The worst season in Colorado Rockies history has finally come to a close.
Surpassing the century mark with 103 losses, Dick Monfort’s organization finally did the one thing long touted as a source of pride.
In an contest lasting until the 11th inning when Brenton Doyle used his speed to take two bases on one pitch, Colorado defeated the Minnesota Twins 3-2 in walk-off fashion. Though they avoided loss no. 104 with win no. 59, another mark of deficiency as the Rockies failed to win at least 60 games for the first time in their 31 seasons.
Nolan Jones homered and stole a base to become the first member of the Rockies’ 20-20 club as a rookie. His feat is rare among all 30 teams as well, becoming just the 16th rookie in baseball history to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in a single season. To have done it in 106 games makes the milestone all the more impressive.
Nolan Jones is the first in #Rockies history with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases as a rookie.
He is The One True Nolan. pic.twitter.com/7R55LX8ocx
— DNVR Rockies (@DNVR_Rockies) October 2, 2023
The starting rotation, the backbone of the 2017-18 postseason appearances, suffered another casualty on Sunday as starter Chase Anderson was scratched due to cuts on the index finger of his pitching hand. In stepped the bullpen, one more time, as has been the story of the season, for 33 outs.
As the surprise weak link in 2023, the starting pitching — and the lack thereof — eventually had deleterious effects on the bullpen. Decimated by injuries — Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela made six starts combined — and poor performances — Remember no. 3 starter José Ureña, who was released less than a month into the season? — the relief corps became overused and overexposed.
The makings of the first 100-loss season in franchise history actually go back to five years ago to 2018, the last time Colorado reached the playoffs. To get back to Rocktober, it could take another five more years.
How did the Rockies get here? How will they get out? And how soon?
End of an Era
In less than two seasons, Jeff Bridich went from the General Manager who unceremoniously traded Troy Tulowitzki to the one that helped orchestrate back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in team history.
It was already falling apart during the 2018 run that nearly netted Colorado their first National League West pennant. Bridich had spent much of the club’s remaining free agent budget during the offseason on the $106 million super bullpen: Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee.
— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) December 31, 2017
The previous year, it was $70 million on Ian Desmond. And then some. The signing meant forfeiting the 11th overall pick and the nearly $4.2 million in bonus pool money in the 2017 MLB Draft. Eventually, their first selection was the 48th overall pick, Ryan Vilade, a player who appeared in only three games for the team before being waived in 2022.
When it came time to acquire players at the 2018 trade deadline, the moves were few and frugal. Reliever Seunghwan Oh and backup catcher Drew Butera were acquired for four players who never developed, and 38-year-old outfielder Matt Holliday returned on a club friendly deal. For some inside the Rockies clubhouse, it was a frustrating show of support for a roster on the brink of a championship.
Nolan Arenado was fine signing a long-term deal with the organization at eight years and $260 million ahead of the 2019 season, especially after the club said all the right things about keeping their window of contention wide open for the foreseeable future. DJ LeMahieu didn’t return that offseason, but Colorado managed to bounce back from a 3-12 start to hold a piece of the final NL Wild Card spot as late as July 1.
— MLB (@MLB) February 26, 2019
Over the next month, the Rockies collapsed. They went 6-19 in July and made insignificant player acquisitions, signing a recently-released Yonder Alonso and dealing for a minor league reliever before the trade deadline. Colorado then finished August with the third-worst record in the entire Senior Circuit. Arenado said of the roster at that point, “It feels like a rebuild.”
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) January 9, 2020
The relationship between Arenado and Bridich worsened from there and it was only a matter of time before the perennial Gold Glove Award winner was traded to St. Louis. Close friend Trevor Story saw firsthand how the ordeal went down and was uninterested in sticking around. Jon Gray would also leave following the 2021 season.
Others from that 2018 roster enjoyed success elsewhere. Gerardo Parra won the 2019 World Series with Washington. Adam Ottavino jumped around the AL and NL East to reach the playoffs every year and Tyler Anderson parlayed an All-Star season with the Los Angeles Dodgers to sign a three-year, $39 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.
Just like that, everyone except three rookie starters from 2017 (Márquez, Senzatela and Kyle Freeland), Charlie Blackmon and Ryan McMahon were gone.
A few months after Monfort sided with his GM over his future Hall of Famer, Bridich was out and scouting director Bill Schmidt was the next man through the revolving door.
Top of the Mountain
It wasn’t just the loss of talented players over the years that put the 2023 club on the wrong side of history.
The injuries to the rotation are obvious, but all teams experience such hardships. Kris Bryant missed 72 games across two IL stints. Blackmon was down for 53. The team also lost five veterans at the trade deadline, a move that only expedited the inevitable. For better or worse, this is what a 100-loss team looks like during the marathon.
