The Colorado Rockies are on fire. Winners of 15 of their last 19, the Rockies have climbed to 53-46, putting them just 2.5 games back in the division and two games back of a Wild Card spot. Their recent hot streak has their playoff odds up to around 24% at FanGraphs, 22% at Baseball Prospectus, and 28% at Five Thirty Eight. They certainly appear to be buyers at the upcoming trade deadline, but their history tells us they are likely to make only minor moves, if any at all. Since 2001, the Rockies have only acquired four players via trade in-season who also accumulated at least one bWAR during that season (Jay Payton, Pat Neshek, Mark Ellis, and Joe Beimel).
The 2018 season represents what has been a rare opportunity for the Rockies. A franchise that has yet to win a division title in its 25-year history, being just 2.5 games back through 99 games is the closest they’ve been to the division lead this deep into a season since 1996. Add this to franchise cornerstone Nolan Arenado’s recent comments about wanting more than just one game in the playoffs, and you have a situation that puts the Rockies in position where a bold move can make a real immediate difference.
So is it time for the Rockies to go against type and make a win-now move, even if “win-now” costs future potential? It’s a pertinent question for every trade deadline discussion, but it’s also one that’s particularly relevant for the 2018 Rockies.
In this season’s trade market, there are three premier players who have multiple remaining years of arbitration and are also theoretically available — starters Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and catcher JT Realmuto. Purple Row’s Samantha Bradfield recently addressed deGrom and Syndergaard, but Realmuto can also move the needle. What makes them so attractive is that they’re under team control, but that’s also going to increase their cost. So the question of the splash ultimately returns to the question of whether or not it’s worth it.
Trading for deGrom may represent the most win-now move of these three players. At 30 years old, deGrom is the oldest player of the group and has two remaining arbitration years for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. deGrom is also a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and Cy Young candidate in the midst of the best season of his career, with a pristine 1.71 ERA and 159-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 1311⁄3 innings pitched.
FanGraphs’ projects deGrom to produce 2.3 WAR for the remainder of the season, which is easily higher than any current Rockies’ starter. For the next two seasons he would be under team control, ZiPS projects deGrom to produce a total of 11.7 WAR, which would be the highest two-season WAR total in Rockies history for a starting pitcher. Making $9.2 million this season, his two remaining arbitration years will likely net him somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million—a bargain for the type of production he’s likely to provide and the reason FanGraphs recently rated him as the 25th most valuable trade piece in the league.
Syndergaard represents more risk, but also more potential reward than someone like deGrom. He also currently appears to be the least likely of this trio to be traded. At 25, he’s the youngest and is the only one to have a third remaining year of arbitration, meaning he wouldn’t become a free agent until the end of the 2021 season. In 13 starts this season, Syndergaard has a 2.89 ERA and 83-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Though he’s battled various injuries over the past few seasons—he’s currently on the disabled list with Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease—Syndergaard represents another legitimate top-of-the-rotation kind of starter when healthy.
The rest-of-season projections for Syndergaard have him producing 1.9 WAR, slightly less than deGrom but still far higher than any Rockies starter. His ZiPS projected WAR for his three remaining arbitration seasons is 14, a higher total WAR number than deGrom, but a lower per-season WAR number. As a Super Two player, Syndergaard is making $1.9 million this season in his first year of arbitration, but he will still receive three more years and will likely fetch in the neighborhood of $30 million across those three years. Like deGrom, that’s an extreme bargain for someone projected to be as good as Syndergaard. FanGraphs rated him as the 29th most valuable trade piece in baseball, slightly below deGrom.
Also intriguing is the possibility of adding Realmuto to the roster. For one, catcher is a position of need for the Rockies—they currently rank 13th in the NL in fWAR and 14th in wRC+ from their catchers. Beyond that, Realmuto is possibly the best catcher in the game today. He leads all big league catchers (min. 200 PA) in fWAR and wRC+ this season and also leads all MLB catchers in fWAR since the start of the 2016 season. The defensive metrics at Baseball Prospectus also rate Realmuto as well above average in 2017 and, while he’s taken a step back in 2018, he still comes in slightly better than average, which is more than acceptable given the quality of his bat.
Realmuto projects for 1.3 WAR for the remainder of the season, a lower number than both deGrom and Syndergaard, but the player he would theoretically replace projects worse than the players deGrom and Syndergaard would theoretically replace. That’s why pursuit of Realmuto, uncharacteristic as it would be, would make so much sense right now. There’s even an argument to be made that WAR doesn’t properly account for the boost a catcher provides his team due to pitch calling and framing being largely unaccounted for, meaning Realmuto could potentially provide a larger improvement than his WAR number suggests. By WAR, Realmuto projects to produce 6.9 WAR over his two remaining full seasons and will probably make around $15 million during those years. Again, a great value for the production a team is likely to get from him. FanGraphs put Realmuto’s trade value 24th overall, ever so slightly the highest of the trio.
Any of these three players would help the Rockies immediately, as well as over the next couple seasons. But to get something you also have to give something. James Wagner of the New York Times recently reported that the Mets are looking for “elite prospects (close to the majors) and/or MLB players,” while Joe Frisaro of MLB.com reports the Marlins have a “high asking price” for Realmuto. This is unsurprising, but can help get us to a starting point of what it might take to acquire one of them.
For any of these players, the discussion likely begins with highly touted prospect Brendan Rodgers. Rated the sixth best overall prospect by MLB Pipeline, ninth by 2080 Baseball, and 17th by Baseball Prospectus with an ETA of 2018 or early 2019, he certainly fits the “elite prospect close to the Majors” that the Mets are said to be looking for. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic recently proposed a package of Rodgers, starting pitcher Jeff Hoffman, and outfielder David Dahl for deGrom, and a similar package is likely what it would take for either of the other two players as well given they’re all considered to have similar trade value.
Is a package like this something that would be worth it for the Rockies? On one hand, adding any of these players to the mix would represent a significant boost in their likelihood of reaching the postseason in 2018 and is also likely to make them more likely to reach the playoffs for the next two or three seasons after this one. The club also has other capable, if not as highly touted, young players and/or prospects at the positions Rodgers, Dahl, and Hoffman play, which could help to mitigate the impact of losing them. On the other hand, losing the premium—albeit largely unproven—upside of players like Rodgers and Dahl could instead prove to be a detriment to the franchise in the long-term.
If history is any indication, the Rockies won’t give serious consideration to trades like this. That’s not to say the Rockies should go against type, but if there was ever a time in which the intersection of available immediate help, a contention window, and the prospect capital to make it happen to create the splash the Rockies have never made, it’s now.