Best (possible) case scenario for the 2014 Colorado Rockies

Thomas B. Shea

Confused by the recent Rockies news? Grasping for answers on Dexter Fowler and Justin Morneau? Here's one man's attempt to dive into a world where this all makes sense and find answers wherever they may be.

It's been a crazy few days in baseball. Judging by the reactions on the internet, it's been a nightmarish few days for Colorado Rockies fans. In case you haven't heard (you have) the Rockies traded Dexter Fowler for two guys who's own mothers might not have made the trade if they were running the club at 20th and Blake.

Then the Rockies used the savings on Justin Morneau which sent a very clear signal; either they don't know what they're doing, or they are about to prove a lot of people wrong by finding another pitcher-in-the-rough and employing a highly effective, stats-oriented platoon system.

In the midst of a lot of understandable pain, anger, and frustration, I found this observation from one Chris Chrisman to be exquisitely on-point:

"I think following a baseball club is fun regardless of whether they're good or bad (or in between), or run well or poorly (or in between). Baseball is intrinsically good, and there's joy to be derived whether your team is the St. Louis Cardinals or the St. Louis Browns. So while I'd greatly prefer rooting for a winner rather than a loser, the difference between the two isn't enough for me to give up or switch to another team." -Chris Chrisman

It is in that spirit (or resignation to the fact that most of us are not going anywhere) that I embark upon the journey of trying to see these moves through the eyes of the Rockies brass. It can be both fun and educational to ponder the best possible way this can work out without being burdened for a moment by the mental block that is the certitude that things won't workout perfectly.

Much of this is a crystallization of points being made by others and an extrapolation on several points that RhosdIslandRoxFan touched on in this video segment. Therefore, I highly recommend a viewing.

And so I present, however likely or unlikely, the best case scenarios for how these moves will help the Rockies toward being a surprise contender in 2014.

...get ready to be sick of the word "scenario."

1. Tulo and Cargo Remain Healthy and Productive

After the dust settles and heart-rates fall back from the stratosphere - and those who need to replace their Hulk-smashed, purple-shorts-matching t-shirts have done so - there will still be Cargo and there will still be Tulo.

What is the single biggest factor in the Rockies win total next season? Or any season since 2007? Probably the production of Troy Tulowitzki. This is to say that no player could affect the team in a wider range, either for the worse by not playing at all, or for the better by putting up and MVP caliber season.

He is still the heartbeat of this team and a season of his very best, coupled with another good Carlos Gonzalez season could end up requiring very little of the supporting cast.

Best Case Scenario: Tulo finally wins the MVP award (really not out of the realm of possibility) while putting together an injury free season. Carlos Gonzalez puts on a show-stopping "Robin" act, having one of the better seasons of his career allowing the rest of Colorado's offense to fall into place nicely.

2. Jhoulys de la Chatwood Maintains

If JDLC was really one person, what I said about Tulo above would be false. Alas, the Rockies three top arms are also attached to three different people and their likely regression is as well documented as their stellar 2013 performances. Since we are being positive right now I can see two reasonable best-case scenarios for JDLC in 2014.

(Yes I said "we" so if you are reading this you tacitly consent to being positive. Ha!)

Best Case Scenario 1: Jorge de la Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin regress while Tyler Chatwood takes the next step.

In this scenario, Jorge regresses slightly due to age and Chacin due to 2013 being too ridiculous to repeat. However, much to the surprise of some, Tyler Chatwood regains his form and even takes another step forward in his progression, capitalizing on his potential and moving from exciting piece to potential ace, especially when factoring in the extra innings from a fully healthy season.

Best Case Scenario 2: Chatwood and JDLR regress, Chacin becomes true ace.

Behind curtain number two, Chatwood makes his expected regression but remains a good rotation pitcher. Jorge de la Rosa regresses again, which I could absolutely see not happening, just trying not to go completely off the deep end with the best of all "possible worlds" idea.

The interesting part here is that I actually could see Chacin, coming into his physical prime, really putting it all together and establishing himself as a legitimate major league ace.

Ok, less exciting Scenario 3: Nothing that dramatic happens one way or another for any of the three but the amalgamation of progressions, regressions, and general production amount to roughly the same three-headed, monster-of-the-hill that Rockies fans came to love in 2013.

3. Jordan Lyles = Tyler Chatwood 2.0

This has to happen in order for anyone to ever be o.k. with the Dexter Fowler trade. His unimpressive MLB numbers to this point, his youth, and his quick rise through the minor leagues represent the totality of the legitimate comparisons to Tyler Chatwood. Well, that and the fact that many people are doubting now, like they were for Chatwood before 2013, that this young pitcher will ever realize his potential.

