clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Making A Cubs Midsummer Deal: Colorado Rockies

New, 100 comments

The Rockies have a number of interesting pieces, at least one of whom could interest the Cubs.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In my preseason predictions, I got a lot of things dead wrong. I mean a lot. Miami winning the National League East? Yeesh. Kansas City returning to mediocrity at 81-81? That looks stinky. And Houston at 74-88? That's an ugly pick.

But I got a few things right, too, with perhaps the most accurate prediction thus far being the Colorado Rockies at 70-92. They're currently on pace for a 72-90 season, but as I noted in my one sentence prediction, "might Tulo finally move on?"

While the record may prove accurate, it's the question that gets at the heart of the issue for the Rockies: they are a team seemingly swimming along without a rudder, having compiled a dreadful 316-420 record over the past four-and-a-half years (.429), never finishing better than fourth in the N.L. West and never finishing better than 18 games out in the division.

For reference sake, the 2010-14 Cubs skidded to a 346-464 record (.427), but as we all know, the Cubs consciously sought out losses and the top draft picks that accompany such losses while converting 2011-14 Major League talent into talent that could help in the Majors in 2015 and beyond. That the Rockies managed to just narrowly eclipse the Cubs' pace over largely that same stretch is dumbfounding.

The Rockies do have some useful pieces coming up through their system -- righties Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, lefty Kyle Freeland, third baseman Ryan McMahon, and personal favorites outfielders David Dahl and Raimel Tapia are all at various stages of their development -- but the 2015 season is lost and the 2016 season will likely feature continued growing pains, especially due to some lost time for Dahl as a result of a horrifying outfield collision that ruptured his spleen, required emergency surgery, and will cost him the rest of 2015... or so we thought. Incredibly, Dahl returned to short-season ball last week. Good for him.

Tradable Assets
Given this status, you would expect the Rockies to sell off some short-term assets in exchange for long-term pieces, but therein lies the problem for Colorado: their Major League assets are all primarily of the long-term variety. Personal favorite Nolan Arenado has turned into a star as his elite glove at third is now complemented by an ISO north of .300. Centerfielder Charlie Blackmon has proven that his red-hot start to the 2014 season wasn't a fluke as his speed-power combination has led to excellent results. And despite his shortcomings with the bat, second baseman DJ LeMahieu started the All-Star game thanks to excellent glovework and good on-base skills. We all know about Troy Tulowitzki, a perennially injured star shortstop. We also know about outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, whose star-level career seemingly fell off a cliff before showing some signs of recovery in the last few weeks.

Here's the thing: Tulowitzki is signed for $98 million from 2016-20 (including his 2021 buyout), CarGo is due $37 million for 2016-17, LeMahieu has three years of arbitration control from 2016-18, ditto Blackmon, and Arenado has four years of arbitration upcoming from 2016-19 as a first-time Super Two this upcoming winter. Those are all long-term assets (let's pretend CarGo can be considered an asset for purposes of the preceding sentence). Even catcher Nick Hundley is signed for just $3.15 million next year.

On the pitching side, Colorado doesn't feature a single pitcher with a WAR north of 0.8. WAR isn't a perfect metric, but it does not appear as though there is a meaningful rotation upgrade to be found in the mountains. Jorge de la Rosa has pitched much better away from Coors Field than he has in his home ballpark, but that is largely the result of an absurdly how home run rate (0.28 HR/9) and an absurdly high strand rate (85.4% LOB%), neither of which de la Rosa has shown at any other time in his career. He's not much of an upgrade over the current fifth starter options this year, and for $12.5 million next year, the Cubs can do better.

That leaves us with the five names above: Arenado, Blackmon, LeMahieu, Tulowitzki, and Gonzalez.

My attempts to fake trade for Arenado earlier this year were, umm, not well-received, but at this point, the Cubs would probably have to move Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber to acquire him, plus additional pieces. That's not happening, so let's cross him off the list.

