While the free-agent market remains largely in a state of gridlock, a few teams have begun to zag when others are zigging. The Cubs, of course, have invested somewhat heavily in pitching, signing Tyler Chatwood, Yu Darvish, and multiple relievers. The Brewers and Mets, meanwhile, have made some of the most significant signings of the New Year, agreeing to terms with Lorenzo Cain (Brewers), Jay Bruce (Mets), and Todd Frazier (Mets) between them.
While the Cubs have remained near the top of the projected standings all offseason, the Brewers and Mets entered the winter generally perceived as teams residing in something of a middle ground between the league’s Super Teams and rebuilding clubs. By investing in free agents, Milwaukee and New York are betting on themselves. It’s a refreshing approach in what has been objectively the slowest offseason ever.
Perhaps more of the bubble teams will be betting on themselves as spring training nears and anxiety amongst unsigned players reaches even higher levels. There is likely to be a lot of value out there. There is certainly a lot of inventory. The shopping season is winding down. This is an after-Christmas sale of sorts.
We’ve discussed the New Year’s Effect before at this website, and we perhaps have seen that in play with a player like Frazier, whom the FanGraphs crowd and Dave Cameron each projected for a three-year, $42-million deal. Frazier settled for a two years and just $17 million last Monday.
In the wake of Ervin Santana’s finger surgery, Craig Edwards argued that the Twins ought to be one of those aggressive middle-of-the-pack teams and explore the free-agent market for a starter. Dan Szymborski estimated, for example, that before he signed with Chicago, Yu Darvish would have boosted the Twins’ playoff odds by 16%. That’s pretty significant! The Twins also get to play nearly 60 games against the Royals, Tigers, and White Sox, meaning Cleveland represents the only realistic impediment between them and an AL Central title.
But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on another bubble team that has actually been aggressive this offseason.
The Rockies are actually second in spending this offseason behind the Cubs, according to Spotrac, having guaranteed $114.5 million to four players, namely free agent relievers Wade Davis, Jake McGee, and Bryan Shaw. At $105 million, the Brewers are the only other club to have exceeded nine figures in future salary commitments thus far this winter. The Yankees and Dodgers have combined to spend $12 million — 12! — which explains a lot about what’s not been going on this offseason.
Even with their spending, Colorado is projected by FanGraphs as an 80-82 club despite coming off a playoff appearance a year ago. This is a team that could use some help to improve their 2018 forecast, and plenty of help remains available on the market. The Rockies have just $130 million committed to 2018 payroll, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. The Rockies finished last season with a final 40-man payroll of $156 million. It appears they could still have some payroll space. (There’s also that $50 million MLBAM payment.) If not, this might be a year for a competitive ownership group to consider deficit spending.
While the Rockies have outspent 28 other organizations to date, perhaps they ought to think about becoming even more aggressive.
Colorado doesn’t need much pitching help. They have made a major commitment to upgrade their bullpen this offseason and are in possession of one of their best starting rotations in club history. The Rockies’ staff produced an ERA- of 91 last season, ranking seventh in the game and trailing only the game’s elite rotations.
The Rockies’ problem is they posted the game’s 27th-best wRC+ (87). Only the Giants, Padres, and Pirates featured more anemic offenses. This is a far cry from the Blake Street Bombers. The Rockies recorded a 79 wRC+ at right field, a mark which ranked 28th in the game. They ranked 29th among first basemen (87 wRC+).
The Rockies project to rank 27th in first-base production (1.0 WAR), 28th among right fielders (0.3), and 30th among left fielders (-0.4). Those forecasts represent some of the greatest lineup holes among all potential contenders, and the Rockies have three of them. That’s three positional groups that project to combine for 0.9 WAR in 2018.
There was some buzz around Colorado and Martinez — despite the prospect of his defense in cavernous Coors Field outfield — prior to last year’s trade deadline. And Jordan Freemyer of Purple Row made the case last week for the Rockies and Martinez.
Martinez had a wRC+ of 166 last season and has been better than 135 in each of the last four seasons. Martinez is not just a great hitter. He’s also a great hitter with a profile primed to succeed playing at altitude. Martinez hit the ball in the air 43.2 percent of the time in 2017 and led the league with a whopping 49% hard-hit rate, almost three percentage points more than any other hitter.
Martinez is positioned well to dominant Coors Field. His fly-ball rate ranked 36th in the game last season, and he makes quality contact at an elite rate, ranking second in “barrels” per plate appearance in 2015 and 2017. He’s been one of the game’s truly elite hitters. While there are great concerns over how he will age and how his glove would fit in right field at Coors Field, he would help the Rockies right now. The concerns about the glove are real, but a Votto-like bat can produce significant value even with a DH-caliber glove in the field.
Oh, the Rockies also finished seventh in the majors in plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, in the left-handed-heavy NL West.
So that’s one unemployed Boras client. How about the other high-profile bat?
Hosmer would also be an interesting fit, would fill a need, and would do so with fewer concerns about his aging curve. And while fly balls play at Coors Field, everything else also plays at Coors Field — including ground balls, to which Hosmer is prone.
Even if Martinez and Hosmer fail to have their initial asking prices met, they are still going to be expensive investments. There are great concerns over how Martinez will age and what kind of player Hosmer is. There are few obvious fits out there for either of them. Martinez is apparently sitting on a five-year offer from Boston and waiting on a sixth year. He might be waiting awhile. The most interested party in Hosmer might be Kansas City, who figure to be one of the worst teams in baseball in 2018.
While free-agent deals carry risk, no team has a greater short-term need than the Rockies. They have been aggressive to date. Perhaps they should continue down that path. Perhaps winning the offseason could really mean something in Denver.