It should of course be noted that Lyles fWAR of .4 in 2013 in 141.2 IP would be better than what the Rockies got out of any single 5th rotation starter last season. Fangraph's "Steamer" projection system predicts a 4.55 ERA and a .7 fWAR for Lyles in 2013. Their "Oliver" system projects ironically the exact same fWAR output for both Chatwood and Lyles; 1.5.

If Lyles surpasses that number, a lot of people will be surprised. But it wouldn't even be going the whole Chatwood (from 0.3 to 2.0) so I'm using the 1.5 fWAR mark as the reasonable place for optimists to quietly drink our purple kool-aid.

The Rockies actually have a decent track record of pitcher reclamation projects lately (JDLR, Chatwood) and if Lyles is the next one, it goes a long way toward explaining an otherwise maddening trade.

Best Case Scenario: Jordan Lyles cements himself as a serviceable, innings eating, and even occasionally dominant 4th rotation guy, a la Chatwood, and becomes a very exciting young piece for the team (one last time all together now...just like Chatwood!) going into only his age 23 season.

4. Crop of young pitchers produces a gem or two

In order for 2014 not to be an unmitigated disaster, two of Jordan Lyles, Juan Nicasio, Drew Pomeranz, Cristian Friedrich, Chad Bettis, Jon Gray, or Eddie Butler need to equal out to at least two MLB average starting pitchers.

Best Case Scenario: Two of Jordan Lyles, Juan Nicasio, Drew Pomeranz, Cristian Friedrich, Chad Bettis, Jon Gray, and Eddie Butler become at least MLB average starting pitchers...and then a little bit more.

5. Brandon Barnes, the depth we never knew we needed

My biggest problem with this whole thing in my initial reactions was that I felt they handcuffed the team defensively. I had been of the mindset that the best thing to do was to stick Cuddyer's below average defense at first base and upgrade by adding a quality outfielder. But without me noticing (o.k. I admit to having maybe once heard of Brandon Barnes before Tuesday) the Rockies may have done just that...

Well, at least for games against left-handed pitchers. Every defensive metric, every eye test, and all the hearsay points to Barnes being nothing short of an outstanding outfielder. On paper, he appears to be the proverbial "all glove, no bat" guy that often gets eaten alive at the big league level. But he may prove to be the depth we never knew we needed.

As RIRF points out in the video, Barnes has significantly better numbers against lefties than he does against righties and has for his whole career. If his role on this team is as a late game defensive sub/right handed pinch hitter/occasional starter against lefties, then the Rockies may have figured out a way to dramatically improve the outfield defense and bench depth at absolute minimal financial cost.

Best Case Scenario: Brandon Barnes starts against left-handed pitchers putting up an approximation of his career average .736 OPS and spells Cuddyer, Morneu, and even Dickerson and Blackmon in some games in the outfield, presumably after all these hitters have taken early leads.

6. Justin Morneau, a renaissance man

I'm putting the legitimate over/under at 1.5 fWAR for Justin Morneau in 2014. I'll take the over and wouldn't call anyone foolish for taking the under.

RIRF notes in the video that one of the biggest worries in losing Dexter Fowler is losing his ability to get on base. Dex has a career BB% of 12.3 percent and OBP of .365. While I like the ideas that RIRF mentions of some of the young guys like Dickerson, Blackmon, or even Arenado taking upticks in this department, I think the safest bet to address this specific need is the newly acquired Justin Morneau.

If you average his last two good seasons (2009 and 2010) and his last two seasons in general, Morneau's BB% comes to 10.775 and his OBP to .363. None of those numbers include Coors Field. That plus the possibility of him being platooned wisely (to be discussed more in a moment) could mean that those numbers are actually the low end of what to expect from him.

Another interesting wrinkle in this is that (other than a 40 game rookie season) Justin Morneau's career high in strike out percentage is 17.9 percent. Dexter Fowler (not counting his 13 game rookie cup-of-coffee) has never posted a number lower than 20.6 percent in his MLB career. Over their whole careers, Fowler strikes out at a 22.3 percent clip, while Morneau sits at a cool 15.6 percent.

Morneau has been a slightly above average guy at seeing pitches (3.81 p/PA last season) so in the aggregate may end up being a fair replacement for the patience/on base that the Rockies are losing in Dexter Fowler, while adding more consistent power.

Also, according to this, James Loney (a favorite around here to take over at first base) could be seeking a three year $27-30M contract. If he gets anything close to that, the Rockies got a steal in Morneau for 2/$13M.

Best Case Scenario: Justin Morneau has a renaissance and then some, posting a Cuddyeresque, career season aided by Coors Field, hitting in a deep lineup, being a year further away from injuries and being put in only the best situations for him to succeed.

