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Amid trade rumors, compelling free agents remain unsigned

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With trade rumors swirling, it's easy to forget that there are still free agents who would fit well on the Rockies.

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s free agent market has moved about as fast as a Justin Morneau triple. It’s unprecedented—16 of MLB Trade Rumors’ top 50 free agents remain unsigned about a month before players begin reporting—and it’s been affecting the Rockies’ ability to trade some of the team’s most trade-able players. It remains to be seen whether or not scooping up Gerardo Parra will spur or deter the Rockies’ ability to move a player, and in particular an outfielder.

But the slow market might offer an opportunity for the Rockies. With so many players remaining on the free agent market, the Rockies might have a chance to swoop in and grab a relative bargain. One of the reasons things are moving so slowly is that the current qualifying offer system is causing teams to shy away from giving up draft picks. When the Player’s Association and MLB begin negotiating the next CBA after the 2016 season, revising the current qualifying offer system is sure to be a major point for the players. Namely, teams need to be disincentivized from dampening a free agent’s market value, whether by significantly increasing the one year salary or eliminating the system altogether. We might not see another offseason like this again.

If the Rockies do try to take advantage of the lagging market, they would have to set their sights on the right type of player. There are two types of free agents that the Rockies should pursue. Indeed, the two free agent signings the team has made thus far in the offseason can stand in for these types.

First, there’s the Mark Reynolds. The Rockies signed Reynolds to a one-year, $2.6 million contract earlier this offseason. Reynolds won’t be on the next winning team. He was signed to fill a spot of relative need and hit some entertaining dingers in 2016. This was a classic low investment and low commitment signing with a worst case scenario of losing a couple million bucks.

Then there’s the Parra model. Parra’s three-year deal, which comes with $27.5 million guaranteed, has a bit of a higher risk; however, it also comes with a greater possibility of reward. The confident consensus is that wave of prospect arrivals should make the Rockies competitive starting in 2017. Parra should be around for that. If he continues to be a productive player on both sides of the field, he can be an essential role player on a competitive squad. If he declines as he enters his 30s, and the Rockies are in fact competitive, his $10 million price tag in 2018 is reasonable for a very good fourth outfielder.

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Given these player types, let’s see who would make sense for the Rockies to target. Here are the remaining free agents from MLB Trade Rumors’ top 50 list, along with their projected contracts and whether or not they have a qualifying offer attached:

Player Years/$ QO?
Justin Upton 7/147 Y
Chris Davis 6/144 Y
Yoenis Cespedes 6/140 N
Ian Desmond 5/80 Y
Dexter Fowler 4/60 Y
Yovani Gallardo 4/52 Y
David Freese 3/30 N
Austin Jackson 1/12 N
Tyler Clippard 3/18 N
Mat Latos 1/12 N
Doug Fister 3/18 N
Antonio Bastardo 3/15 N
Steve Pearce 2/14 N
Justin Morneau 1/8 N

Let’s take some players out of the running. While the Rockies should not necessarily shy away from large contracts, especially if they can leverage the market for their benefit, the fit has to be right. That means we can eliminate Upton, Cespedes, and Desmond. It doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of money on an outfielder in a long-term deal, as it represents an area of organizational strength.

Likewise, the Rockies should also avoid redundancies. That eliminates Fowler, Kendrick, and Pearce. None of those players represents a significant enough upgrade for the future to make the dollars and years worth it, and they are each good enough to warrant more than a short-term contract. Freese is also out because the Rockies already have a third baseman. And because the Rockies have already added Chad Qualls and Jason Motte to the bullpen on big league deals, it doesn’t make sense for them to pursue Clippard or Bastardo on long-term contracts. That leaves seven players.

The Parra Types

Going after any of these players would represent a significant commitment of years and dollars. The list here includes starters Kennedy and Gallardo and one position player in Davis.

