Whether you are a “the season is over” kinda guy, or one of those “the offseason has just started” folks, your ears have to perk up when your team makes a move. The Rockies recently made one by declining the option on Gerardo Parra, and whether that indicates real change coming or just walking in place (they could resign him as a free agent at a lower cost), it presents an opportunity to look at the Rockies of 2018 and to project what they will be in 2019. Because of the environment in which they play, Coors Field, sitting at a mile above sea level (see the row of purple seats in the upper deck for the mile high line), just looking at standard unadjusted stats can give you the wrong impression.
Because their offensive numbers are grossly inflated by their park, they often are spoken of as having one of the best hitting teams in baseball even when they are sporting a below average offense – like in 2018. Here’s just one example of raw stats versus park-adjusted stats: The Rockies finished 2nd in the NL in team runs scored, but when you adjust for their home park and instead use a park adjusted stat like wRC+ (park adjusted runs created where 100 is league average) then the Rockies fall to 12th in the league and 21st in baseball tied with the 115 loss Orioles and just ahead of the Padres, Marlins, and Giants in the NL. Gulp. The Rockies offense was awful. They had 3 full-time regulars who had wRC+ numbers at or above 100 and I am pretty sure casual Rockies fans can name them – in descending order we have Nolan Arenado (132), Trevor Story (127), and Charlie Blackmon (116). By comparison, the Braves who finished 6th in team wRC+ had 6 guys with more than 350 plate appearances who were above 100. The Dodgers who finished first as a team, had 9. Now that we have established that the Rockies have an anemic offense, is it possible to pinpoint the causes and some solutions?
The Rockies started 2018 with some clear weaknesses in their lineup at 1st base and left field partly due to a bad free agent signing tying their hands – see Ian Desmond – and partly because of injury – see David Dahl (see David Dahl on the DL often!). Desmond seems like a great guy and definitely has a positive impact on the community with his work raising awareness and money for the Children’s Tumor Foundation to fight NF (https://www.ctf.org/ if you want to donate), but he plays primarily offense oriented positions and has posted wRC+ scores of 81 (19% below league average) last year and 69 (31% below league average) in 2017 – the first two years of his 5 year, $70 million contract. Three more years to go with a team option for 2022 for the 33 year old, who is the primary first baseman and sometimes left fielder, looks bleak at the moment. It isn’t clear that he will ever be a valuable offensive player again as his ground ball rate the last two seasons has skyrocketed – 10 points above his career average in each of his two seasons with the Rockies (62.7% and 62.0% respectively) and his rate of soft hit balls is also above his career average. One number that could point to a better 2019 is his 2018 BABIP of .236 which often points to bad luck, but could also be tied to that very high ground ball rate, as grounders more often turn into outs. And his glove isn’t special either as indicated by DRS at first base of -6. In a limited number of appearances his work in left field was positive, but that spot belongs to David Dahl when he is healthy. How could the Rockies make lemonade out of Desmond? Sadly, if they can’t trade him then they need to forget how much they are paying him, make him a bench bat, pinch runner, and utility guy – he has played short before – and spot him against lefties.
If Dahl is the starter in left, and Desmond moves to the bench then how can the club improve their offense without buying another bat? For starters, there is Ryan McMahon. As a former top prospect, the expectations have been high for McMahon, and until Desmond signed it appeared that the rookie would be given a shot to take the starting first base spot. In the minors McMahon has hit, and hit with power. He has averaged around .290 with 20+ homers and 50-60 walks throughout his minor league career. It is unclear why the Rockies haven’t given him a serious shot at the first base spot, although they have a reputation for being miserly with the chances they give to rookie position players. He has mostly pinch-hit in his long stretches on the big league squad with short stretches of regular playing time interspersed with the occasional start. He began his career as a third baseman but started playing first base and some second because Nolan Arenado is blocking his natural position. It doesn’t look like the team has thought of trying him in the outfield as he has never played a single inning there as a professional. The Rockies are pretty flush at second even if they let three time Gold Glover, DJ LeMahieu walk in free agency – more on LeMahieu later. With Trevor Story firmly entrenched at short blocking the team’s top prospect, shortstop Brendan Rodgers – and Rodgers now playing short, second, and third in the minors – Rodgers and rookie shortstop Garrett Hampson are the two most likely youngsters to take over for LeMahieu should he move to browner dirt. So where does that leave McMahon? The Rockies need to take a big swallow and push Desmond to the side to give McMahon a real chance to be a starter in the majors, and first base is his best bet and the cheapest option for the Rockies to add offense to their lineup.
