Building a baseball team is hard, and it becomes even harder when a team's payroll is hamstrung. Being a small- to mid-market club has its disadvantages anyway. But the shortcomings are much more prevalent when a large percentage of payroll is tied up in a small amount of players.
The Jeff Bridich era of the Colorado Rockies will begin that way. The new man in charge immediately has to figure out ways to build a more balanced roster, and do so with a payroll that likely won't exceed $100 million. It's a workable amount under normal circumstances, but consider this: Colorado, if it chooses to tender a contract to Jhoulys Chacin, will likely have seven players making $5 million or more. Their total earnings will fall somewhere around $71-72 million, meaning the Rockies will have fewer than $30 million to allocate to the remaining rostered players.
It's not a problem unique to Colorado, but it's a problem nonetheless. The Rockies could go one of two ways: they could ship out Troy Tulowitzki and/or Carlos Gonzalez and cut a significant chunk -- between $15-35 million -- off their payroll, or they could start with lower-hanging fruit.
Justin Morneau, who will make just shy of $7 million in 2014, falls into the latter category. And he is a great trade chip -- possibly the Rockies' best, in fact -- considering he's fairly cheap, is coming off of a batting title that was not a creation of Coors Field, plays well-above-average defense and is finally healthy.
Morneau has appeared in 134 or more games in three consecutive seasons, but during a large portion of that time, he was dealing with the after-effects of multiple concussions. The 33-year-old Canadian has some distance from those issues now, and it showed in his all-around game in 2014. Morneau hit .319/.364/.496 -- .309/.364/.475 away from Denver -- and was eight runs above average in the field. He would've been a darkhorse MVP candidate on a better team. On the Rockies, he's a luxury the club can't afford.
Fortunately for Colorado, Morneau should have some trade value. And the list of suitors likely wouldn't be short. Somewhere between four and six teams, depending on their perceived contention status, are in desperate need of an upgrade at first base. The Yankees, Mariners, Padres, Marlins, and Astros fall into this category. Obviously Houston and probably San Diego aren't going to make that leap next season, but teams have done stranger things than acquiring a guy like Morneau in an attempt to remain in the good graces of fans.
Mark Teixeira might be a bounce-back candidate in New York, but even if he is, the Yankees could use a designated hitter. The Marlins tried to platoon Jeff Baker and Garrett Jones at first base in 2014, and it didn't work out all that well. Morneau would be a solid option there offensively and is a much better defender than either of those guys. The Mariners' first base situation is a train wreck; Logan Morrison is awful, Corey Hart is awful, Kendrys Morales wasn't very good in 2014 and is a DH anyway ... you get the point. For some reason, Seattle always matches up well as a potential trade partner for the Rockies, and this is no different.
So it seems the Marlins and Mariners have the biggest need for Morneau. What do those teams have to offer that would be of interest to the Rockies? That depends on what the trade market for the four-time All-Star truly looks like. Might one team be desperate enough to part with one of its good young pitchers, such as James Paxton, Henderson Alvarez or Nathan Eovaldi? It may take more than Morneau to get a deal like that done, but it's worth at least entertaining from Colorado's perspective. Or, perhaps the Rockies think they can win sooner than later, and ask for Hisashi Iwakuma in a deal with Seattle?
Call me crazy, but what if Colorado gets really creative and uses Morneau effectively to work out a deal with the Nationals for Jordan Zimmermann? Washington could use some left-handed-hitting depth, and the Rockies likely have the prospects -- assuming that's what the Nats would want -- to supplement the offer.
The point is, Morneau has some trade value, particularly after his strong 2014 season, and the Rockies don't need him. They do need pitching and help at other positions, and could use the 2006 AL MVP to get it.
And perhaps the best part? Filling his shoes would be easy.
The Pirates designated Ike Davis for assignment on Thursday, putting themselves in a position to trade or release him if another team doesn't put in a claim. Waiting for that to happen might be a risky proposition, but it's possible no club would claim the 27-year-old first baseman; Davis is projected to make $4.4 million next season, a lot of money for player who has yet to put it all together.
However, if Davis can be had on the cheap, he'd be a huge upside play. The 2008 first-round draft pick has huge power potential, as he showed with a 32-homer campaign in 2012, and can get on base in ways that don't require a hit. Davis finished with the fourth-best walk rate in baseball -- and was tops in the NL -- among players with 300 or more plate appearances. Parting with a proven road hitter in Morneau would be tough, but having a player like Davis who has intriguing on-base skills would soften the blow.
Using Morneau to their advantage in ways other than giving him 140 starts at first base is the type of move Bridich and the Rockies need to be making as they enter a pivotal time in the franchise's short history. If Colorado's brass plays its cards right, it could set the team up for success not only in the future, but also in the present.