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How the Colorado Rockies will win 90 games in 2017

Drew Creasman Avatar
September 6, 2016

 

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DENVER — Here at BSN Denver, we have persistently marked 2017 as the year that the contention window will open for the Colorado Rockies. The influx of talent from within the system almost jumped that window up a year, and although 2016 is not yet over, we thought this would be a good time to look forward and see where the Rockies go from here.

Anyone who is paying close attention can see the dramatic improvements this team has made even from just a year ago, but plenty of questions remain. The Rockies have seen nine players make their MLB debut this season and currently have 15 rookies on the active roster with potentially more to arrive later today. Next season, there will be higher expectations on those young players as well there should be.

GM Jeff Bridich has — in our estimation — four major questions to answer between now and then. If he answers them correctly, the talent is there for this team to win 90-plus games next season.

Is the rotation really set?

The Rockies are currently working with a six-man rotation made possible by September roster expansion. Jorge De La Rosa is playing in the final year of his contract,  Tyler Chatwood is due a raise in arbitration, while Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, Jeff Hoffman and Chad Bettis are all locked up for several years on the cheap.

Gray, Anderson, and Hoffman (all rookies) are shoe-ins to return and are solid picks for players likely to continue to get better. While Chatwood will get slightly more expensive, he will also return barring a trade. So let us assume those four spots are filled going into 2017.

The final spot in the rotation becomes a battle between Bettis and prospects Kyle Freeland and German Marquezwith Bettis’ experience making him a clear favorite. Options for all three could open up elsewhere but we will get back to that at the end. As it stands, Marquez and Freeland represent very good depth in the inevitable case of injuries.

With all those names, bringing back De La Rosa seems unwise unless he would be willing to work in a bullpen role.

As odd as it feels to say, the Rockies really don’t need to target starting pitching in the offseason. They may not be as “set” as they feel right now, but bringing back Chatwood makes as much if not more sense than trying to bring in outside help with such a promising young group.

However you look at it, the Rockies have a ton of options in the starting rotation going into 2017.

Who plays in the outfield?

The Rockies either need to trade a left-handed outfielder or convert one of them into a full-time first baseman. It’s almost that simple.

With David Dahl and Raimel Tapia now on the roster and pretty clearly able to play at this level, the outfield is suddenly extremely crowded. Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez are both All-Star caliber players who have meant a great deal to this organization. Gerardo Parra, who is overpaid and has been a disappointment in 2016, can still bring some value especially though his newfound willingness to man first base.

But Parra is clearly the odd-man-out while also being a near untradable contract. The thing is, though, that Parra’s contract doesn’t really kill the Rockies because of their inordinate number of rookies, it’s his roster spot that makes things difficult.

With the possibility of injuries and the National League’s requirement of a decent bench, having Parra as a fourth outfielder could be beneficial … the problem is that he is the fifth outfielder.

This invariably has led to discussion that either Blackmon or CarGo ought to be traded but each of those scenarios presents the Rockies with a new set of problems as well. Moving Blackmon means losing the most consistent position player on the roster. He’s set to make more in arbitration but is still under team control through 2018 and is likely to remain one of the best non-pre-arb deals in all of baseball.

The Rockies can save some money by dealing CarGo who is due $20 million in the final year of his contract next season. Gonzalez’ power and start status could even help the club net a very good return. But of what?

As we’ve already discussed, the rotation isn’t exactly in dire straights. Sure, you can always use more starting pitching but it’s not worth trading CarGo for that at this point. Moving him for a bullpen guy (we’re getting there) feels like a massive overpay unless you are getting a top three reliever in MLB.

Aside from being one of the most respected guys in the clubhouse, a fan favorite, and an unquestioned leader on this team, the Rockies need someone with Gonzalez-like power on the roster if they are going to play mostly contact guys even in the corner outfield positions.

Having a shortstop in Trevor Story and a catcher in Tom Murphy with big pop means that the Rockies don’t have to be slaves to getting power from the traditional corner spots but keeping CarGo in the lineup where they know he is comfortable is far too tantalizing to dismiss.

If the Rockies can get a big return for Gonzalez, they should pull the trigger, but they absolutely do not have to operate from a position of “we have to move an outfielder.”

Which brings us to …

What do the Rockies do at first base?

If he can play even a decent first base, the Rockies need to strongly consider playing Carlos Gonzalez there because it solves both the problem of an overcrowded outfield and a lack of power at first. Not to mention, the general lack of a first baseman at all.

If CarGo isn’t an option, the team could do far worse than to bring back Mark Reynolds for cheap and see if Jordan Patterson can emerge as the primary backup or even attempt to take the starting job.

Of course, the elephant in the room here is that Reynolds is the only right-handed option in an increasingly lefty-heavy lineup. This is why the Rockies should offer Reynolds a contract even if Gonzalez is converted and they can work as a platoon.

