The State of the Rockies: A Sane Free Agency Preview

Ladies and Gentlemen, the siren of the MLB free agency period once again beckons, luring unsuspecting baseball fans into wrecking their ships against the sharp jagged rocks--in this case dreams of big-ticket free agents for even the smallest markets, ill-conceived trade schemes, and long soliloquies about why the owner/GM/beat writer is a complete and utter moron. This column, my dear friends, is the beeswax to put in your ears to defend you from those beautiful seductresses (and their horrible ideas) as you look forward to the 2010 Rockies.

Yes, that's right. A few minutes ago, the floodgates officially opened for major league free agency. In addition, all MLB teams are required to set their 40 man rosters in advance of the December 8th Rule 5 draft. I've written about all three subjects in Purple Row Academy before, so for those of you who are curious about how those processes are carried out, check out these primers:

Free Agency (the dates listed therein are from last offseason)

40 Man Roster 

Rule 5 Draft

All three of these articles have supporting links that clarify the issues even further.

In this installment of the State of the Rockies, I opine about the puzzling Garrett Atkins decision, revisit Rafael Betancourt's situation, examine the Rockies' current 40 man roster status, and look some free agent targets that I'd like the Rockies to consider (plus, how they would fit into the budget that I've outlined over the last two weeks).

Join me after the jump if you value your sanity. 

Why didn't the Rockies non-tender Garrett Atkins before the 40 man roster had to be set?

Good question. There's one main reason for doing this, and that's to extend the window of time that the Rockies have to trade the underperforming third baseman for another few weeks--until the December 12th deadline for tendering contracts for players under team control. Unfortunately for Colorado and Dan O'Dowd, the chances of such a deal being consummated reside squarely between slim and none.

It's not that Atkins isn't drawing interest from other teams. Just three years ago he was a player worth 6.4 WAR, he can play both corner infield positions somewhat passably, and he is theoretically in his prime (he'll turn 30 on the date that the Rockies will probably non-tender him). The problem is, Atkins' value as a trade asset to the Rockies is basically nil. Because by rule Atkins' salary next year unless he is a free agent can be no less than 80% of last year's total ($7.05 million), teams that would trade for Garrett would at a minimum be paying $5.64 million for a player that was flat out awful in 2009. The point is that I can't fathom another team trading the Rockies anything (and I mean anything) for him when he'd come much more cheaply once he's been non-tendered.

However, since the Rockies have seven slots open on the 40 man roster as of today (more on that later), it appears that Colorado has enough room to protect the prospects they want from the Rule 5 draft without removing Atkins from it. I'm hoping against hope that O'Dowd can finagle a deal for Atkins, but let's just say that I'm not holding my breath.

 

What's up with Rafael Betancourt?

From the poll results of last week's column, it appears that the vast majority of you want Betancourt back next year, preferably on a multi-year deal with less of a hit on a per-annum basis. Since the Rockies did decline his option, which was the right call in my opinion, they face a further decision with the soon to be 35 year old reliever--whether to offer him salary arbitration or not by the December 8th deadline.

It is my opinion that if he were offered arbitration, Betancourt would be crazy not to accept it. His status as a Type A free agent severely pollutes his value on the free agent market, chasing away a number of potentially interested teams that don't want to give the Rockies their first round pick for a solid set-up man. Considering Betancourt's age and the relatively high volatility of relief pitching performance, the risk for another team is particularly acute. I believe that as a result Betancourt would be very fortunate indeed to receive an offer that approaches what he would get in arbitration.

And what would that be? Let's look at some precedent--a tale of two relievers, if you will.

Last year two veteran relief pitchers (Darren Oliver and David Weathers) accepted arbitration from their clubs. Oliver was a Type A free agent while Weathers was a former closer who had once been perceived as being productive. Oliver was coming off of a 1.0 WAR season in which he was very effective, while Weathers had produced 0.2 WAR.

Oliver, who was going to be 38 in 2009, got his salary increased through arbitration from $2 million to $3.665 million, while Weathers, who was going to be 39, went up from $3.3 to $3.5 million. Those are 83.3% and 6% raises respectively, as would befit their recent performance levels. In 2009, Oliver continued to defy science and produced an even better, 1.5 WAR year at age 38, while Weathers was DFA'd and ended up with -0.8 WAR--while being paid $3.5 million. That's the risk inherent with offering arbitration--some decisions pan out and some fail.

Given that Betancourt is likely better than both of the pitchers above and a little younger (35 compared to 38-39), he’ll get a slightly higher raise, closer to Oliver's 83% raise and maybe larger. In 2009 Betacourt was making $3.5 million—which means that I’m estimating an increase of 2.9 million (or 83%) to $6.4 million—in other words, more than the option the Rockies just declined should he accept arbitration. Who knows though…arbitrators work in mysterious ways.

The draft picks should Betancourt not accept arbitration and sign with another team would be worth about $5 million, so the Rockies are gambling that they can either re-sign Betancourt for a lower price tag or that another team would be willing to offer him a crazy contract despite his free agency status. If it works, O'Dowd is a genius--but I just have serious doubts that everything will work out. Bottom line though, the worst case scenario is that the Rockies pay Betancourt well over $6 million next year--which is pretty palatable as far as worst case scenarios go.

 

Who is worth protecting from the Rule 5 draft?

