Here are two sentences that describe where Colorado stands on this, the final day of the 2013 baseball season in which non-waiver trades can be made:
The Rockies are not going to make the playoffs this year.
The Rockies are, as they have in almost every year of their existence, not going to buy or sell much at the deadline.
I'm not really going out on a limb in saying with either statement. After all, the team is 7.5 games back of LA in the division and has a 1.9% chance of catching them per Baseball Prospectus - therefore the Rockies won't be looking for short term upgrades to the team. Simultaneously, the team doesn't really possess too many pieces that are both a) worth buying by a contender and b) aren't part of the team's 2014 plans.
So in short, I'm perfectly okay with the Rockies not doing anything at the MLB trade deadline. The Rockies, a 64-98 team a year ago, won't quite be able to make that jump to the playoffs this season. In fact, they'll probably nestle into the 75 win range I predicted they would fall into as the year began (maybe even a few games better than that). I don't think that there's any shame in that.
The problem is that I fail to see how this team, given the assets and demerits I will detail below, will become a true World Series contender.
During my scant experience as a member of the credentialed baseball media, I heard a variation of "This is a really talented ball club, we know we have the ability to contend" many times from players or coaches. And they're not wrong: there is a considerable amount of talent on this team. The problem is that it's almost completely concentrated on a few players.
If you asked me to rank the current Rockies by talent (which I will admittedly conflate somewhat with production for simplicity's sake), my top 10 would go something like this:
Your mileage may vary, but I'd bet that most of those players in roughly that order would make your top 10 as well.
The thing is, that's a heck of a top 10, one of the very best in MLB. There's two superstar players, two above average outfielders, two under 25 above average MLB starters, three underrated starting pitchers (two that are 25 or under), and a cost-controlled firebreathing lefty closer. All of these players are under team control through at least 2014.
With a core like that, why do I have doubts about the Rockies' ability to transform into World Series contenders in the next few years? Let me count the ways...
1. Beyond the top 10 listed above, there's a whole lot of below replacement detritus on this roster
Sure, there are some encouraging pieces among the 15 other players on the roster. DJ LeMahieu just turned 25 and he's providing decent production at second base, Juan Nicasio has shown flashes of brilliance as the 4th starter, Yorvit Torrealba has been pretty good as a backup catcher, Rafael Betancourt remains an able reliever, and a couple of bullpen pieces like Adam Ottavino and Josh Outman have been good as well.
Unfortunately, the Rockies have repeatedly shown that they will give significant playing time to below replacement level players.
Using Baseball-Reference's rWAR as a barometer, the Rockies have given plate appearances to nine non-pitcher hitters who are below replacement this year. In other words, not only has Colorado's bench been largely terrible at hitting, they've also cycled through quite a few options with little success.
If you total up the stats from those players, that's 1,108 plate appearances and -6.7 rWAR! To be fair, only two of those players are still on the current roster - one is a brand new call-up in Charlie Culberson and the other is Todd Helton. Only Jonathan Herrera and Torrealba remain from the Opening Day bench - the Rockies' current bench has just 393 plate appearances and 1.1 rWAR this year.
The fact that there has been some cycling through guys like Eric Young, Tyler Colvin, Josh Rutledge, and Jordan Pacheco shows that the team is cognizant of this deficiency. They just don't have major league pieces ready in the minors to fill those holes (more on that later).
On the pitching side, the 4th and 5th starter positions have been a nightmare all year - the Rockies have churned through nine starters this year and, depending on how you view Nicasio, only three or four have been successful. The trio of Chacin, De La Rosa, and Chatwood have exceeded expectations in leading Colorado to 5th in MLB in pitching rWAR - but the other 40% of the rotation has been poor facsimiles of major league pitchers. Between them, the other six starters have -1.6 rWAR in 266 innings pitched.
In terms of the bullpen, Wilton Lopez has been a massive disappointment to me given his pedigree from Houston, but in all I don't have too many problems with the collection of guys the team has now in the pen. With that said, the bullpen is the most transient part of a big league roster and the composition of the pen is very likely to shift in a major way over the next few years.
I'm not saying that the Rockies need to have five versions of Chacin in their starting rotation or seven versions of Rex Brothers in the bullpen (though that would be awesome) to be World Series contenders, but if they don't have good producers at each pitching slot in the roster, they'll need a deep and talented offense to help off-set the pitching deficiency.
In conclusion - the Rockies have several holes on the roster that need to be patched.
2. There's a very high level of performance in that top 10 that will be tough to sustain in future years
Tulowitzki is fantastic when healthy, but at this point it's disingenuous to think he'll play a full season. Gonzalez is healthier, but he's also shown a knack for picking up nagging injuries. Cuddyer is having a career season offensively at age 34, but that belies his terrible outfield defense. Fowler's power is very streaky, Rosario might be streakier (combined with bad catcher defense), and Arenado hasn't quite adjusted to big league pitching yet.
That previous paragraph was a little negative. Tulo and Cargo are superstars. Cuddyer will hopefully move to first base more next year, getting his glove out of harm's way. Fowler is an OBP machine at the top of the lineup and a good defender in center, defensive metrics be darned. Rosario is improving behind the plate and is crazy good for a 24 year-old catcher, and Arenado's defense is good enough to make him worth playing even when his bat is replacement level.
