DENVER -- An offseason featuring almost daily speculation regarding whether they will trade third baseman Nolan Arenado is testing the Rockies’ belief in their own declaration that they can be contenders in 2020.
Despite all that’s been said, and despite all the offseason moves they haven’t made, there is no indication that the Rockies will go back on their word, deal Arenado and commit to a rebuild. This is largely the same team that went to the postseason in 2017 and ’18. The idea that they could somehow trade Arenado and emerge a better club makes less sense by the day. Arenado has seven Gold Gloves on his trophy case, along with five straight seasons with no fewer than 37 home runs or 110 RBIs.
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In the face of various reports and rumors, including 50-50 odds on Arenado being dealt, it says here that Arenado will begin 2020 in purple pinstripes.
Before delving into the reasons not to make the deal, it’s fair to look at the reasons why a deal makes some sense:
• In 2019, the Rockies’ payroll was a club-record $157,162,629 -- 11th-highest in the Majors, according to Spotrac -- and the team went 71-91. That’s a high player expenditure for a team in what Sports Media Watch rates as the 17th-largest market in the country. The four two-team markets -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco-Oakland -- are in the top six.
• Rockies owner Dick Monfort said after the season that he anticipates a drop in attendance based on the poor 2019, and a new television contract with AT&T Sports Networks doesn’t kick in until 2021. As Monfort noted going into ’19, with the increased player spending, payroll is based on revenue.
• Spotrac already puts the Rockies’ commitment for 2020 at $148.3 million, and that’s before salary arbitration, with shortstop Trevor Story and righty pitcher Jon Gray expected to have big paycheck jumps. Players’ requests and teams’ offers will be traded on Friday.
• The Rockies have not changed the club through free-agent signings or trades. At catcher, for example, it’s feasible that the team will go to camp with 2019 mainstay Tony Wolters being paired with one of two players currently on Minor League contracts, Drew Butera or Elias Díaz -- this during a winter that has seen many well-regarded catchers land deals.
So, suffice it to say, the Rockies won’t win the offseason. Then again, they rarely do.
The last time they had a busy offseason was 2018, when they signed relief pitchers Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee to large deals. In the minds of those judging strictly on their last impression, results have been awful. In reality, it’s more mixed since Davis led the National League in saves in 2018 and helped fuel a postseason berth.
The big reasons the Rockies believe they can win still hold:
• The starting pitching struggled at times last season, but Gray and righty German Márquez had ERA+ figures of 135 and 109, respectively, in a year when the ball flew -- especially at Coors Field. Lefty Kyle Freeland couldn't match his fourth-place National League Cy Young Award finish of 2018, but Gray struggled in ’18 before a much better ’19. There are starters who haven’t shown consistency at the Major League level -- Antonio Senzatela, Jeff Hoffman, Chi Chi González among them -- but no starter is older than 28.
• Of the top four offensive forces, Arenado, Story, Charlie Blackmon and David Dahl, only Blackmon is in his 30s. Second baseman Ryan McMahon is coming off 24 home runs and a .779 OPS in his first wire-to-wire Major League season. Fingers pointed to poor pitching and injuries in ‘19. But during two damaging stretches -- a 3-12 start and a 6-19 July -- Arenado, Blackmon and Story had sub-.260 averages and the offense produced accordingly. The Rockies don’t anticipate a repeat of those simultaneous struggles.
• Even during the two postseason trips, the pitching wasn’t airtight, but manager Bud Black maximized it. In the latter part of both postseason years, he identified his most effective relievers and stopped using those who weren’t performing. In 2017, he limited the innings of a young rotation; in ’18 he allowed them to lead the NL in starter innings pitched.
So why the speculation?
With the Rockies turning their focus to 2020, this is what Arenado said in a story in The Athletic on Sept. 2:
“These guys have a great opportunity to show what they have and go into Spring Training with the upper hand. They should take every game seriously. And I need to lead by example.
“But it sucks that that’s what it feels like. It feels like a rebuild.”
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Arenado’s last sentence didn’t go unnoticed, even though Monfort and general manager Jeff Bridich issued strong denials at the end of the season.
Monfort: “I haven’t seen many rebuilds that start with signing the face of your franchise, your best player, to a $260 million contract.”
Bridich: “If we were truly in a rebuild, Nolan Arenado probably wouldn’t be here to make comments like that.”
Three factors have kept the rumors going:
• Even if the Rockies don’t deal now, other teams are motivated to keep Arenado rumors alive. Whether it was when Anthony Rendon was on the market before he signed with the Angels or currently with Josh Donaldson unsigned, or whether it’s in trade talks for high-profile infielders such as the Cubs’ Kris Bryant or the Indians’ Francisco Lindor, saying “we could get Arenado” could strengthen negotiating positions.
• The Rockies have been unusually quiet for a self-declared contender. The payroll loaded with big dollars for the aforementioned relievers, plus a couple other Bridich signings, outfielder Ian Desmond and first baseman Daniel Murphy (who have had injuries and below-expected numbers). And Bridich has so far been unable to swing a deal to bring in new players or free up money to try to improve via free agency.
• With the roster stagnant and outside expectations low, speculation began that Arenado will exercise his opt-out after the 2021 season or use the control that comes with his no-trade provision to help force a trade. Arenado has not spoken publicly about the rumors, saying only that he is “getting ready like I do every year.”
But none of this changes the fact the Rockies have had two recent postseason berths, have a young core of position players and pitchers, and have veterans who have had their struggles but also have successful track records. It’s risky to enter with a largely unchanged roster, but it’s a roster that has won. And the Rockies expect to win between now and the end of 2021, when Arenado’s opt-out would give him the decision.
If it all falls apart by the July 31 Trade Deadline, the Rockies would be correct to revisit some of the proposals from this winter. But as hard a sell publicly going into to 2020 with a largely unchanged roster may be, going back on intentions to challenge for the postseason by removing Arenado -- what would look like a teardown -- would be much harder to swallow.
Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and like his Facebook page.