Earlier this year I wrote about the huge problems that the Rox have created for themselves by their current construction of the 40 man roster. In that I made a few points about how Jeff Bridich has not acquitted himself well as General Manager since his hire 2 years ago (a point I want to be careful about because all GMs make mistakes or get burned…oh, and I really would like a job one day with the team and making him really angry with me doesn’t seem wise in that case). A review come September 1 at his tenure is probably due. The key thing to remember with Bridich is he cut his teeth as a farm system and player development guy, learning from Dan O’Dowd who I think did at times a great job at that and at times…poor, but other than playing the Lotto few things are as hit and miss as player development. Bridich since becoming GM has had his best days at swiping talent from other teams, fleecing in some cases, and that will matter as much as anything in the long years of the future Rockies Dynasty. Choosing among players already at the big league level…that is another story.
But the 2nd major issue that hit since August 1 is: Horrible 40-Man Roster Utilization
Including in this is how the team has responded to injuries. Let it be said that since August 1 the team lost their starting short-stop and 27homers (and probably another 10-14 in August and September), their #1 starting pitcher on the road, their starting 1st baseman (who had double-digit homers, lengthened the lineup and played darn good defense this year), and lost for most of the past 2 weeks its starting right-fielder and his 20+ homers. Few teams losing that much quality on their 25 man roster are going to play .500 ball. What makes the past two weeks highlight the issues of the roster utilization so much is that it hasn’t lost games 15-2, but 7-5, 4-3 and the like. That means games where, putting aside rotation hiccups and bullpen meltdowns, with a bit more run support here and there, a few better at-bats that push starters out of the game earlier or force the use of a worse reliever, and a few better plays in the field, the team could have played .500 baseball. Yes, I am making the point that even with the heartbreaking bullpen issues against the Marlins, Rangers, Phils and Nats, this team could have won 2 or 3 more games if the 40 man roster was used better. Based on what?
- The shortstop issue: Look, no one takes the blame for the Trevor Story loss. It happened at the 12th hour of the trade deadline, it was a freaky injury (again, I believe changing the rules on touching second or third on a slide so that contact is assumed until the shoulder pass would mean the bounce-up from a hard slide would be irrelevant and sliding feet first would return to the preferred and much safer approach). It really is sad because I think the race between himself and Seager for both Rookie-of-the-Year and…if the Rox were to compete for the playoffs, even MVP votes would have been fun. Regardless, there was almost nothing at that time they could do to address this issue.
But…once known there were a few things they could do. They could have at least looked into a trade with the Reds for Zach Cozart, either before the deadline in July or since (the Rox lower position would allow them to make a deal before clubs with more wins). Cozart would have cost the team a prospect in the 6-10 range, but is still relatively cheap (2 years more of arbitration), can play around the diamond, and would have upgraded the current substitution group of Descalso (who is a FA after this year) and Adames. Additionally, assuming a healthy return by Story, Cozart could have been dealt in the Winter and brought back near the same return in prospect level (assuming he played well in August and September).
But failing a trade the team was faced by the limits of who was on their 40 man roster. Descalso was seen, rightly, as the first-man up, at least against right-handed pitching as he is having a career year. Descalso is a marginal defensive player at short, but acceptable.
The problem lies in the other two men on the 40 who can play short-stop. Let’s begin with the first man chosen for Story’s spot – Rafael Ynoa. Now, 40 man roster spots are very valuable. Each year a team has to balance its forecasted needs with budget with those players who will have to be added to the 40 the next season to avoid Rule 5 draft loss. So with that in mind can someone explain why Rafael Ynoa is holding one of those 40 man spots? Ynoa is not a prospect anymore (if he ever was). He is 29. In 207PA he has an OPS of .678! In his minor league career including winter leagues, he has a career OPS (3897PA) of .709. This is not a player that has any thing that makes you say, “Wow…can’t afford to lose him through waivers.” Oh, wait you say, he can play several positions. Yes, he can. And all of them poorly. If Rafael Ynoa is the answer to your team’s problems, the real problem is your team can’t compete. And if you are not going to be competitive, why not use the 40 man slot for someone who still has potential that could be reached. Rafael Ynoa belongs on the 40 man roster only at the end of the season if you have been decimated by injuries. There are players like him bouncing around on every teams roster…and can be had for almost nothing if you need him. Ynoa’s stay though was mercifully short though as he was replaced by Gerardo Parra (another major issue we will discuss in a minute).