And just like that. There it is…
The Rockies first 100 loss season. pic.twitter.com/UcTY4D9x7z
— Nick Brown (@NickBrownCO) September 27, 2023
Another key factor is the drafting and developing for which the Rockies have prided themselves. Between 2016-19, the return in the MLB Draft has been light, to be generous. Garrett Hampson (2016, 3rd Rd), Lucas Gilbreath (2017, 7th Rd), Ryan Feltner (2018, 4th Rd), Jake Bird (2018, 5th Rd) and Brenton Doyle (2019, 4th Rd) have had the most significant contributions. Missing on the first three picks each year cannot make for a successful franchise.
Even with young prospects still developing in the upper levels of the minors from the vaunted class of 2020 like Drew Romo and Zac Veen — who missed a majority of the season following left wrist surgery — other organizations are getting significant contributions from players selected in the four most recent drafts, including some from the 2022 and 2023 editions who have already debuted. Atlanta’s Spencer Strider (2020, 4th Rd) is the best pitcher from his generation after two years while Milwaukee’s Sal Frelick (2021, 1st Rd), Cincinnati’s Matt McLain (2021, 1st Rd) and Chicago Cubs’ Jordan Wicks (2021, 1st Rd) should all get consideration in this year’s NL Rookie of the Year Award.
Activity at the trade deadline in the past is another major reason for the .364 winning percentage. Before the moves this past summer, only one player, reliever Mychal Givens, was dealt over the previous two deadlines. Colorado was actually the only team in 2022 to not make a deal of any kind. This year’s activity greatly improved the pitching depth in the minors. Had 2021 and 2022 gone differently, the team may not have needed to use a franchise record 16 starting pitchers and lean on their relievers quite as frequently.
Then there’s the analytics. It’s an area that continues to keep Colorado behind most of the other 29 teams. The 11 members employed by the club’s research and development department is tied for the second-fewest in all of Major League Baseball, but it’s an upgrade over the one that remained following the challenging pandemic season of 2020.
At the end of the 2019 season media availability with Bridich and owner Dick Monfort, manager Bud Black commented on the use of analytics, “We’re gaining on it and we’re catching up quickly because there’s been teams who have built big departments 10 years ago, 12 years ago. So we’re getting there in a pretty quick way.”
— Colorado Rockies (@Rockies) October 1, 2019
That was four years ago. Now, the Rockies are investing in the Spring Training complex at Salt River Fields by building what’s being dubbed “The Lab.” Everything typically viewed on Baseball Savant like exit velocity, launch angle and pitch spin will be available to players, plus even more on biomechanics, The Denver Post reported.
Colorado is taking steps forward, true, but being 15 years behind the competition has finally caught up with them.
More prospects, please?
After ranking as the ninth-best minor league system midway through 2022 by MLB Pipeline and finishing as the most improved in 2022, graduations from prospects like Ezequiel Tovar and Brenton Doyle knocked Colorado down a few pegs. Injuries to three of their best pitching prospects — Gabriel Hughes, Jackson Cox and Jordy Vargas were all announced as needing Tommy John surgery on the same day — have put a crimp on the farm, dropping them to 18th as of the most recent midseason ranking.
Preseason rank: 2⃣4⃣
Updated rank: 9⃣
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) December 27, 2022
There’s more new blood coming, but a problem persists. Where will they play and how soon?
Much of the starting lineup for 2024 is set, if not every spot. That is until any unfortunate injuries start to trickle through the roster, as they invariably will do.
Elias Díaz will return as the starter behind the plate. The infield is set with McMahon at third, Tovar at shortstop, Brendan Rodgers at second base and some combination of Kris Bryant and Elehuris Montero at first base. In the outfield, Nolan Jones and Doyle will help each other from avoiding a sophomore slump, and Sean Bouchard and Blackmon can platoon in right field. Mix and match those options and with the designated hitter slot however you’d like. Include Hunter Goodman in the conversation as well.
He led the minors with 34 homers through August.
Now, Hunter Goodman has his first big league homer.🥳 pic.twitter.com/l6ohBkuP15
— DNVR Rockies (@DNVR_Rockies) September 18, 2023
That looks set at this point until Schmidt can swing a trade for pitching.
Márquez and Senzatela won’t be ready until midseason 2024 from their Tommy John surgery rehabilitation and even then they won’t be the typical versions we’ve come to expect. That won’t start to appear until 2025. And the bullpen? It’s still better than you may remember with a few intriguing arms that could rebound with a more normal workload, but a few more reliable relievers will be needed for the 162-game slog.
The payroll is currently at $114.8 million according to FanGraphs, so there will be some money to spend. Acquiring veteran relievers worked out fairly well in 2022 with Alex Colomé and more so in 2023 with Brent Suter, Pierce Johnson and Brad Hand. Signing even a modest starting pitcher, however, will be a challenge as always.
So could we be talking about another 100 loss season? No way, right?
Even if the offseason isn’t perfect, a fair amount would have to go wrong to lose 100 games once again. More injuries, less production out of places with high expectations and a lack of reputable depth in the upper minors. The futility came to fruition this year and if Colorado isn’t careful, it’s not hard to see it happening again.
The organization that does not like to use the word “rebuilding” should finally understand the need to expand its vocabulary after losing a franchise record 103 games this season.