Another potential lineup change that could improve the offense might be in the outfield. The reason an outfield spot might be open is that Colorado declined the option on Gerardo Parra, and Carlos Gonzalez and Matt Holliday are both free agents (again). The Rockies might re-sign one or all three of their veteran outfielders, but that is unlikely (maybe unwise is a better term) even though Gonzalez finished 5th among Rockie regulars with a wRC+ of 96 – still 4% below league average, and Holliday, in just 53 at bats, had a wRC+ of 122. Parra has been eating outs for most of his career. His last wRC+ above 95 was in 2015. Holliday is not a good defender, while Cargo is slightly below league average on both sides of the plate, and Parra is the emptiest .280 hitter on Earth – possibly on Venus as well. If the goal is to improve your offense without totally giving up on defense then spend your money by not signing those three and let someone else take over in one of the corner spots not filled by Dahl, who can play left or right.
But let’s say the Rockies are just not in love with McMahon. There are possibilities sitting at triple-A Albuquerque, including some prospects, and some guys who are a little too old to qualify as prospects, but are still quality ballplayers. Mike Tauchman is one of the latter at 27. He is a speedy outfielder who also can park the ball in the stands and slashed .323/.408/.571 for the Isotopes last season. He has 59 AB’s in the bigs and has fanned a lot, which is not a big part of his game in the minors. Raimel Tapia is more of a prospect who hasn’t broken out yet, but at 24 needs a chance to see what he can do when he plays regularly. If you are only interested in outfielders who can hit bombs then Tapia is not your dude. At 6’2 and 180 (according to MILB.com – no way he weighs that much – more like the 160 he lists at in Baseball Prospectus), he is speedy and rangy. His game is all about slashing the ball around the field, getting lots of hits with his tremendous hit tool, not walking much at all, and using his speed to be a terror on the base paths and in the outfield. In part time work (239 plate appearances), he has posted a wRC+ of 72 but his numbers in the minors suggest that he will be an asset with the bat. The Rockies outfielders would cover a lot more of their enormous outfield with Tapia out there than with Cargo, Holliday, or Desmond. His ability to get hits and run also makes him a good 4th outfielder if the Rockies aren’t sold on him as a starter. It would be good to know once and for all, and that would take some at bats. So let Tapia start in right and install Tauchmann as your 4th outfielder, with McMahon as your everyday first baseman if you want to take the inexpensive homegrown route. There is also the more expensive option.
Even though the Rockies might feel burned by the market after signing Ian Desmond, one option would be to dip a toe in the free agent pool and make a “smaller” signing of a veteran like Michael Brantley to play a corner outfield spot, or Steve Pearce to play first. Neither player is likely to get more than a two year offer, so it wouldn’t be a long-term commitment, but either veteran would bolster the Rockies anemic offense in the short term. Brantley has a career wRC+ of 114 and posted 124 wRC+ in 2018 – his first full season back from injury. He is 31 and is a decent outfielder. Pearce has a career wRC+ of 113 with last season’s number coming in at 140 in time split with the Jays and the Sox. He is 35 and is a good defensive first baseman and a poor outfielder, but has experience there. The Rockies would likely be able to afford both men which would solve two problems while also improving their bench. Bryce Harper would be a lot of fun hitting in Coors Field but who has that kind of money?
Ah, DJ – Rockies fans love you and for good reason – three Gold Gloves and a batting title to go with a career .298 batting average. He is the kind of player who grows on you with his opposite field line drives and his flashy glove work at second. But remember, the Rockies need more offense and DJ is in the way of that – and a free agent. On that front, Colorado declined to make him a qualifying offer. One reason for not offering that one year contract safety net is the fear that the player will take you up on it. That says a lot about the Rockies plans for second base in 2019 and they don’t likely involve LeMahieu, who has posted wRC+ values of 94 and 86 in each of the last two seasons with a career mark of 90. Colorado has two good options and one of them proved last season that he could handle major league pitching.
