Why Did the Rockies Trade Ubaldo?

The Rockies and Indians finalized a deal Saturday night that sent ace Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland in exchange for prospects Alex White, Joe Gardner, Matt McBride and Drew Pomeranz. The rumors swirling around Jimenez were strange from the start, since a team in the Rockies position usually looks to acquire pitchers of that ilk rather than deal them away. However, after learning of the exact return package and assessing the state of the Rockies organization, dealing away Jimenez made more sense than it originally seemed, and might benefit the team more over the next few years.

In Jimenez, the Rockies had a very valuable trade chip if he was ever to be made available. He tallied about 4.5 WAR in 2008, and then sat right around 6 WAR in both 2009 and 2010. Cost-controlled pitchers with that type of resume just aren’t generally made available, since those are the pitchers teams try to build around, not without. Jimenez is currently signed to a four-year, $10 million deal that expires in 2012, with club options for $3.75 million in 2013 and $8 million the very next season. By virtue of his contract, however, he can void the 2014 option if traded.

In spite of the cost control, if a great deal of the budget is already committed and the top prospects within the system — who were going to be relied upon to contribute in the major league rotation before 2013-14 — weren’t developing up to expectations, then there isn’t a whole lot to actually build with. By trading away Jimenez, the Rockies basically admitted one of two things, if not both:

1) They were bearish on Jimenez’ ability to ever reach that 5+ WAR area again
2) They have soured on farmhands like Christian Friedrich and Tyler Matzek, who haven’t developed the way the organization envisioned

Assuming those two points were the impetus for a deal, then the Rockies may have, in a lost 2011 season, put themselves in a better position to succeed in the very near future. After all, it isn’t as if this team was in need of a complete roster overhaul, and there isn’t a window about to close that will limit their contention. Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki aren’t going anywhere for a while, and it is much easier to build around those two players than to find them.

The Rockies should have a good team next year, and the year after, and the year after that. By subtracting Ubaldo and adding prospects, the consensus might be that they took on risk, but it is entirely possible that their internal evaluations of Jimenez placed him at the same level of risk. Under that assumption, the Rockies would have effectively sold high and hedged the risk by acquiring multiple top pitching prospects.

Ubaldo is what I like to call an unknown known entity. We know he has talent but it is tough to peg his true talent level right now, if his velocity continues to drop, and his hurky-jurky windup is considered a massive health risk. Yes, his peripherals and ERA estimators are almost identical to the marks posted in each of the last two seasons, but I’m not ready to write off the ERA difference strictly as luck-laden, when he is throwing almost three miles per hour slower on average. There is a big difference in the outlooks of the 96-mph Jimenez and the 93-mph version of himself.

The best prospect returned in the deal is Drew Pomeranz, whose last name sounds like the type of flavored iced tea I would drink. The young southpaw was the fifth overall pick last year, and cannot actually be traded until August 15 to abide by the good ‘ole Pete Incavigla rule. After posting a 1.87 ERA and 11.1 K/9 in High-A this year, Pomeranz has taken to Double-A quite well in three starts: 2.57 ERA, 10.9 K/9, 3.9 BB/9. The walks aren’t completely concerning yet, especially since he strikes so many batters out.

Marc Hulet ranked him as the fourth best prospect in the system entering the season, and he will likely jump to the top of the Rockies list next season. Hulet projected his peak to feature seasons around 4 WAR, which matches Keith Law’s projection as a #2 starter in the majors.

Alex White is the other major prospect in the deal. Hulet had him ranked #2 on the Tribe’s pre-season prospect list, and estimated he could produce 4-4.5 WAR in his peak. His mechanics aren’t inspiring, but he has improved his control and groundball rate, which cuts into the losses associated with his reduced strikeout rate in Double-A last season. Then again, in four starts at Triple-A before actually getting called up to the major league squad, White posted a 1.90 ERA, 10.7 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9. He very well could have been trying something new last year, which he has fine-tuned this season.

He relies on a splitter to generate the grounders and induce whiffs, but at the major league level it will result in much more groundballing than missed bats. The reports on White suggest that, if his breaking ball develops, he could become a key cog in a major league rotation. Otherwise, his two-pitch pitcherness will keep him at the back end of the bullpen. If the Rockies traded Jimenez to the Indians and insisted White be included, their people must be bullish on their ability to help him develop the pitch.

