As the non-waiver trade deadline came and went on August 1, the Colorado Rockies stood pat. After rumors that Charlie Blackmon, Boone Logan, and others may be traded, the Rockies had put together a Major League-best 12-5 record since the All-Star break and had climbed to within a game of .500 and within four and a half games of a playoff spot. Instead, rumors began to swirl that the club was looking at buying.
Neither of these approaches would have been wrong, necessarily, and even doing nothing was perfectly defensible. The next day, Rockies’ general manager Jeff Bridich held a press conference prior to the team’s first game after the deadline. When asked about the possibility of contention, Bridich responded with:
If we maintain our health and keep playing team baseball the way we have the last couple weeks, why not? It's not like we're trying to make up eight, 10, 12 games here, we're right there, it's in our grasp, it's in our control, so why not?
It is worth noting that these quotes were made the same day we all learned that shortstop Trevor Story was likely out for the remainder of the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb. Significantly, Bridich knew about the injury at the time of his press conference.
If you put the pieces together—hanging onto a quality reliever on an expiring contract, looking to add players, and the general manager saying, “we’re right there, it’s in our grasp,”—it looks an awful lot like a team with its sights set on contending this season. However, when you look at what the team has done since then, it paints a very different picture.
The Rockies, once again, seem to have one foot in and one foot out. They are either unable or unwilling to commit to a plan. Let’s take a look at the moves the Rockies have made since the trade deadline—moves that are in complete contradiction to what a team trying to contend should do.
August 2 - Rockies promote Rafael Ynoa, leave Jordan Patterson in Triple-A
After the injury to Story, there was obviously a roster spot that needed to be filled. Since Story—a middle infielder—was injured, it stands to reason that Ynoa—a middle infielder—needed to be promoted to take his place. That wasn’t actually the case, though.
Even without Story, the Rockies had Cristhian Adames, Daniel Descalso, DJ LeMahieu, and Tony Wolters (in a pinch) available to play the middle infield. That’s more than enough to fill the void, at least from a numbers standpoint. Where they really needed help was the outfield. The only true outfielders on the active roster at that point in the season were Charlie Blackmon, David Dahl, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ryan Raburn. Raburn, however, had been battling a knee injury and wasn’t really available to play the field, meaning the club essentially had three outfielders to play three spots.
Clearly this was a problem for them, as Descalso had started six games in the outfield in the month leading up to this move after never playing an inning of outfield in his 10-year professional career. He would do so again just two days later. A contending team should never have a light-hitting backup infielder manning the outfield for the first time in his major-league career. At least, not when there was another option, but that’s precisely what the Rockies did.
This was the perfect opportunity for the Rockies to promote 24-year-old outfielder Jordan Patterson. At the time, Patterson was hitting .319/.407/.498 in Triple-A on the heels of a .297/.364/.543 slash line between High- and Double-A the year before. Instead, the Rockies opted for 28-year-old Ynoa, who is essentially a worse version of Descalso, an infielder by trade who was sporting a meager .266/.330/.359 slash line in Triple-A at the time of his promotion after a .260/.277/.339 slash line (49 wRC+) in the big leagues the season before. He went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and played just two games in the field—both in the outfield—before being sent back to Triple-A.
What was the reason for this? That Ynoa had Major League experience? That he was a switch-hitter? That he was already on the 40-man roster? Maybe they didn’t want to start Patterson’s service clock? Regardless, there doesn’t seem to be a single reason that a team hoping to contend could give you with a straight face. The player who was younger, more talented, and a better fit for the roster was passed up in favor of an older, less talented, and redundant player. Ynoa likely would have needed to be designated for assignment to make room for Patterson on the 40-man roster, but a player like him is likely to clear waivers and make it back to the Rockies’ Triple-A squad in Albuquerque anyway. Even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t be a significant loss in either the short or long term.
August 12 - Rockies promote Ben Paulsen, leave Jordan Patterson in Triple-A
A week and a half later, first baseman Mark Reynolds was likely lost for the season with a broken hamate bone in his right hand. It’s true that players can’t just be tossed into new positions and expected to succeed, which is why Tom Murphy shouldn’t be considered a serious first base option just yet. But Patterson has played first base in his career. Was this going to be his chance? It was not—not with Ben Paulsen in the way.
Over the past few years, Paulsen has gotten a reputation as being a pretty good hitter and first baseman. Much of it can be traced to his 2014 debut, when he OPS’d .920 in 30 games. Unfortunately, that was a mirage. Those numbers were buoyed by a .400 BABIP and masked awful walk (3%) and strikeout (28%) rates. The great OPS has since dissipated as the other offensive traits have largely persisted despite small improvements.
