Roster Doctor: Colorado Rockies

It was a grim year for the Rockies, with the once proud franchise sagging to 96 losses, just ahead of the woeful Snakes in the NL West. For this Dan O’Dowd, one of baseball’s longest serving GM’s, was finally shown the door, resigning rather than accepting the inevitable blindfold and cigarette. Rockies player development director Jeff Bridich now takes the reins, and he has a daunting challenge as he seeks to reinforce Colorado’s status as a purple state.

Faced with numerous roster holes, Bridich will confront perhaps the biggest decision of his GM career almost immediately: whether to trade Troy Tulowi(t)zki. Tulo was having an epic offensive season (.340/.432/.603, wth 21 HR in just 91 games) before injuries felled him, as they frequently do. In his 9-year career, Tulo has reached 600 plate appearances just 3 times. On the other hand, Tulo has failed to reach 5.0 bWAR (or, for the more traditionally minded, has failed to hit at least 20 HR) just 3 times. He recently turned 30, and is owed $20 million per year through 2019, during which his performance will inevitably decline as time’s relentless march claims another career. His contract will pay $14 million in 2020, followed by what will likely be a $4 million team buyout.

Trading Tulo is probably the only way the Rockies could even attempt to obtain young, impact starting pitchers who are at or near major-league ready. And the Rox staff is bad. Yes, Coors continues to waterboard pitchers, but the Rox were bad on the road too, regardless of your statistical weapon of choice (last in ERA, last in FIP, and 24th in xFIP). Bridich will need to examine innovative options (humidors? animal sacrifices? precision air strikes?) to aid in constructing an effective staff, but he’ll also need to at least consider trading the Rockies only real star.

The Mets, Reds, and Marlins have holes at SS and (perhaps) high-end pitching to trade, although only the Mets have it in quantity. What none of these teams probably has, however, is the will to take on a huge contract. Tulowitzki doesn’t have a no-trade clause, but the high value (both total and average annual) of his contract tends to act like one. If the Rockies could pry one or two of the Mets’ top young starters away, they should probably make the trade, but in the absence of that (and the Mets seem much more likely to trade with the Cubs, who have a glut of young, cheap, and potentially very good middle infielders), the Rockies should hold onto Tulo, and my guess is that they will. He has a legitimate shot at the Hall of Fame and is either still in his prime or just slightly past it.

This puts increased emphasis on finding solutions from the farm; that the team’s owners promoted Bridich, the player development chief, to the GM’s role suggests they have some confidence in the system he has overseen. The reviews this year on the pitching front are mixed: 3 of the Rockies’ top 5 prospects, as ranked by Baseball America during the preseason, were pitchers. Of those, Jon Gray (#1) had a good but not great year at AA Tulsa. His modest 3.91 ERA was worse than the team’s mark, but he was the youngest pitcher on the staff and his peripherals stacked up well. Eddie Butler (#2) on the other hand went backwards, as his strikeouts disappeared. While posting a decent 3.58 ERA at Tulsa, he only managed a 5.2 K/9 rate. Chad Bettis (#5) has already been moved to the pen, where he put up 24 Innings of Horror in the majors. Danny Winkler, not among BA’s Top 30 Rockies prospects, had a breakout year at Tulsa, posting a 1.41 ERA and strikeout and walk rates of 9.1 and 2.2, respectively. This is, however, about it; there aren’t many other horses in this cavalry brigade. It’s likely that none of these guys will develop into a true ace (though Gray still has an outside shot), but as the Orioles have demonstrated this year, it is possible to win without having a starter who even sniffs the Cy Young race.

Another but probably more tractable problem is the Rockies offensive ineptitude on the road. This is isn’t solely because of a drop in power; Rockies hitters on the road this year were last in on-base and 26th in slugging, leading to a wOBA of .278 on the road, better only than the San Diego Padres. Since their last postseason appearance in 2009, the Rox have been rock-bottom in road wOBA.

The good news for Bridich is that the damage isn’t uniformly spread throughout the batting order. Tulowitzki, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Corey Dickerson, and Nolan Arenado were all effective on the road in 2014, with Arenado having the lowest road wOBA among that group at .314, a respectable mark compared to the MLB average of .310. The rest of the lineup was … well … let’s just go to the numbers (2014 wOBA):

Wilin Rosario           .235

DJ LeMahieu             .240

Carlos Gonzalez       .242

Ray Oyler                    .252

That’s Ray Oyler’s wOBA for his “career year” of 1967. Alert readers will have noted that Oyler did not in fact play for the Rockies in 2014, but his demon spawn did. Even Kershaw would struggle to win games with a 3-Oyler lineup behind him. Each of these guys presents a slightly different problem, so let’s take them in turn.

Wilin Rosario had a face-plant campaign for most of the year, but rallied at the end to put up batting and on-base averages (.267/.305) pretty close to his career numbers.  His power, however, receded (.435 SLG, compared to a career rate of .483). And oh my oh my oh my was he bad on the road, as Scott Strandberg covered in detail a few days ago. But there is some hope; while Rosario has always been weaker on the road than at home, he’s never been anywhere close to his abysmal 2014 performance. For his career (from 2012-2014) his road wOBAs are .305, .342, and <gulp!> .235 (I’m leaving out 24 PAs in 2011).

As Strandberg noted, Rosario actually improved his plate discipline this year, while dealing with rumors that he would eventually be forced to move to first because of his subpar catching skills. I’d be willing to bet that his late-season surge (.470 wOBA in September) was a sign that the swing-tinkering (if that’s what it was) was beginning to take effect, and that Bridich won’t write off his starting catcher based on 184 road PAs, even 184 as bone-chilling as Rosario’s last year. But the team will need to work with Rosario to either improve his fielding enough to keep him behind the plate long-term, or to improve his hitting enough to justify a move to first.

DJ LeMahieu can’t hit on a train. He can’t hit on a plane. He can’t hit a la mode. He can’t hit on the road. From 2012 – 2014, LeMahieu had the third worst wOBA on the road among players with more than 500 road appearances:

Darwin Barney    .237

J.P. Arencibia      .259

DJ LeMahieu           .260

Like Rosario, LeMahieu had some success on the road in the past, but much less of it. For the last three years, LeMahieu’s road wOBAs are .318, .252, and .240. He’s an excellent defender with plus speed who puts up ok numbers in Coors, but this skill set fits much better on the bench. Unlike Rosario, LeMahieu’s 2014 road performance was very much in character. It’s time for the Rox to look elsewhere for their second baseman. Minor leaguer Taylor Featherston might be able to help by the 2015 All-Star Break.

Carlos Gonzalez is a two-time All-Star who is only 28. He also hit like Ray Oyler on the road this year, which entirely accounts for his disappointing 2014 results. He was still very effective at home, posting a .407 wOBA in what was clearly his worst overall season. His road wOBA in 2014 was a full 80 points below his career road number. Some of this (perhaps a lot) is down to bad luck. CarGo had a miniscule .181 BABIP on the road, and he struggled (as usual) with injuries. It’s possible that he had the bad luck to suffer more from these on the road, or that the Rox medical staff did a better job keeping him healthy at home. In any case, Gonzalez is a much better player than his ghastly road numbers this year would suggest, and the Rockies have few alternatives available, in part because CarGo  will be hard to trade after this down year. Their best bet here is to stay the course, and to give the plate appearances he inevitably misses to Corey Dickerson if Dickerson’s not starting in center.

Bridich starts his new job with a wonderful ballpark, enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans, and a media market relatively free of piranhas. He won’t face pressure to make splashy moves, which is good, because he doesn’t have many to make.

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Nice analysis.

The only legit long-term fix is to trade Tulo and Cargo and try to peak in 2017-18. This team is going nowhere the next couple of years with the Dodgers and Giants in the Division. Tulo and Cargo are worth the risk if you’re a contending team looking to gamble to get over the playoff hurdle. They make no sense for the current state of the Rox.