As I mentioned above, the Rockies have only 33 spots filled on their 40 man roster, meaning that they technically have room to protect up to seven prospects from the Rule 5 draft. Of course, that's not really realistic. As I've outlined previously, the Rockies have holes on the major league roster that need to be filled--namely replacements for their ten free agents and Atkins--so in effect they can protect only a few players.

Hat tip to WolfMarauder on this, but going strictly by the Purple Row PuRP list, the Rockies have four prospects that would need to be protected from the draft: Michael McKenry (C), Cole Garner (OF), Chaz Roe (RHP), and Edgmer Escalona (RHP)--plus Alberto Alberquerque (RHP), who the Rockies received in exchange for Jeff Baker.

Now admittedly the minor league system isn't my area of expertise, but if I were to hazard a guess, the Rockies will likely protect McKenry, Garner, and Roe--leaving both Escalona and Alberquerque (among other lesser prospects) eligible for the draft. They simply won't be able to protect more than that--not if the Rockies plan to field a complete roster come Opening Day 2010. We'll see soon enough.

 

Who should the Rockies be looking at in free agency?

Given that, by my calculations, the Rockies currently have 23 players under contract for next year (22 if you allow that Buchholz will start on the DL), they will need to fill those holes. This might be through re-signing free agents such as Yorvit Torrealba at back-up catcher, Rafael Betancourt as a set-up man, and Joe Beimel as a lefty out of the pen. Or they could go by the cheap youth method, promoting McKenry to the big leagues come Opening Day while using Deduno and Chacin in the bullpen. Or they could make a foray into the free agent market. Finally, the Rockies could explore the trade market both as a buyer and a seller. To that end, Baseball Prospectus has a few tips for those interested in making up interesting trade rumors.

My prediction is that the Rockies will explore a little of each, signing at least one of their free agents (my guess is that they do get Betancourt back one way or another) and maybe two (Torrealba seems somewhat likely as well), while should Torrealba fall through McKenry seems to be the most cost-effective candidate. I think that the Rockies are likely to trade one of their outfielders (and I've recommended Hawpe many many times), maybe two--and O'Dowd could perform a miracle and trade Atkins. Either way, I think the Rockies will be looking for one of two things in free agency: a back-up corner infielder/veteran and a relief pitcher, preferably a lefty.

Given this and the fact that the Rockies' budget is undeniably tight, here are a few players that I would recommend at least kicking the tires on that are within the Rockies price range. By no means is this list exhaustive, but these players would fill a need for Colorado.

Free Agency Targets

Pedro Feliz: Yes, he's a pretty bad hitter and yes, he's old, but Feliz fields his position very well (he could likely play first base at a high level too) and has shown at least some power--two important characteristics for a NL bench player. He's sufficiently veteranny (he'll be 34 years old), he's right-handed, and would likely cost around $3-5 million to sign. Ultimately, he's injury insurance that gives the Rockies a lot of flexibility in later innings. Obviously, Feliz will be looking for a starting situation before he would choose to come to the Rockies, which is a big stumbling block.

Jamey Carroll: He has already been awesome for the Rockies before (3.1 WAR in 2006), plus he can play almost anywhere on the diamond (and do it well). The fans and players love him already, and he's willing to come off the bench. The problem is that the competition for the utilityman will be fierce this offseason, and he might be snapped up for close to $3 million.

Felipe Lopez: He represents an upgrade at second base, plus he has defensive versatility. His excellent year last year could price him out of Colorado's range, though in my opinion he is being severely undervalued by many. This is a pipe dream that RMN and I share.

Juan Uribe: He's another former Rockie, one who has excelled in this type of role already on the Giants. Unfortunately for Colorado, he may have performed too well for the Giants, who really want him back. My prediction is that San Francisco gets their man.

Joe Crede: He's great with the leather and serviceable with the bat. The problem is that he's looking for a starting job and he's had three back surgeries already. Give him an incentive laden salary with a low base and he's your man--but Crede's probably not coming to Colorado in a part-time role (especially since he's a Boras client).

Eric Hinske: The last three years, the teams that Hinske has been on have made the World Series, winning it twice. How much more of a veteran winner can you be? Plus he's good with the bat and is versatile (though not particularly competent) defensively.

Jose Contreras: More than any other Rockies free agents, I want Contreras back next year as rotation insurance and as a swing man with excellent stuff in the bullpen--heck, I'd like to see the Rockies pay up to $3 million for his services. Whether that would be enough is another matter.

John Smoltz: If he'd deign to sign with the Rockies, Colorado would be glad to have his power arm in the bullpen or even in the fifth starter's role.

Rodrigo Lopez: He has found success in Colorado before and would serve as rotation depth.

Mark Hendrickson and Scott Eyre (Type B): Serviceable veteran left-handed relievers that would cost around $2-3 million each.

To that effect, there are many relievers or failed starters that O'Dowd could pick up cheaply off the scrap heap that would perform at a decent level for this team--I'm not really as worried about the bullpen.

 

The bottom line is that I think the Rockies should sign Feliz or a similar player to replace Atkins while inking a veteran starter/reliever for the bullpen. If Colorado does move Hawpe, they'll likely receive a bullpen arm in return that could fill the void as well. Either way, I'm expecting free agency to cost the Rockies around $8-10 million, bringing their ODP to around $87 million.

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