Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AnalysisColorado RockiesMLBNational LeagueNL West

Rockies Holiday Wishlist

Baseball fans are in the thick of the holiday season and the offseason, with only a couple months before Spring Training (hopefully) gets under way. The Rockies haven’t been quiet, prioritizing pitching by making deals with both the Reds and the Red Sox, selecting pitcher Jordan Sheffield in the Rule 5 Draft, and loading up on minor league free agents, including a few that could don a Rockies uniform in 2021.

At the beginning of the offseason, the Rockies set tempered expectations after owner Dick Monfort penned a letter to season-ticket holders alluding to the club’s commitment to minimizing payroll. Monfort’s letter comes as the most important development for the Rockies as it suggests any and all moves made will be very cost efficient.

The aforementioned moves focused primarily on bullpen reinforcement which will be much needed coming off a season in which the Rockies had a franchise worst bullpen by ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), Expected FIP (xFIP), Skill-interactive ERA (SIERA), and HR/9.

A return to health for closer Scott Oberg could push a rebound for a unit that features 2020 NL Comeback Player of the Year, Daniel Bard, proven veteran Mychal Givens, the ascending Yency Almonte, hard-throwing Tyler Kinley, amongst other MLB quality arms to be sorted out in Spring Training.

The rotation is mostly set. German Marquez (3.75 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 4.27 SIERA), Antonio Senzatela (3.44 ERA, 4.57 FIP, 5.02 SIERA), and Kyle Freeland (4.33 ERA, 4.65 FIP, 4.95 SIERA) formed one of baseball’s best trios in 2020, totaling 4.4 wins by Fangraph’s Wins Above Replacement (fWAR).

Jon Gray getting back into form following a shoulder injury could be a huge addition for the club. Peter Lambert, who’s coming off an early summer Tommy John surgery, Ryan Castellani, who struggled immensely in 2020, Dereck Rodriguez, and Chi Chi Gonzalez will compete for the fifth spot. None of those names inspire true confidence and a budget veteran pitcher should be on the Rockies radar.

On the offensive side of things since 2019, the Rockies are 28th in fWAR from the catcher position, 29th at first-base, 30th at second, and 27th in outfield WAR. With the presence of young, promising players in Ryan McMahon and former #3 overall pick, Brendan Rodgers, the right side of the infield is looking up. Garrett Hampson and Josh Fuentes offer viable depth as well.

The outfield is thin with proven impact players. Ian Desmond is likely to return after opting out of the 2020 season, though he’s been well below average since signing with the Rockies prior to the 2017 season. Charlie Blackmon is a lineup lock, though — despite being a Gold Glove finalist in 2020 — he’s been less than desirable as a fielder for the last few seasons. Raimel Tapia is ready to step into a regular role with Sam Hilliard, Yonathan Daza, and Garrett Hampson providing depth.

Catcher has been a void for the Rockies for years. However, comments from manager Bud Black suggest the team is prepared to roll with former top-100 prospect Dom Nunez, with former Pirates backstop Elias Diaz to provide immediate depth. Still, a catcher has to be considered one of this roster’s biggest needs.

With all this in mind, primarily the budgetary restrictions, let’s form a wish list for the Rockies as we hope the hot stove heats up in Colorado.

Behind the Dish

Keeping with the backstop theme, Russell Martin stands out as a budget option who checks a lot of boxes as a catcher, even at 37. He would likely add 1 fWAR as Tony Wolters has been worth -0.6 and -0.5 WAR the last two seasons.

Martin’s framing is borderline elite. According to Baseball Savant, Martin and his 6 runs from extra strikes in 2019 ranked 10th in baseball. Martin’s pop-time and exchange speed were slightly below average but his arm strength somewhat made up for those shortcomings.

A main draw to Martin is his plate discipline. In 2019, Martin had the 4th highest walk rate (12.0%) among catchers with at least 210 PAs, while striking out a respectable 24.1% of the time. He managed to make enough quality contact to get on base at a .337 clip, an above average rate among catchers. Mix in some home run pop and you have a major upgrade at catcher for the Rockies.

Given his age, Martin could likely be had on a bargain one-year deal. He is unlikely to handle more than 80-90 games at this point, leaving the door open for Dom Nunez to earn a regular role. Elias Diaz, whom the Rockies signed to a minor league deal before the 2020 season, showed some offensive potential indicated by a strong 11.3 barrel percentage and 41.5 hard-hit percentage. However, Diaz is a very poor framer, totaling -21 runs from extra strikes in his career, though he’s formidable — and slightly better than Martin — at catching base stealers.

This move allows the Rockies to get an above-average defender with a stable offensive profile and a world of knowledge to bestow upon rookie Dom Nunez or to help Elias Diaz in his development. Martin has long been praised as a positive force in the clubhouse, an area the Rockies have sorely missed since the departure of Venezuelan duo Gerardo Parra and former franchise icon, Carlos Gonzalez.

Since the Rockies tendered Elias Diaz a contract and Bud Black has expressed praise for Dom Nunez, it’s unlikely a catcher will be added. But if they do, Russell Martin checks all the necessary boxes and would not eat into payroll.

In the Field

This current crop of free agents has a lot to offer. Players like CJ Cron, Robbie Grossman, Adam Duvall, Brad Miller, Kike Hernandez, Jake Marisnick, Marwin Gonzalez, Matt Joyce, and Kevin Pillar should all interest the Rockies and come at a reasonable price. Between projected production and the main theme of this wishlist — being within the Rockies budget — it’s hard to pick between this group.

Ideally, more than one of these players could give the Rockies an opportunity at having their deepest lineup in years, though that’s a mere pipe-dream for the in-their-own-universe Rockies.