LeMahieu is basically Darwin Barney playing half his games in Coors Field (LeMahieu's career road line: .243/.281/.307. 2015 road line: .268/.319/.329) and since I'm confident that our front office can perform a simple search of his home/road splits, he's out.

That leaves Blackmon, Tulowitzki, and Gonzalez.

Except Gonzalez doesn't make sense for this Cubs team. He can't handle center field, Jorge Soler owns the right field job, and Gonzalez's only split with a wRC+ above 100 (league average) is at Coors Field against right-handed pitching. He isn't an upgrade over Chris Coghlan at this point. What a stunning reality, even though Gonzalez's career numbers have always been heavily inflated by Coors.

So really, we're left with Blackmon and Tulowitzki.

Let's start with the shortstop. Tulowitzki is one of the toughest commodities to value right now in the entire game. Tulo exploded onto the scene in 2007, and has enjoyed six seasons of five WAR production from 2007-14, having scuffled through an injury-marred 2008, and having played just 47 games in an injury-crippled 2012. 2014 was easily the finest year of his career as he posted 5.3 WAR in only 91 games, a pace of 9.3 WAR over a full season. That's Trout territory.

But the problem with Tulowitzki is threefold. First, he'd cost an incredible sum in a trade. As the Rockies franchise player and the leading MVP contender last year at the time of his injury, Colorado would require multiple premium pieces to part with him.

Second, he's seemingly always hurt. Tulo has played more than 126 games three times over his eight full seasons in the Majors, not including 2015. For what it's worth, he does appear on pace to play a full slate this year. The injuries have not been of the nicks/bruises variety, either: he lost 46 games to a strained quadriceps in 2008, 33 more to a wrist fracture in 2010, 113 to groin surgery to repair a nerve in 2012, and 64 more in 2014 for surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip. Two major surgeries since the start of the 2012 season isn't great.

That brings us to third problem, the one that I believe scuttles the chances that the Cubs trade for him: his 2015 production. His .313/.351/.480 triple slash looks excellent, but a look at his other numbers should have alarm bells ringing all over the place. The highlights (lowlights):

- Having posted a BB% of at least 9.0% from 2008-14, Tulo is at a career-worst 6.0% this year
- Having posted a K% of no worse than 17.8% from 2008-14, Tulo is at a career-worst 20.9% this year
- Having posted an ISO of at least .229 in all but one year (.199 in 2012) from 2009-14, Tulo is at .167 this year
- Having posted an average annual UZR of 6.4 from 2007-14, his UZR/150 of -7.7 (his pace for the season) is by far a career-worst

Tulowitzki's numbers aren't inflated by Coors, so there's at least one sign for encouragement. But given the $98 million owed to Tulo, his injury history, his alarming decrease in production as his injured body moves into its 30s, and the reality that any trade package for Tulo would have to include multiple premium pieces, I just don't see the fit.

Which leaves Blackmon. We'll get to Blackmon himself in just a moment, but any discussion of Blackmon requires acknowledging that Dahl and Tapia are both center-field prospects. Dahl's injury was unfortunate, but he should still be able to make it to the Show in 2017. Tapia may need another year to get there, but he's working on his third straight season with a batting average of at least .326 and he's on pace for a second straight 30 steal campaign. These are big-time prospects busting down the line.

Despite being a 2008 second-round pick and producing consistently excellent results in the minors, Blackmon never garnered much prospect love, likely in part due to his advanced age: Blackmon was nearly 22 on draft day. He ranked 12th in Baseball Prospectus's 2012 rankings where the publication stated that "scouts wobble between him being a good fourth outfielder and second-division starter." Colorado aggressively skipped Low-A ball with Blackmon, sending him to High-A in 2009 where he rewarded their faith with a .307/.370/.433 line. He continued to hit at every level, enjoying a monstrous .342/.396/.576 line in half a season at Triple-A before being promoted to the Majors...and promptly falling on his face with a .255/.277/.396 line and poor defense. His 2012 results were better but still subpar. Finally, in 2013, it started to click for Blackmon in half a season, and he enjoyed a strong campaign in 2014 that established him as an everyday player.

