As the 2011 MLB Trade Deadline draws near, the Colorado Rockies find themselves with a question they haven't had to answer in some time: how to be effective sellers.
Really, it's pretty awesome that the team hasn't been blatant sellers at the deadline since 2005, when Joe Kennedy, Jay Witasick, and Shawn Chacon were traded for Larry Bigbie, Omar Quintanilla, and Ramon Ramirez. In 2005, the Rockies were in the midst of the first stage of a youth movement, the first fruition of a massive rebuild, so the moves were relatively minor in the grand scheme of the rebuild.
The first phase of youth has mostly come and gone, and the Rockies are relying on the second wave of talent to keep their claim of sustainability afloat. Gone are the days of Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday, Jeff Francis, and Clint Barmes, and production (or a lack thereof) without any real accountability. Because really, the Rockies hadn't "arrived" yet. You could excuse wasted offense and constantly disappointing pitching on the fact that the team hadn't really arrived, that the players were still growing as major leaguers, that soon, it'd all be for something, that the games would count.
But now, 6 years later, the Rockies are at a much different point. Things have changed. Now, the team's successes and failures aren't just going through the motions on route to the Promised Land. Trying to compete in this organizational model was initially like climbing a hill to a plateau of success. Now that the team has "plateaued", the success is really seeing how large that mesa is, how long they can keep that window open before having to shut it, trade off players and restock the system with young, cost controlled talent.
During the offseason, the prevailing stance was that the Rockies had until 2014 to win it before beginning the next cycle of development/rebuild. After Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez signed their long terms deals, it seemed like that window just got a lot bigger, a lot more open. The only remaining question was how to handle Ubaldo Jimenez.
So now the team sits at 49-56, 12 games out of the division. Clearly things have not gone according to the original plan. It's hard not to step back and reevaluate where the team is at this point, where the organization is.
More post jump.
The core of the team seems to be solid. Despite relatively down years, Cargo and Tulo are still excellent contributors to the team. Jhoulys Chacin, despite a recent bout with extreme wildness, is shaping up to be a top-of-the-rotation starter for years to come. Ubaldo Jimenez has rebounded from his awful start and looks to have discovered how to pitch again, regardless of diminished velocity. Rex Brothers and Matt Reynolds seem to have the bullpen held down (and really, bullpens come and go anyhow).
The problem comes when you step outside of that core of players. Jason Hammel is having arguably the worst year of his career. Todd Helton is having a great season, but he's not going to be around forever, and really isn't the "core" moving forward anymore. Dexter Fowler has been an average CF, which is fine, honestly. Seth Smith has been above average, which is great. Despite the contributions of Mark Ellis and Ty Wigginton, 2B and 3B have been nothing short of abysmal. Ian Stewart, Chris Nelson, Jose Lopez, Johnny Herrera - these guys were supposed to take the position and finally have those breakout years that everyone hoped for.
A lot of the problem with trying to evaluate these deficiencies is that we look at each piece in a vacuum. If we exclude Stewart's miserable 2011, he's a slightly below league-average bat. Including 2011 makes him decidedly below average. Despite a below average UZR, Stewart's defense as been solid (with occasional lapses in judgment), but overall he's been a below-average player. Which isn't the worst thing in the world, when you consider other positions that the production is made up at. Dexter Fowler is somewhat similar - league average bat (slightly below) with plus CF defense. Seth Smith has finally had a solid year as a starter with average-to-below average defense in the OF. You could toss Chris Iannetta on this pile as well. Average-to-slightly-above-average.
Right there, that's 4 positions that kind of muddle around that range of somewhat-above-average to somewhat-below-average production. If we just took Ian Stewart at 3B, we could say, "well, Tulowitzki is such a good bat at SS, we can excuse Stewart's low production because Tulo picks up the slack, provided that Stewart defensively keeps up his end of the bargain". Same goes for Fowler in CF, Iannetta behind the plate, or whatever 80 wRC+ utility guy the Rockies throw out at 2B. That rationale works when you have 1, maybe, maybe 2 positions that fall under that "below average but made up for by SS" umbrella. If you raise that number, you're suddenly looking at a team that HAS to have its centerpieces performing at superstar levels to keep the rest of the lineup afloat.