When Descalso is not playing short the team runs out Cristhian Adames. Now, look, at least with Adames you have the fact he is a home grown prospect (again, using the term prospect here loosely). Adames is out of options so if he is taken off the 25-man roster the team can lose him (and very well might). Adames, unlike Ynoa, at least fields his positions well. In a short one or two game situation he can serve as an adequate replacement. The problem is though that defensive flexibility, even for a team that must carry an extra reliever and plays in the National Leagues is not acceptable if the player is worse than league average as a hitter. In 240PA with the Rockies between 14 and present he has an OPS of .518. There are pitchers with better OPS than that. It is true he won the winter league batting title but that skill has never shown itself at the major league level. I heard Jeff Bridich say if he got 300-400 PA that he would hit .265 the team thinks. Based on what actual facts? The one skill that Adames has shown aside from defense is bunting, but again, if you need a good bunt placed down you can have solid hitting pitchers (Chris Rusin comes to mind) perform that duty. Adames was a barely acceptable 25th man when you had a shortstop who played 95% of the time and could be spelled against tough righties by Descalso (the fact that Adames is a switch-hitter is immaterial because…he doesn’t hit well with either hand). We hear Adames is a great team guy. I have no doubt, and you need those types of guys to win championships. But with Story’s injury he moved from #25 to essentially number 10 on your roster.
No team wants to risk losing players it already knows well from its system by placing them on waivers. But players must do something to earn that spot. Either they must have potential (say a 25-year old power hitting catcher you want to give a taste of the majors), provide a nice bat, especially in pinch-hitting situations, or literally be able to play near-league average defense in 7 of the position slots. Adames like Ynoa does not meet any of these criteria. So two of the team’s 40 man slots are taken by players who provide negative offensive contributions. And they are intended to take the place of a player who has been a major offensive force on a team that at the time was close to the Wild Card slot.
Now, no one was suggesting mortgaging the future for a 2-month replacement for Story(again, Cozart would have cost a prospect in the 6-16 ranking range, but not broken the bank and would have been a better 25th man in 2017 than Adames has thus so far proven to be). Aside from such a trade what other alternatives could have been pursued? At the time of the injury there was no player at AAA that represented a potential (life is about potential…you cannot know until you get there) positive replacement over Adames or Ynoa. However, since August 1 the team has elevated Pat Valaika. Valaika was a 2013 9th round pick and comes from a baseball family. His defense is not as solid as Adames and he has far more experience at short than at 2nd or 3rd, which Adames also plays. But his bat does have more potential in it (it should be noted that Adames has had 800+ OPS years in the minors, Valaika has been more of a mid .700s OPS. What he does have is a slugging average around 150 points higher than Adames for his career. I am not saying that Valaika is a substantial upgrade…only that he might be an upgrade. Instead the team, at a time when its bullpen is shaky and its rotation tired, needs more offensive potential on it. Right now Cristhian Adames provides some of the worst offensive production in baseball. The team’s decision to “stand pat” after losing Story in essence to the fans, “we aren’t even going to really try now.”
Of course it would be bad enough if this was the action at the shortstop position/utility infielder role. You can live with more defensive focus there and Descalso is having a career year. But the shortstop/utility role is just one of the examples of 40-man roster “wastage.” *this is a technical term from business…no player’s career is really a waste…they get to play out their dream…but valueable slots can return close to 0…and that is a waste from a team perspective****
2) First base issues – Mark Reynolds was probably the best off-season signing by Jeff Bridich. I don’t know if the team already knew of his change from an all-or-nothing approach to trying to be a more rounder hitter, but what they got this season has been a very pleasant surprise. Reynolds had been streaky at times during the year, but provided close-to-league average production, despite playing for it seems about 6 weeks with a sore hamate bone (for those unfamiliar with the hamate bone, it can be a power killer for those who injury it, essentially killing the potential career of one-time supp #1 pick Tim Wheeler the year after he hit 33 homers…leaving him with just a bad OBP and okay defense to try and make his way in baseball with). Reynolds OPS+ of 96 is particularly positive when it is remembered he was signed originally to be a platoon with fan favorite Ben Paulsen. Of course as has been the case for the Rox of late, they got a reverse platoon split with Reynolds (as has been true of 5th outfielder Ryan Rayburn), as he has an .850 OPS vs Righties and an .685 vs lefties. Reynolds made himself out to be a real league-average player by making up what offensive shortcomings he had with some fantastic defense, especially on balls thrown in the dirt to first. Arenado and Story have been very complimentary of his play this year, saving them both a number of errors and allowing for Arenado’s highlight reel to include more outs rather than a lot of “Wow, that was great…didn’t get him but…wow” plays. Reynolds sadly broke his hamate bone and is likely done for the season.
