DENVER — The first of three issues that are on my mind is involved and requires taking a step back. Way back — well beyond last week’s
Let’s place ourselves in the winter of 2018, with the Rockies fresh off making a second straight postseason appearance and giving the Dodgers the biggest scare of their current eight-year run atop the National League West.
• Arenado was two years from free agency, and months from signing an eight-year, $260 million contract.
• DJ LeMahieu was staring at free agency.
• First base was in flux, as it had been since possible Hall of Famer Todd Helton retired after 2013.
• Owner Dick Monfort had bumped payroll to a club record of nearly $142.7 million by the end of 2017, and upped it to more than $147.5 million by the end of ’18 – the first year the Rockies recorded paid attendance above 3 million since 2001.
So there’s a prime star, a big veteran decision, a major hole, a valued prospect and an owner in a lower-half market (No. 17, per Sports Media Watch) who showed that when the fans come, he will spend — even though a new TV deal would not begin until 2021.
We know what happened. The Rockies finished fourth in the NL West each of the last two years as the personnel decisions flopped, friction between Arenado and general manager Jeff Bridich went public and the club unloaded Arenado’s contract — paying $51 million to save $148 million.
That said, let’s get to the three things I’m thinking:
1) The question here is not a smart-alecky ‘What would you have done?’ But, seriously, what would you have done?
I’ll lay out the scenario. Try to unsee 2019 and ’20, as hard as that may be, and consider the choices.
You sign Arenado to the deal. Right?
What seems a no-brainer is a legitimate question, given what other teams have done this winter.
Cleveland, one spot below the Rockies in market size, dealt shortstop Francisco Lindor to the Mets. Tampa Bay — 12th in market size but with unique revenue challenges — went to the World Series in 2020 and dealt its No. 1 pitcher, Blake Snell, to the Padres.
History says the Rockies sign their developed or cultivated stars to lengthy contracts. Hall of Famer Larry Walker, Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos González and Arenado all signed up. But often they’ve struggled to build around them as the fans, and players themselves, may have expected. Walker (Cardinals), Tulowitzki (Blue Jays) and Arenado were dealt with some degree of acrimony.
For Arenado, lengthy negotiating led to ultimately a no-brainer decision. He didn’t have to deal with arbitration or trade speculation, then deal with the free-agent market. Remember, before his deal, a number of free agents waited and didn’t get the offers they wanted. Arenado also did right by his peers by landing a deal that protected the markets for third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson.
So, placing ourselves at the end of 2018, here are hindsight questions that had to be answered in real time:
Were the Rockies good enough?
The lineup, with Arenado, LeMahieu, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon, was often derided — with the backing of advanced stats — for not being deep enough. The starting pitching was young but performed, and manager Bud Black identified and maximized his best bullpen pieces.
The year was not lucky, but much went right. And the Dodgers, after receiving diminished performance despite being active in trading, have the margin for error that comes from being in the No. 2 media market.
What about a trade?
As much as the current deal rankles, what would be the reaction to dealing Arenado – fresh from two straight postseasons, one having forced a tiebreaking Game 163 with the Dodgers?
Remember, to the fans at the time, Arenado was their star — not, as too often players are referred to in these situations, an asset or a contract.
What about signing Arenado, but making another trade?
The Rockies had issues at first base, as in most seasons since Helton retired. And the Marlins had made catcher J.T. Realmuto available. First-base types Carlos Santana and Edwin Encarnación were available.
This is where Rodgers enters the equation. The Phillies sent the Marlins righty pitcher Sixto Sánchez, the No. 22 MLB Pipeline prospect that year (eight spots below Rodgers). Also, a complicated three-team trade sent Santana to Cleveland and Encarnación to the Mariners, while the Rays landed corner infielder Yandy Díaz, a serviceable member of the ’20 team that went to the World Series.
Realmuto has continued to star. Meanwhile, Encarnación (with the Mariners and the Yankees) and Santana (with Cleveland) each hit 34 homers in ’19.
Would dealing Rodgers have helped at first base or catcher? That will never be known. From real-time talks with various sources, teams were interested in starting pitchers Germán Márquez and Jon Gray, even after Gray’s inconsistent ‘18. Was it possible to trade rotation members and still build around Arenado?
Was it time to veer from building from within?
Part of the reluctance to trade prospects or young Major Leaguers is the Rockies’ long-held preference for filling holes from within.
Reviews were mixed then, but by now even the Rockies acknowledge the mistake of letting LeMahieu sign with the Yankees, and compounding that by signing Daniel Murphy to convert to first base. The Rockies offered Murphy the same two years and $24 million LeMahieu received in the Bronx.
The other decision was more successful — not re-signing González and allowing David Dahl to become an All-Star. But this winter the Rockies non-tendered Dahl, and he has signed with the Rangers.
Finally, former general manager Dan O’Dowd made two of the best deals in club history by not sticking with his own guys. After 2008, the Rockies sent Matt Holliday to the Athletics and watched González and Huston Street perform with distinction. After ’06, they dealt Jason Jennings to the Astros and received three contributors to a World Series trip – pitchers Taylor Buchholz and Jason Hirsh, and outfielder Willy Taveras.
While we know what happened with Arenado, there were opportunities for other actions. Who knows if they would have worked?
So, put yourself back to the end of 2018, and share your thoughts with me and the world on Twitter — @harding_at_mlb.
2) Most predict the Rockies will deal at some point (before the season or at the Trade Deadline) rather than sign any multiyear deals. If they marshal such an effort, expect Story to require two features that proved troublesome in Arenado’s contract, either for the Rockies or in their efforts to try and move him: an opt-out clause and a no-trade provision.
3) A normal Spring Training, at least in length, and an uninterrupted regular season could be a boon to some of the less-experienced hitters. While the sport was shut down, Rockies hitting coach Dave Magadan said players did much of their work in a batting cage. That was months away from live pitching.
“There were bad habits,” Magadan said. “You can get away with stuff in a controlled environment in a cage. But when you start facing live pitching and you’re seeing velocity, taking longer routes to the ball, you can get to the point where you’re not making enough contact.”