even with the team’s really good defense. His stand rate, meanwhile, was 2.5 points below his prior career mark. Improvements there could counteract a small increase in home runs allowed.

Here is what ZiPS projects Senzatela to do over the life of the new deal:

ZiPS Projection – Antonio Senzatela
Year W L S ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2022 9 7 0 4.64 28 27 147.3 168 76 17 40 104 111 2.3
2023 8 6 0 4.59 26 25 137.3 155 70 15 37 95 112 2.2
2024 8 6 0 4.58 25 24 131.7 148 67 15 35 92 112 2.1
2025 7 5 0 4.57 23 22 122.0 137 62 14 33 85 112 2.0
2026 7 5 0 4.63 22 21 114.7 128 59 13 31 81 111 1.8

That’s a total of more than 10 WAR, making this contract seem solid for the Rockies in a value vs. performance vacuum. And that doesn’t even consider the fact that finding a replacement for a mid-rotation arm like Senzatela is likely more difficult given how difficult it might be to lure free agents to Coors. The fact that they have locked down a roughly-average arm at this rate isn’t bad, but it does raise some same questions regarding the team’s direction and whether they think they can really contend in the next couple of years, given a loaded NL West with the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres likely all contending in 2022.

That brings us to Cron, who joined the Rockies last offseason on a minor-league contract and hit his way into a nice payday. Always a solid hitter — he now has a career 113 wRC+ over more than 3,000 major-league plate appearances — Cron played in just 13 games with the Tigers in the shortened 2020 season before needing knee surgery that knocked him out for the year. He found a home in Colorado and made the most of his opportunity, slashing .281/.375/.530 with 28 home runs and a 127 wRC+ over 547 plate appearances. Overall, he was worth 2.3 WAR, not bad for a guy who joined the organization on a minor league deal.

You’d be forgiven for wondering what’s next for Cron. He’s not a great defender, and though the National League could (and very well may) get the designated hitter in this offseason’s CBA negotiations, he’s probably not a good enough hitter to be an everyday starter there. It’s worth noting that he did hit above the league-average production for AL designated hitters (110 wRC+), but among the 11 players to get at least 500 plate appearances at DH this season, his 2021 wRC+ would rank in the middle of the pack, while his career 113 wRC+ would rank closer to the bottom. No matter where he plays, Cron is probably a true-talent 2 WAR player at this point, which is totally acceptable in the context of the $14.5 million contract value.

ZiPS projects him to be worth 3.5 WAR over the next two years combined:

ZiPS Projection – C.J. Cron
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .273 .355 .537 436 63 119 26 1 29 86 45 1 118 1 2.0
2023 .270 .349 .511 407 56 110 24 1 24 76 40 1 111 1 1.5

While both contracts seem fair in a vacuum, Senzatela’s deal in particular raises questions regarding timing. Why did the Rockies feel the need to make this deal now? While it seems fine for a league-average starting pitcher, he was already going to be under contract through the 2023 season, and could ultimately regress rather than continue to improve; projections are just point estimates, after all. Cron makes more sense, given that he provided a legitimate spark this season and could be traded at next year’s trade deadline, especially if he continues to hit like he did in 2021. But after not trading Trevor Story (or Cron himself) at this year’s deadline, who’s to say what could happen next year. And though it’s certainly fun to see teams try to win (if we can even view these moves as such), it’s still hard to view the Rockies as a legitimate contender in the short-term, with the aforementioned NL West race likely to remain competitive and full of talent for years to come, and with Story likely signing somewhere else.

Though both deals may make sense from a projections standpoint, it still remains unclear what exactly the Rockies are planning to do in 2022 and beyond. Perhaps we will receive more clarity on some of those questions over the course of the real Hot Stove season. Until then, it’s back to keeping our attention on October baseball.





Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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Dick Monfort
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Dick Monfort

Here’s the clarity. We’re spending money to get back to our playoff caliber form of 2018. We’ll be resigning Gray and Story, McMahon replaces Arenando’s power, and Bard is a top closer. Adding Cron is a plus from 2018, and if we can get Gonzo and Desmond to give us a home team discount to sign them, we can make a run at a big name pitcher to put us over the top.

#RoxOnTheWayUp

Kevbot034
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Kevbot034

The Rockies are totally incomplete without Desmond! I wonder what position he’ll learn for the 22 season?