Less than 12 months ago, on this very website, we declared that Jeff Bridich was a general manager presiding over a golden age of Rockies baseball. His strengths and weaknesses had become clear, but there was enough evidence to say that he had done well because the Rockies were coming off back-to-back playoff appearances and their two most popular stars, Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado, were signed to long-term extensions.
Oh, the difference a year can make.
The Rockies went from a 91-win season in 2018 to a 91-loss season in 2019, saw several key players take steps back in development or performance, and now are in one of the most toxic situations a professional sports team can be with their superstar. Many are happy to choose #TeamNolan in the debate, but we cannot really evaluate the situation well without considering the decisions the front office made in the context they were made. That first requires that we go back to the trade deadline of 2019.
The Trade Deadline
The team was hovering around .500 in the early part of July, hanging on the fringes of the Wild Card race. Then they lost 13 of 17 leading into the trade deadline. No moves were made to bolster the team; the Rockies threw in the towel. “This season, to this point, has been very much below expectations,” Bridich said to reporters at the time. He wasn’t alone in that assessment. On Opening Day, the most pessimistic Purple Row staffer had the Rockies at 82 wins. It took a three-game sweep in the last series of the season to get the Rockies over 70.
It appears as though the plan was to use the trade deadline to supplement the roster to make a push for October, which indicates that Bridich knew the team had holes but was willing to wait until they got into the season to make targeted improvements. But with the season already lost after a 6-19 July, even that didn’t make sense. Bridich concluded, “It’s a strong core. We just need to learn how to be a better team.” The onus was on the players because no cavalry was coming.
A Frustrating September
One could easily write this off as GM-speak: he doesn’t want to throw any one of his players under the bus. But there were reports that the clubhouse was frustrated with the front office for not seeking help more aggressively at the 2018 deadline, so maybe the GM was on thin ice with the players already. So when a pitiful September rolled on and Nolan mentioned having ideas for the GM, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. When he looked at all the young players getting playing time and expressed frustration at a lost season, nobody could really blame him.
Nobody except, apparently, the Rockies front office. In context, Arenado’s comments sound like a player who had gotten used to seeing the best players on the team getting the most playing time in September as the team competes for a playoff spot. But the part of the comment that got the most play was “It feels like a rebuild.”
The context of the remarks show that it was hardly Arenado’s intent to create trouble, but it happened nonetheless. In the end-of-season media availability, Bridich and Monfort were on the defensive, with the GM saying, “If we were truly in a rebuild, Nolan Arenado probably wouldn’t be here to make comments like that.” When asked about takeaways from the disappointing season, Bridich’s GM-speak seemed to, once again, place the onus on the players for playing better or having a better clubhouse. Consider the buck passed.
Nolan had one of his best seasons in 2019, but the rest of the team did not. Even at this point, there was the sense that Bridich was not holding up his end of the bargain to supplement the roster around Arenado’s greatness, a promise he had made when he signed his big extension. Apparently, this came up in their annual after-season meeting. Bridich, we can assume, was not a fan of Nolan’s comments putting them in a place where they would have to answer tough questions. Nolan was unhappy with the direction of a team that had just said they don’t have the budget to make moves in the offseason. Here, it would seem, is where the real mess began.
Before we go further, we need to assess that financial claim. It’s become popular in baseball-writing circles to lambaste ownership groups for having a budget and sticking to it. The luxury tax is not a salary cap, but even many of the top spending teams in baseball treat it as such. Never mind that no person, let alone a business venture, let alone a business venture worth hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and liabilities, operates without a budget, or that those who are very wealthy typically have gotten there because they (or, more often, some ancestors) have been very good at handling money. Baseball is the only sport without a hard salary cap which creates major differences in the way the economics of the game play out.
It would be great if every sports owner operated like the late Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Illitch, who was willing to operate at a loss in order to chase a championship. But that’s not how most teams operate and MLB rules prevent teams from operating at a loss for too many consecutive seasons. Yes, at least 90% of MLB owners could afford to surge their payroll for an all-in year or two, but it’s not sustainable beyond a short-term bump.
How does that apply to the Rockies? Unlike most owners, the Monforts have always been entirely forthright in how they make their budget: 50% of revenue goes into the roster. They operate in the 17th largest MLB market, which limits those revenues (though, with other league-wide revenue streams, it’s becoming less of a hindrance than it was in the past). And yet they have set team records for payroll each of the past five seasons. Monfort has even said that he expects to increase payroll by $10-15 million each year. The Rockies are willing to spend.
