Contracts

Colorado’s Free Agent Haul Could End Up Haunting Them

After inking Wade Davis to a 3 year, 52 million dollar deal (with a 15 million dollar option for a fourth season) on Friday, the Rockies are now on the hook for 133 million dollars in reliever salaries alone over the next three seasons, including 44.5 million this year alone. In fairness, they now boast one of the best relief corps in the National League, but has this spending spree on relief pitching actually made the team better or has instead handicapped them financially from improving other areas of their team?

While Wade Davis got the most lucrative deal of the bunch, he was by far the best late-inning option available and with All-Star closer Greg Holland departing, it’s easy to understand why the Rockies were willing to invest in a lockdown closer. Perhaps more questionable were the two 3 years, 27 million dollar deals that the Rockies handed to Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee, especially considering a relatively solid bullpen prior to the acquisitions. Don’t get me wrong, the consistency and durability of both Shaw and McGee will serve as reliable options that can effectively bridge the gap to their newly anointed closer, but I question whether these two additions represent a big enough improvement over Adam Ottavino, Chris Rusin, and Mike Dunn to justify the additional 18 million dollars per year that their contracts add to the payroll. To be clear, the depth and talent of this Rockies bullpen is among the best in the league, but the cost required to incrementally improve an area of the team that was solid already, may prove unwise down the road.

All of these considerations come with the usual caveat that since relievers by nature receive less time on the field, their opportunities to produce value are inherently limited. To illustrate this rather straightforward idea, lets do some simple arithmetic to determine how this crop of relievers will produce relative to their earnings.

As of today, the free agent market values one win above replacement as worth roughly 8 million dollars per year. Since an individual player’s marketability, age, pedigree, sports agency, health, and position are also factored in at the negotiating table, the one win for 8 million paradigm serves as nothing more than a guideline that helps contextualize the performance vs. dollars spent aspect of the contract. While extraneous factors dictate that nearly every contract deviates from this basic model, finding a case for why the Rockies overpaid for these recent bullpen additions is puzzling regardless of how you slice it.

With 42 out of 97 million dollars earmarked for these three relievers (43.2% of total payroll allocations), there is enormous pressure for all three players to not only perform but have career years if they are going to recoup their value.

Consider each of Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw, and Wade Davis career best seasons according to Fangraphs WAR:

Bryan Shaw – 1.5 WAR

Jake McGee – 2.0 WAR

Wade Davis – 3.1 WAR

Combined (Career Bests): 6.6 WAR

Optimal Value: 52.8 million

Optimal Surplus / Deficit: 10.8 million

Using our WAR to dollars metric, we can find that 6.6 wins above replacement are equal to 52.8 million dollars, which is about 8 million more than their market value. Let’s not forget, however, that this is the absolute best case scenario in which all three relievers enjoyed career seasons simultaneously without any hiccups or injuries. Now that these three relievers will have to contend with the hitter-friendly dimensions and fatigue-inducing conditions of Coors Field, it is much more likely that none of these guys will experience career seasons.

Instead, it would probably be more appropriate to try and predict future performance using the average results across the leading projection systems. Done this way, the results change drastically.

Bryan Shaw – 1.1 WAR

Jake McGee – 1.2 WAR

Wade Davis –  1.2 WAR

Combined (2018 Projection): 3.5 WAR

2018 Value: 28 million dollars

2018 Value Surplus / Deficit: -14 million

Understandably, breaking down these recent signings like this paints a grim picture for Rockies fans, and since a rudimentary salary vs. WAR calculation is only one criterion for evaluating a contract, it would only be fair to take a more holistic look at these deals to get a clearer understanding of the Rockies decision-making process.

Perhaps the Rockies decision to stockpile relief pitchers is an indicator that they plan on inserting their relief pitchers earlier into games, thus taking stress off of the arms of their youthful starting rotation. This would not only help to keep pitch counts down for promising starters like Jon Gray, German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman, Antonio Senzatela, (a group whose average age is 23.6 years old), it would also protect them from both the physical fatigue and psychological torment that comes with pitching at Coors Field.

Ultimately, while increased bullpen depth could conceivably alleviate the workload for some of the team’s young starters, it is unlikely that investing heavily in middle relievers was the primary motivation for these signings. If preserving the arm health of the team’s starting pitchers was truly the goal, the club would most likely have elected to acquire relievers capable of multi-inning outings or just sign a few more marginal starting pitchers to create a six-man rotation.