Right now, the Rockies aren't that team.
So what can the FO do to improve the situation? Well, there are a few options:
1. Get involved in FA during the offseason.
During the 2011 season, trade Ty Wigginton ASAP. No offense to the guy, but this way you can play Ian Stewart every day come hell or high water for the rest of the year. Once the year is out, Stewart will either have regained some sort of value and can be traded, or has plummeted even farther and will be nontendered.
Once you have 3B available, reach deep into the coffers and sign Aramis Ramirez to a 4 year deal worth some stupid amount of money (probably in the $60M-80M range). Doing this would hold down 3B for the next 2 years while Nolan Arenado continues to develop, and when Todd Helton retires (or just becomes Jason Giambi) you can move Ramirez over to 1B for the 2014-2015 seasons. Ramirez is a steadily well-above-average bat, right on the cusp of All Star level performance, and would fit right into a role so sorely lacking in the Rockies lineup.
Sign Kelly Johnson to play 2B. He's having a down year thus far, but Johnson has one of those "every-other-year" things going on, and having that infusion of talent in the 2B position would be very welcome to many a Rockies fan.
Should signing Johnson not work out, re-upping Mark Ellis would be a cost-effective alternative, and would free the club to pursue an upgrade on Seth Smith, such as Michael Cuddyer, Nick Swisher (if the Yankees don't exercise their team option - they will), or maybe even Ryan Ludwick (although I don't see Ludwick as being an improvement on Seth Smith).
Bottom line, the Rockies need to upgrade at least 2 of the 4 positions (2B, 3B, RF, CF) in question here. I don't see a readily available CF upgrade on Fowler, but 2 of the remaining 3 - if not all 3 - HAVE to take a step up.
If FA doesn't work for you though, you could try:
2. Trading at the deadline/during the offseason
Here's the tricky part of this strategy: whom exactly do you trade and how do you make upgrades on your roster through trade? What CF is out there that would definitively upgrade CF for the Rockies that is also available? Or thinking a bit outside of the position, you could acquire a LF and move Cargo to CF again. Some guys who come to mind include mostly guys who aren't going to be moved (Alex Gordon, Shane Victorino, Michael Bourn, Adam Jones), and they'd likely require pretty hefty prospect loads.
The team isn't just trying to reinforce its 2012 roster, though. They've made it clear that they need to restock the upper levels of the farm as well as improve the major league club. There isn't a single player on the team that carries enough oomph to get the kind of return we need to build on while also improving the majors. This is why Ubaldo Jimenez has been talked about so much. Is trading your best pitcher a great idea for making yourself better in the future? Not necessarily. But if we're seriously talking about the earlier-mentioned package from the Yankees (2 top-tier SP prospects, 1 top C prospect, and one MLB pitcher - Betances, Banuelos, Montero, Nova), it's still something that needs to be considered.
But why Ubaldo? Well, here's why: of all the players available, none have the value to get the kind of return the Rockies need. The farm isn't ready to turn out any more big names immediately, and the organization would probably like to have another wave of youth come up in the fashion they've become accustomed to. This necessitates moving either Jimenez, Gonzalez, or Tulowitzki. You simply can't move Tulowitzki; the fallout would be nightmarish. You can't really move Gonzalez either; his contract may provide stability for the Rockies, but it would be a hindrance for other clubs who'd be interested in acquiring him. The Rockies would end up eating a good chunk of that money almost assuredly. This pretty much leaves Ubaldo Jimenez. He's not nailed down by a long term contract, and while his production isn't easily replaced, it could potentially leave the Rockies with upgrades at other positions that could make up for the lost production.