Yes, taking CarGo’s cannon arm out of right field is counterintuitive and he has played good all-around defense this season, but there is no aggregate loss of defensive value by having an outfield of Dahl, Tapia, and Blackmon, especially as Gonzalez — and his multiple leg injuries — age.

This theoretical Rockies lineup would look something like this:

Raimel Tapia, RF

DJ LeMahieu 2B

Charlie Blackmon LF

Nolan Arenado 3B

Carlos Gonzalez 1B

Trevor Story SS

David Dahl CF (you can move all three outfielders around almost interchangeably)

Tony Wolters C

Pitcher

Bench: Mark Reynolds, Tom Murphy, Gerardo Parra

The final two spots would be spring training battles between returning system guys in Stephen Cardullo, Cristhian Adames, and Patterson and vets that are either signed or re-signed like Daniel Descalso or Ryan Raburn.

The Rockies could try to swing a trade for a super-high-end guy like Freddie Freeman (a right-hander would be preferable but those are few and far between). They could include CarGo as part of that deal, but spending big free agent money at first would be foolhardy considering the lack of intriguing options and the final and most difficult question on our list:

How do the Rockies fix the bullpen?

As we have laid out, there is a way for the Rockies to move forward with an incredibly impressive rotation and lineup — even including the bench — without making a single move … other than an admittedly iffy transition of CarGo to first base.

The bullpen, on the other hand, is an enigma.

Let’s start with what they have. Adam Ottavino will return barring a weird trade as the only guy fans will have any kind of confidence in at the start of the season. Unless the team re-signs Boone Logan. The team should re-sign Boone Logan if at all possible.

Jake McGee will be back unless he is non-tendered which is incredibly unlikely. A pair of youngsters who showed a ton of promise but will need to make major improvements if they even want to break camp with the team will return in Carlos Estevez and Miguel Castro. A third young fireballer, Jairo Diaz, will come back after missing all of 2016 with Tommy John surgery.

Who knows what the future holds for Scott Oberg who is dealing with blood clots in his right arm. Christian Bergman, Chris Rusin, and Justin Miller will remain in the mix. There is also a long line of starters who could find themselves pushed into a bullpen role including Bettis, Chatwood, Freeland, Marquez, Eddie Butler and a few others from Triple-A.

The Rockies are on the hook for Jason Motte and Chad Qualls for a combined $8.25 million next year. Qualls could retire and save the Rockies $3.25M and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that someone would trade a C-level prospect and assume most of Motte’s contract. Though, neither of those possibilities are inevitable.

There are a lot of options and a ton of potential there but aside from Ottavino, almost nothing that inspires concrete confidence. There are high-end, in-house options for the ‘pen but nobody with a proven track record you can count on.

So, what do the Rockies do?

Typically, it isn’t smart to spend big bucks on relievers who are some of the most volatile people in all of sports but the Rockies are in a unique situation and this particular moment in time presents some interesting opportunities.

This winter, there will be two highly coveted relief pitcher free agents: Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. The top two closers in the game and both at 28-years-old, they are likely to price themselves out of the Rockies range.

Which brings us to Colorado-native Mark Melancon.

Melancon (from Golden, CO) has spent parts of the last five seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, and now the current NL East-leading Washington Nationals. He has a career 2.58 ERA over 432 innings pitched and has notched 159 saves including 51 last season and 38 so far this season.

Still just 31-years-old, Melancon should have plenty left in the tank but he also shouldn’t break the bank. Or lay out on a plank. Or approach from the flank.

Sorry.

By our estimation (including guessing at some arbitration numbers) the Rockies will have a payroll of around $97 million next season if they bring back pretty much the same team minus De La Rosa, Nick Hundley, and Boone Logan. They had a budget of $107M this season.

We also estimate Melancon can be had for close to $12M per year (more than the $9M he is making now) meaning that unless the Rockies are willing to increase payroll, signing Melancon could be the whole offseason. Obviously, that changes if the team can trade CarGo or Motte.

The real kick in the pants with all this math is that the $97M we calculated includes $22M still owed to Jose Reyes by the Rockies next season. Still, even under a strict budget and with a contract that bad, the Rockies can afford Melancon.

It is entirely possible that the bullpen sorts itself out but that isn’t a risk the Rockies can afford to take with how stacked the rest of the roster is. Every successful Colorado Rockies team has had a good-to-great bullpen with two closers. Brian Fuentes and Manny Corpas. Huston Street and Rafael Betancourt.

Adam Ottavino and Mark Melancon?

Bringing him in gives you two guys at the back end that you can feel incredibly confident in, given their track record and it creates extreme competition for the remaining bullpen spots.

The Colorado Rockies are beginning to overflow with talent but they have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in 2016 that you can regularly outplay competition and it won’t matter if you kick games away in the end.

If they can find more room in the budget for a right-handed bat or really want to go all out and get one of the exciting catchers on the market, more power to them. But if the Rockies make this one addition, and if CarGo can be at least serviceable on defense at first, they might just be one Colorado kid away from a 90-win season.

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