Covering the Rockies' offseason bases
DENVER -- The Rockies enter the offseason with the starting rotation befitting a surprise contender. But they also have the lineup and bullpen of an also-ran -- and a 71-84 record in 2021 to back that assertion -- and a trimmed-down payroll to suggest more of the same.
But 2022 doesn’t have to be that bleak.
Given how rare solid starting pitching is, one question faces the Rockies in their first winter under new general manager Bill Schmidt: Will they spend (smartly) enough to have a team to match its front-line starting pitching?
Here is a look at questions facing the club going into the winter:
What are the key needs?
The Rockies need power, with the outfield seeming the best place to find it. What should please Rockies fans is the baseball officials believe the team can compete within a group that includes Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber (assuming he declines his player option with the Red Sox), Nick Castellanos (assuming he opts out of his deal with the Reds), Chris Taylor and Jorge Soler. Ownership will make the final call.
The Rockies are most likely in need of a shortstop (more on that later), and their preferred plan is to keep Brendan Rodgers -- who had a strong offensive rookie campaign -- at second base. If they don’t spend at the top of the market, strong fielders who figure to be targets are José Iglesias and Andrelton Simmons. A solid veteran could be the bridge until Ezequiel Tovar, 20, the team’s No. 11 prospect per MLB Pipeline, is ready.
The bullpen needs improvement, but the Rockies must be careful how they do it. Their core is unheralded, inexperienced in some cases, but if lessons are learned from some of last season’s pain, then it’s suddenly an economical and effective bullpen. If the Rockies add to the relief corps now, it's likely to be an experienced lefty. They can always adjust during the season, as they did during their runs to the postseason in '17 and '18.
What’s the payroll situation?
According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Rockies have $61.371 million committed for ’22. Of that, $21 million will cover Charlie Blackmon's player option, and another $7.71 million will go to two players no longer here -- Nolan Arenado ($5.71 million of his Cardinals salary) and Ian Desmond ($2 million buyout). MLB Trade Rumors’ projection of arbitration-induced salaries would add just $31.5 million, should everyone eligible go through the process.
So that’s around $93 million projected for a team that has stated it will increase spending from 2021, when the payroll opened at $105,575,629 and the team reduced expenditures by trading veteran reliever Mychal Givens to the Reds at the Trade Deadline.
On the day Schmidt was announced as the new GM, club president Greg Feasel said the plan, pandemic-willing, is for the Rockies to “gain ground in ‘22” and by 2023 increase the payroll to the levels of 2018 ($147,574,463 by season’s end) and 2019 ($151,889,647 at the end).
So there is payroll room to add talent, not to mention anticipation on the part of a fan base that enjoyed postseason trips in 2017 and 2018 only to be shocked back into a fourth-place existence in the National League West each of the last three seasons.
What are the chances the Rockies retain their own free agents?
Shortstop Trevor Story is widely assumed gone. The team will make the $18.4 million qualifying offer, which Story has 15 days after the World Series’ conclusion to accept. There is a big class of shortstops, but multiple teams are looking. If Story gets one of those deals, the Rockies will receive a compensatory pick in the 2022 Draft. But they're holding hope that they can work something out with him.
The outlook is brighter for two key righty pitchers -- starter Jon Gray and reliever Jhoulys Chacín.
Talks late in the season did not result in a deal for Gray, who is in his first free agency year and understandably is in position to see what the interest is. But the Rockies believe they value Gray more than other teams, and Gray himself has said he wants to stay.
Chacín signed with the Rockies after being let out of his Minor League contract with the Yankees and proved a valuable late relief piece, after spending his career as a starter. The Rockies cannot afford to lose one of their few experienced bullpen pieces.
The club also retained their best offensive player from 2021, first baseman C.J. Cron, for two years and $14.5 million, before bidding from other teams could begin.
Also, when healthy, Chris Owings has served the Rockies well in a utility role the last two years. Each time, he went to camp under a Minor League deal.
What is the arbitration strategy?
The Rockies made some key decisions early, and still have 10 players eligible.
The first move addressed pitching. They agreed with righty starter Antonio Senzatela for $50.5 million through 2026, and hold a club option for 2027. All-Star Germán Márquez is signed through 2023 with a 2024 option. Lefty Kyle Freeland, who rebounded from a Spring Training shoulder injury and pitched solidly in the second half, is under club control this year and next, and lefty Austin Gomber is under club control through 2025. If they can re-sign Gray, the rotation will be in solid shape, even though depth is a question.
Freeland and third baseman Ryan McMahon, who like Freeland has two years of arbitration remaining, and Elias Díaz, who solidified the catching and is in his final arbitration year, figure to have the biggest price tags this winter. The Rockies have already removed potentially arbitration-eligible players swing-role pitcher Chi Chi González, reliever Yency Almonte and infielder Rio Ruiz from the roster.
The biggest decisions will come regarding left fielder Raimel Tapia, in his second year of eligibility, and center fielder Garrett Hampson, in his first.
The key deadline affecting arbitration-eligible players is the one for tendering 2022 offers, Dec. 2, 6 p.m. MT (8 p.m. ET).
Why Hampson and Tapia?
Both at their best are contact hitters with speed, and Hampson can play several positions. But with the Rockies needing power, the club could dangle them in trades in hopes of filling other needs.
Who must be added to the 40-man Major League roster to avoid being lost in the Rule 5 Draft, and is there a crunch for roster spots?
The Rockies face a small crunch for spots, but have opportunities to make room. Among key Minor Leaguers entering their protection year are lefty starter Ryan Rolison (No. 3 per Pipeline), Tovar, righty Mitchell Kilkenny (12-3, 3.27 ERA at Spokane and Fresno), and a pair of players who came in separate trades with the Reds, righty Noah Davis (Rockies No. 18) and outfielder Jameson Hannah (Rockies No. 21).
Five days after the World Series, the Rockies will have to reinstate from the 60-day injured list 2021 participants Gomber and Connor Joe, who showed promise in left field and as a utility man, plus reliever Scott Oberg, who says he is waiting for "results with further testing throughout the winter" before deciding if he can make a comeback from recurring blood clots in his right arm -- which have cost him the last two seasons.