As mentioned earlier, the Rockies best prospect is minor league shortstop, Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers has played short and second in the minors because the Rockies have a young shortstop who got some MVP chatter this year, so Rodgers needs to be flexible. The 22 year old got his first taste of triple-A and probably needs at least half a season to make himself ready for the majors, although it is clear that he will hit and hit for some power while possessing the ability to stick at shortstop or move over to second to accommodate Trevor Story. No problem. The Rockies have Garrett Hampson. Hampson wasn’t a high profile prospect even though he was taken in the 3rd round of the draft. Hampson has hit everywhere he has played, including Denver when the Rockies called him up to fill in for an injured LeMahieu at second. The young infielder’s minor league slash line is .315/.389/.457 and he has stolen 123 bases in 146 attempts. He is a top of the order hitter which would allow the Rockies to move Charlie Blackmon to the two or three spot and provide many RBI opportunities for Nolan Arenado. In only 40 at bats in the bigs last year, Hampson slashed .275/.396/.400 showing that he will likely continue to hit if given the time to play for the big club. Letting LeMahieu go, and installing Hampson at second could very well help the Rockies score more runs right now. If Hampson struggles, they have Rodgers waiting at triple-A.
The catcher’s position has turned into mostly a batless prairie in this time of launch angles and big home run totals. The wRC+ positional average for catchers is around 84 – so 16% below league average for hitters in general. The Rockies mainly used Tony Wolters and Chris Iannetta behind the dish in 2018, with their top catching prospect, Tom Murphy, only getting 96 PAs with the big club in spite of a season at triple-A where he managed a wRC+ of 129. At the end of 2018 the Rockies gave Murphy’s spot to Drew Butera who only picked up a handful of at bats but also got Murphy’s spot in the playoffs. There are a lot of questions here, but the Rockies are likely to stick with Iannetta as the starter and Wolters and Murphy as the backups. Iannetta is very much a known quantity. His wRC+ last year was exactly league average for catchers at 84 – under his career mark of 96, so there is some room for bounce back with the age 35 caveat in place. He gets good marks for his pitch framing and is decent at slowing the running game if he gets help from the pitching staff – true of most catchers. He has good power and an excellent eye. If he weren’t already 35 he would get a lot more love for his skill set. The Rockies have him signed for one more year with an option for a second. Tony Wolters is a lot of fun to watch behind the plate because the converted middle infielder looks like a shortstop back there. He covers a lot of ground, has a good arm, and calls a good game – heck – he even plays the occasional inning at shortstop, second and third. How many catchers can say that? His 2018 numbers supported the view that he is an excellent receiver with 12 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in just 74 games. If only he could hit even a little Wolters could start, but back to back wRC+ numbers below 50 is hard to take when you have very limited room on the bench. The only thing Wolters has going for him when he has a bat in his hands is his selectivity. His walk rate has been around 12% for two seasons now.
So in a spot where hardly anyone hits anymore, having a catcher like Iannetta who is at least average with a chance to be slightly more seems like a good thing. The Rockies need to give Murphy – who in spite of his other issues has serious raw power – a legitimate chance to play at the major league level, and stash Wolters at triple-A and give him a ton of reps at all the infield positions so that if Murphy doesn’t ultimately pan out they can bring Wolters back up to be an all glove – no bat bench piece who can wield leather at every position surrounding the pitchers mound.
It seems harder for the Rockies to let go of hitters because to their fans the hitters appear better than they actually are due to their home hitting environment. But that’s exactly what the Rockies need to do if they are going to support their excellent young starting pitchers who have shown they are ready right now. Cargo, Parra, Desmond, and even DJ LeMahieu should move on, as much as the fans might squawk, so that the Rockies can win now. When the fans see what a real offense looks like they will get over their ill-advised jersey purchases and embrace the new, winning Rockies. You will of course need to rip their LeMahieu jerseys from their screaming, writhing bodies, but such is the hard business of baseball. Sign me up for that Hampson jersey right now!