Currently in possession of a 68-56 record and standing just a half-game out of first place in the NL West, the Colorado Rockies are in the midst of an objectively good season. Actually, the 2017 and -18 versions of the club have the best combined two-year winning percentage for any pair of Rockies teams in history, so one could make the argument that this is Colorado’s finest run ever. They’ve had two MVP candidates in the starting lineup both seasons and the starting pitching, long a team bugaboo, ranks ninth in the majors by WAR over that time period. Things in Colorado aren’t bad, per se.
But they could be better, it seems, without much effort. One real problem for the Rockies has been the team’s lack of offensive depth. It’s an issue they’ve shown little interest in addressing. And it’s costing them real wins.
With Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon in 2017 and Arenado and Trevor Story in 2018, Colorado’s top-end offensive talent has been as dangerous as that of any team in baseball. Once you look past the top of the roster, though, things become a bit more frightening. Despite the team’s respectable raw numbers, the club’s offensive line reads like a gothic horror story after you factor in our old friend, Coors Field.
Even with the impressive performances by the brand names — most notably Nolan Arenado, who has been a legitimate MVP contender both seasons — the Rockies rank near the bottom of baseball in offense. At five of the eight main offensive positions — I’m not considering pitcher hitting or the DH for interleague road games — the Rockies have ranked 25th or worse in baseball by wRC+.
Now, DJ LeMahieu is a very ordinary offensive second baseman, outside of his .348/.416/.495 campaign in 2016, but he more than makes up for any bat-related shortfall with his defense. You can’t say that for the other positions ranking near the bottom of baseball.
The larger question is how many wins has this cost the Rockies? Quite a few, actually. If you separate the WAR contributions from the top three players on each team from the rest of the offense, Colorado’s inability to consistently find secondary offensive talent is laid bare.
|Season||Team||Top 3 WAR||Non-Top 3 WAR||Season||Team||Top 3 WAR||Non-Top 3 WAR|
|2018||Blue Jays||4.1||5.3||2017||Red Sox||10.9||7.1|
In 2017, the average team received 7.5 WAR of performance from hitters outside of the top three. The Rockies were second-worst in baseball, at 0.6. Seven wins is nothing to sneeze at — even half of that number can be crucial in a pennant race — and the fact that seven extra wins would have only gotten the Rockies a home Wild Card game instead of a road one in this particular season doesn’t excuse the team’s roster construction. Nor was it just a temporary issue: the seven-plus wins missing so far this year represent the difference between a spot in a three-way NL West race and a seven-game lead in the division and the best record in the National League.
The thing about this weakness is that it’s not one that can be waved away with simple excuses. The Rockies haven’t been unusually injury-prone and while David Dahl’s absence hurt the team — even assuming a healthy version would be given the job on a silver platter — but the team has been aware of this for years and has done very little to improve the team’s outfield depth. Dahl’s also not playing left field, right field, and first base simultaneously — unless I’ve seriously misunderstood how physics works.
Moves like the Gerardo Parra and Ian Desmond signings, as mind-boggling as they were at the time, have been made worse by the team’s complete inability to acknowledge that neither player has any business starting in the majors in 2018. Because of his other deficiencies, Parra literally has to post a .350 batting average to be a league-average offensive player in left field, while Desmond, after a good stretch, has hit .233/.287/.360, 58 wRC+ over the last month. (Once again, the Last Six Weeks Projection System turns out once again to not be very good.) Even Carlos Gonzalez’s 2018, hailed as a huge comeback in some circles, only amounts to a 105 wRC+, below average for a starting corner outfielder.
No, Colorado isn’t going to spend $200 million like some teams, but other contenders at least seem interested in finding secondary talent based on merits beyond simple major-league experience. When Jose Bautista didn’t work out for Atlanta, they didn’t refuse to promote Johan Camargo because he wasn’t “proven.” The Cubs don’t treat David Bote as an annoyance, depriving a veteran of his rightful playing time. Does anyone really believe that Max Muncy or Tony Kemp or Max Stassi would have received the same opportunity in Colorado as they have on their current teams?
Ryan McMahon was never given a fair shot to unseat one of the worst first baseman in baseball. Dahl, when healthy, has frequently had to fight for plate appearances with Parra. Might Tom Murphy’s .919 OPS in Albuquerque or Mike Tauchman’s 1.006 translate into some kind of contribution in the majors? Colorado doesn’t seem particularly ready to find out. Raimel Tapia has started one game in the majors in 2018.
Trouble’s already on the horizon, with Nolan Arenado inching closer to free agency, a market he’ll hit after the 2019 season. The ZiPS projections for Arenado already project him to make over $250 million, so it’s no guarantee that Colorado will retain one of the few players giving them a semblance of a major-league lineup.
Colorado’s rebuild was geared towards these years, and while the team has had some successes, they’ve also missed as many opportunities. One of the things that separates the good teams from the great teams is that the great teams never sit still, never content to accept a weakness. If the Rockies peter out over the next couple of seasons, it won’t be so much a failure of the players as the failure of a front office that never had the imagination to push the team anywhere past good.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.