Matt McBride isn’t really anyone to write home about, and is more of a throw-in, but Joe Gardner is an interesting pitcher. He doesn’t have the pedigree of a White or Pomeranz, but could become a nice cost-controlled starter at the back of a rotation. Hulet had him ranked #6 on the Indians prospect list entering the season, and the extreme groundballer is exactly the type of pitcher the Rockies could use. If he continues to generate ground balls, it stands to reason he could keep the ball in the yard, which is a key consideration for pitchers in the Rockies system given the thin air in Denver.

For most of the last few days I wondered why the Rockies would even consider trading Jimenez. In the end, the best comparison I could muster was the Diamondbacks trade of Max Scherzer that eventually netted them Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy. Ubaldo has a more consistent and storied track record than Scherzer had at the time, but Pomeranz and White are also regarded very highly in most circles. By trading away a risky major league starter — with the risk related to health and mechanics — for a few potential major league starters capable of making an impact as soon as next season, the Rockies are in an even better position than they were before the deal. The production of Jimenez, especially if it was expected to be watered down, could be replicated by two or three of their farmhands, and the system itself is in a better spot.

The process itself was questionable from the start. But even if Pomeranz, White and Gardner don’t pan out, the Rockies proactively addressed a perceived glaring need by utilizing their best trade chip to extract three of the top prospects of another organization. It’s hard to imagine the Rockies didn’t accomplish their goals in this deal.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

43 Responses to “Why Did the Rockies Trade Ubaldo?”

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  1. reillocity says:

    I suspect there is some (ir)rational fear in Colorado’s front office of an impending arm injury for Jimenez. You also have to wonder how effective Pomeranz’ highly-touted curveball will be in Denver (see Kile, Darryl).

    On the plus side, this trade surely will be the death knell for MLB’s “Ubaldo Jimenez tries to find a UBALDO toy license plate in the truck stop gift shop while wearing his Rockies uniform” commercial. I chuckle every time I see one of these ads, as MLB is pretty much admitting that its best players are so unrecognizable to the general public that they can’t film them in a commercial without having them wear a uniform (with their last name across their shoulders to boot).

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    • Yep says:

      now that he’s been traded to Cleveland, they can re-film it in the gift shop to a condemned industrial junkyard.

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    • Darryl Kile is the kind of example that actually leads you further from the truth than to it. Kile pitched at Coors in Year 4 and 5 of Coors Field, which has been in operation for 17 years. The last 10 have been with the humidor, and curveballs actually curve.

      Part of the issue with curves at Coors was physical, no doubt, but a good part is mental too. I’ve seen a decade’s worth of pitchers come in and command a filthy curve at Coors, but some fear the place and hang it. Ubaldo had a pretty good curve in his own right. Jason Hammel’s best pitch (when he was right) was a curve). You just cannot dismiss a top prospect out of hand because of his curveball. It isn’t the moon.

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      • gnomez says:

        My concern about Pomeranz is less curveball and more command.

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      • reillocity says:

        I don’t question that a slower curveball can break in Denver, but the larger issue is the pitcher’s ability to harness control of the pitch when he begins to cycle between thin air and thick air stadiums as the season progresses. I don’t think this is an issue that will doom Pomeranz as a prospect but it is one that figures to impact how he will pitch in the big leagues and will place more emphasis on the quality of the rest of his repertoire.

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  2. Resolution says:

    It’s definitely a move that makes sense on a logical level, but hurts like hell on an emotional one for Rockies fans.

    Between Chacin, De la Rosa, Nicasio, Rogers, Pomeranz, White, Friedrich, Matzek, Peter Tago, Edwar Cabrera, and Chad Bettis, the Rockies have a pretty interesting stable of young arms – not including their most recent first round pick Tyler Anderson. One would hope they can assemble a pretty nasty rotation soon.

    The downside of the trade is, it still doesn’t really address their offense which has been their weakness the past couple of seasons…

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  3. jdbolick says:

    This column makes no sense. Even if the Rockies’ fears about decline or injury are valid (and I don’t believe they are, at least not more than for any pitcher), Ubaldo was still an established quantity with an extremely high level of past production for an incredibly team-friendly contract over the next several seasons. To give up such a player for unproven prospects is very risky, and it’s extremely unlikely that they would benefit next season or in the near future. If Colorado does “win” the deal, then it would be several seasons down the road, and odds are that they never will. As for comparisons, the Dan Haren trade is more appropriate.

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    • Paul says:

      I think his take makes sense, but I think the data he’s working with his limited. Take a look at the Pitch/FX data last year versus this year. It’s true that his velo is down, but wherever FG is getting FB data always aggregates two and four seamers. There is typically very little difference. But in this case they are also aggregating what the P/FX data at Texas Leaguers shows as a splitter. He’s throwing the split 10% more than he did last year, and the average velo is 89 versus 94 for the FBs. So the average FB velo is more like 2 mph difference from last year.

