Rockies Retain Story, Troubled Narrative

Last February, shortly after the Colorado Rockies agreed to pay Nolan Arenado $260 million to play baseball in Denver through the 2026 season, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale quoted the team’s franchise player as saying “I grew up here in this organization, so it feels like home in a way. I’ve been here since the tide has changed, and that’s a really good feeling.” The meta-story of that signing was that the Rockies had convinced Arenado that they were finally serious about building a contender around him, and it was that assurance (plus, of course, the $260 million) that convinced their generational star to sign his name on the dotted line.

We’re not even a year into that deal, and things have soured at Coors Field. The Rockies finished 2019 71-91, fourth in a soft-besides-the-Dodgers NL West, and until last week, their biggest offseason deal was signing Chris Owings to a minor-league contract. That by itself would probably be enough to alienate Arenado, but a reportedly disastrous offseason meeting between the Rockies star and GM Jeff Bridich led to a public rift that has yet to fully resolve itself. Bridich declined to answer media questions about the Arenado situation (or any other subject) at the team’s Fan Fest last week, and although Arenado worked to tamp down the public aspect of the story last week, it’s clear things aren’t over.

It’s in this context that the Rockies reportedly signed their 26-year-old shortstop Trevor Story to a two-year, $27.5 million deal last Friday, per Mark Feinsand and Jon Morosi. The deal covers Story’s two remaining arbitration years but leaves his upcoming free agency unchanged; he’ll next hit the market at 29. In that sense, the deal differs from Scott Oberg’s three-year deal-plus-an-option, signed in December, and to an even greater extent from the five-year deal they signed with German Márquez last spring (that deal bought out either one or two years of Márquez’s free agency, depending on whether the Rockies exercise a club option). In this case, Story is under no obligation to stick around.

In Story’s case, cost certainty for Colorado comes at the expense of about $2 million in 2020 salary — he had filed for arbitration at $11.5 million, with the Rockies countering at $10.75 million — but the real benefit to Colorado is in the potential 2021 savings. Story will now play that season for $13.75 million at age 28. If he reaches 5 WAR in 2020, as he has in each of the last two season, he’ll be one of only a very small handful of players to do so (only 15 players reached 5.0 WAR in both 2018 and 2019) and one of at most five sometime shortstops (Alex Bregman, Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, and Marcus Semien are the other candidates to reach this milestone).

$13.75 million for that kind of performance in 2021 — or, frankly, even the 3.9 WAR Steamer projects him for in 2020 — is a steal at twice the price. Craig Edwards estimated the price of a win in free agency at something like $9.1 million in 2020, which puts the price of a 3.9 WAR season next year at something like $35.5 million. Adjusting upwards to account for nonlinearity and the increased price of a win in 2021 makes Story’s new salary for that year look even better from the Rockies’ perspective. As for Story, he’s bought himself downside insurance against the possibility of a catastrophic injury or underperformance in the next two years and still retained the right to cash in on his upside should he enter free agency in fall 2021 on the trajectory he appears to be on right now.

And let’s be clear: It’s an impressive trajectory. Among shortstops, Story is the fastest in major league history to reach 100 home runs (by games played). He’s reached 650 plate appearances in each of his last two seasons and 550 in his last three. Even as the league-wide strikeout rate has continued to rise, Story has brought his strikeout rate — which sat in the low- to mid-30s for his first two seasons — down to the mid-20s, all while maintaining walk and contact rates around 8% and 75%, respectively. In 2019, he recorded a positive run value against every single pitch type after struggling against offspeed stuff as recently as 2017. The ridiculously deep shortstop class obscures it to some extent, but Story is an excellent all-around player — one of the top 30 or so in the game — and this deal is for less than he deserves.

But this is what baseball’s current economic system does to players. If Story was free to negotiate with other teams now, he’d be signing a deal much longer than two years (or, more likely, would have already done so). That’s what the market could bear. But because he can’t negotiate freely for another two years, and because he’s never had the big payday that’ll completely secure his financial future, he’s had to accept a deal that will almost certainly underpay him for his performance for the next two years. Signing this deal is better for Story than not signing this deal, to be sure, but worse than what he could have achieved under a less restrictive labor regime.

Which brings us back to the bad feelings discussed at the top of the piece. Story’s contract is unusual among extensions signed by shortstops with four years or less of service time in the last three years in that it does not buy out any free agent years and does lock in a relatively high AAV. Jorge Polanco, Ketel Marte, Paul DeJong, and Tim Anderson all signed for at least five years (six, for DeJong and Anderson) for a mean of about $4.6 million a year. That’s a reflection of their relatively short service times — less than 2.1 years in all cases. But even Jean Segura and Bogaerts, who both signed extensions between years four and six, signed deals of five and six years, respectively. There just isn’t an analogue for a shortstop in Story’s position signing for a relatively high AAV for no free agent years. To me, it reads like Story and the Rockies finalizing the details of the last two years of their time together.

So, as with so many things, let’s see what happens next. As Craig noted earlier this month, trading Arenado would have been a tricky proposition even without all the recent nastiness that’s emerged around the subject. Whether the Rockies choose to do so will have an awful lot to do with how this Colorado team — which seemed so promising just a few years ago, and could still be — looks after 2021, when Story will have a chance to come back to the negotiating table. For now, he’s guaranteed himself $27.5 million, which is no small feat given his limited leverage, and can come into the next two seasons without having to worry about his contract.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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2 years ago

So potentially, Story and Arenado (opt-out) could be gone at the end of 2021.

Maybe Bridich tried to get Story to sign for more years and Trevor declined, but it sure seems like having at least one of those guys solidly in the fold for the next handful of seasons would be a grand idea, especially with the Desmond contract and all the bullpen dollars coming off the books in ’21 (or ’20).

2 years ago
Reply to  BobbyJohn69

Not sure why you have downvotes. I imagine they did entertain a long-term deal but couldn’t agree. Maybe COL is happy to settle for minimal payroll after Arenado opts out and just rolling around in cash – this is increasingly how organizations are run.

2 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Didn’t check in for a bit, so never saw the down votes.

It really feels like the Rockies are betting on Arenado surveying the free agent market in the 2021 off-season as a guy on the verge of turning 31, weighing his chances as opposed to the remaining 5/165 he would have left on this deal , and opting for the latter.