Which brings us to...

7. Platoon-o-rama

Dick and Charlie are ready to be put to creative use! That is, Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon. Who else?

A number of questions have arisen about lineup construction. As of right now, here are the best lineups I can think of:

VS. RHP

Gonzalez

Dickerson

Morneau

Tulowitzki

Cuddyer

Rosario

Arenado

DJLM/Rutledge

Pitcher

If Cuddyer regresses, which seems likely, and/or starts to really struggle against righties, you could even insert Charlie Blackmon in his place, improving the defense and loading up on left-handed bats. This would also allow Cuddyer, like in the Morneau case, to save his energy for the handedness-of-pitcher that really tickles his fancy.

VS. LHP

Barnes

Gonzalez

Tulowitzki

Cuddyer

Rosario

Arenado

Blackmon/Dickerson

DJLM/Rutledge

Pitcher

If Barnes puts up the .736 OPS discussed above, this is a scary lineup for any southpaw.

The combination of Blackmon, Dickerson, and Barnes (and I guess throw Charlie Culberson in there) gives the Rockies the flexibility to rest their old guys, make effective late-game substitutions, and mitigate the negatives of certain players with dramatic splits.

RIRF gives an excellent breakdown in the video from 13:35-16:25 on exactly how and why this kind of system can work.

He mentions in the video that properly platooning Morneau, Barnes, and Cuddyer could easily lead to a .850 or even a .900 OPS from first base, obviously a huge upgrade from a year ago. If we give that number the best-case-scenario bump and stick it at .950, a lineup that already had terrorizing moments last season just turned its biggest weakness into a major strength.

In Conclusion

Looking over those lineups, and really this whole exercise, has led me to two singular truths that must manifest in order for this idea to be successful.

1.) The Rockies front office and coaching staff must be both willing and able to execute an on-field strategy of creativity, flexibility, and acute insight into almost every facet of the game which needs to be employed on a near daily basis.

and...

2.) A logical final move is for the Rockies to spend most of the between $4M and $7M in remaining savings on a catcher that hits left-handers well and plays solid defense.

The reason for this second conclusion is that such a player would complete the platoon-circle-of-life and allow the Rockies to trot out a lineup of entirely right-handed hitters and Carlos Gonzalez. It would also upgrade defense at catcher and give Rosario's knees some much needed time off while keeping his bat in at 1B.

The only problem is, I'm not sure this player exists. Maybe Kurt Suzuki just needs some fresh mountain air? Maybe the Rockies can swing a trade for a slightly more expensive backup catcher?

Maybe the Rockies just go platoon crazy and split that money between a catcher of the described profile and a left-handed second baseman to platoon with LeMahieu or Rutledge and trade the other one for a pitcher of some kind. Or are they done spending money?

I shared this story in the comments yesterday, but after all the craziness was finally slowing down in my head from these latest moves, I turned my DVR to one of my favorite shows from when I was a kid; Michael J. Fox's Spin City. In this particular episode, the Mayor was dealing with some anxiety about his predecessor and Mike tells him, "sir, you don't have to be jealous of him." And the Mayor responds, "I'm not jealous, Mike, I just want what he has."

I couldn't help but think of the Rockies already infamous "Not a salary dump! We have PLANS for the money!" sentiment. Spending on an above average backup catcher and/or another bullpen arm could prove the trade more defensible... but it is now, and will forever have been, a big fat honking salary dump.

***

Even with all these best case scenarios, I never posited in an in-depth way the outside chance that either Jon Gray or Eddie Butler gets cashed in as insurance for Jordan Lyles or Juan Nicasio and ends up taking the league by storm. Improbable? Yes. Impossible? Not at all.

But it really is the conclusion I arrived at first that likely will be the sticking point for many Rockies fans. To paraphrase another valid RIRF point, how playing time is allocated will have a major impact on the overall competitiveness of this team.

The signing of coaching neophyte Blake Doyle as the new hitting instructor may be one sign that they are ready for some new, potentially outside-the-box ideas.

Ultimately, however, it remains that many will always and forever believe that the Rockies simply could have gotten a better return for Dexter Fowler, and that regardless of how well Lyles and Barnes play the Rockies should have at least valued their biggest trade chip more than this return suggests...especially in this market.

The last few days scream, "we're the smartest guys in the room!" Especially the Jordan Lyles part. And many fans would be quick to point out that the Rockies have given us very little reason to believe them to be the smartest guys in any room designed to create championship Major League Baseball teams.

And yet, if somehow this all works out how I've showed it might, they will certainly look a lot smarter than anyone is giving them credit for now.

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