      I don’t know the story on the splitter, if maybe the coaching staff doesn’t want him to throw it, but there are orgs that believe it destroys pitchers’ arms. He seems to have fallen in love with it. Maybe he is not buying that the humidor actually neutralizes Coors. His home/road splits this year are huge, the CB is the main pitch that is off according to the runs by pitch table, and he’s throwing the splitter more. There may well be nothing at all wrong with him physically, but they believe there will be.

      Seems to me this is a case of an org feeling very strongly about guys breaking down when they use the split a lot. If that’s not it, I think this is just an indefensible deal given the team-favorable contract. I really disagree with the assessment that scouts are very high on Pomeranz/White. From what I’ve seen there is very much of a split on them, and the consensus would peg them both as no better than number 3 starters. Gardner is just a guy. This is a great deal for Cleveland if Ubaldo holds up physically.

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      • jdbolick says:

        Apparently I wasn’t clear. The part which makes no sense is about this trade making the Rockies better “as soon as next season.” There’s almost no chance of White & Pomeranz matching Jimenez’s production in 2012, but 2014 or 2015 could be a different story. I also have a problem with the idea that “The production of Jimenez … could be replicated by two or three of their farmhands.” There is a finite number of rotation spots available, so you can’t just add White’s future WAR and Pomeranz’s future WAR then compare it to Ubaldo’s. When you’re comparing multiple pitchers to one, then you have to add in the WAR of whoever they also pushed out of the rotation.

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      • isavage says:

        As an Indians fan, I fully expect Alex White to perform better than Jimenez next year. That’s just the way things go for the Indians.

        But seriously, it’s not out of the question. White’s average fastball velocity was about the same as Jimenez’ this year, if not for a finger injury that he’s seemingly recovered from, White would’ve been in the Indians’ rotation. White regularly gets his fastball up to 96-97, and also throws a splitter, gets a lot of ground balls, and had a decent slider when he was up with the Indians.

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      • Trotter76 says:

        Is there a place to see month-over-month data on velocity? I’ve watched most of Ubaldo’s starts, and in April he was throwing in the 91-93 range, but in his most recent starts he’s in the 95-97 range. I believe his velocity is returning (although his command is still spotty and inconsistent). I was vehemently against trading him due to both his skillz and his contract (an ace – even borderline ace – making 2.8 mil this year and 4.2 next? Crazy!). However, since they got back one highly touted, ML ready starter and another top draft pick in AA, I’ve come around and think this makes some sense.

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  4. Greg says:

    I think the Rockies know something we don’t know in regards to Ubaldo’s health. For all we know, the Rockies think he’ll need TJ surgery within the next year or that his shoulder will eventually become a problem. Or they think he’s more of a 3.5 ERA/FIP guy who will have occasional flashes of brilliance but overall be nothing that special. They got back two spectacular pitching prospects for him.

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  5. Fantastic work Eric. I think you did a great job carefully and accurately depicting O’Dowd’s dilemma and motives.

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  6. Harmon Diego says:

    This was a terrible trade for colorado. First of all, theyre giving away their best player. And second of all, they aren’t getting anybody in return thats any good. Its like their just waiving the white flag and giving up because this trade does not make this team any better at all! color me dissapointed.

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    • Collateral Damage says:

      Umm they didn’t give away their best player, that would be Tulo. The haul wasn’t as good as you would want, but Ubaldo isn’t a true ace either. If one of Pomeranz/White pan out it won’t look terrible.

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    • HR says:

      Gotta disagree with you there, especially on the point that Ubaldo was our best player. He hasn’t even been our best starter this season, and moreover, I don’t know if he’s ever going to get back to the level he was at in the first half of last year. His velocity significantly down. He was 97, touching 100. Now, he’s 93 touching 96.
      Also, you can’t say at this point that we aren’t getting anyone good. Both of those pitchers are 22, and frankly, have dominated the minors. In fact, White was even effective in a couple major league starts this year.

      Compare this haul to the one the Blue Jays got for Roy Halladay, who is a future hall of famer. I miss Ubaldo terribly, but this trade is one that could pan out well for the Rockies, similar to the Holliday trade.

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    • jim says:

      god you’re as bad as the MLB.com and facebook people

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  7. peakjay says:

    Rockie’s continue to be a joke. The fans pay the price. We are the Cubs of the mountain region.

    Look how the world series starting lineup was tore apart within 2 years, only Tulo & Helton remain. What did we gain? All downhill.

