DENVER -- The Rockies’ options to address their catching need -- and maybe even make low-cost pitching upgrades -- do not involve trading right-hander Jon Gray.
During the General Managers Meetings earlier this month, teams approached Rockies GM Jeff Bridich hoping that he would unload Gray, headed into his second season of arbitration eligibility. The Rockies have two players at that stage -- Gray and shortstop Trevor Story, who also is due a huge salary bump -- and teams felt the Rockies would have a hard time fitting both into the 2020 payroll.
But according to multiple sources, teams left the talks believing the Rockies have no intention of dealing Gray, who has four straight seasons of double-figure wins and in 2019 saw a bump in pitch quality over '18.
The sense in the industry is the Rockies could save some payroll with a deal or deals involving high-priced relievers in the last year of their contracts like southpaw Jake McGee ($9.5 million in '20) and right-hander Bryan Shaw ($9 million in '20 with a reachable incentive that would make a $9 million 2021 option guaranteed). The plan would be to eat significant salary for the trading partner.
Based on conversations with sources (the Rockies rarely discuss moves in the works), here is where the team stands on various issues two weeks out from the Winter Meetings in San Diego.
Why not retool?
Gray (11-8, 3.84 ERA) and right-hander German Márquez (12-5, 4.76) were by far the best two starters in a rotation that struggled as the team went 71-91 -- a big drop from postseason appearances over the previous two seasons. Left-hander Kyle Freeland (3-11, 6.73) regressed from his standout 2018, and no other starter who made at least 15 starts other than Gray and Márquez had an ERA below 5.00.
Popular logic has it that two starters coming off solid years, one coming off a bad year and others not having shown consistency may signal that it’s time to retool. But the notions that the Rockies’ competitive window has passed or that the two postseason appearances were somehow fortuitous are beliefs multiple people associated with the team evaluate on a scale ranging from wrongheaded to insulting.
“It’s really about recognizing some of the things that went well in a tough year for us and not overreacting and trying to blow this entire roster up,” Bridich said during the GM meetings. “There’s still a lot of the talent that’s still with us that went to back-to-back playoffs just two years ago and a year ago.”
How do the Rockies fill their big need?
The catchers who signed during the past week -- Yasmani Grandal (White Sox, four years and $73 million) and Travis d’Arnaud (Braves, two years and $16 million) -- were out of the Rockies’ price range, anyhow.
The Rockies have flexibility in the profile of the catcher they could obtain since left-handed-hitting Tony Wolters was an impact catcher in terms of blocking and throwing, and took small forward steps offensively. Depending on the other catcher, Wolters could catch 80-110 games.
The free-agent market still has multiple catchers, but the Rockies could turn to the trade market. Three catchers have emerged as candidates for teams seeking catching, although it’s unclear how much their teams are willing to move them:
• James McCann, White Sox: Grandal’s signing put McCann -- an All-Star in 2019 -- at the top of many teams’ lists. McCann is heading into his third year of arbitration eligibility after making $2.5 million last season.
McCann experienced a drop from the first half (.316/.371/.502 slash line before the All-Star break, .226/.281/.413 after), so a shared-time situation would help. The White Sox could keep him in a traditional backup role, or see what they can get for him.
The White Sox are seeking left-handed hitting outfield help. The Rockies have shown no inclination to deal veteran run-producer Charlie Blackmon or emerging star David Dahl. On the less-experienced side, the Rockies have Raimel Tapia, who had his moments in his first full big league season, and Sam Hilliard, who demonstrated impressive power and speed in his first big league look.
• Willson Contreras, Cubs: The Cubs are expected to be active, but early indications are they have more interest in moving center fielder Albert Almora Jr., left fielder Kyle Schwarber and switch-hitting utility man Ian Happ than Contreras -- a right-handed hitter who led MLB catchers (min. 100 games) with an .888 OPS and parked 44 extra-base hits.
The reluctance to move Gray means the Rockies would likely have to deal prospects/young Major Leaguers.
• Omar Narváez, Mariners: Narváez -- a lefty-hitting force offensively -- finished sixth among catchers (min. 100 games) with an .813 OPS and has emerged as a trade candidate for a Mariners team that sees its contending window more than a year away. But the Rockies would have to give up some solid prospects.
The Rockies don’t mind having two lefty-hitting catchers. Narváez is considered a work in progress defensively, so pairing him with Wolters is a workable idea. Interestingly, Narváez is tradable because the Mariners ended up with former Rockies prospect Tom Murphy -- who flashed his offensive potential and made strides defensively. The Rockies waived Murphy last spring, and the Giants claimed him before trading him to the Mariners.
• Austin Hedges, Padres: Deals within the National League West are difficult to complete, especially with a team looking to make a leap. But Hedges -- a right-handed hitter with a strong defensive reputation -- could be available. Hedges debuted with the Padres in 2015 under current Rockies manager Bud Black.
Additionally, teams have knocked at the Rockies’ door calling for left-hander Ryan Rolison, No. 2 prospect on the Rockies' Top 30, according to MLB Pipeline. Also on teams' ask lists are two prospects who played Double-A for the first time in '19 -- infielder Colton Welker (No. 3) and infielder/outfielder Tyler Nevin (No. 11).
To make any large-scale deal, prospects are the price. A big deal could also be used to land experienced bullpen help, or even possibly land a young starter. The Rockies under Bridich to date have avoided dealing their highest-ranked prospects.