And how did they replace Reynolds? Well as deep as the farm system is for the Rockies the one big weakness they have is at first base. Correl Prime, the prospect they had hoped would claim the 1st base job is still languishing in the lower minors having never equaled his big year at Ashville. At AA this year Ryan McMahon has been moved from 3rd (where he had good feet and hands to play the position but was still making a lot of errors…not unlike Areando at the same stage in his career) to first base. Sadly this has been a bit of a lost year for McMahon with the bat, hitting below .250 (though with improvement in the 2nd half) and he will likely repeat AA next year (not the end of the year as we have seen with a few prospects, especially guys like McMahon who played football during high school). So with Reynolds loss Ben Paulsen was recalled to the 25-man roster. Now Paulsen is a fan-favorite in part because we can remember a few big walk-off hits he has had since 2014. But in 470PA he has a career .772 OPS, a number that looks better largely because of his brief stint in 2014 when he his BABIP was .400! Needless to say, that wasn’t sustainable (he isn’t DJ who stings the ball every time). In 2016 his OPS is .597 for an OPS+ of 47!
Paulsen is 28-years old now and if he was ever a prospect (a mid-teens one at best) he is no longer one. His defense isn’t particularly good, and while his career minor league OPS is .792 (acceptable barely for 1B), that is due largely to his .852 OPS in the PCL…a place where offensive numbers are taken with the entirely of Lot’s Wife and family of Salt. Like Ynoa, Paulsen is a career minor leaguer who will from time-to-time be able to help as a 25th man on the roster but is actually relatively replaceable by other career minor leaguers. Paulsen is home-grown, which gives added sentimental value but for a team that is trying to tell its fans they are serious about making a run for the playoffs (remember, that is why the stood pat at the trade deadline), calling up Paulsen represents the clearest message that Broncos training camp has opened.
What is sad is there is for once a real alternative. Down in AAA Jordan Patterson has been going about his work everyday and having a great first season in AAA (again…all numbers must be taken with appropriate seasoning). Patterson a 4th round pick in 2013 has hit at every level he has been at, was a team captain at South Alabama, is seen as a great team guy, can play both corner spots in the outfield as well as first, and even brings some occasional speed (63 SB/24 CS since 2013). The first half saw Patterson OBP well over .400 but his power disappear. Since July 1 he has begun to swap some on-base for more power, and now has 12 homers to go with 22 doubles and 7 triples and a .312 BA (.396OBP). His OPS is .908 for the season, compared to Paulsen’s .770 at AAA. Why was Paulsen brought up and not Patterson? That’s right…the old 40-man issue. Paulsen is on it and the team would need to free-up a spot by removing someone (Paulsen most likely) to add Patterson. So why not make that move? Some speculate that Walt Weiss likes veterans, especially at this time of the year. But Paulsen is a vet only in the sense he has 500PA. Patterson is 24, four years younger. Both are left-handed hitters (a major issue for the future of the outfield as we will see shortly). At this point, if the season is lost because of injuries, you should be taking a hard look at the 40 and realizing…Ben Paulsen is not part of the future (some team may actually claim Paulsen if he is DFAd, unlike Brandon Barnes…and the failure of Prime probably alone keeps Paulsen on the 40). If the season is not lost and there is still a chance to make a run at the 2nd Wild Card (and there is time), then why not go with the player with far more potential in his bat? Why is Ben Paulsen, especially as he continues to prove he is not a major league regular, getting starts in August in a season the Rox think they have a chance to play meaningful games? Why is Patterson still languishing in AAA? If the overload of left-handed outfielders is an issue for the team (Blackmon still has several years before FA, CarGo is signed through 2017, Dahl is a lefty as is Tapia) then why not trade Patterson at the trade deadline for bullpen help (assets similar to Patterson fetched back decent relievers for teams in the playoff hunt). Like Ynoa and Adames, the 40-man roster keeps Paulsen getting PA at Coors and potential…and the future, sitting in the minors and losses mounting.
