Today, the Rockies agreed to sign Wade Davis to a three year, $52 million contract, capping an off-season of bullpen spending that also saw them give $27 million each to Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw. The Rockies’ plan couldn’t be more obvious, as they are loading up on relievers in the hopes of bullpenning their way through October. With their trio of free agent relievers pushing Adam Ottavino, Chris Rusin, and Mike Dunn to earlier-game situations, the Rockies now have one of the deepest bullpens in baseball. If they were able to roll out that group in the postseason, they could be dangerous.
The problem remains getting to October, however. We projected the Rockies for 79 wins before they signed Davis, so adding him will move the forecast up to 80 wins, most likely. And if you think that’s just Steamer being overly negative, it’s not just us.
Rockies after Davis/Shaw/McGee signings project at just 78.2 wins. Best bullpen in NL, but that's still only worth ~2 wins above NL avg, and it's built via massive overpays (at least in cases of Davis, McGee). Meanwhile, C/1B/corner OF remain unresolved problems.
— NEIFI Analytics (@NEIFIco) December 29, 2017
Wade Davis is terrific, but the Rockies *really* need to address the lineup now or the offseason isn't a success.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) December 29, 2017
The Rockies won 87 games last year, but were just an 82-win team by BaseRuns. An elite bullpen can help a team outperform context-neutral expectations, but the Rockies are also losing several solid contributors from last year’s roster, and their free agent additions haven’t improved them as much as prevented them from getting worse.
Right now, the Rockies are pretty clearly behind the NL’s Big Three (LAD/CHC/WAS), and our forecasts have them solidly behind STL and ARI in the Wild Card race as well, more in the SFG/NYM/PIT range as a possible contender if things go right, but with plenty of ways things could go wrong. Even if you take an optimistic view of their roster, the Rockies right now profile as the sixth-best team in the NL. That’s a problem in a sport where only five teams per league make the playoffs.
In a vacuum, each of their free agent signings could be defensible. I projected Davis to get 4/$68M (effectively what he’ll get if his fourth-year player option vests), Shaw to get 3/$27M, and McGee to get 2/$16M, so in terms of expected salary for 2018, these guys will cost right in line with what I expected them to get. These deals aren’t necessarily repeats of the “wait, what?” Ian Desmond/Mike Dunn contracts from last winter.
But the problem is that, when you stack this many market-rate (or over-market) free agent contracts on top of each other, it’s very hard to build a long-term winner without getting huge bargains somewhere else on the roster. For a team with a mid-level payroll, committing something like $80 million to the combination of five expensive relievers, Ian Desmond, and Gerardo Parra puts a lot of pressure on the pre-arbitration guys to perform at a very high level. Realistically, that $80 million will buy the Rockies something like +5 or +6 WAR next year, meaning they need to get another +30 to +35 WAR from the rest of their roster. That’s not easy.
And while there are definitely scenarios where the plan could work in 2018 — Ryan McMahon takes over first base and becomes an above-average player, David Dahl gets healthy and fills a corner outfield spot, and the young starters all stay healthy — it gets harder to make this all work in 2019 and beyond. After this season, Charlie Blackmon hits free agency, meaning they’re either going to lose him to a deep-pocket with more money to spend or give him a huge raise from the $13.5 million he’s expected to get in his last run through arbitration. Nolan Arenado is set to hit free agency in two years, and is probably going to be a $40 million per year guy if he hits the open market.
The Rockies almost certainly won’t be able to re-sign both Arenado and Blackmon now that they’ve committed $35 million in 2019 money to Davis, Shaw, and McGee, barring some massive expansion of their payroll. So if the team falls short this year, they’ll be left with a couple of bad options.
1. Let Blackmon leave, opening up another significant hole on the roster, and making them less likely to contend in Arenado’s last year under contract.
2. Re-sign Blackmon with some of the money they’d otherwise give to Arenado, admitting that they won’t be able to keep him in Colorado after the 2019 season anyway.
In option one, they’d keep their chance to retain their franchise player, but might have to hope he doesn’t want to leave for a team that can afford more than one All-Star position player. They would also open themselves up to the disastrous possibility of losing both in free agency for nothing more than a couple of draft picks, if Arenado also ended up not re-signing.
In the second option, they could keep Blackmon around for one last run with Arenado and the most expensive bullpen ever, but they’d have to be willing to let Arenado play out his contract and not get anything for him, even while knowing they wouldn’t be able to seriously compete financially for his services in free agency.
The 2017 Rockies worked because they got +12 WAR from Arenado and Blackmon for a grand total of $20 million between them. And even with that kind of of star-level production for minimal cost, they still were the road Wild Card team, getting eliminated after their 163rd game of the season. As those two cost more (and likely produce less), it’s difficult for me to see how the Rockies can plan on getting to 90+ wins with all this other money committed to the bullpen and some mediocre role players.
Upgrading the bullpen to try and carry you through October is a fine strategy for a team that can be reasonably confident they’re going to play in October. But to me, the Rockies still look like they’re a couple of solid players away from that level, and given that they went cheap at catcher to subsidize this bullpen investment, it’s not clear that the team has enough money left to go buy serious upgrades where they’re needed. If the plan really is to count on both McMahon and Dahl as above-average big leaguers by Opening Day, that’s more of a hope-and-a-prayer than a sound strategy.
And if the Rockies don’t win in 2018, things only get worse the next few years as their two best players hit free agency. Realistically, the Rockies’ best path forward is to keep upgrading this roster, win again in 2018, and use the revenue increases to try and keep their core together for as long as possible. But that only works if they win this year, and I’m not sure swapping out Greg Holland for Wade Davis moves the needle enough to have real confidence in this roster as currently constructed.
There’s still a few more months to go before the season begins, and the Rockies have time to keep making this team better. They should do just that, because even with a very good bullpen, this team still looks a few players short of getting to where they need to be.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.