On Monday, we had some fun speculating about the possibility of the Rockies being the mystery team that offered James Shields a five-year, $110 million contract. Unless there's some actual movement on that front however, the James Shields road is an aesthetic dead end.
Even if the Rockies did make that offer, there's a very good chance Shields doesn't sign with the mystery team. And if the Rockies don't surprise the baseball world and land one of the few remaining big pitching targets on the board via trade or free agency, then they are solidly in the "wait until 2016 to truly open the contention window" boat.
If the Rockies do find themselves aboard this vessel -- and yes, this is the ship I would elect to take -- then they need to take steps over the next eight months to maximize their resources for next year and beyond. One of the more interesting ways they might be able to do this is with Jhoulys Chacin's upcoming contract.
Chacin enters 2015 as one of eight Colorado players eligible for arbitration, meaning he doesn't yet have a contract but is under team control for the upcoming season. (The Rockies have already settled three of these cases, signing Drew Stubbs and Jordan Lyles to one-year deals and Tyler Chatwood to a two-year contract on Wednesday.) However, unlike the majority of the players in this group, Chacin currently has just over five years of major league service time, which means that the Rockies control him for one more year, and only one more year before he hits the necessary six years of service time where he's eligible to hit the free agent market.
For the Rockies, this setup is not ideal. In Chacin, they have a pitcher who's proved extremely effective when healthy, racking up ERA+ scores of 142, 126, and 129 in 2010, 2011, and 2013, but also a a guy who like so many of their players, can't seem to stay on the field. If the club is planning to seriously contend in 2016, this creates a bit of a problem. The Rockies would love to have a healthy and effective Jhoulys Chacin on their roster going forward, but there's no obvious way to get that over the long haul. In fact, if you talk to some people, they already believe Chacin is done being an effective pitcher after his latest shoulder injury.
According to the generally very accurate Matt Swartz over at MLB Trade Rumors, Chacin is set to earn about $4.9 million in 2015. This represents only a one percent raise from the $4.85 million figure he made during a dismal and injury-plagued 2014. The Rockies could just offer Chacin a one-year contract in this neighborhood and see how things go, but I'm not sure this is their best option.
Instead of offering Chacin a one-year deal around $5 million, it might be interesting for the Rockies to consider offering Chacin a significant raise next season. Let's say around 65 percent higher than the number he made last season, putting his 2015 contract around $8 million. (The exact figure is not important, I'm just throwing out a general number that seems fair in my mind. It can be tweaked if necessary.)
In exchange for this generosity, the Rockies would offer a contract that includes a club option for 2016 at around the same $8 million salary as 2015.
Risk vs. Reward for the Rockies
The gamble here for the team is offering an addition $3 million to a player they don't need to give a raise to after last year's injury filled campaign. For some, this will seem especially risky since there's no guarantee Chacin will ever be an effective major league pitcher again.
On the other hand, if Chacin does come back in 2015 and puts together a season like 2013 after his 2012 injury, then the Rockies have really scored a coup for 2016. Here, the club would have another reliable veteran arm to lean on as the kids continue to mature, and they'd have it for a price much lower than they'll find anywhere else for similar value.
Also, if Chacin pitches poorly or is injured again and just looks done as a pitcher, then the Rockies can elect to decline the 2016 option and not tie up any addition payroll going forward.
Risk vs. Reward for Chacin
The scenario where Chacin loses out in this deal involves him pitching well in 2015 and then not being able to enter the free agent market next winter where he'd likely receive significantly more than $8 million in 2016.
At the same time, however, he might have an even stronger case as a free agent if he's able to put together two healthy seasons in a row with the Rockies before entering the market. Currently, Chacin is going into his age 27 season, so he'll still be plenty young enough to score a huge payday two years from now if he pitches anywhere close to the way he's pitched when healthy so far in his career.
This offer also gives Chacin more money than he otherwise has any chance of seeing if the opposite is true and his shoulder injury really has permanently destroyed his ability to be an above average pitcher.
An Uncertain Future
As you've probably noticed by now, the positive and negative scenarios for each side with an offer like this weigh heavily on Chacin's health and ability to be an effective pitcher going forward. The truth is that the fan base has absolutely no way of knowing which Chacin they are going to see in the near or distant future, and that's a really big deal because the difference between having a pitcher like 2013 Chacin on the roster and having a pitcher like 2014 Chacin on the roster is enormous.
The club on the other hand should have a little better idea of what the future holds for this pitcher. There's no way they can tell for sure one way or the other, but with the medical reports they have at their disposal, they should be able to make an educated guess. If they see Chacin as a guy likely to be healthy and effective going forward, they should seriously consider exploring a contract offer that involves more money in 2015 in exchange for a club option in 2016. I'm guessing they at least think this scenario is possible since they haven't cut him from the 40-man roster when they've had a few chances to do so.
We'll have to keep a close eye out on this over the next couple of weeks and see how this plays out, but Chacin's situation certainly leaves the Rockies in a position to get creative and strengthen their position over the next two years if things break right.