3) Right-handed outfielder/bench power – In the Spring the team looked and realized it stunk against left-handed starters in 2015. Now, to be fair, the names Kershaw and Baumgarner have a lot to do with that. But the team wanted to get more balanced. Signing Reynolds was part of that move (though, he has had reversed platoon splits) but the big move was to pick up Ryan Rayburn right before Spring Training games began. Rayburn is now in his 11th year, has played for the Indians and Tigers, and in some years flat destroys left-handed pitching. I liked this move a lot. If it goes bad…you invest little $1.5 million. If it goes great, you get a lottery ticket. Rayburn is ostensibly an outfielder. In reality…he is a DH and pinch-hitter, since in his early days he was barely acceptable in the outfield and at 35 those days are gone. His offense has to be big to cover for his defensive liabilities (and we have seen in games he starts that when a lefty-starter leaves, even in the 5th, Rayburn has been lifted for defensive purposes). Last year in Cleveland he produced a .936 OPS in 201PA, for an OPS+ of 147. Sadly for Ryan (and the Rox) he has this every-other-year thing going, like an overworked reliever. In 2014 his OPS+ was 53. This explains why the Indians, even after losing Michael Taylor to shoulder injuries, didn’t bring him back. At times this year Ryan has been great. He had a grand slam on the road against the Braves (in a game where the team was already well-ahead) and a big homer at Coors on a Sunday against the Mets. Sadly…that is about it. For the year he is hitting .225 with an OPS of .730 (OPS+ of 79). Some of that is because he has faced a lot of righties (119PA vs just 98PA against lefties). What is weird is his OPS against righties is a dismal .689, despite a BABIP of .324. Against lefties it is a decent .783 (about league-average) despite a BABIP of .245. Baseball is weird. Rayburn has been…about what was advertised…but nothing special. And his lack of defensive capacity, especially at Coors, is becoming an increasing issue (again, the need for one more reliever and more switches in the NL by itself and at Coors in particular).
For whatever reason the Rox really struggle in developing right-handed outfielder. Kyle Parker was perhaps never given as many PA as he needed to prove himself but it wasn’t because the team didn’t need right-handed power in the outfield. So, what it the team to do. The answer might be in the form of another lottery ticket. This offseason the Rox took a flyer on a player who had been out of affiliated minor league baseball for several years but having a decent career in the independent leagues. Stephen Cardullo, a former walk-on at Florida State who was given just a year by the Dbacks after drafting signed and was assigned to AAA this year. He is primarily an corner outfielder (though he was an infielder in college and has played some 3B in the minors…wonder if he might pick up a 1B glove this winter). He has been more than a pleasant surprise. At 28 he is the same age as Paulsen is, but has had a great season back in affiliate minor league baseball hitting .309 with an OBP of .370 and an OPS of .892. Including in that is 24 doubles, 5 triples and a team leading 16 homers. He stole more bases in Independent ball last year (23 vs 2 CS, only 6SB and 3CS this year) but plays decent defense. He also has a 36BB/55K ratio (Patterson’s is 43/97 and Paulsen’s is 24/57). Look, no one is saying this is a future All-Star, but Rayburn’s defensive issues have been made worse by his injury and he clearly is not part of the future. The team needs to establish if it can find some right-handed outfield help (and if Cardullo can help the team offensively, then learning 1B in the off-season would seem like a wise idea) and see if it can capture some lightning in a bottle. Especially the last 10 days with CarGo’s gimpy ankle having Rayburn’s injured leg and poor defense has really limited in-game moves. And again, they have not been getting blown out in games. The losses have been by a run or two, and the limits in terms of switching and platoon options have clearly hurt this team. Rayburn remains on the active roster because the only other alternatives – Brandon Barnes and Cardullo, are not on the 40. The spot on the 40 taken by Rayburn is beginning to create severe complications…especially during the injury-plagued August this team has had.
