With holes to fill, the Colorado Rockies greatest asset this offseason isn’t Nolan Arenado. Nor is it Charlie Blackmon, even though both are of MVP caliber.
While the two are undoubtedly the team’s most important pieces during the regular season, the current players that will mean the most to the Rockies over the following months are the club's young starting rotation.
As it stands, the core group of Rockies starters is one the team can confidently carry into spring training with expectations to contend. Even after losing Tyler Chatwood, they can rely on Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Chad Bettis, Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman to anchor a team seeking another run to October.
Gray and Marquez have shown ace-caliber potential. Anderson is a soft contact wizard when healthy. Bettis will look to rebuild strength and ability in his first full season back from cancer treatment, while Senzatela, Freeland, and Hoffman have all proven to be capable young options with high ceilings and have already performed at the major league level. That’s seven viable options for five spots already.
In 2017, the Rockies starters ranked middle of the pack in MLB in ERA and fell just outside the top 10 in fWAR. They were also fifth best in baseball in soft contact rate and induced a ground ball nearly 50 percent of the time, third best in the league.
Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. They could go get Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Shohei Ohtani or all of them and the rotation would be better off for it. Excluding the Japanese megastar, all have proven MLB track records to dispel some of the uncertainty that comes with relying on a young core.
But, the issue comes with the price point. Three of those four rejected qualifying offers that would guarantee them $17.4 million dollars next season alone, and Ohtani will require $20 million for his posting fee before his contract is even negotiated, albeit that contract will surely be a steal for that club. The rest of the free agency class isn’t exactly cheap other, in an era of prioritization of pitching. Yu Darvish would’ve drawn a qualifying offer had he been eligible, and will undoubtedly sign a nine-figure contract by the start of the season.
But as you delve lower into the rankings, into the Chatwoods, Andrew Cashners, Chris Tillmans and Jhoulys Chacins, the thoughts of obvious upgrades subside but do not take the prices with them. For example, Doug Fister was rewarded for a replacement-level season and a 4.88 ERA with a $3.5 million contract for the upcoming one.
The current Rockies hurlers are all slated to make pennies in contrast. Of the seven starters, only Bettis is arbitration eligible. The other six have renewable contracts and are all but guaranteed to earn league minimum contracts. It is possible the entire Opening Day rotation will make less money combined than Fister, especially if Bettis finds himself being the odd man out.
Bottom line: the Rockies are ready to field a competitive rotation, for a minuscule amount of money. They can improve there, but the most efficient utilization of the rotation is to keep it as is and use the leftover money to address actual areas of need.
After key departures, they don’t need to add on to areas of strength. Catcher is a black hole. First base and the bench are question marks at best. The mystery of David Dahl makes both left and right field spots that could use addressing as well. But the gravely wounded bullpen is the direst situation. Losing NL Comeback Player of the Year and closer Greg Holland, Jake McGee and Pat Neshek to free agency was huge.
The Rockies have no obvious internal options to assume the late innings at the level a contending team needs—albeit here's our list—and they know it. The options, Holland, Wade Davis, Zach Britton et al, are all going to cost more than $10 million per year, likely higher than $15 million and possibly up to $20 million. Plus Colorado is going to need more than one reliever.
In a competitive free agent market for a premium position, with a medium-market payroll budget and nearly $70 million already committed across only five players and other costs, the Rockies need to be diligent in how they spend their money. Their young rotation will give them flexibility in that, and may even be a selling point for would-be closer options. Jeff Bridich and Co. may be able to make the claim that the save opportunities and the big moments will be abundant because of the young arms leading the way and shortening the bridge to them.
The rotation is going to be an asset in the regular season, but it will not just be because of its on-field prowess. The alignment in the arrival of each player has given the Rockies a window where their most important position is also their cheapest, paving way for depth and resource allocation that can make the team stronger as a whole. With the microscopic salary they are paying their starters, the club can address their biggest problems with more ease, making the rotation all the more valuable.