Are prospect returns a sure thing? Of course they aren't. The difference is that the current roster is looking like more of a sure thing: win totals in the low 80s, barring massive injury, in which case it looks more like ".500 or bust!" Again, no, forecasts and predictions are not sure things. Stewart and Fowler and everyone could suddenly break out and the Rockies could go on an absurd tear during the final 2 months of the regular season. But realistically speaking, we have to plan based around the best information and forecasting we have.
So if the return matches up with the Rockies' expectations on what you'd get from a Ubaldo Jimenez trade, it's something that needs to be very seriously considered. Unless, you'd rather:
3. Sit pat and just hope for the best
Let's not forget that Ubaldo, Jorge De La Rosa, Carlos Gonzalez, and Troy Tulowitzki to name a few have all lost time due to injury. If you recall 2009, 155 of the Rockies' 162 starts were made by the same 5 guys: Ubaldo, DLR, Jason Marquis, Jason Hammel, and Aaron Cook. The 2010 Giants had 150 of their starts made by the same 5 guys (Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Zito, Bumgarner). Keeping a healthy and talented rotation in one piece is a clear pathway to success for the Rockies.
This particular method is the most purple-tinted of them all, because it expects every current major leaguer to play to the best of their capabilities, have breakout years, stay healthy, and then any prospects looking to make an impact also suddenly reach their potential and lock down their positions for years to come. Guys like Christian Friedrich don't encounter any further setbacks, and random FA targets the Rockies kick the tires on turn into the next Jason Marquis or Jorge De La Rosa or dare I say Ryan Vogelsong.
The next few years would see the MLB arrival of Wilin Rosario and Nolan Arenado as the next Big Deals to step onto the playing surface at Coors Field. Guys like Thomas Field, Tim Wheeler, and Charles Blackmon would slide right into starting positions and experience little to no rookie adjustment period.
There's something to be said for staying the course, certainly. But let's be realistic here. Sitting pat basically guarantees mediocrity. Yes, again, anything could happen, but if we take the majority of the team's production over the past few years, it's average to above average, with a few Cargo, Tulo, and Ubaldo moments in there to inflate the numbers a bit. Past those 3 (and Helton) though, the team is pretty "meh" and I'm not convinced they're the guys who can get it done any longer. I'm also not convinced that Rosario/Wheeler/Blackmon/Arenado are going to just come up and start making Sportscenter on a nightly basis; there's likely going to be an adjustment period.
So if we take the development time remaining for these guys (in the minors, anyhow) and then factor in, let's say a season of MLB development, we'd probably be looking at the 2013-2014 season for their impact to be felt, and frankly, that might be too late for the Rockies.
So to summarize this debacle of a piece, here's how I see it. You have 2 options: trade Ubaldo or don't trade Ubaldo.
Don't trade Ubaldo, you either have to go on a spending spree (unlikely) or stand pat, and given the organization's reluctance to sign big FAs, that spells mediocrity that comes with standing pat.
If you DO trade Ubaldo, yeah, the team might still suck. The prospects might bomb. The return might end up fizzling. They might end up worse than when they started. On the other hand, they might end up with a couple of guys who fit in the top half of the rotation and another guy or two who could impact another position. Point being, there's chance for catastrophic failure, and there's chance for rampant success.
Basically put, if you don't trade Ubaldo and the ownership doesn't pony up, the team is going to remain mediocre with flashes of good here and there. If you do trade Ubaldo, the team could either get much worse or much better, but certainly not stay right where they are.
So what do I do? Well, I hate to say it, because I love the guy so much, but I want this team to have a shot at competing. A real shot. I want to talk down naysayers by pointing them to our WS ring. I just can't see that happening with the team in the state it's currently in. I'd much rather have Jimenez along than somebody else, but if Jimenez is the key for getting the return that pushes the Rockies over the top in the NL West, well that's a sacrifice a winning club has to make from time to time.
Deep down, isn't that what we all want? For the Colorado Rockies to be a winning baseball club?