But the past two offseasons have been quiet. Payroll still figures to go up as Monfort has approved, but mostly due to internal raises to arbitration eligible players, not new contracts. Why? Because of previous mistakes made by Jeff Bridich to build the roster. As Nick Groke laid out on Thursday, Bridich has made 17 free-agent signings worth $301 million that have accounted for a total of -2.7 WAR. Ian Desmond, Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee will be paid a combined $50 million a year after posting a combined -1.9 bWAR. It’s hard to have confidence in a GM’s ability to sign free agents when that is the track record.
The Rockies cannot absorb bad contracts in the way that the Los Angeles Dodgers or Boston Red Sox can (not all those reasons are financial, but that’s for a different day). That’s why, back in April 2019, Monfort signaled that the 2019-2020 offseason would likely be quiet. But that they have to find a way to compete with contracts that are toxic is not the fault of the players underperforming so much as it is the general manager who gave out the contracts in the first place.
Remember when Bridich said in a real rebuild Nolan wouldn’t be around to complain about a rebuild? When teams began sniffing at the carcass of a Rockies team coming off a 91-loss season during the Winter Meetings, they inquired about Nolan Arenado. Any GM worth his salt should at least listen to what teams have to offer in such a situation. However, it took Jeff Bridich until mid-January to put the kibosh on those rumors. Say what you want about due diligence: it is not a good look, especially from a team that claims to be ready to contend in 2020.
The Rockies, despite protestations, are under no obligation to trade Nolan Arenado. In fact, they would be foolish to do so. Leave aside the fact that prospects rarely turn out for the better in these deals (though Jairo Díaz and Jeff Hoffman still might have something to say about that), or that a path to contention without Arenado on the roster is much more difficult than with him. Nolan is so good that they have to demand a king’s ransom, but teams won’t be willing to pay that unless they have some guarantee that he will (1) waive his full no-trade clause, and (2) not opt-out of his deal after 2021. And that’s not even considering the $260 million that his whole contract costs. In many ways, Nolan and the Rockies are stuck together (and Bridich partially has his own insistence of an opt-out to blame).
You can argue that it wasn’t best for Arenado to air his grievances to the media (and he has since expressed some level of regret for doing just that when he announced he wouldn’t be making any more comments on the subject). But it’s hard to argue against the grievances themselves. By continuing to pursue the trade discussions, which were destined to be fruitless, Bridich has alienated his superstar. He also has to take some ownership of going through the offseason without making any other improvements even on the fringes of the roster because the only reason they are hamstrung financially is due to his own poor track record.
But there is an argument for this team to be competitive in 2020, which would change the calculus of this entire situation and make the front office look good. Picture Wade Davis recapturing his 2018 form, cutting back on the walks and rediscovering an effective approach at altitude. Imagine Kyle Freeland’s new delivery returning him to co-ace status with German Márquez and Jon Gray. Imagine Ryan McMahon taking that giant leap forward and David Dahl staying healthy and Ian Desmond being deployed correctly. What if baseball’s no. 17 overall prospect Brendan Rodgers returns healthy and delivers on the promise of a first round draft pick? Maybe young studs like Carlos Estévez, Jairo Díaz, and James Pazos will demonstrate that their September performances were no fluke and solidify the bullpen.
The path is there for this roster to be better next season. But most, if not all, of those things have to go right. And even then, it’s hard to imagine it will put the Rockies in line for anything but a Wild Card race.
The more likely scenario is that not enough of those things happen and the Rockies toil in mediocrity for 2020. But there is good news: the worst contracts—Davis, McGee, Shaw, and Daniel Murphy—come off the books next offseason. It will be Desmond’s final year under contract and he’ll be paid just $8 million. With a new TV deal set to take effect, and Monfort’s promised $10-15 million increase, the Rockies will have over $50 million to use in free agency, even after accounting for arbitration increases. With JT Realmuto, Yuli Gurriel, Mookie Betts, George Springer, Trevor Bauer, Robbie Ray, James Paxton, and (maybe) Corey Kluber headlining the 2020 free agency class, the Rockies will be well positioned to make the improvements needed to become World Series contenders.
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But the question remains: is Jeff Bridich the one to lead them through 2021? He has a poor track record with free agency, a proclivity to alienate faces of the franchise (it was Troy Tulowiztki before Nolan, if you recall), and an unwillingness to own up to the mistakes he’s made (the Rockies have yet to make a public statement since Nolan made his). Considering all of those things, it’s difficult to imagine he could navigate the 2020 offseason well enough to make those improvements, to convince those potential stars to join the team, and to win back the trust of the clubhouse.
The situation the Rockies are in with Nolan Arenado is one in which no franchise wants to be. But Jeff Bridich has nobody to blame but himself for it.