These two things I believe to be true:
- If Jon Gray dominates in the 2017 Wild Card Game, the Rockies would have made a better effort to sign him after 2021 — and he may have never left.
- If the Rockies rented Yu Darvish at the 2017 trade deadline, they wouldn’t feel motivated to spend $108 million on a bullpen project in the ensuing offseason.
If Darvish went all 2018 wildcard Kyle Freeland on the 2017 D-Backs, we could be looking at a completely different franchise in Colorado over the past four years.
In 2017, the Rockies had their first taste of postseason baseball in eight years. It was their first playoff showing since the inception of the Wild Card Game, and long gone were the days of wildcard teams getting an automatic trip to a divisional series. The Rockies knew for weeks they would be playing in the 2017 NL Wild Card Game or would have no postseason action at all, finishing 17 games behind the NL-West champion Dodgers.
Colorado had the 11th-best xFIP among relievers in 2017. Reliever fWAR ranked fifth. By these measures, we were looking at one of the better bullpens in Rockies history. (Reliever ERA did rank 20th, but Coors gonna Coors.)
It wasn’t the impressive xFIP or fWAR that led the Rockies into the 2017-18 offseason, however. It was five runs allowed to the D-Backs in their final two innings on the mound.
The 2017 NL Wild Card Game featured a short start by Jon Gray, an exposed bullpen, an early playoff departure, and a $108 million month of December where Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw were paid to pitch the team back to the playoffs.
Colorado had Kyle Freeland go to work for 6 2/3 innings in the 2018 Wild Card Game, one year later, but it wasn’t before a 2017 showdown in Phoenix had already changed the state of the franchise. The offseason taste in the mouths of Rockies fans in 2017-18 was an incomplete showing with a deficient pitching staff, even if just for one game, and the post-2018 spending habits felt the repercussions.
Did one game honestly change everything?
It isn’t to say the Rockies were out of line in December 2018 when they brought on Davis, McGee and Shaw: the state of postseason baseball was changing and reliever dominance was becoming more prevalent than ever. This was why Adam Ottavino made his way to New York in 2019; one year earlier, this was how Colorado needed to invest in order to compete in the new October.
We can’t forget a key facet of sudden-death baseball, however. The one-game play-in was best designed for a horse. Think Madison Bumgarner, the cover child of do-or-die games in the past decade. It was designed for either that or a lineup card full of A-list relievers, something expensive, volatile and near impossible to lure with the stigma of Colorado altitude.
The Rockies struck a deal for reliever Pat Neshek at the 2017 trade deadline, which proved to be a great move down the stretch (22 IP, 2.45 ERA), but the short relief option was not a full-scale revamp.
The Dodgers countered with signing Darvish, which all but eliminated everyone else in the division. Rockies fans were left to fantasize what could have been for a few short weeks.
The What-If: Yu Darvish
Yu Darvish, then-Texas Rangers ace, was the marquee trade target at the 2017 deadline. He found his way to Los Angeles where he helped the Dodgers reach the World Series, mixed in the rotation with Clayton Kershaw (horse), Alex Wood (horse) and Rich Hill (elder horse).
Darvish was a true rental: he would spend weeks with the Dodgers before signing with the Cubs the following year.
The Rockies will always have a difficult time landing starting pitchers, because Coors. The ‘draft and develop’ strategy landed them Gray and Freeland, but up and down the recent history of Rockies starters, there isn’t an arm with much postseason experience beyond a three-game exit in the 2018 NLDS.
For the Rockies to land a playoff-experienced starting pitcher, they must do the following:
- Fork over the cash, and hope a legitimate starter is crazy enough to pitch at altitude. (There aren’t many examples of this in Rockies history after Mike Hampton.)
- Create your own experience by winning the division, a lot.
- Get a rental at the trade deadline.
It isn’t all perfect
It’s important to note that, in the 2017 wildcard round, the Diamondbacks tossed Zack Greinke (horse, with playoff experience) and they were also playing at home. Greinke hardly outlasted Jon Gray’s early departure, and just because Darvish was available, it doesn’t mean he would have dominated in that game (see 2017 World Series).
With more playoff seats at the table comes more teams trying to compete. If the latest wildcard expansion didn’t happen, the Rockies would be without a playoff appearance since 2009, but they also wouldn’t have felt the immediate need to cash in their chips.
This is where the current franchise could look a lot different, and perhaps a lot more set up for success. (What if Colorado’s “Super Bullpen” never happened? | Purple Row, May 2020)
The latest CBA negotiations are addressing an expanded postseason, which can serve as a backhanded way for owners to spend less money on players. Trade deadline flyers could be the preferred way for teams assemble a contender under an expanded format, as a ‘good enough’ team can turn into an underpaid powerhouse with the addition of two or three legitimate players for a few weeks.
(In other words: do the Padres make their offseason deals before 2021 if there were more playoff teams?)
A wildcard game can change the direction of a franchise in record time. It’s unrealistic to assume Darvish would have stuck around in Denver after a three-month rental — he left L.A. after the NL pennant, after all — but those three months could have shifted the reality of Rockies baseball to this day.
Hindsight is always perfect.
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The Rockies did land themselves a starting pitcher this week, but far from the extent of Darvish’s body of work. Zach Lee pitched in Triple-A for the Diamondbacks and Reds in 2021, posting a 6.25 ERA in 80 2⁄3 combined innings. He was not placed on a 40-man roster prior to the lockout, which is how the Rockies were able to sign him this week.
This move could be little more than a depth piece to bridge the gap for starters Chris McMahon, Karl Kauffman, Sam Weatherly, Helcris Olivarez and company as they work their way up toward Triple-A. Jose Mujica elected free agency this winter and is no longer the Triple-A depth piece the Rockies had in 2021, which Lee could soon fill.
Lee is a journeyman: he’s worked over 1,200 minor league innings with just 12 2⁄3 big league innings to his name. Rockies fans may have been pulling for Joe Harvey and Zac Rosscup last year for similar reasons they may be pulling for Lee this year.
Here’s a full breakdown on the Colorado outfield, touching on Raimel Tapia’s unique contact at the plate, unknowns surrounding Yonathan Daza, and Sam Hilliard’s ceiling that could be highest of anybody. As the work-in-progress CBA is pointing towards a universal DH, it will also be interesting to see if and where an outfielder is used in the DH spot, and how it could be Charlie Blackmon despite his apparent preference of being in the field.
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