4) The Left-handed Outfield Issue (aka…the Gerardo Parra Problem). I am going to say something I can’t believe I am saying. I get the decision of Bridich to sign Parra this off-season. Look, he had a bad 2nd half in Baltimore (changing leagues is often hard on hitters). But the team was looking at the potential of trading either CarGo or Blackmon if the right deal came along. It does have two young outfielders with huge potential in Dahl and Tapia, but prospects flame out all the time (and no one saw Dahl making the huge jump in his power and overall hitting he has in 2016…and Tapia remains a high-reward, high-risk player). Okay, yes, they also have Jordan Patterson…another lefty…but he can play 1B. Heck, maybe so can CarGo. So while the idea of adding yet another left-handed outfielder might have seemed like overkill, it can also be seen as prudent planning. Paying him $9 million per year for 3-years did seem like an overpay, but again, that gave them 3-years to transition in your young players and potential trade-out Blackmon and CarGo. Plus, he has been…operative word here…has been…a plus defender, with a great arm, can fill-in at center, and while he lacks power his plate approach was believed to help serve the team, especially on the road, by having a go-with-the pitch approach. Heck, he is even buds with CarGo, and a happy CarGo is good for the team. The decision made in the winter makes sense…or is at least justifable.
Sadly…it has gone terribly wrong. Leaving aside the ankle-injury was fortunately wasn’t as bad as it could have been (looked like knee when I saw it), Parra has been awful this year. His OPS of .680 is an OPS+ of 65…tolerable…barely…if he is a 4th outfielder, great defensive replacement (think Drew Stubbs). But an OBP of just .268? Which is a career low…oh wait, it was the exact same in Baltimore in the 2nd half last year. Much has been made of his 4BB to 48K ratio. But during his time in Baltimore last year…8BB to 35K. What we are beginning to see is what is called…a trend. Parra is just 29, the same as CarGo (and a year younger than Blackmon), but sometimes players careers just…end. Garret Atkins and Brad Hawpe are two examples we all lived through. Even his GIDP number is at 12, highest since his rookie year and his stolen bases are at 6 SB v 4CS. Defensively while he had a few good throws at the beginning of the year he has taken some awful routes of late, many of them taking over for CarGo due to his ankle, as CarGo has actually had one of the best defensive runs saved numbers going into August. Players who have a proven track record deserve time to show they are just in a rut (ask McCutchon in Pittsburg), but for how long? Especially in a playoff race? And how long before you realize a rut…is the new normal. Because of the nearly $20 million still owed this year through 2018, the team is going to have to be at least somewhat patient (they already ate $20 million on Reyes…a decision that was sound but…when you see Adames run out there at short you almost wish hadn’t been made…until you remember that your father taught you that you never lay a finger on any woman, especially your wife). Parra did have a nice 4 RBI day vs the Nats, so maybe there is hope, but with CarGo’s gimpy ankle and Rayburn’s complete defensive anti-utility, the decision regarding Paulsen and Rayburn become highlighted. Parra can’t be a 4th outfielder right now…you have to play him. And thus the fact that Patterson and Cardullo sit in AAA because of the lack of a 40-man spot become highlighted.
5) Catcher, both #1 and #2 spots -I was listening to Walt Weiss talk the other day. And he said, again, that Nick Hundley is going to continue to catch 4 out of every 5 days. Now, coming off 2015 when he had a career offensive year, that makes sense. If your back-up catcher is either defensively impotent or has no bat, it makes sense. If you have no real prospects in the organizational chain that makes sense. Or if you are trying to highlight a player to trade him…that makes sense.
