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Rockies trade franchise player, again

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Colorado Rockies news and analysis for Sunday, January 31, 2021

As the details slowly trickle in, the situation becomes more and more real. First, it’s the dreaded Ken Rosenthal BREAKING tweet signaling the Rockies involved in a trade. Then details of how the trade came together fill in as we wait, endlessly refreshing Twitter to see who might be coming back to Denver if we have to say goodbye to the face of the franchise. Prospect names are floated and endlessly dissected while we await confirmation. Then word arrives about the money changing hands, and the ugly business-side of baseball infringes on our dreams of building up the farm system. Trade rumors had been swirling for years but to have it actually happen still leads to a shock— “I can’t believe they actually did it.” Owner and GM are condemned, promises made to steer well clear of 20th and Blake for the foreseeable future, and anguish seems into the screen from fellow fans. Some try to squint and find the upside for the Rockies, but it’s mostly just anger, sadness, or numbness. The next day, Purple Row signals the end of an era.

This was what it was like in 2015 when Troy Tulowitzki was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. In 2021, it’s Nolan Arenado and the script is eerily similar. Rockies fans have been here before. So what’s different this time around?

To understand, we first have to remember the context of the Tulo trade. Until the return package for Arenado is confirmed, we’ll leave what the Rockies received from each trade out of this analysis.

The Tulo Trade

Tulowitzki burst onto the scene for a 2007 Rockies team and the incredible Rocktober run to the World Series. That offseason, he signed a contract effectively buying out his arbitration years. Two years later, with another playoff run under their belts but also a disappointing end to 2010, Tulo signed a 10 year, $157 million deal to keep him in Denver through 2020.

When Tulowitzki was on the field, he held up his end of the bargain. Here are his stats going into his final season in Denver, with his 2006 cup of coffee excluded. This doesn’t include his Gold Glove defense that had him outshining his idol and numbersake Derek Jeter.

Troy Tulowitzki, 2007-2014

Stat Games PA HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS+
Stat Games PA HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS+
Toals 936 3956 175 598 .300 .375 .524 127
Season AVG 117 494 22 75 .300 .375 .524 127
162-game AVG 162 685 31 104 .300 .375 .524 127
Baseball-Reference

But Tulo’s greatest nemesis was not a pitcher but injuries. He struggled to stay in the lineup, the farm struggled to develop pitching, and team struggled to win. Trade rumors swirled for over three years. There had been whispers that Tulowitzki wanted to play for a winner, but it mostly sounded like speculation from outside teams looking to poach him from a struggling franchise. Finally, in a surprising night in Chicago, Tulo was pulled from the game and was a Rockie no more, provoking anguish throughout the fanbase.

Comparing Nolan’s situation

For all the similarities between the situations, the differences are instructive. Tulo was always considered a Hall-of-Fame level talent, but he couldn’t stay healthy enough to put up the numbers to eventually land him in Cooperstown. In contrast, Nolan has been on a Hall of Fame trajectory for years. All due respect to Todd Helton, Nolan was looking like the best player the Rockies had ever produced heading into 2020. It seemed the only time he was out of the lineup was when his manager forced him to take a day off.

Nolan Arenado, 2013-2019

Stat Games PA HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS+
Stat Games PA HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS+
Toals 1031 4357 227 734 .295 .351 .546 122
Season AVG 147 622 32 105 .295 .351 .546 122
162-game AVG 162 685 36 116 .295 .351 .546 122
Baseball-Reference

Their contract situations were different as well. Whereas Tulo experienced immediate success with the Rockies before they faded into obscurity, Nolan waited five years before his first taste of the playoffs. Thus, Tulo was never a threat to leave in free agency due to his contracts and extensions, but there were doubts until the very moment Nolan’s extension was announced whether he and the Rockies would commit to each other. Nolan’s new eight year, $260 million contract seemed to put to rest six years of anxiety among Rockies fans, though that ominous opt-out lingered.

Both players experienced the extended disappointment of losing after signing their big deals, but the timing of Nolan’s deal made the lack of success in 2019 and 2020 all the more glaring. Nolan was disappointed, then distressed, then, in his words, disrespected.

The Difference

And so we come to the biggest difference between the two tales of dispatched superstars: General Manager Jeffrey Thomas Bridich. He presided over both trades, but the situations feel vastly different.

In 2015, Bridich was in his first year at the helm of the Rockies. The Tulo trade, as distressing as it was, seemed to be a signal that the Rockies were ready to take a new direction, that someone had finally been able to convince owner Dick Monfort that going for it year after year while relying on injury-prone stars (and not much else) was the wrong path. Though plenty of fans expressed disapproval, many were willing to take a wait-and-see approach with Bridich and the direction of the team.

Needless to say, Bridich has squandered every last ounce of that goodwill. The back-to-back playoff appearances now seem more like a fluke than the residue of design. Five years after that trade, with a litany of free agency failures and development disappointments on his CV, it seems incredible that the same person who created the Nolan Arenado mess should be the one to try to get out of it. Here’s a Twitter thread detailing how badly he and the Rockies mishandled this situation.

So yes, Rockies fans have been through this before. The trades, in hindsight, were both inevitable due to their contract statuses. The difference is all on Jeff Bridich, who included Nolan’s opt out and caused the relationship rift that put a ticking clock on the Rockies driving up the urgency and driving down the potential returns for the all-world third baseman. When we consider this plus the money exchanging hands in the trade, it’s difficult not to come to this conclusion:

Jeff Bridich could have the benefit of the doubt in 2015 to try to build a contender. Now, it seems incredible that he should have been given the benefit of the doubt to trade away a second beloved franchise cornerstone.

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An inevitable departure: Nolan Arenado just one more star burned out in Colorado | The Athletic ($)

In case you’ve forgotten all the gory details surrounding Nolan’s disillusionment with the Rockies, Nick Groke reviews all the relevant information. I found this article shortly before I submitted this draft so at least I know I’m not the only one seeing a pattern.

Nolan Arenado and the Coors Effect | Bleed Cubbie Blue

With Arenado moving to the Cardinals, NL Central rivals are wondering how his #Coors numbers are going to translate to a division of mostly neutral parks. Al solicited a lot of help from us to write this one so give it a click and read (when you’re emotionally ready to do so).

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