Is This Year, Next Year Yet?
by Jim Silva
A rebuilt pen, a shortstop situation in flux, a young and improved starting rotation, and a farm system bulging with players who are almost ready to have an impact on the major leagues – how many of these things will come to fruition in 2016, and what will they mean to an organization struggling to become relevant again in a suddenly deep, and competitive division?
As the Rockies’ players head to spring training, one has to wonder if they feel a sense of excitement or doom. Their last winning season was in 2010 when they finished 83 and 79. Their last taste of the playoffs was 2009 when the Phillies bumped them off in the NL division series winning three out of four games. They’ve lost at least 94 games in three of the last four seasons.
This off-season there was a lot of talk about “tanking” – the practice of gutting your team so that you can get good draft picks, acquire young players in exchange for veterans, and accelerate the rebuilding process at the expense of a few horrible seasons. It could be argued that there are four teams working pretty hard to lose this season because they had almost no chance of competing. So why not rip the band-aid off instead of the slow peel, right? The Phillies, the Braves, the Reds, and the Brewers are going to be awful because they have traded away many of their established stars for prospects. According to spotrac.com, the 2016 payroll of the Brewers will be the lowest in the majors at just over $50 million. The Braves and Reds fall to 5th and 6th lowest at $77 million and $79 million respectively, with rounding to the nearest million. The Phillies are a large market team, but will have the 10th lowest payroll at about $92 million, well below the median, which is about $122 million.
Did you notice that there was no mention of the Rockies tanking strategically? Colorado’s payroll will fall pretty close to the middle of the pack at 14th ($104 million), and while they did trade away superstar shortstop Troy Tulowitzki last season, they held on to resurgent outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, center-fielder Charlie Blackmon, budding superstar 3rd baseman, Nolan Arenado, Gold Glove second baseman, D.J. LeMahieu, veteran starting pitcher Jorge De La Rosa – you get the idea. They have many more assets that are trade commodities, and while they still might ship them off later this season, at this point the Rockies look more like a team trying to compete than a team trying to throw in the towel.
The discussion for the last couple of seasons had been about whether or not the Rockies should trade away Tulowitzki and Gonzalez and start over. The opinions were strong on both sides and some thought that the Rockies waited too long to trade Tulo. You are likely to hear the same thing about Cargo if the Rockies aren’t appreciably better this year or if the fragile outfielder misses significant time. So when does a team cut and run? If the farm system is barren and you are starting from scratch, it will take a long, painful time to be worth watching again if you are left with nothing at the top. If you have players in your system who are ready to contribute to the parent club or who are close, then maybe you are a season or two away from turning the ship around.
The Rockies have a solid fan base drawing 2.5 million fans last season, good for 14th in baseball even though they were pretty awful with little to no hope of contending. They also have five prospects in Keith Law’s top 100 prospects, a farm system ranked 7th in baseball by Law, stars at a couple of positions, and young players with a year or two of major league experience. Their pitching was horrendous last season, but there was some growth from a couple of the young guys in the rotation, and there should be a return to health for another starter or two. The bullpen should be much better with a closer, and a few guys who can serve as setup men. There is uncertainty at a position or two, including shortstop and first base, but the Rockies defense should be improved, at least in the outfield. The Rockies look like a team on the upswing, ready to start adding young players to the big club and possibly compete in the next year or two. Is that the time to start a rebuild or is it time to see what you have and then start adding an impact free agent in a season or two as you push your way into the fight in the National League West? Look for the Rockies to win more games this year, and if their starting rotation matures and stays healthy, look for them to enter the free agent market and compete in another year or two as their young studs start to filter into the majors. While it may not be “next year” yet, this season will be the start of a brighter future in Colorado.