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If the 2023 MLB Postseason has taught us anything it’s that the teams who make aggressive trades during the offseason will reap the rewards.
For the Colorado Rockies, this means trading one or more of their established players in hopes of placing the franchise on an upward trajectory to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Half of baseball’s final four have spent wildly in free agency. Of the five contracts given to free agents valued at $300 million or more, three have been handed out by the Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers to sign OF Bryce Harper, SS Trea Turner and SS Corey Seager. That doesn’t include deals for RHP Jacob deGrom ($185 million) or 2B Marcus Semien ($175 million) from Texas or Philadelphia’s pacts with RHP Zack Wheeler ($118 million), C J.T. Realmuto ($115 million) and OF Nick Castellanos ($100 million).
Postseason teams with 3 players hitting 5+ homers:
2017 Astros (Altuve, Correa, Springer)
2022 Phillies (Schwarber, Harper, Hoskins)
2023 Phillies (Schwarber, Harper, Castellanos) pic.twitter.com/8FxVeu991Z
— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) October 22, 2023
This has never been much of an option in Denver. In their three decades of existence, Colorado has signed a free agent for more than $70 million only twice: LHP Mike Hampton in 2000 (eight-years, $121 million) and OF Kris Bryant in 2022 (seven-year, $182 million). Neither has played for a Rockies team above .500 during their tenure.
Both the Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks constructed their roster through more varied techniques. Mostly focused on building a homegrown core and supplementing with mid to low-range free agents and trades providing upgrades at their weakest positions, Arizona is hoping this model will also lead to seven consecutive postseason appearances as it has for Houston.
The Astros shouldn't have won yesterday, the deck was stacked against them.
In 2023, Houston was 4-62 in games where they were trailing after the 8th inning.
Last night wasn't the first time they beat the Rangers after trailing at Globe Life.
They did it July 3rd. pic.twitter.com/f71xNpaJMw
— Michael Schwab (@michaelschwab13) October 21, 2023
Last offseason, the D-backs helped punch their ticket to the playoffs with a single trade. It wasn’t the kind that saw prospects being moved for an established player. It was the type of old school deal teams used to make in the past before a phrase like “window of contention” or strategies like tanking ever existed.
Arizona ended the 2022 season with four young outfielders. Corbin Carroll and his six years of club control was hardly an option to ship elsewhere, especially as the team was working in the background on what would be an eight-year, $111 million extension. Alek Thomas and Jake McCarthy had six years remaining, too. Daulton Varsho, on the other hand, had only four years of club control.
The Toronto Blue Jays acquired Varsho for OF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and C Gabriel Moreno on Dec. 23 last year. Gurriel Jr. was selected to his first All-Star Game this summer and Moreno — with six years of team control — had an outstanding season defensively before hitting three home runs this month on his route to receiving national attention and praise throughout the postseason. Varsho posted the fourth-highest bWAR on the Jays this year and, nine months after the deal, both teams made the postseason.
Michael Toglia is a good first baseman. pic.twitter.com/lK8OyPIWxT
— Albuquerque Isotopes (@ABQTopes) August 18, 2022
A month after those two clubs benefitted from the old-school baseball trade, the Minnesota Twins and Miami Marlins joined the fray. Three years of American League batting champ 2B Luis Arraez was dealt to the Miami Marlins for two years of RHP Pablo López and a pair of prospects. Arraez secured the National League batting title following his participation in the 2023 All-Star Game while López, who signed a four-year extension for $73.5 million with the Twins, earned his first invitation to the Midsummer Classic and was outstanding in his two playoff starts (12.1 IP, 1 R). Two more places in the postseason were sealed with a single big league trade.
Pablo Lopez rose to the occasion tonight for the Twins (+114) 🔥
7 IP 6 H 0 ER 1 BB 7 K
Over 5.5 Strikeouts (+120) ✅pic.twitter.com/S97rZGmBKj
— DraftKings Sportsbook (@DKSportsbook) October 9, 2023
All four teams were able to make such swaps as they operated from a place of depth on their roster. Toronto had a pair of proven catchers, including 2022 All-Star Alejandro Kirk. Minnesota had the fifth overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, Nick Gordon, poised to take another step forward at second base as well as top prospect Edouard Julien in the pipeline. Miami featured six starting pitchers under the age of 26, not to mention reigning Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara before settling on a trade of López in his age-27 season.
The risk by these four clubs was rewarded.
If Colorado is really going to follow the lead of recent 100-loss teams like the Rangers, Diamondbacks and Baltimore Orioles — all three reached the playoffs two years after hitting rock bottom — they need to be aggressive on the trade front in order to make strides in 2024 before a case for contention in 2025.
