One of the first decisions the Rockies front office will have to make this off season is what to do with Justin Morneau. In December of 2013, the club signed the big first baseman to a two year deal with a $9 million mutual option for a third year. A decision on that mutual option is coming, leaving the following scenarios in play for the Rockies:
1) The Rockies decline their end of the mutual option and pay the $750,000 buyout.
2) The Rockies pick up their end of the mutual option and Justin Morneau is on the 2016 team for $9 million.
(Let's just assume that Morneau's camp doesn't decline their end of the option after the season he had if the Rockies are willing to pick it up.)
The initial reaction here from most fans is likely to just decline the option and move on, and that was my first reaction too, but there's a case to bring him back as part of the larger nuclear rebuild plan I outlined earlier this month.
In that piece, I talked about a strategy where the Rockies sell off their assets that have value right now, and are either not controlled long term, and / or will lose surplus value due to significant arbitration increases. To identify those players, I used the following criteria:
1) Will the player already have more than two years of major league service time at the start of the 2016 season?
2) Is the player likely to provide more surplus value in 2016 than 2018?
3) Is the player's trade value high this winter, AND unlikely to rise higher going forward?
If the answer to all three questions is yes, I advocated for trade with the possible exception of Arenado. This means players like Carlos Gonzalez, Jorge De La Rosa, DJ LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, and Nick Hundley would need to be shopped.
If we apply these three questions to Justin Morneau, the first two are yeses with the last one being a "no" thanks to all the time he's missed due to head and neck injuries this season. However, if he continues to look the way he has since returning from the DL, his trade value could spike again by next summer, and that's something the Rockies should at least look into taking advantage of as a decision on Morneau's option looms.
If done correctly, this nuclear rebuild will stock the farm to a level it's never seen in franchise history through three stages over the next ten months (four if you count the Tulo trade that should have set these dominoes in motion).
First will be the big blow this winter as several players get traded for prospects. Second will be in next June's draft where the Rockies will have three picks in the top 50 including a first rounder that's likely to come between fourth and sixth overall at this point. Finally, a third wave should come if there's players on the roster who have rebuilt their value by July and fit into the "yes" category of all three questions above.
If the cards are played right, the Rockies should have the best farm in all of baseball in about ten months from now. After that, then I think the Rockies can start turning their philosophy back to adding major league assets in preparation for the 2017 season. (Not saying the Rockies will or will not be good in 2017. Just that they can start focusing on moving the train forward at that point.)
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Another major aspect of this nuclear rebuild plan I'm laying out is for the Rockies to use the majority of their 2016 payroll as a way to essentially buy more / better prospects. I don't want this bleeding much into other seasons. This is an unhealthy way to run a franchise long term, but much like chemotherapy in a cancer patient, it can be used to cleanse the host of a disease that's plaguing it in the short term.
This means paying for guys like Jorge De La Rosa and Carlos Gonzalez to play somewhere else in 2016 to get the best return possible. In a move somewhat similar to that suggestion, it might also make sense for the Rockies to pay for Justin Morneau's contract in 2016 in hopes that he can provide a prospect return next summer. The only difference here is that you wait six to eight months to move him because Morneau's trade value has a good chance to rise over the first half of next season while De La Rosa's and Gonzalez's is likely to either stay the same or decline.
When on the field in 2015, Morneau's shown he's still very capable of producing at the plate:
Morneau's been especially good since returning from the DL in early September. In 65 plate appearances, he's batted to a line of .351 / .431 / .474 (.905 OPS). Not only that, but he looks the part when watching games.
The Justin Morneau of right now is the pretty much the same Justin Morneau we saw on the field in 2014. He just needs to prove he can stay healthy while putting up those numbers, and if he does, I think he could be viewed as a pretty helpful piece to a contending team midway through next season.
So in summation, the reasons for the Rockies to pick of their end of the Justin Morneau option are as follows:
1) It gives them an opportunity to flip him at the deadline next summer for a young / long term controlled piece.
2) The Rockies are unlikely to spend their 2016 money on anything more useful. If we're operating under that assumption that wins are of secondary importance in 2016, then it makes sense to take a chance on a guy trying to rebuild his value.
3) No matter what, it won't take up payroll space in 2017 and beyond which is where the Rockies really want to clear the books right now.
4) Morneau could provide some veteran presence in the clubhouse at the start of next season on a team that should be extremely young after other players are shipped away this winter.
Here are some reasons not to pick it up:
1) It's too expensive for a player coming off an injury plagued season, even if he has looked good down the stretch.
2) The Rockies should try to give someone like Ben Paulsen more time at first base (This may or may not make sense depending on how much help the team needs in the outfield if they plan to move both Blackmon and Cargo).
3) He's entering his age 35 season and he might get injured again and / or not be as good next season. If that happens, you can't flip him for a very good package, if you can flip him for any package at all.
This one is close in my mind. While I certainly don't expect the Rockies to pick up their end of the option, I think both paths can be justified as part of a nuclear rebuild plan, which is where the club should be going. Either way, what the front office does here won't tip their hand very much in terms of what the rest of the winter will look like. It is however the first order of business to put under the microscope as the season winds down.