On a recent episode of Baseball Prospectus’s Effectively Wild podcast, hosts Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh talked a bit about which team is furthest away from contention. One of the nominees was the Rockies. As a Rockies enthusiast, this sent my mind in a few directions.
The first two had to do with perception. On the one hand, perhaps they (and the many other nonpurpled folks who would likely offer the same answer if asked) dismissed the Rockies because the team and its system are just not there to the same extent as other organizations. On the other hand, maybe the purpled folks like me are overvaluing the organization’s potential in the future. It’s very easy to see disproportionate success in what is most familiar, especially when it comes to prospects.
Lastly, the comment made me think about how the Rockies, as an organization, compare to other currently competitive teams who went through recent rebuilds. In particular, if 2017 is the start of a window of contention, as is suggested so frequently around here, what do the Rockies chances look like if we map where the organization is now onto to teams like the Royals, Pirates, Cubs, and Astros of a few years ago? If the 2016 Rockies will be in a sort of developmental year prior to competing, how do they measure up with the other teams where were in a similar position? To compare, we’ll use record, organizational rankings from Baseball Prospectus, and player profiles.
BP Organizational Ranking before 2012: 5
Developmental year: 2012, 72-90
Turn-the-corner year: 2013, 86-76
In 2011, some of the Royals prospect depth had already arrived. First baseman Eric Hosmer played in his first full season at 21 and Alcides Escobar played in his second as a 24 year-old. Escobar arrived from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade. In June, 22 year-old third baseman Mike Moustakas debuted. In terms of an existing core, the Royals also got substantial contributions from Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. The pitching was not strong. Luke Hochevar was 27 and still hadn’t figured things out as a starter (he never did). Jeff Francis, Bruce Chen, and Felipe Paulino combined to start 76 games. They were the veteran contingent there to suck-up starts. Danny Duffy cut his teeth in the majors with 20 starts, although they were less than impressive.
Six of the Royals top 10 BP prospects heading into the developmental year 2012 have contributed, in some fashion, to the team’s future success. Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, John Lamb, and Mike Montgomery helped yield James Shields and Johnny Cueto. Yordano Ventura and Kelvin Herrera have played a more direct role. Two of the remaining prospects, Bubba Starling and Cheslor Cuthbert, are still in the Royals’ system, and two more appear to have washed out.
In 2012, the Royals added two more key names to their lineup. Catcher Salvador Pérez debuted, as did center fielder Lorenzo Cain. Cain, like Escobar, was one of the players the Royals received in the Greinke trade. The following year, 2013, saw the Royals turn a corner and win 86 games. They missed the playoffs that season, but the Royals have been one of the best teams in baseball the last two years.
Prior to 2011, the Royals system was lauded as the best in baseball. For some reason, it feels like their turned corner in 2013 and leaps in 2014 and 2015 are surprising. They shouldn’t be. The Royals success has resulted from the slow mixture of young talent to an existing core, as well as the willingness to be aggressive on the trade market.
BP Organizational Ranking before 2012: 8
Developmental year: 2012, 79-83
Turn-the-corner year: 2013, 94-68
In 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates finished under .500 for the 19th consecutive season; however, the centerpiece of the teams that later defeated ignominy was already there. At 24, Andrew McCutchen played his third full season in 2011. Alongside McCutchen, the Pirates fielded 24 year-old third baseman Pedro Álvarez and 24 year-old second-sacker Neil Walker. It was also super-utility man Josh Harrison’s rookie season. In terms of future contributors, the rotation only had Charlie Morton. What changed from 2011 to 2014-2015 was that in the former year Morton was the third best pitcher on the team, while in the latter two years he was the fifth or sixth—and not because he got a lot worse.