It is now August 19. None of those reasons apply any longer. Again, I like Nick. Great guy. Had a big year last year. But in 2016 he is hitting .248/.322/.397 for an OPS of .719 and an OPS+ of 77. For the last 28 days? .238/.262/.317 for an OPS of .579. In other words the 32-year old catcher is heading the wrong direction. I am unable to find his catcher ERA (subscription needed), but he is wildly recognized as a poor game caller, a poor pitch framer, and a poor defensive catcher overall. His caught-stealing percentage has dove from 34% last year to 13% this year! On the bright side, he suddenly makes Parra’s 2016 of bad hitting, bad base running and bad defense seem better. So, if your catcher is having a career offensive year, sure, you stick with him. Or if your back-up is a defensive liability. Tony Wolters? For a player still really learning the position (just age 24!) he is widely saluted as one of the best young defensive catchers and his ability to frame pitches and steal strikes documented. The young pitching staff has raved about throwing to him. Wolters caught stealing percentage is just 28%, but that is still twice as good as Hundley’s. Now, at the start of the season Wolters really struggled with the bat. His lack of a bat is why they were able to steal him from the Indians…he had never been above AA before…largely because of his bat. For the season he is still only hitting .266/.348/.411 for an OPS of .760 and an OPS+ of 87. Now, his OPS is helped by usually hitting 8th, but he still has to take the walks when not intentional. But over the past 28 days he is hitting .387/.472/.645 for an OPS of 1.117. And while the sample size is small as a recent article points out, the chance is due to changes made in his balance, his hand set, a lot of work with Blake Doyle, and the fact at 24…he is still learning…has potential. So reasons 2 and 3 to continue to roll out Hundley are also null now. Reason #5, to showcase him for a trade, look…the showcasing is going the other direction. You are never going to get a big-time prospect for Hundley but as the Rox showed with their trade of Kahnle this last off-season, you can find diamonds in the rough. Even a Low A second-baseman with speed or power would be a great return for Hundley. Instead, he is just eating PA that Wolters needs to grow, is hurting the team’s offensive performance in games they are losing by 1 or 2 runs, is not a great catcher in terms of ERA or performance of his pitching staff. But all that aside, what is happening in AAA with Tom Murphy really makes the fact Nick Hundley is still with the Rockies a mystery.
Okay, yes, Murphy can use more growth in calling games, defense, pitch framing…all that. Most prospect analysts say he is going to be about league average as a defensive catcher (the AAA pitching staff has been making huge compliments about him the last 6 weeks however). But put that all to the side. When a player hit for the entirely of July – 63 AB (he was finally healthy after fighting an oblique injury to start the season that he said impacted his swing when he came back in late May), but in 63 AB he hits for an average of .540, you have to notice right? Maybe a fluke? In August, in 46 AB, .391. Since the All-Star Break, in 90 AB, .422. His OPS in July was 1.665. We aren’t talking about a lot of singles or even doubles there. His OPS in August is 1.156. Since the All-Star Break, 1.269. He had 8 homers in July and another 2 in August. When David Dahl was brought to AAA he hit in 14 of 15 and the team said, “He forced his being called-up.” Well, Murphy has done that and more. Yes, he can continue to learn the game behind the plate. But he will learn far better with pitchers who can actually throw a pitch where they want versus AAA pitchers that…well, they are in AAA for a reason!
And this one isn’t even a 40-man roster issue. Murphy is already on the 40. As a matter of fact, moving Hundley, either to DFA him or a trade would open a spot for either Patterson or Cardullo or…Freeland or…you get the picture. There is no reason, present or future, offense or defense, for Nick Hundley to still be catching games in Colorado. He is a great guy. Surely a team in the playoff hunt can use a veteran #2. And yes, I am arguing that this team can still compete for a Wild Card in 2016. But there is no argument that Hundley makes this team better than either Wolters or Murphy. But still he sits there. Taking a spot on the 40 and a spot in the starting 3 or 4 out of every 5 games. What does this tell the other prospects in AA and AAA. Yes, David Dahl got called up quickly (funny thing was he had hit a lull in AA when he was brought to AAA). Tyler Anderson was fast-tracked to Coors, but injuries were part of the issue. There is growing talk among Rockies prospects that in a team trying to compete that has weaknesses where it has prospects, prospects who are shining – Hoffman, Freeland, Marquez, Murphy, Tapia, Patterson, and more that it doesn’t act. Baseball, especially in the minors can be a slog. Long bus rides. Bad field conditions. And all for the hope that you show your stuff and earn your call. Well, if Tom Murphy hasn’t earner it by his own, the poor performance by Nick Hundley should have earned it for him.
Can the Rockies still chase down the Wild Card? Yes…there are enough examples in the last 10 years of teams making up more the 6.5 games to say they have a real shot. Do they have talent on the farm that can make this team potentially better without a trade (and with all prospects…with all players, it is always about potential…the future is simply unknown and unknowable)? Yes. But right now, especially with a team with injuries, it’s 40-man roster is as big an impediment as a bad relief corp and pitching at Coors.
*** Other notable names on the 40 where value can be added in replacement: Jason Gurka, Christian Bergman, and Dustin Garneau ***