It’s been rumored for awhile now, but over the Thanksgiving break, the intensity of rumors linking the Colorado Rockies to Justin Morneau increased. But Morneau is not going to improve the Rockies roster any, and with the team facing a budget threshold that will not allow them to spend with the big boys, signing Morneau is simply a mistake that the club can’t afford to make.
For sake of comparison, here’s a blind projection for 2014:
Player A: .279/.327/.476, .346 wOBA, 106 wRC+, 0.8 WAR in 299 PA
Player B: .258/.330/.428, .330 wOBA, 108 wRC+, 0.9 WAR in 518 PA
Morneau is Player B. Player A is … Corey Dickerson. Dickerson, who will earn the league minimum next season, is projected by Steamer to be roughly as valuable as Morneau in about 57% of the playing time. This really isn’t all that outlandish. Last season, in 213 PA, Dickerson was worth 0.5 WAR, and Morneau was worth 0.8 WAR in 635 PA. A four-time All-Star and American League Most Valuable Player Award winner, Morneau carries with him a marquee pedigree, but he no longer has the performance to back it up. Without his offense contributions to propel him, there simply isn’t much to Morneau’s game.
If you look just at Morneau’s career numbers, he seems like a pretty good defensive player. He is a +18 in DRS, and a +18.7 in UZR. But those numbers are essentially the result of two good seasons — 2005 and 2010. He has a negative UZR in six of his other nine seasons, including his last two. He has a negative DRS in four of the other nine, and a zero rating in two others. His Fans Scouting Report score has also been below average in each of the last three seasons, and in four of the past five (2010 being the lone exception). In other words, his defense is probably not a strength, and could be a hindrance.
Morneau’s baserunning, on the other hand, is most definitely a hindrance. Over the past five years, his -10.6 BsR ranks 38th-worst out of 347 qualified position players. That doesn’t sound all that terrible, but keep in mind that many of the players who rank worse than him are either officially or unofficially retired — Juan Rivera, Casey Kotchman, Ramon Hernandez, Vladimir Guerrero, Jorge Posada, Jim Thome, Todd Helton and Carlos Lee all find themselves with a worse mark than Morneau. In reality, Morneau is likely one of the worst 30 baserunners in the game today.
Dickerson is not nearly that bad. He had some stolen base follies last season, but in his speed score throughout his pro career has dwarfed Morneau’s, and in his small sample last year Dickerson also had a positive UBR. And since he’s also slated to be a better hitter and fielder, why wouldn’t he be the pick to click?
Of course, Dickerson isn’t a first baseman, so it’s not as easy as just slotting him in at first base. But it is just as easy as moving Michael Cuddyer to first base, and letting Dickerson patrol right field. Last season, Cuddyer’s UZR in right field was the sixth-worst UZR of any qualified position player in the game, and during the UZR era (2002-present), Cuddyer’s -41.4 outfield UZR is 19th-worst overall. Simply put, Cuddyer is not a good outfielder. He might not be a good first baseman either, but the threshold for acceptability is a lot more flexible at first base. This is particularly true at Coors Field, where the outfield dimensions are quite generous, even in right field.
So, who else could the Rockies sign? Doing some back of the envelope math, and counting in the payroll upgrades that Monfort is on record as saying that he would make, the team probably has room for two good signings. That’s why avoiding making a mistake with Morneau so important. But there are spots where the team can upgrade.
The team has made catcher defense a priority this offseason. Supposedly still displeased with Wilin Rosario’s performance, they have been looking for another catcher. They were in on the bidding for both Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz, and while they didn’t land either backstop, there is one more player on the market who would fit well — Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Salty and Rosario would be a pretty nice platoon, as they have disparate splits — Salty hits well against righties, and Rosario hits his best against lefties. It wouldn’t need to be a true platoon, as Rosario would likely play a little more frequently, perhaps some at first base if Cuddyer or Dickerson needed a day off (with Cuddyer sliding to right on some very infrequent occasions). Right now, with Rosario projected to get the lion’s share of playing time, the Rockies are projected to have one of the better catching positions in the majors. With Salty, they’d be that much stronger, as well as a touch stronger at first base as well.
Of course, there are other areas in which they need help. Second base is always a sore spot. The Rockies have never had a second baseman rack up 3.0 WAR in a single season, and they only have had a second baseman rack up 2.0 or more WAR in six of their 21 seasons as a franchise. As such, Omar Infante wouldn’t have a very high bar to clear to become the best second baseman in team history. Only six teams are slated to have worse play at second base in ’14 than are the Rockies. Neither Jonathan Herrera, DJ LeMahieu nor Josh Rutledge are players who are worthy of a guaranteed spot. There may be some promise still in Rutledge’s bat, but if the Rockies are serious about competing, they should try to do better. Infante would be better, and his projected salary isn’t that far off from the numbers being discussed for Morneau.
There’s also the pitching side of things. Despite their public stance on the matter, the team is basically set in the bullpen. LaTroy Hawkins, Rex Brothers and Matt Belisle form a good back of the bullpen, and Adam Ottavino, Josh Outman and Wilton Lopez are all capable of making positive contributions in one way or another. Throw in Chad Bettis, and you have an entire seven-man bullpen already. Sure, they could use depth, but the team shouldn’t be signing any more major league deals for relief pitchers. The rotation is deep as well, but it could use one or two veterans, especially given Juan Nicasio’s volatility. Given how solid the team’s infield defense is, going after groundballlers like Scott Feldman and/or Paul Maholm would seem to be a good strategy.
The Rockies are willing to spend some money this offseason, and should have enough in the budget to sign two mid-tier free agents — maybe three, if everything breaks their way. With these limitations, they need to make sure that each signing maximizes their opportunity to get better. Signing Morneau would not do that. Bringing him into the fold would turn a comparable player — Corey Dickerson — into a bench player, and it would leave Michael Cuddyer in right field, where he will once again be abhorrent defensively. There are definitely players that are in Colorado’s price range who can improve the product on the field in 2014, but Morneau is not one of them.