Even if these deals were made in isolation they would appear dubious, but what makes these acquisitions all the more puzzling is that just last year the club made two similar free agent signings, neither of which panned out. Just last offseason, the Rockies dedicated 6.3 million annually to left-handed reliever Mike Dunn before dipping further into their spending pool by giving Ian Desmond a contract worth 14 million annually. Signing Desmond not only compromised their future payroll flexibility, but the fact that he had declined a qualifying offer from the Texas Rangers earlier in the offseason meant the Rockies would have to forfeit their 1st round pick  (to add insult to injury, the Rockies had the 11th pick last year, which is the top unprotected pick in the draft)

These signings, which analysts and experts across the game nearly unanimously condemned when they happened, turned out just about as everyone expected. Mike Dunn showed flashes of brilliance and actually posted impressive strikeout numbers, but posted a subpar 4.47 ERA in the process. Desmond encountered similar struggles in his first season in Colorado, having perhaps the worst offensive season of his career, despite half of his at-bats coming at Coors Field.

At the end of the day, the struggles of past signings have no bearing on how the new triumvirate of Rockies relievers could perform this season. What is concerning, though, is that even if they all excel, it barely moves the needle as far as chasing the Dodgers is concerned.

Depending on the projection system, the Rockies were expected to win somewhere between 77 and 79 games in 2018, prior to free agency. Now, with the addition of the recent signees, this number increases to just 81, making the club .500 team.

Now to be fair, the Rockies were only “supposed” to win 82 games last year according to BaseRuns, but exceeded expectations by winning 87 games and securing a spot in the NL Wild Card game. Surpassing preseason projections is not unusual for teams with dominant bullpens because projection systems are context-neutral, meaning they disregard the ability of players to excel in high leverage situations (which is what late-inning relievers are best at).

Regardless of the Rockies rationale for overloading on bullpen arms, their spending spree has made the possibility of resigning superstars Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado a whole lot difficult when they decide to test the free agent waters. (Blackmon becomes a free agent after this season, while Arenado’s contract runs out the year after that).

At this point, it is practically a foregone conclusion that signing both Blackmon and Arenado will be impossible. This forces the front office to choose between their two franchise players, which will surely become a hot topic this coming offseason in Denver. Blackmon will demand less money than Arenado on the free agent market, but he hits free agency a year before, so if the Rockies decide to pay him, Arenado would play the last season in Colorado with the understanding that he will sign elsewhere when the year is over.

In either case, the Rockies allocated money to a bullpen that was not in need of a such an extreme overhaul, all the while relinquishing money that could have been used to resign the franchise’s cornerstone players.

Considering that Arenado and Blackmon combined for +12 WAR while costing the Rockies just 20 million last season. If all three of the newly acquired relievers matched their career highs this season (which is highly unlikely), they would accrue 7.3 WAR, while being paid over twice as much as the two Rockies superstars.

At the end of the day, nearly everyone in the baseball world was beside themselves when GM Jeff Bridich signed Ian Desmond last season and although he fell far short of expectations, the Rockies still wound up in October. This is not to say that the Desmond signing was a good move and I surely am not contending that this year’s round of overspending was anything other than ill-advised, but I am also not eliminating the possibility of the Rockies once again weaseling into a playoff spot. In sum, I guess the point here is that the paths to success are infinite, but in the event that the Rockies return to October, they will have done so not because of the moves they made this past month, but rather in spite of them. 

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About Traven Tapson

I am a recent graduate from Claremont McKenna College pursuing a career in baseball operations for an MLB team. I am fascinated by the analytical side of baseball and use this blog as a platform to share my insights and knowledge with those who share my curiosities.
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2 thoughts on “Colorado’s Free Agent Haul Could End Up Haunting Them

  1. Maybe the front office is responding to the new ‘juiced’ baseballs. Look how many games were lost in the last 3 innings. Especially at Coors, where they a!ready fly. The over-packed bullpen seems natural response to the late game tendency to change pitchers with every batter. Starters are expensive but the increase in runs scored late is turning into a financial boone for the bullpen. Between reports of more blisters and the new 10 day DL, for Coors Field, at least for now, I can understand the management’s decision to invest in the ‘pen. We’ll see how it plays out in ’18.

    1. I certainly agree that the investment in relievers is a byproduct of capitalizing on platoon splits late in games, but this does not change the fact that the majority of innings are still thrown by starters, I did not include this in the article, but a bolder prediction would be that the Rockies are option for a piggyback rotation (each starter throws 3-4 innings apiece). I spoke about this idea in the article entitled Coors Field: A Laboratory of Innovation. The idea would be that by lessening the workload of starting pitchers, the team not only saves them from the fatigue that Coors Field produces, but it also prevents Rockies starters from having to face the same lineup a 3rd time (which is generally when ERAs spike due to the familiarity opposing hitters now have with the starter. Even if both these arguments prove to be valid, the fact that the limited number of innings that relief pitchers throw creates a cap on their value, regardless of how effective they are in their limited opportunities.

      On a different note, I appreciate your comments on the blog. I know my content is perhaps over the head of the typical baseball fan, but if you can find a way to promote my page in any capacity, I will be profoundly grateful.

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