Teams would be looking for what exactly?
In both of the trades examined, players were moved who had at least two years remaining before they would reach free agency. This is when they are most attractive to other teams. Players acquired at the trade deadline are deemed to be rentals and one full season of any player is not substantial.
In the instance of Atlanta, the National League’s no. 1 seed, they acquired one of the top catchers in the game, Sean Murphy and his three remaining years of arbitration. It was a three-team deal that netted the Oakland Athletics more than if they waited another year to trade him. Less than two weeks after the swap, Murphy was extended for seven years at $73 million.
This means that Rockies such as Charlie Blackmon, Daniel Bard and Elias Díaz — three players who will be in the final year of their contract in 2024 — don’t exactly fit the model. A deal involving any of these players could improve the roster going forward, but not in the same way of a challenge trade. Besides, all three are being compensated well and do not have their annual salary suppressed by arbitration, so there isn’t the same surplus value as with younger players.
Daniel Bard, K'ing the Side. pic.twitter.com/KOvieRNDkC
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 9, 2023
Depth-wise, Colorado doesn’t have overwhelming options in the role the trio occupies. Blackmon is one of a few veterans on the roster that has carried himself on and off the field as a captain. Bard, despite his struggles in 2023, could easily revert to the effective-to-dominant reliever he’s been in 2020 and 2022 for Colorado’s bullpen. Díaz is the only everyday catcher on a roster awaiting the arrival of prospect Drew Romo.
Where’s the depth? Who could be on the trade block?
The Rockies are in dire need of pitching, specifically starting pitching. Even if they attempt to find another Germán Márquez as they did in a four-player trade that involved two established big leaguers going each way in Jake McGee and Corey Dickerson, they’ll have to part with someone from their 26-man roster. Colorado keeps things close to the vest, so no player is being advertised as a trade chip. To do so would only lessen a player’s value and decrease the return in such a deal.
When discussing depth, look no further than their position players despite the fact the offense is not overwhelming; their 83 OPS+ was tied for worst in Major League Baseball this season.
There are multiple options at a few locations on the infield, specifically first base. Bryant is under contract for five more years and looks to be moving back to the infield dirt since transitioning away from being a full-time third baseman following the 2020 season. He may spend some time at designated hitter, but he will ultimately be counted on as the starting first baseman next year. Three other first basemen still populate the 40-man roster.
Elehuris Montero is the one first baseman without another position. After 12 games at third base last season including the Opening Day start, Colorado decided he wasn’t fit to play at the hot corner. Fielding Bible quantified his play as being worth -3 defensive runs saved over his 271.0 innings at the position over the past two seasons, but the eye test was more critical for Colorado’s coaching staff. After going back to Triple-A Albuquerque for May, where he was the Pacific Coast League’s Player of the Month, he became a full-time first baseman and looked more comfortable there than in the past. Through 579.2 innings at first base, he has been credited with +6 DRS while Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average views him at -6 over the same period.
Every time Elehuris Montero homers, we win the trade
— DNVR Rockies (@DNVR_Rockies) August 11, 2023
Montero’s offensive numbers in the Majors for the season don’t look particularly enticing as a whole. His .711 career OPS in what amounts to a full season (138 games and 492 plate appearances) seems like a decent sample size since the start of 2022. But questions still abound for the 25-year-old. What to make of his impressive .885 OPS in September and October when he finally received regular playing time? Is his 36.2 strikeout percentage simply too high to be an every day player? Could the other 29 teams see potential in him as a suitable third baseman? Do they think he can run into 25 homers for them given the right situation? And what would they be willing to give up for such potential?
Then there’s Michael Toglia and Hunter Goodman, a pair of first basemen who can also play right field. Toglia, 25, spent much of the final month of the season in Triple-A while Goodman, 24, featured in 23 games following his big league debut on Aug. 27.
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
During 106 games in Double-A and Triple-A, Goodman recorded 30 doubles, 34 home runs and 111 RBI. He picked up where he left off in the Majors by going 11-for-38 with three doubles, two triples and 10 RBI through his first 11 games with the Rockies, something only Trevor Story in 2016 had accomplished with the franchise. Though he finished 1-for-27 with four RBI and 13 strikeouts in his final 10 games — of which only seven were starts — he’s viewed as an intriguing piece that deserves a place on the roster going forward.
Toglia flashed potential during his debut in 2022 by homering from both sides of the plate and playing first base with a level of defense last seen by three-time Gold Glove Award winner Todd Helton. However, he struggled in 2023 despite cutting down on strikeouts at every stop and failed to make advancements in other areas over 152 plate appearances.