To wit: in 2016, Paulsen had been bad in the big leagues with a .258/.300/.379 slash line and mediocre in Triple-A, slashing .276/.332/.438. At the time of Paulsen’s promotion, Patterson was hitting an even more impressive .321/.409/.512, but it apparently still wasn’t enough for him to get the call. Since getting called up, Paulsen has gone 0-for-8 with three strikeouts and seen his season slash line drop to an abysmal .230/.269/.338, a 40 wRC+. This, again, was a case of a younger, more talented player being passed on in favor of an older (Paulsen is 28), less talented player.
Sure, Paulsen has big league experience, and sure, he’s on the 40-man roster, but a contending team shouldn’t care about those things. They should care about putting the best possible team on the field. Maybe the Rockies just aren’t as high on him as his numbers suggest, but Patterson has significantly outperformed Paulsen offensively in Triple-A and both are capable defensively at first base.
It seems unlikely that Patterson would’ve done worse than either Ynoa or Paulsen and probably would’ve done better. This was a missed opportunity to improve a team that was still on the edge of the wild card chase, and there doesn’t appear to be a defensible rationale behind the decisions.
Nick Hundley continues to be the primary catcher, Tom Murphy nowhere to be found
We also need to talk about what’s happening at catcher. Since July 1, Nick Hundley has started 27 games at catcher and has accrued 107 plate appearances. He has hit .250/.280/.340 in those 107 PAs. On the season, he’s hitting just .246/.320/.396 in 232 times to the plate and has been 7.5 runs below average defensively according to Baseball Prospectus’ catcher stats.
In that same time frame, Tony Wolters has gotten just 50 plate appearances and hit .349/.429/.512 in them. His offensive numbers on the season are .253/.339/.377 in 177 PAs, which is a three point improvement in wRC+ over what Hundley has done. Defensively, Wolters has been 7.4 runs better than average. If you pro-rate that out to the same number of defensive innings as Hundley, it puts him 9.8 runs above average, more than 17 runs better. Over a full season, that approximates the difference of more than two wins, which is rather significant.
Should Hundley’s status as an established veteran qualify him to get twice as much playing time as Wolters, even though he’s likely the inferior player at this point in their respective careers? I don’t think so, and a team gunning for a playoff berth certainly shouldn’t think so either.
There’s more, and it appears in the shape of Tom Murphy, who has been jet fuel-hot in Triple-A since the first of July. During that time, the 25-year-old catcher has hit a preposterous .471/.505/.902 in 111 plate appearances. He’s had multiple hits in 16 out of 26 games in which he’s had at least two plate appearances and at least one extra base hit in 16 out of 26 as well. On the season, he’s hitting a less-ridiculous-but-still-very-good .315/.343/.637 in 265 plate appearances after a successful, albeit brief, big league call up last September in which he hit .257/.333/.543 in 39 plate appearances and displayed defensive chops behind the plate.
Defensively, Baseball Prospectus rates Murphy’s defense as being 0.7 runs better than average on the year. That’s not elite by any means, but it’s solid and is certainly better than what Hundley has done. He also has the advantage of experience working with many of the Rockies’ young pitchers, such as Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, Carlos Estevez, and Matt Carasiti. These pitchers are all likely to be comfortable throwing to him.
Murphy is someone who’s showing that he clearly is too good for his level offensively, is solid defensively, and is only being held back by someone who has underwhelmed on both sides of the ball and is on an expiring contract. Again, it’s possible the Rockies just aren’t as high on Murphy as his stat line would suggest or they feel Hundley’s clubhouse presence is more important than the probable statistical improvement Murphy would bring to the team; however, like with Patterson, it seems highly unlikely that Murphy wouldn’t be able to do at least as well as Hundley. And, by all accounts, he is also a good clubhouse guy, so it seems unlikely there would be any sort of negative effect on team chemistry if a switch was made. If the Rockies wanted to contend, why didn’t they call upon Murphy?
One of the biggest knocks on the Rockies in the past has been their inability and/or unwillingness to commit to a cohesive plan. If they wanted to try to contend, that’s fine. If that was the case, they should’ve been going for it and maximizing the talent on their 25- and 40-man rosters instead of giving spots and playing time to marginal players who weren’t likely to contribute in any meaningful way. If they think this isn’t their year, that’s fine, too. If that is the case, however, they shouldn’t be holding onto players like Logan, who will have little or no value to them beyond this season, or saying that contention is “right there” and “in their grasp.”
Instead, they seem to be stuck in the middle, which is frustratingly familiar. It’s time to commit to something.