    Why is Helton here? Good guy – yes, effective player – no. Why does Denver’s media avoid posting his numbers? Look at national league first baseman & their production. Then look at their production per dollar they are paid. lol

    Apparently the Rockie fans like mediocre when overpaid to the ultimate level.

    Keep smok’in the hope’in pipe fans, your day will never come.

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    • mbrady16 says:

      Who is it that you miss the most, Willy Taveras? Brad Hawpe? Many of those guys are gone because of lack of production. The only player they really lost was Matt Holliday. Atkins and Hawpe basically collapsed offensively, so do you mean to say that is the Rockies’ front office’s fault?

      Also, take a look at Helton’s numbers this year and rethink your statement.

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    • Chris says:

      Are you high right now? Seriously, you must be trippin’ balls or something.

      Helton is 7th in the entire MLB for 1B in wOBA.
      Helton is 10th in the entire MLB for 1B in wRC+
      Helton is 10th in the entire MLB for 1B in WAR
      Helton is 8th in the entire MLB for 1B in FLD score
      Helton is 4th in the entire MLB for 1B in BB/K rate

      Sure at this point he’s a risky guy to have on your team because of his balky back, but the dude is a beast even if he’s not putting up the sexiest of standard numbers. For the above categories I’d have to say that Ryan Howard is obviously a worse contract.

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    • Amused says:

      It’s been a long season for you folks, hasn’t it.

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    • J says:

      Clearly you have no idea what its like to be a cubs fan. To compare the Rockies to the Cubs is terrible, we cubs fans would kill to have players like tulo and cargo. Hell, we would kill to have players like todd helton…

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      • Chris says:

        Us Rockies fans at least expected to compete this year, the Cubs never were.

        It’s like if the Yankees or the Red Sox suddenly went 70-92 next season, massive disappointment and shock would be the result. Whereas the Cubs are like the Pirates, we expect 20 years of losing, and if they finish at or above .500 that’s something to celebrate.

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  8. Phantom Stranger says:

    The only reason you trade Ubaldo at this point in the contract is an internal evaluation of his future ability to maintain performance. The drop in velocity is troubling, but has been rumored to be a result of Ubaldo having lost some focus this offseason. I think the announcers mentioned he had been in Europe this winter instead of his normal offseason throwing routine.

    Trading him away now guaranteed the biggest return before other teams start seeing the first half of 2010 as a fluke and outlier in his career.

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    • Hank says:

      After throwing for 4 months (5 if you include spring training), can’t we put the whole “offseason workout routine story” to bed? It makes a nice story, but it seems more like an attempted excuse rather than an explanation

      I can see that as an explanation if his velocity started low and has crept up over time….but do we really expect his entire year to show decreased velocity over him working out less vigorously for ~4 months? Wouldn’t he have recovered some of that strength/endurance by now?

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      • Phantom Stranger says:

        No, because in-season arm conditioning is almost impossible at the MLB level if you are not on the DL. This is not the 60’s anymore where players could get themselves into game shape by playing the season after doing nothing in the off-season.

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  9. Great trade for the Indians. They messed up in the late 90’s by not getting Randy Johnson. The didn’t want to give up Richie Sexson. The Indians prospects (Kipnis and Chisenhall) should develop well the last 2 months, and they should get Choo back. They might make the playoffs this year, but they probably won’t. Regardless this trade sets us up to be the favorites to win the division the next 2 years.

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    • isavage says:

      Favorites to win the division? Come on. This is a team that’s gone 23-37 over its past 50 games. You’re replacing David Huff with Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez has a 2.4 WAR on the year by the calculation on this site, 1.6 on b-ref. Huff or McAllister could likely perform above replacement level, Huff’s at 0.5 WAR after 2 starts. So, where would the Indians be with Jimenez? 24-36 over the past 50?

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      • Andy says:

        Keep in mind, though, that over the past 50 they’re playing without Choo and Sizemore through they’re toughest scheduling stretch of the year. Also, cherry picking Jimenez’s WAR for a season in which there is no question something is amiss only accurately projects to the future if you think this is new norm for him. But even if this is the new norm, which most people doubt, you can’t argue that he’s only 1 win better than David Huff. I don’t know that I would claim straight away that this makes them the favorites for the next two years, but if they can stay away from injury that’s an awfully scary lineup with a very solid top of the rotation and a decent bullpen. Certainly better than KC, Chicago, Minnesota, and at least as good as Detroit.

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      • isavage30 says:

        Andy, why should we have any faith in Sizemore’s health at this point, or Choo’s performance? Sizemore especially?