Heading into 2012, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Pirates’ organization eighth in baseball. From that crop, the Pirates have received substantial contributions from two of their top ten prospects: outfielder Starling Marte and current ace Gerrit Cole. Tony Sanchez has also served as a backup catcher for the Pirates. Two other names are still waiting in the minors. Josh Bell was ranked the team’s fourth best prospect heading into 2012, and his prospect shine hasn’t dulled. Because of injury, Jameson Taillon’s has, but it’s still possible for him to play a role on a future Pirates’ team. The remaining five have either been lost in minor trades or to the vagaries of baseball.
The Pirates’ 2012 developmental year did not see significant changes from position players. Marte debuted in late July and played in 46 games, but for the most part, the core remained the core. The Pirates also added free-agent A.J. Burnett to the starting rotation. In 2013, the Pirates then added free agents Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano to catch and pitch. Top prospect Gerrit Cole also debuted and started 19 games.
Like the Royals, the Pirates progress makes a lot of sense. They had a star, a core, and a fleet of young players. While the Royals injected outside talent via trade, the Pirates did it with savvy free-agent signings.
BP Organizational Rankings before 2014: 5
Developmental year: 2014, 70-92
Turn-the-corner year: 2015, 86-76
In 2013, the Astros were still in tank-mode, but that doesn’t mean the major league team was at a loss for talent. Second-baseman José Altuve, catcher Jason Castro, and first baseman Chris Carter, future contributors all, received significant playing time. Dallas Keuchel was a member of the rotation, but he was not the ace he is now. He became that after he ditched the curveball and mastered the slider in 2014.
The fifth best farm system in baseball heading into 2014 later played a central role in the 2015 turnaround. Four of the Astros’ top ten prospects play an active role on the big league club. The most significant name is Carlos Correa, who was the best shortstop in all of baseball in 2015. The greatest pitching contribution came from Lance McCullers, who installed himself as a reliable rotation member and started 22 games. Outfielder George Springer debuted and played a half season in 2014 before making his way into 102 games in 2015. Pitcher Vincent Velasquez only pitched about 50 innings, but he is still an organizational presence.
Other prospects were part of trade packages. Mike Folteynewicz and Rio Ruiz yielded Evan Gattis in a trade with Atlanta. Domingo Santana plus an additional three prospects were packaged to get Carlos Gómez and Mike Fiers. Mark Appel hasn’t debuted yet, but he looks like he’ll play a role soon. Jonathon Singleton and Michael Feliz round out the team’s top ten prospects prior to 2014.
The Astros’ development in 2014 mostly took place in the minor leagues, although the major league club improved. The team traded for Dexter Fowler, who was later flipped again for 2015 third baseman Luis Valbuena. More importantly, the ace in Dallas Keuchel emerged, and he was complemented by steady rotation-mates Scott Feldman and Colin McHugh. In 2015, the influx of prospects and players received in trades for prospects helped the team win 86 games.
The 2013 Cubs fielded a couple of players who constituted a core and a whole lot more who later helped fill in some gaps via trade. Twenty-three year olds Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have stuck around as contributors. The only member of the Cubs rotation that season who maintained relevance for the turnaround team is Alex Wood. The trade value of Scott Feldman proved more valuable. Prior to the season, the Cubs signed Feldman to a one-year contract. Then, on July 2, they traded him and Scot Clevenger to the Orioles, who needed starting pitching help, for Pedro Strop and current ace Jake Arrieta.
Baseball Prospectus ranked the Cubs the second best organization heading into 2014, the developmental year. Three of the Cubs’ top ten prospects turned into important parts of the Cubs’ recent playoff run: Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and to a much lesser extent, Javier Báez. Albert Almora, C.J. Edwards, Dan Vogelbach, Pierce Johnson, and Jeimer Candelario all remain parts of the Cubs’ organization. Some of them, like Almora, have a shot at contributing in the majors. Others, like Vogelbach, are likely to be traded. Both constitute contributions.
