Wednesday Rockpile: The Rockies Have Money -- How Should They Spend It?

I was going to write about how I thought signing Michael Cuddyer/Josh Willingham (while jettisoning Seth Smith) was a bad idea, but then Andrew 1 did it masterfully on Monday. Then I was going to write about how much money the Rockies had freed up, but then Andrew 2 did it yesterday (with a colored table, no less -- I can't compete with that!). So what you're getting today is an unholy amalgamation of those two articles.

We've got all this money freed up...now who do we spend it on?

Here's my quick and dirty breakdown of the payroll situation as it stands right now:

  • Including Kevin Slowey's $2.75 million deal, Colorado has $52 million committed to 10 or 11 roster slots for 2012 (depending on Jorge De La Rosa's injury status, so we'll assume 10 for Opening Day)
  • Colorado will have roughly $5 million in arbitration commitments for Dex and Smith...and then, if you add minimum salaries for the rest of the 13 roster slots, that's a cost floor of about $63.5 million
  • Given that I see Colorado's 2012 payroll in the $80-85 million range, they have between $17-22 million to spend as upgrades on those other 13 roster slots
So how do those 13 spots work out from a positional standpoint?
  • 4 bullpen pitchers -- Brothers and Reynolds will be 2 of these, and they're minimum salary guys
  • 3 starting pitchers -- Chacin will be there for sure, maybe Nicasio if he's fully back
  • 2 starting infielders (2B, 3B) -- There's a whole gaggle of minimum salary players competing right now
  • 2 backup outfielders -- preferably one of which who is a lefty-killing platoon guy, but these slots might be filled by Blackmon and Colvin
  • 1 backup infielder -- right now this is looking like the 2nd best of the 2nd/3rd competitors that can also play SS in a pinch
  • 1 backup catcher -- Rosario is the most attractive candidate here
So as I see it, Colorado has no need for an upgrade to 4 of those slots (2 RP, 1 SP, 1 C) and probably won't be looking for an upgrade to 2 more (backup IF, 1 SP). That leaves 7 players to potentially upgrade, 4 of which who should be backups or low cost relievers -- and a pretty decent budget to do it with. I'd love to hear in the comments section how you would upgrade the team given that budget.

The most interesting new rumor yesterday was that the Rockies are interested in another free agent outfielder in his 30s with a lengthy injury history, Carlos Beltran. Unlike Michael Cuddyer, I wouldn't be diametrically opposed to signing Beltran (I just think that Cuddyer won't provide much of an upgrade, if any, from Smith -- but will cost much more), especially since the money is obviously there in the budget. I mean, if the Rockies are going to clear out as much money as they have over the past few weeks, their fans at least are expecting something of a splash.

I personally don't think that the Rockies should be getting rid of Seth Smith unless they can fill their 2B/3B/SP holes with an above average player (yes, a la Martin Prado), but if they did, Carlos Beltran would be an excellent pick for his replacement. Beltran would be a clear upgrade over Smith -- he produced 4.7 fWAR last year and his peak contained 8 other seasons with at least 4 fWAR. He's a switch hitter who has played CF as recently as last year, so he still retains some defensive value. With his injury history, I certainly won't be expecting a 4 fWAR season, but he should be solidly above average, with All-Star potential in a good hitting environment.

The problem I have is that if Smith goes to make room for Beltran, the marginal win gain is well...marginal (1.5-2 WAR), at a likely cost of an 8 figure salary over multiple years. The risk is high, the price is high, but the potential rewards are also quite appealing. I'm not sure it's worth it...but if Colorado is going to acquire a full-time outfielder this off-season, I'd prefer it be Beltran.
The effect of a Beltran signing/Smith trade on the budget mentioned above would likely be that Smith brings back a player to fill one of the 13 roster slots while Beltran takes up Smith's slot. The money available to spend on the remaining 12 slots would then be reduced by $10-14 million. Given Colorado's situation, that would really mean that Colorado would fill one of the other 2 holes with a pre-arbitration player and the other with a trade acquisition or free agent. It's more likely to me that Colorado gets the pitcher in a Smith trade and worries about 2B/3B separately.

The obvious preference if you are going to trade Smith is to get a player like Prado to fill one of the infield holes, then fill the other opening internally. Either that or use him in a package to trade for a young pitcher like Jair Jurrjens or the Mets' Jonathon Niese -- a lefty starter who will be 25 on Opening Day and who quietly put together a very good 2011. I think that trading Smith only really makes sense if the Rockies are going to fill one of their 3 big holes with at least a league average player...and if Beltran can be lured to the hitter's paradise at Coors Field for as much as 2 years, $25 million.

I've made it pretty clear in the past few months that I believe that the Rockies' everyday lineup is pretty darn solid. On any given day, Colorado can/will trot out 6 players (Tulo, Cargo, Dex, Helton/Giambi, Smith, and Hernandez -- replacing Iannetta) who produced at an above average level offensively (over 100 wRC+ -- which is a park-adjusted stat -- in 2011). That's as many above average hitters as any 2011 NL playoff team, in case you were wondering.

The main thing dragging Colorado down was putrid performance from 2B/3B and from the reserves. This fact is why I opined in October that Colorado really only needed to shore up 2B/3B/SP and their terrible bench. The trouble is, the 2B/3B market was looking pretty fallow, so much so that I advocated keeping Ian Stewart as the starter in 2012. Obviously that particular scenario isn't going to happen now, but the point is that 2nd, 3rd, and platoon RH OF are where Colorado should be focusing its attention, providing they aren't able to get Beltran in conjunction with a productive Smith trade. After all, a cheaper righty platoon partner for Smith like Andruw Jones or Jonny Gomes would likely be equivalent to a full Michael Cuddyer at half the price.

If Colorado will commit to playing their "A" lineup consistently (and against RHP, they have no reason not to) and if health/age don't cause one of the core 6 to go down, Colorado could really be a surprise offensively in 2012 without even adding a piece. I'm not saying that Colorado is an offensive juggernaut as currently constructed -- I'm just illustrating that they aren't as far away from being a playoff-caliber offense as you think. The NL West is eminently winnable, and I think that filling in the gaps in the bench, infield, and rotation will keep the Rockies solidly in contender status.

Basically, I'm arguing that it is easier and more cost effective to go from terrible to passable in the rotation/bench than from average to good as a starting offense (particularly outfield). I think that with Kevin Slowey, Tyler Colvin, and DJ LeMahieu on board, the process of upgrading the rotation/bench from terrible to passable is well underway.

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