        I’m not sure how it’s cherry picking to look at the guy’s current performance, if there’s no question that something’s amiss, isn’t that a problem? Why would we assume he’ll just bounce back? I remember assuming after ’09 that Sizemore would bounce back, and after ’07 that Hafner would bounce back … we saw how that worked out

        It’s not a scary lineup, it’s been one of the worst lineups in the majors for the past 2 years, and they have no additional internal upgrades waiting in the wings.I’d like to think that Santana will hit better, and Chisenhall and Kipnis will perform well, and Laporta isn’t the bust he seems to be, but those are all just guesses at this point. That’s why I dislike this Jimenez trade. The blew up the long-term future assuming they’ll contend this year and next, when they’ve been winning at a rate that puts them in the basement even if Jimenez does start dominating again.

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  10. Serge says:

    Yes, this trade accomplished what the Rockies had set out to do, but that’s not what we care about or what we’ve come to expect from FG. ALL TRADES are made b/c one or both sides believe that they’re improving their team, so what is the point of this article?? I gained more from the comments than I did from the author.

    “It’s hard to imagine the Rockies didn’t accomplish their goals in this deal.”

    So is that the author’s roundabout way of saying that he likes the deal? Cuz that would be the first sign of an opinion in this so-called analytical piece that I’ve seen since I started reading. What a joke.

    I could write a better critique than this on my lunch break. Yes, it was written with proper grammar, but so are all of Richard Justice’s pieces. This “summary” deserves its place in the NY Daily News, not Fangraphs.

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  11. Clifford says:

    I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to see (especially Cleveland’s brass who’ve had the hots for Ubaldo Jimenez for quite a while now), but Jimenez has often looked like a batting practice pitcher ever since he compiled a 15-1 record by the All-Star break last year. I’ve lost track how many times in tight situations in the past 8 months, Ubaldo couldn’t throw the ball past pipsqueak hitters who didn’t have a prayer of hitting him prior to last year’s mid-season classic. As with San Francisco’s Matt Cain, it should be abundantly clear to ANYONE with a good set of eyeballs that Ubaldo Jimenez isn’t (and never again will be) the same 97 mph flamethrower whose pitches have late movement that we’d grown accustomed to seeing up until a year ago. Now it’s one thing for the average dumb, bleeding heart, fan to view things through rose colored glasses. But for professional scouts, opposing GMs and coaches to sign off on Ubaldo’s acquisition when he only figures to get worse–it smacks either of ignorance, wishful thinking, desperation or all three. I can’t think of a single pitcher in recent memory who once had legitimate 97+ mph stuff with late explosion, whose average fastball then dipped down to 92 miles per hour, and then years later rose back up to 97 mph or more again with great movement . And it’s not about to happen with Ubaldo Jimenez. Soon after he takes the mound for the Indians, the nail bed problem will resurface, and he’ll compensate for it by altering his mechanics in ways that figure to subtract from his velocity. And since he’ll be pitching in a league that’s LOADED with high-end power hitters it will be apparent after he’s gone around the AL a couple of times that Ubaldo’s days as a dominant pitchers have disappeared like a snowflake in an inkwell. Wake up and smell the coffee, guys–or better yet drink it. The Rockies did the right thing. Ubaldo’s new employers didn’t–as they will discover very shortly…

    Santa Monica

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  12. Dan says:

    I think, when the smoke clears, this trade will wind up a win/win for both teams.

    The Tribe will benefit more from this move next year than this year, IMO. Chisenhall and Kipnis will have MLB experience under their belts, Choo will be back and healthy, and hopefully the coaches can figure out what his and Santana’s troubles have been. The lineup they start the season with next year should be a lot more powerful than the one they started the season with.

    That said, they have plenty of depth at starting pitcher but no ace on the horizon. Looking at Jiminez’s home/away splits this year they may very well have gotten one. Jiminez/Masterson/Tomlin could be a very potent front end of a rotation. Plus, his contract doesn’t prohibit them from shopping for a 1st baseman or corner outfielder in the offseason.

    And, it’s worth noting that Choo, Cabrera and Masterson are FA eligible after 2013. Their window of contention may very well close after that.

    As for the Rockies, they have gained great depth at starting pitcher. A ground-ball pitcher in White who has already been in the majors, a goudballer in Gardner who is basically MLB ready, and a potential star in Pomeranz who is a year or two away. It’s always dangerous to project pitching prospects, but this trio could really cement them at the top of their division in a couple years, if even two of the three pan out.

    So in my opinion, both sides came out ahead.

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