The Rockies Ought to Consider Becoming a Mystery Team

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.

Maybe David Dahl can remain healthy. Maybe the Rockies will get more out of Ian Desmond at first base. But probability suggests these positions threaten to drag down the Rockies’ hopes.

One could argue that no club could benefit more from emerging as mystery suitors for Scott Boras clients Eric Hosmer or J.D. Martinez than the Rockies.

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.

Wrote Freemyer:

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.

There are a number of cheaper corner alternatives, as well, players like Lucas Duda and Logan Morrison. The Rockies could upgrade these positions without spending nine figures.

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.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

JD Martinez’s atrocious defense would not play well in Colorado. He really needs to be in the AL where he can DH.

4 years ago
Reply to  walt526

All well and good, but he wants to play OF.

4 years ago
Reply to  kenster84

Too bad

4 years ago
Reply to  kenster84

I wonder how much of this reported desire to play outfield is posturing by him and Boras. I think he’d take Boston’s offer in a minute, if they added a year or two as he’s reportedly asking for.

4 years ago
Reply to  kenster84

And I want to be president

Curacao LL
4 years ago
Reply to  kenster84

Billy Butler wanted to play 1B.
“Well, I want to be an astronaut.”–Ned Yost.

4 years ago
Reply to  walt526

It’s not even just “atrocious defense”. In 2017 he had the very worst UZR/150 of any qualified hitter. Now I will grant that we don’t know everything about defense and maybe there’s some fudge there … but you don’t fudge your way from the worst to even simple adequacy. In a normal OF you can compensate by shading your CF over towards right and having him make some plays that would normally be JD’s responsibility, but in the cavernous OF that is Coors I don’t think that’s a tenable solution.

If the Rox want to sign JD for his bat, great. But it means a move to 1B on day one.

4 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Brad Hawpe was once -25 UZR/150 in RF for 2 playoff Rockies teams. So it’s not catastrophic

4 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Tim Anderson had the lowest uzr/150 of any qualified hitters in 2017. JD Martinez was marginally worse than Khris Davis and Adam Jones.

But what separates JD Martinez is that he only had -5 DRS (not that bad) and his negative UZR came from his arm (his Rngr was above average). Prior to 2017 his arm graded close to average, and even very good in 2015, but in 2016 he suffered an arm injury. So the question is: does he no longer have a decent arm? Or did he need an extra year to recover?

Martinez should probably move to LF and heavy DH time would be great for keeping him healthy, but the idea that he can’t play the OF anymore has been overblown. This is fangraphs – look at the numbers.

Dave T
4 years ago
Reply to  Matt

I did look at the numbers, and my conclusion is that these points in defense of Martinez involve a fair amount of cherry-picking small sample size defensive stats.

Over his career in the OF – about 6,000 innings – UZR puts him at a total of -18.5 range runs. That compares to -4.1 Error Runs and -7.7 Arm Runs. So the driver of the poor UZR/150 for his career (-5.8) is poor range.

Similarly, DRS actually has Martinez as a somewhat worse fielder than UZR for his career, by a total of 7 runs worse.

It’s tough to make conclusions about inflection points from defensive stats, since they take about 3 full years worth of data to stabilize. With Martinez, however, the question appears to be whether he is merely a bad defensive corner outfielder right now, or the horrendous corner outfielder that both UZR and DRS say that he’s been in about 2,000 innings over the past two years.

I think that distinction is a bit academic for a National League team thinking of signing him, because this deal will be a 5-year (or 6-year) contract that will cover only over-30 years. A team therefore needs a plan to move him away from corner OF if it’s clear that Martinez really is terrible defensively by the time that he’s 32 or 33 years old.

4 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

I think there is a hope that because Martinez’s bad defense comes mostly from a terrible arm, that if he can get healthy again he’ll be adequate in the field.

I also think that I would not want to pay $125 million dollars just hoping that he would have a position to play on my ballclub. He’s just really bad out there, and anyone who says that he’s been even adequate the last couple years out there is engaging in some motivated reasoning.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Then again, we were “treated” to a number of years of Matt Holliday roaming around in LF…

4 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

I’m glad you chose to look at the numbers after the erroneous original post, but now you’re cherry picking to back up an argument based on a false premise.

Let me take the exact cherry picked samples you chose and look at them in reverse:

Over the past two years he has a -10.4 ARM and a -11.7 Rngr with a -2.9 ErrR. So his arm appears to be nearly equal in his negative value as his range (42% vs 47% of the negative value). So a rebound of his ARM to being neutral would make him a typical below average corner outfielder.

You then bring up how defensive numbers take 3 years to stabilize (this is dependent on position, innings and attempts – but that’s a different discussion) then immediately reference his last two years to claim he is ‘horrendous’. So now let’s go back to his career numbers of -5.8 UZR and -32 DRS (over parts of 7 seasons) which show him to be a typical below average corner outfielder.

The main issue with coming up with a conclusion first prior to looking at the statistics is that it forces you to cherry pick, which makes it quite easy to tear apart your argument in the exact way you made it. But you end your argument with “A team therefore needs a plan to move him away from corner OF if it’s clear that Martinez really is terrible defensively by the time that he’s 32 or 33 years old.” which undercuts your case that he’s terrible now and leads me to believe you know your argument is flawed.

It’s important that when we dive deeper into the numbers we ask ourselves ‘why’ they have changed so radically – if it’s because he has gotten older then we should expect some form of trend in a given skill (errors, range and arm are clearly different skills) but with Martinez we see a 1 year blip for ErrR and RngR, during an injury shortened season, which rebound to career norms in 2017. While ARM shows a 3 year decline which appears to be due to injury for which we may or may not rebound with future health.

Your point that he may be a terrible defender by the end of his 5 year contract is a valid concern and likely a major reason he hasn’t gotten many bidders but my greater concern is that injuries have been negatively affecting his defense and cutting his seasons short. So let’s both hope that he DHs most of the time so we all get to watch him hit

4 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

The thing about the Rockies is that they also employ Ian Desmond, proven outfielder. So if they want to move JD to first they can! They have an athletic guy ready to go. I think the bat overcomes any deficiencies with the glove. It’s a nearly perfect fit in Colorado, the only hindrance being that they will want to save some $$ to resign Blackmon and Arenado in the very near future.

4 years ago
Reply to  walt526

Yeah, but we could watch in morbid fascination as he challenged Dante Bichette’s 1999 record of -40.6 defensive runs! That year he manged to swat 34 HR, had a respectable K rate (12.7%), hit .298… and still put up -2.1 WAR.

Edit: As some of you pointed out, Hawpe’s 2008 managed to be even worse, but I think the general point still stands.