Michael Toglia is a good first baseman. pic.twitter.com/lK8OyPIWxT
— Albuquerque Isotopes (@ABQTopes) August 18, 2022
The depth around the rest of the infield is nowhere near that, but that’s alright considering the players locked into the everyday lineup. Ezequiel Tovar will be the shortstop through the end of the 2028 season and, even then, it wouldn’t be surprising for the Rockies to extend him beyond his age-26 season. Ryan McMahon’s six-year, $70 million deal will keep him in purple through 2027. Brendan Rodgers, winner of the NL Gold Glove Award at second base in 2022, missed much of this season following surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder. While it feels like he just arrived after being drafted out of high school as the third overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, he has only two more years of club control before reaching free agency following the 2025 season.
When Colorado entered the 2021-22 offseason, they made decisions on four of their homegrown talents. Each player — McMahon, Raimel Tapia, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela — was in their penultimate year of arbitration before becoming a free agent. McMahon, Freeland and Senzatela were given extensions while Tapia was traded in a deal to improve the big league roster. The Rockies face a similar situation with Rodgers this offseason. (Austin Gomber is in the same place as Rodgers with service time, but given the club’s starting pitching woes, it would be a surprising to see him traded.)
Two of the club’s top infield prospects in the farm system, Adael Amador and Sterlin Thompson, reached Double-A this season and could make their way to Coors Field at some point next season. Amador, 20, missed nearly two months with a broken hamate bone in his right hand before playing with the Hartford Yard Goats for the final month of the MiLB season. Signed as a shortstop out of the Dominican Republic for $1.5 million in July 2019, Amador has started playing more second base with the presence of Tovar ahead of him in Colorado.
Sterlin Thompson has been very impressive this fall, hitting .395 with a 1.117 OPS so far in AFL play.
— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) October 20, 2023
Thompson, 22, has the ability to play both second and third base. The 31st overall pick in the 2022 MLB Draft out of Florida, Thompson has advanced quickly through Colorado’s system, hitting at every stop along the way. He’s currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, a “finishing school” for top prospects before making their MLB debut. With a slash line of .354/.492/.521 through 13 games, he’s been one of the best performers in a league loaded with the sport’s top 100 prospects.
McMahon and Rodgers each have value beyond their annual salaries, something that makes them attractive trade targets for other teams. Conversations last offseason between the Marlins and Rockies involving a deal of Rodgers for starter Edward Cabrera didn’t get far, according to GM Bill Schmidt. This offseason, such discussions with other teams need to progress if Colorado wants to make strides in 2024 and bring the organization closer to becoming a Wild Card contender in future seasons.
— Colorado Rockies (@Rockies) November 1, 2022
With Senzatela and Márquez out for the first few months of next season following Tommy John surgery, increasing the depth of the rotation will be vital. Only Freeland and Gomber made 20 or more starts last year. Jake Bird, a reliever, had the third-most innings of any pitcher for the club in 2023. While Peter Lambert made tremendous strides after injuries derailed his career for three years, he was only able to manage 87.1 innings in 11 starts with Colorado.
If is the Rockies need more for bartering, it’s not out of the question that Bird or Justin Lawrence, another young reliever with upside, could be floated as trade chips. The career of even the best bullpen arms can be volatile from year to year, so capitalizing when a player’s stock is high and salary is low could help craft another Márquez-type trade. Both players are in line to make the league minimum for two more season before receiving an uptick in salary through arbitration starting in 2026.
Such a deal would weaken the bullpen — everyone knows you can never have enough pitching — but a shrewd free agent signing or two like with Pierce Johnson and Brad Hand, not to mention a waiver claim like Brent Suter this year, could help replace a Lawrence or Bird.
And there’s always opportunities to deal from the prospect pool. Colorado builds with homegrown talent, but there’s a glut of hitters about to work their way through the upper levels of the minors soon and only so many available places for them with the varsity squad in Denver. Three of the team’s top five prospects are outfielders: Yanquiel Fernandez, Jordan Beck and Zac Veen. Include Thompson, who also has a mitt for that in his equipment bag, and you’ve got four outfielders for three spots. Even then, that’s not accurate.
Nolan Jones looks to be a cornerstone piece and Brenton Doyle’s defense could be more than enough to keep him in center field for the next few seasons as well. So that’s four outfielders for one spot? Where does this leave Colorado’s top pick in the 2021 MLB Draft, Benny Montgomery? How could all these prospects possibly contribute at the same time?
Schmidt will need to answer a lot of these questions this offseason. Should he meet those expectation similar to how he handled the trade deadline, maybe the Rockies could actually be uttered in the same sentence with October’s finest in at least one way.