The Colorado Rockies’ offense is in the midst of perhaps its worst season ever, and it’s in need of an upgrade.
On the season, their wRC+ (which adjusts for ballpark) as a team sits at just 80, which is the worst mark in the National League. The only three teams within eight points of them are the Padres, Giants, and Phillies—owners of the National League’s three worst records. Even if wRC+ isn’t properly accounting for the park factor at Coors Field and making them appear to be worse than they actually are, they’d need to improve by 13 points just to get on equal footing with the next worst playoff contender. While likely not perfect, it’s highly unlikely the stat is off by that much.
We can also compare the Rockies only to themselves to eliminate any inaccuracies due to park factors. Doing this, we find the 2017 Rockies come in last in franchise history. Each of the club’s three playoff seasons—1995, 2007, and 2009—are among the franchise’s top five wRC+ seasons.
Shortstop, the corner outfield, and catcher are the primary areas in need of improvement. The Rockies have been tied to an available outfielder, and we wrote about a possible solution for shortstop. Now, let’s take a closer look at catcher. It’s likely the weakest area on the club and also the easiest to upgrade without creating the need for more roster reshuffling.
Why an upgrade is needed
The Rockies’ catching quartet of Tony Wolters, Ryan Hanigan, Dustin Garneau, and Tom Murphy have quietly been one of the worst groups at any position in the majors. Across their 371 combined plate appearances, they have hit .231/.313/.310, an astoundingly low 45 wRC+. That mark is the lowest in the National League by a whopping 16 points.
That’s already bad enough, but unfortunately it isn’t just the offense. Baseball Prospectus also rates Rockies’ catchers as 14 runs below average defensively this season. It isn’t as awful as the offense, but is still bad enough to be tied for worst in the league. It’s a group in need of significant improvement on both sides of the ball. The Rockies could try promoting either Garneau or Murphy back to the big leagues, but both have already had opportunities this season without much success. Murphy, the most likely long-term solution, has struck out more than 40 percent of the time in Triple-A this season and certainly doesn’t appear ready to be the starter on a contending team. The most likely source of improvement here is via trade. Here are some available options.
Alex Avila: Among catchers, Avila is clearly the most impressive rental bat on the market. He has mashed his way to a .297/.421/.526 slash line in 233 plate appearances this season, good for a 154 wRC+. A cursory look shows a .407 batting average on balls in play, which suggests the season has been somewhat of a fluke. However, don’t dismiss the numbers without taking a look at his impeccable batted ball profile. Avila has made hard contact 54.4 percent of the time, soft contact only four percent of the time, and has hit the ball to all fields at least 30 percent of the time. This means, according to Statcast, he has earned every bit of his high batting average. He also carries an elite walk rate of 17.2 percent, which raises his offensive floor in the event he’s unable to sustain this batted ball profile. Defensively, Baseball Prospectus rates Avila 4.9 runs below average this season, which isn’t ideal. However, the elite bat Avila brings with him would offset his defensive shortcomings.
Jonathan Lucroy: If the Rockies are looking for a cheap, buy-low option, Lucroy might be their guy. The 31-year-old is struggling through the worst season of his career, slashing just .257/.302/.361 in 268 plate appearances, a wRC+ of 73. On defense, Lucroy has been poor as well. At 14.4 runs below average, Baseball Prospectus believes he’s been the worst defensive catcher in baseball this season. Those are obviously not the numbers of a guy you’d want to trade for, but in this case the Rockies would be banking on his track record. In the five seasons prior to this one, Lucroy hit .291/.353/.465 (121 wRC+) across 2,540 plate appearances and was regarded as one of the league’s top defensive catchers. If the Rockies believe he has some of that left in him, he could prove to be a much needed upgrade at a significantly lower cost than someone like Avila.
Other rental options: Nick Hundley (88 wRC+, -4.4 defensive runs), Rene Rivera (87 wRC+, +2.3 runs), Carlos Ruiz (93 wRC+, -6.6 runs), Miguel Montero (86 wRC+, +1.2 runs)
Options controlled beyond 2017:
Tyler Flowers: Quite possibly the best overall option available, Flowers represents a major upgrade both offensively and defensively with the added bonus of an inexpensive team option for the 2018 season. At age 31, the Braves’ catcher has put together the best season of his career. A .299/.388/.433 slash line (121 wRC+) across 232 plate appearances is fueled by a career-best 21.1 percent strikeout rate plus a bit of good fortune. He sports a career-high .367 BABIP that’s likely to drop as the season progresses, but he should still be able to maintain at least roughly league-average offensive production.
Flowers isn’t the same caliber offensively as someone like Avila, but he makes up for it on defense. So far in 2017, Flowers rates a whopping 15.7 runs above average behind the dish, easily the best mark in the big leagues. If his offense tails off, that kind of defensive ability will allow him to remain quite valuable and a perfectly viable starter. The downside here is that because of his contract terms and the Braves status as fringe playoff contenders, it may be costly to pry him away. It’s also a move that could provide just what the Rockies need—both offensively and for their young pitching staff.
Travis d’Arnaud: The youngest and most controlled option potentially available—d’Arnaud is 28 and has two more years of arbitration before hitting free agency—this would represent a more modest, but still very real, upgrade. d’Arnaud’s .224/.284/.437 (86 wRC+) slash line in 190 plate appearances is nothing to write home about, but it is a substantial upgrade over any current Rockies catcher—Wolters currently leads the team with a paltry 61 wRC+.
Another bonus to d’Arnaud is his defense. This season he rates 3.9 runs better than average and he has consistently come out above average throughout his big league career. No current Rockies catcher has seized the reins as a long-term solution, so perhaps it makes the most sense for the Rockies to target someone who will be around a bit longer, even if he doesn’t appear to be quite as good as some of the other available options. Nothing has been said about the Mets’ willingness to move d’Arnaud, but with a record of just 41-48 and playoff odds hovering around five percent, perhaps they view this as an opportunity to retool.
Other options controlled beyond 2017: Francisco Cervelli (99 wRC+, -0.9 defensive runs, owed $22 million through 2019), Welington Castillo (89 wRC+, +0.2 runs, $7 million player option for 2018)
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For whatever reason, this is a position that hasn’t been talked about much, but it also is a position in which the Rockies could help themselves the most for the remainder of the 2017 season and potentially beyond. The question now is which option is best? Do they go for the clear best hitter who’s also below average defensively and a free agent after the season? Maybe they want the defensive whiz who can also hit and be brought back for next season, but could also be the costliest to acquire. Is it best to buy low and bank on a former all-star returning to his previous form? Or should they make a less flashy move and go after someone who will be less of an upgrade, but an upgrade nonetheless in addition to being the youngest, most-controlled option out there? Whatever the answer, it’s a move the Rockies should seriously consider making.
Which catcher should be the Rockies’ top trade target?
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