Following the non-tendering of David Dahl, there should be an inclination to reinforce the outfield within the tight budget. Outfield defense at Coors and getting on base are uber-important skills given the Rockies current lack of consistent on-base ability.

Veteran Robbie Grossman stands out. Early in his career with the Astros and Twins, his defensive ability was questioned as Grossman often served as a DH. However, that reputation is fading as Grossman has emerged as an average outfield defender by defensive runs saved (DRS) but good to great by Statcast’s outs above average (OAA) where he ranked in the 74th and 94th percentile in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Grossman has always been a respectable hitter, posting an above-average weighted runs created plus (wRC+, 100 is average) since 2016. He has a career .350 on-base percentage (OBP), which actually ranks 2nd (!!) among current Rockies players only behind Charlie Blackmon and ahead of superstar tandem Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story. Now, that is a misleading figure because Arenado and Story have taken major strides offensively since their debuts but it still drives home the point that Robbie Grossman would be one of the Rockies more dependable on-base threats.

His OBP is fueled by an elite 12.6% walk rate which would pace all Rockies hitters. Finding disciplined hitters like Grossman and Russell Martin should be a focus for a Rockies team that ranks 7th to last in walks since 2019.

Grossman’s outside the zone swing percentage (O-Swing %) ranked as the 31st lowest in baseball in 2020, meaning he was reluctant to chase pitches. Matched with an inside the zone contact percentage (Z-Contact %) that ranked 30th at 89.7%, an elite mark indicating his excellent bat to ball skills, and a pretty full picture is painted of Grossman’s plus hitting ability.

Power isn’t a strength of Grossman’s, with his career-high being 11 home runs, however, there are some promising batted ball trends for the 31-year old switch hitter. Grossman’s average exit velocity has steadily increased since 2017 along with his hard-hit percentage, peaking in a small 2020 sample that saw Grossman shatter previous career highs in isolated power (ISO), slugging, home runs per plate appearance, and even fWAR.

Grossman’s 2020 season stretched over a 500 plate appearance sample would have resulted in 21 home runs and a well above average 3.4 WAR. The small sample might have been enough to price Grossman out of the Rockies budget, however, it’s likely he will be looking to prove himself over a full season and then secure a large multi-year contract next winter once MLB owners are willing to make bigger expenditures.

Grossman’s weighted on-base average (wOBA) at .346, slightly exceeded his predictive weighted on-base average (pwOBA) of .336 and expected weighted on base average (xwOBA) of .315.

Regardless, Grossman is flying under the radar as arguably the best outfielder on the free agent market beyond the big name trio of George Springer, Marcell Ozuna, and Michael Brantley. Fangraph’s free agency tracker has Grossman’s expected contract at $5 million over one year, which would be an absolute bargain, though his projected WAR is only 0.9.

On the Hill

Finally, let’s look at the last target on this Rockies wish list, lefty Aaron Loup. The Rockies finished with just one lefty in their bullpen last year in Philip Diehl, who was good for a 10.50 ERA, 6.69 FIP, and 4.93 xFIP in 6 innings. Diehl offers elite spin rates on his fastball and slider though his fastball rarely tops 92. He’ll get a chance to make the Rockies pen, but the club needs other options. Acquired from the Yankees in exchange for Mike Tauchman, Diehl could use an experienced security blanket or two late in games, considering the lefty weapons in the NL West that can do damage in large quantities.

Another lefty, 2016 2nd round pick Ben Bowden will get a chance after dominating the minor leagues as a power lefty. Southpaws Brian Gonzalez and Ian Clarkin were signed to minor league deals though they project to be emergency options and organizational depth.

Loup pitched for the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays last year making 24 appearances. The lefty spent 2019 with the Padres though he only notched 3.1 innings due to a forearm strain.

Since 2018, Loup has struck out 24.2% (22.9% in 2020) of all batters faced while walking just 6.5% (4.2% in 2020). In terms of Coors Field appeal, Loup owns a 53.4% career ground ball rate and he features a sinker and cutter roughly 80% of the time – two efficient offerings for a Rockies pitcher. His sinker doesn’t have an elite spin rate at 2159 rpm, but according to Baseball Savant, it works with 99.9% active spin, the 6th highest rate in 2020, alluding to the healthy movement Loup gets on the pitch.

Aaron Loup strikes out Alex Verdugo with a well located fastball. Via Baseball Savant

Loup sits in the low 90s with his sinker, topping out at 94. These factors lead to it being an effective pitch only allowing hitters to hit to a .296 xwOBA and .307 wOBA in 2020. The cutter has been even more useful in recent seasons. The Rays helped Loup refine that pitch into a weapon he buries in on righties and away to lefties. Hitters managed just a .263 wOBA against the pitch in 2020.

Loup isn’t your modern-day power pitcher but his control, evident by his elite 4.2% walk rate in 2020, and command are well refined. He utilizes Coors-friendly pitches which generate ground balls and limit hard contact in the air.

These three players would cover the Rockies’ biggest needs and fit into a reasonable budget. Russell Martin could offer the Rockies their best opening day catcher since Nick Hundley. Robbie Grossman can significantly increase the club’s walk rate and OBP. In the case of Grossman, he could provide a defensive boost to the expansive Coors outfield. To round out the list, Aaron Loup would be a stable presence in the pen, regardless of handedness, and operate to hold in-division lefties like Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, and Mike Yastrzemski among others in check.

Featured image courtesy of Forest Simon via Unsplash

Tyler Paddor

A proponent of prospect analysis and endurer of Rockies idiocy. Twitter: @RoxDontRake