This year, Blackmon has enjoyed his best Major League success yet with a .291/.360/.463 batting line and plus defense in center field (7.1 UZR/150). And lest you fear that Blackmon's success is a Coors mirage, his wRC+ on the road (118) is better than that at home (105). His success on the road is a new phenomenon for Blackmon, but it has come despite a low-ish BABIP, suggesting that his gains have been genuine.

Unfortunately, Blackmon is a strict platoon outfielder with a horrendous .222/.278/.322 line against southpaws compared to a robust .216/.388/.514 line against right-handed arms. He's better against lefties for his career overall, but his batting line against lefties on the road has always been putrid.

As noted above, Blackmon comes with three years of arbitration control from 2016-18, covering his age 30-32 seasons. While we don't appear to be talking about a star, Blackmon is on pace for a 5.3 WAR season, so we might just be talking about a late-blooming star here.

Trade Proposals
Blackmon is the toughest guy I've written about in this series. One line of thought: a 5-WAR player is a 5-WAR player, however he gets there. Another line of thought: a 5-WAR player that seemingly comes out of nowhere at 29 isn't anywhere near as valuable as a 5-WAR player we saw coming all along. There's merit to both viewpoints.

I'm quite confident that Blackmon would require a significantly lesser package than a similarly productive player with a stronger pedigree.

With that in mind, let's get to some deals:

Proposal #1: Rockies trade CF Charlie Blackmon to Cubs for SP Duane Underwood and 1B Dan Vogelbach, and SP Jonathan Martinez

Despite the talent in their pipeline, the Rockies don't have any power on the way, nor do they have a first baseman. Vogelbach in Coors would be a dream. Underwood gives them another huge arm to develop in their search for pitching, even if he doesn't generate ground balls at an ideal rate for them. Martinez is the bit piece.

Proposal #2: Rockies trade CF Charlie Blackmon to Cubs for SP Pierce Johnson, OF Eloy Jimenez, and SP Erling Moreno

This one is really interesting to me. Johnson gives them an MLB-caliber arm for next year, something I'm sure they'd like. Moreno is the straight lottery ticket. Jimenez is the most interesting piece. If they see what I see -- a mashing right fielder with an advanced approach -- they'd have to be tempted, even if Jeff Bridich won't be around to see Jimenez at Coors. The prospect of a Jimenez-Dahl-Tapia outfield would probably keep Rockies fans up at night.

Proposal #3: Rockies trade CF Charlie Blackmon, SP Jorge de la Rosa, and $5 million to Cubs for OF Billy McKinney, SP Duane Underwood, and SP Dylan Cease

Yowzers, that's a high price to pay. I think the Rockies will get something decent for de la Rosa even though I don't value him that highly, and I think Colorado would have to be happy to pull in such a haul for Blackmon and de la Rosa.

I wouldn't be a big fan of this deal for the Cubs, but there's a lot of value in buying Blackmon as he ascends. If he plays like he has thus far over a full season, he's a massively important addition controlled through the first phase of the Cubs' new competitive window.

Verdict
I didn't make it easy on myself by biting off a Blackmon deal, but he should be a real target, so it's a worthwhile endeavor. I love Underwood, Eloy, and Cease, so each of these deals would be tough for me. I'd rather not add de la Rosa into any deal, but I recognize the possibility that Cubs braintrust may desire to add his useful arm, especially given the chance to get a look at him outside of Coors.

Trading for Blackmon comes with the benefit of three cost-suppressed years of control in center field, but it also comes with the massive risk that Blackmon is just an average ballplayer masquerading as a star for a few months.

In the end, I can't bash nor can I fully get behind any of these deals. That's tough.