The Rockies’ Unexpected Needs

Denver, we have a problem.

Actually, it’s Denver’s baseball team that has a problem — and maybe problems, plural. The club has weaknesses at right field, catcher —’s Thomas Harding reports that the Rockies have expressed interest in Jonathan Lucroy despite his framing decline — and maybe even first base. If the team wishes to maintain and perhaps enhance their postseason chances, they ought to consider addressing their problem areas.

While we always think about the Rockies as having run-prevention issues, it’s important to understand their performance in the context of their mile-high home environment. The club’s starters actually rank seventh in the NL in WAR and ninth in ERA- (93). Colorado also ranks fourth in relief WAR. So even though the Rockies’ pitching has slumped over the last month, they’ve still enjoyed an influx of talent to the rotation and have had success (well, at least before recent weeks) with a new philosophy that includes throwing breaking balls lower in the zone than every other team in baseball.

Are the Rockies looking for pitching? Perhaps, but only because every team is looking for pitching. Their roster has greater need elsewhere, though.

For example, the club ranks 25th in first-base production (0.6 WAR), where Ian Desmond was signed as a curious fit — and has been replacement level at first and left field this season. Mark Reynolds and his game of extremes have earned the recent lion’s share of playing time. He’s projected for a precisely league-average line (100 wRC+) over the course of the season. That doesn’t require immediate attention, perhaps, but isn’t ideal for first base.

Catcher is another position where the Rockies rank poorly, and where Tony Wolters‘ framing value has declined this season, but that is likely a tougher position to fill. Wolters was expected to be an asset behind the plate and end the Rockies’ long history of poor receiving, though Lucroy wouldn’t seem to help in that area.

But the most glaring production void among all contenders, to date, comes care of the Rockies’ right-field situation, where Carlos Gonzalez and company have produced a disastrous collective line.

Right Field WAR by team
Rank Team WAR
1 Astros 6.1
2 Yankees 5.4
3 Nationals 4.7
4 Red Sox 4.5
5 Tigers 3.4
6 Mariners 3.0
7 Rays 2.9
8 Diamondbacks 2.8
9 White Sox 2.5
10 Marlins 2.3
11 Brewers 1.8
12 Rangers 1.8
13 Mets 1.7
14 Twins 1.7
15 Dodgers 1.3
16 Indians 1.3
17 Phillies 1.1
18 Cubs 1.0
19 Orioles 0.8
20 Reds 0.8
21 Cardinals 0.8
22 Padres 0.4
23 Angels 0.3
24 Pirates 0.3
25 Athletics 0.2
26 Blue Jays -0.1
27 Braves -0.2
28 Royals -0.3
29 Giants -1.2
30 Rockies -1.7

If you weren’t concerned about CarGo already, you should be.

Whether the issue is an injury or a mysterious Andrew McCutchen-like extended slump or perhaps a premature and dramatic decline, CarGo’s power has vanished and his increased out-of-zone swing rate suggests a player who is searching and isn’t close to an answer.

Consider what we can find from new heat-map capabilities at FanGraphs.

Gonzalez’s slugging per swing this season:

Gonzalez’s slugging per swing last season:

One chart looks like one storm cell on a weather radar reading (this season), compared to a storm front in 2016.

We’re getting close to August, which means we are approaching Monday’s trade deadline. Gonzalez has a 50 wRC+. He’s had injury-plagued seasons before this — like in 2014 when he recorded a sub-100 wRC+ — but he’s never experiened a slump like this one.

It’s been the kind of season where CarGo’s best swing has resulted in a foul ball.

It’s probably not surprising, given their trouble in right field, that the Rockies were reportedly interested in J.D. Martinez.

That interest is perhaps indicative of the club’s level of concern with Gonzalez’s performance. And as Morosi notes, Martinez would have helped against the high volume of left-handed pitchers in the division. (And in hindsight, keeping Martinez away from the division- and Wild Card-rival Diamondbacks would have been helpful, particularly given the low cost.)

The Rockies could call upon Raimel Tapia again, who didn’t show much power but slashed .314/.369/.480 in limited plate appearances — and who, unlike Gonzalez, has produced above replacement-level value. Another internal option is David Dahl, who was activated off the 60-day DL last week and has just 60 minor league plate appearances this season.

There are still a number of possible trade short-term targets. Jose Bautista, Jay Bruce, Matt Joyce, Daniel Nava, and Steve Pearce are among the outfield options detailed at MLB Trade Rumors.

At 58-44, the Rockies have a firm grasp of the No. 2 Wild Card spot at the moment, and their +52 run differential suggests they are a quality group that isn’t outperforming their true talent level. But FanGraphs projections have the Rockies going 29-32 with a -17 run differential the rest of the way. FanGraphs playoff odds give the Rockies a 69.8% of reaching the postseason, and, interestingly, a 31.8% chance of reaching the division round of the playoffs. This is a Rockies team to bet upon.

To protect their position, hedge against continued dearth of production in right field, to strengthen a possible postseason roster, it could help to upgrade right and perhaps first base, with, say, fly-ball machine Yonder Alonso.

The Rockies are in a rare position. The market for position players seems to favor buyers by a lot. Their greatest needs are arguably position players. They can upgrade and hedge against continued disappointment. And given the fickle nature of pitching, particularly young pitchers on the steppe just east of the Rocky Mountains, the Rockies could do worse than try and upgrade the soft spots in the lineup. Martinez would have been an excellent fit at a low cost, but the good news for the club is there are other affordable options available.

Time is ticking toward non-waiver deadline, but there is still time for the Rockies to build upon their best team of the last decade.

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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5 years ago

Why not just bring up Dahl?