Rizzo and Castro remained part of the core in 2014. Prior to the season, they also added veteran outfielder Chris Coghlan, who received a great deal of playing time in the 2015 playoff team. On the pitching side of things, Jake Arrieta developed to the edge of acedom. Unexciting but quality starter Kyle Hendricks also debuted in 2014. Jeff Samardzija, who was also a member of the 2013 rotation, was coupled with pre-season signing Jason Hammel and sent to the A’s in return for shortstop Addisson Russell.
As opposed to the Royals and Astros, the Cubs traded major league talent for close to big league ready prospects. The Cubs were successful in 2015 because the prospects hit and they complemented them with veterans such as Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, and John Lester.
BP Organizational ranking before 2016: ?
Developmental year? 2016
Turnaround year? 2017
The first thing we’re looking for in the Rockies right now is a group of core major leaguers that will be around to contribute in 2017—players like Alex Gordon, Andrew McCutchen, José Altuve, and Anthony Rizzo. Nolan Arenado is exactly that type of player. He’ll be 26 and in his fifth season in 2017. Corey Dickerson can be added, except he’s the Chris Carter/Pedro Álvarez type. In other words, he’s a one-dimensional player who nevertheless can be a key part of a winning team. In drawing comparisons, Charlie Blackmon and DJ LeMahieu maybe have roles to fill—the Mike Moustakas or Alcides Escobar type. They might also be Feldman-esque trade bait.
Baseball Prospectus’s organizational rankings won’t come out for some time, but it’s a safe bet that the Rockies will be ranked at least in the top eight, which is where the Pirates ranked heading into their developmental season. The Rockies were ranked ninth last season, and many of the teams ahead of them, such as the Cubs, the Mets, and the Rangers, have either graduated many of their top prospects or traded them. Additionally, the Rockies had a well regarded draft and added three pitching prospects in the Troy Tulowitzki trade.
A lot needs to happen for the Rockies to pry open a window of contention in 2017. The Rockies need one of Jon Gray or Jeff Hoffman to be the team’s Gerrit Cole. They’ll also need one of Tyler Anderson, Kyle Freeland, or Antonio Senzatela to be, at least, a Kyle Hendricks. On the offensive side, it’s reasonable to look for David Dahl and Ryan McMahon to be the Kris Bryant and George Springer types—immediately valuable rookies. It would be nice for Brendan Rodgers to do a Carlos Correa, but that’s not something to count on, especially in 2017. Trevor Story will be there, and he looks like a Luis Valbuena. Eddie Butler already looks like he can be Luke Hochevar.
What the Rockies do in terms of free agents and trades is much more difficult to predict. What the lessons from the other teams suggest, however, is that something will need to happen on that front. It might mean trading not just major leaguers like Blackmon and LeMahieu. But it also might mean trading prospects if the timing is right. Senzatela and might be a Mike Foltynewicz—Forrest Wall a Rio Ruiz.
If things break right, the Rockies really can field a competitive team in 2017. They have enough of a major league core and enough high-minors potential. Venturing a guess, the 2017 Rockies will probably look more like the 86 win 2013 Royals and 2015 Astros than the 90-plus with 2013 Pirates and 2015 Cubs. They won't look like the 2015 Rockies.
The conceit in all of this is that there’s a degree of selection bias. Ahead of the Royals and Pirates on Baseball Prospectus’s organizational rankings in 2012 were the Padres, who were in fact ahead of everybody. Additionally, as Zach Wilson indicated to Bryan Kilpatrick, the Rockies aren’t in a rankings competition. Yet there is a natural correlation between having a highly ranked organization and future success. And, finally, my perception of Rockies’ prospects might still be a little too bent.
As Adam Peterson recently wrote at Rockies Zingers, there are many rebuild models, and not all of them fit the Rockies. This exercise isn’t designed to recommend. Instead, it shows what can be. The Rockies are not a one-to-one with any of the teams above, but they resemble each of them enough that, with some fortune, someone in 2019 will be writing about how their team’s rebuild might look like the Rockies’.