A year removed from major elbow surgery, a 32 year-old De La Rosa is having the best year of his career. Chacin is on pace to break the record of lowest HR/fly ball rate while striking out less men than he has in any other year in his career - indicating that as his HR luck gets worse, he won't be able to compensate by allowing less balls in play. Chatwood basically came out of nowhere, so it's unclear that he'll be able to sustain anywhere close to this level of production going forward. Rex Brothers' 1.24 ERA and 9.3 K/9 is shiny, but he's been outperforming his FIP by two full runs.
That previous paragraph was a little negative. De La Rosa has had multiple good years as a Rockie, Chacin is just 25 and already has three above average years. Chatwood is only 23 and has been pitching for only about five years. Brothers has dominant stuff and looks to be an effective reliever for years to come.
Still...they probably won't be as good in the future as they have been this year.
3. So the Rockies have holes - how exactly does the front office propose to fill them?
As Dan O'Dowd, Bill Geivett, and the Monforts have repeatedly mentioned, the Rockies see themselves as a draft and develop organization - they've been among the most insular MLB organizations with respect to free agent signings or trades.
The problem, as I see it, is that the Rockies are stricken by the Lake Wobegon effect when it comes to their front office personnel and their prospects - everybody can't be above average. Here's what I wrote this offseason about Colorado's draft and develop philosophy:
Colorado has had a number of lower-rated prospects perform at the big league level (think Brad Hawpe and Chris Iannetta) and the Latin American pipeline has provided the Rockies with many of their successful arms (e.g. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jhoulys Chacin). It's just that in the aggregate the organization as a whole hasn't been extremely successful in its history -- never winning the NL West for example -- and nobody ever seems to be accountable for this lack of overall success.
The Rockies are loyal to their people because they've seen the little successes produced by those people while failing to see the overall lack of progress (and in the case of pitching, regression) overseen by these same people. They are predisposed to think that their organization is above average at these things, so why would they fire above average employees?
If you take an honest look at the Rockies' minor league system, there are a few shining lights. I think that the Grand Junction club has a lot of exciting talent, while pitching prospects like Jonathan Gray, Eddie Butler, and Chad Bettis provide above average big leaguer potential.
There's a few position player prospects who could develop into that kind of player (David Dahl, Trevor Story, Kyle Parker, Rosell Herrera, and Tom Murphy come to mind), but all of them are either very far away or are not projected as future stars - and most of Colorado's prospects in the high minors project more as AAAA or at best part-time players.
If the Rockies are going to stick to their guns as a true draft and develop organization, their system needs to be producing more quality big league regulars - because at the big league level the team is in desperate need of competent MLB hitters on the bench and starters to provide decent innings at the back of the rotation.
Maybe Corey Dickerson (in particular), Charlie Blackmon, and the others who have populated the big league roster at times this year will grow into that type of hitter. Maybe Christian Friedrich or Edwar Cabrera will become the Tyler Chatwood of 2014 - forgotten prospects who made good at the big league level.
I just don't feel particularly good about the Rockies' chances of filling their holes from within - and I wonder if the front office is truly willing to look outside the organization to find the solutions to the problems - even trading some prospects away for that value (or even swapping them with prospects from other organizations - many of which are also draft and develop organizations!) if they truly mean to contend in 2014.
During the offseason I wrote about the Rockies' self-evaluation problem:
The other 29 teams have farm systems too, and those farm systems might contain prospects that are better than our prospects. Furthermore, it might be necessary every once in a while to trade the potential of top prospects away for the more certain production of major league talent.
I'm a patient, reasonable guy who gets that success won't all come at once to a team in Colorado's situation. I'm willing and able to see the big picture and understand the constraints the Rockies face with respect to altitude and the free agent market. The problem with the Rockies is that I'm not sure how the current big picture I'm seeing gets the Rockies from a 75 win team into the playoffs and back to the World Series.
ESPN's Sweetspot blog has been running a series in which it details each team's best ever deadline deal. The Rockies' turn came up and the best they could find was the Betancourt trade. Just don't read the Padres section.
Jonathan Bernhardt of Sports on Earth writes about Carlos Gonzalez's road prowess this year. CarGo really has learned historically to take advantage of his home park - and since that will remain his home park barring a trade for the next 4.5 years, it's not a bad skill set to have. If he retains this road prowess, CarGo will become an even more valuable piece for the Rockies.
Troy Renck argues that the Rockies should pick up Jorge De La Rosa's option now and look to re-sign him. I certainly agree with re-signing De La Rosa, who has proven that he can pitch well at altitude and likes to be here. I do think that Renck is understating the injury risk with Jorge though - he's a 32 year-old pitcher a season removed from major elbow surgery. I think the Rockies will ultimately sign him to a two year deal with an option instead of picking up the 2014 deal - much as they have with Betancourt and Matt Belisle over the last couple of years.
Matt Swartz at Fangraphs writes at length about the economics of baseball's war on PEDs. For an econ minor like me, it's a fantastic look at the situation.