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Trevor Story, Jon Gray and the Rockies’ contention window

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What impact does the Rockies’ contention window have on a potential Trevor Story or Jon Gray trade?

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Early offseason trade rumors surrounding the Colorado Rockies have featured Trevor Story and Jon Gray. While it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to whether General Manager Jeff Bridich should pull the trigger on a trade of two of the team’s most talented players, there’s a fair amount to unpack here. It ultimately may come down to the question of when the team’s contention window will close and when it will open again (if 2019’s 71-91 record was indeed the end of a window).

Trevor Story

Story has two more seasons of arbitration eligibility before hitting free agency after the 2021 season. MLB Trade Rumors projects an $11.5 million arbitration salary for Story in 2020, as he will be part of what becomes the largest payroll in Rockies’ history (coming close to $160 million before a single move is made). As Story can truly be described as a five-tool player, this salary is a veritable steal for any organization.

Story would command an absolute prospect haul as there are not any shortstops available on the free agent market that come close to his status and there may not be any on the trade market either.

As for the Rockies, the team has expressed more of an interest in pursuing an extension with Story than with trading him. As the organizational philosophy under Bridich has been to hold on to talented players more often than to trade them, a Story trade doesn’t appear likely. But should it?

As will be discussed below, if the team is looking to contend in 2020, they absolutely should not trade Story (or Gray, for that matter). Though all indications are the new television deal will allow the team to spend more money in the 2020-21 offseason, a player with the talent level of Story would also be hard to part with if the team has ideas of contending in 2021 as well. Prospects can be nice and very shiny, but there’s certainly no assurance a player coming up in the 2021-22 time frame will be as successful as Story. Even in 2018 and 2019, the Rockies had quite a difficult time finding someone to replace Story when he found himself injured. The drop-off from Story to Ian Desmond or Pat Valaika was significant and while Garrett Hampson showed more promise toward the end of the 2019 campaign, he’s still no Story. Top prospect Brendan Rodgers is a natural shortstop but didn’t establish himself in his 2019 debut (though injury may have played a role).

Jon Gray

From late-2016 into 2017, Gray appeared to be establishing himself as the future ace of the Rockies’ pitching staff. He had a rough outing in the 2017 National League Wild Card Game against the Arizona Diamondbacks and while his peripherals remained strong in 2018, ugly bottom-line results caused many a Purple Row Twitter follower to have doubt in Gray’s abilities. He rebounded in 2019 and there have already been reports of teams contacting Bridich about Gray’s services at the General Manager’s Meetings from mid-November.

However, the Rockies seem to be staying the course, with no desire to move on from one of their most talented members of the rotation.

The starting five for the Rockies does not inspire much confidence. German Márquez and Gray represent a solid one-two punch at the front end, but they are followed by Kyle Freeland, who needs a significant rebound from a disappointing (to say the least) 2019. Question marks surround the back end of the rotation, with Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman, both out of options, seeming to have the inside track as the most likely bets. On the other hand, Chi Chi González is also out of options and Peter Lambert played a large role in 2019’s rotation. José Mujica was also recently signed to a major league contract but does have two options remaining. Tim Melville remains in the organization but is no longer on the 40-man roster after being outrighted.

Gray is projected to take home $5.6 million in his second year of arbitration. It again remains largely a question of the contention window, so let’s jump into that.

Contending in 2020

At their post-season media briefing, Rockies’ Co-Owner Dick Monfort suggested they had spent what money they had. Fans were told not to expect any “huge splashes” this offseason. This certainly doesn’t preclude any moves, but the Rockies surely aren’t in the market for the likes of Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg or Zack Wheeler. Thomas Harding of MLB.com even mentioned Travis d’Arnaud’s two-year, $16 million deal with the Atlanta Braves as out of the Rockies’ price range.

Bridich did mention pitching depth and catching as areas where the Rockies are seeking modest upgrades. Gio González is a starting pitcher in the Rockies’ price range who comes to mind, while the Baltimore Orioles are looking to move Dylan Bundy, in whom the Rockies have expressed interest in the past. Robinson Chirinos is the only catcher on the free agent market who would appear to be an appreciable offensive upgrade over Tony Wolters, who is a tremendous defensive catcher. In Harding’s piece, he also mentioned James McCann and Omar Narváez as trade options on the catching market.

The Rockies could look to get creative with trades, with Harding also noting industry sources expect the team to explore options to trade high-paid relievers Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw. This wouldn’t provide enough salary relief to sign a player like Cole but could make it much easier to bring in someone like Chirinos.

Even if the Rockies make moves for Chirinos and González (or similar types of players; and I should note these names are highly speculative on my part), will that move the team into contention in 2020?

It certainly wouldn’t appear to make them better than the Los Angeles Dodgers and the sense is Bridich and Co. have an expectation the existing team will make improvements on its own.

The Rockies likely need sizeable rebound campaigns from Freeland, Senzatela, Hoffman, Daniel Murphy and Wade Davis to be successful in 2020 (in Jeremy Muesing’s Fixing the Rockies post, he talked about potential changes that could benefit Freeland and Hoffman in particular). They also need full, healthy seasons from players like Gray, Scott Oberg and David Dahl, all while hoping Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Story remain their relatively healthy selves. They also will likely need players like Hampson, Sam Hilliard, Yency Almonte and more to have unexpected breakouts (or continue the brief success they showed at the end of the 2019 season). It’s looking a lot like last offseason, to be honest. The Rockies have been put in a position where they need everything to break just right for them to have success.

If the Rockies are trying to make the postseason in 2020, trading Story and Gray would absolutely be the wrong move. And the Rockies have shown they are looking to contend and will likely hold on to their two talented young players as a result. But there is quite possibly a disconnect between the aspirations of the front office and the realistic possibilities of the team they will field in 2020.

Contending in 2021 and Beyond

Story, Gray and Oberg will be free agents after the 2021 season, which is also the same time Arenado can opt out of the remaining five years on his deal. Blackmon could also decline his player option and hit the market as well. When the Rockies talk about their core, these are five players that play a large role. If these five players are all out the door, we’re looking at a much different—and potentially much less successful—team. Therefore, it may be paramount the Rockies go all-in on 2021.

There should be more money to play with next offseason thanks to the television deal. With the possibility of their young core becoming smaller, 2021 appears to be the year.

If Story and Gray were to be on the move this offseason, the returning prospects would begin to impact the major league ranks in 2021-22 at the earliest. While trading Story and Gray would almost assuredly be a sign of tanking in 2020, it would also hurt the team’s (much more realistic) postseason aspirations in 2021.

Perhaps it’s time to accept the contention window has closed and won’t reopen again for another several seasons. The Rockies don’t appear to think so and are going for it now. The right approach will be realized in time, but for now it’s fair to expect Story and Gray will be wearing purple pinstripes in 2020 (and probably 2021, too).