The argument against Kennedy and Gallardo is that they will be 33 and 32, respectively, in 2017. In a hypothetical four-year contract with either of these starters, they’ll be expensive and in their mid-30s by the time the Rockies are competitive. Not only that, but because each has a qualifying offer attached, coming to terms with either would cost the Rockies their compensation round A pick in this year’s draft, which should be somewhere between picks 28 and 35. While Kennedy has his champions, it would be wise to pass on both.

Davis fits the Parra mold in that he’d be around to play a role on the next competitive team. The difference is that he’d require more than three years, even if his asking price goes down as January drags on. Unlike Kennedy and Gallardo, it would be well worth it to give up a draft pick for Davis. At 29, a five-year contract would only take Davis through his age 33 season—or, the age at which the Rockies first signed Justin Morneau.

If the Rockies can convince Davis to sign for a bargain, they should jump at the chance. Even at this late stage, however, Davis still might get close to $150 million. While the dingers would be plentiful and majestic, Davis’s red flags (a high strikeout rate and year-to-year inconsistency) indicate that the Rockies should pass unless his asking price goes down significantly. Still, if there's a surprise splash to be made given the sludgy free agent market, it's with Chris Davis.

The Reynolds Types

The Rockies might find better partners among the Reynoldses still on the market. While unsexy, these types of contracts can be really useful because they work to transition to the next competitive team while simultaneously preventing the club from trotting out a quasi-minor league squad, like the 2011-2013 Astros. This group includes two starting pitchers, Latos and Fister, and two position players, Jackson and Morneau.

Much like Kyle Kendrick was brought on last year to munch innings while Jon Gray prepared to enter the rotation during the season, either Latos or Fister could serve that role for Jeff Hoffman in 2016. If I were the Rockies, I wouldn’t sign Latos to anything more than a minor league contract. His surface numbers from 2016 were not terrible, but it says more that he was a starting pitcher the Dodgers acquired via trade, released just before the playoffs, signed by a contending team in late September even though he wouldn’t be eligible for the postseason, and released again the day after the World Series ended. Circumstances like this say more than pitching metrics.

Fister would be a better option. As we noted earlier this offseason, Fister’s groundball profile, home run prevention, and price tag make him an ideal free agent target. Because the free agent market has not stalled like the position player market has, the Rockies might need to offer close to the MLB Trade Rumors prediction. A one year deal for $10 million dollars for someone who has the chance to start 20-25 games, at this point in the offseason and at this point in the Rockies’ competitive timeline, would be well worth it.

Finally, there are the position players. Prior to the Reynolds signing, Purple Row suggested that it might be a good idea to bring Morneau back for 2016. It could still make sense even after the Reynolds signing, although it would make for an odd platoon. Reynolds doesn’t exhibit extreme platoon splits, and even if he did, it wouldn’t make sense to bring on a free agent to hit only against lefties, who constitute about 30 percent of pitchers. On a cheap deal, the Rockies could elect to have Morneau and Reynolds play a roughly 50/50 platoon at first base for a bit under $10 million combined. Even then, however, it would be smarter to couple Reynolds with someone already on the 40-man roster for about $3 million total in 2016.

Right now, it doesn’t make any sense for the Rockies to pursue Jackson, the last name from our list. He’d be the team’s fifth outfielder good enough to start every day. Yet, that can all change rather quickly If the Rockies trade Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson, and assuming they do hold on to Carlos González, then it would make a lot of sense to pursue Jackson to play center field in 2016, keeping the seat warm for David Dahl in 2017. It's counterintuitive at the moment, but the best signing among all of the remaining free agents might be yet another outfielder. This one would have to come after trades happen though.

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In the midst of all of the trade discussions and rumors, it’s easy to forget that there are still very good free agents on the market. While not all of them would fit on the Rockies, even in an unusual offseason that might lead to bargains, some interesting targets remain. Signing Doug Fister and Austin Jackson wouldn’t provide any long-term solutions, but they would be smart moves providing a bridge to 2017. The 2016 Rockies are not going to be a good team, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting.