Earlier this week, my colleague Robert Sanchez wrote a scathing indictment of the Colorado Rockies for their recent trade of superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals, and of their fans, for not boycotting games because of the Rockies’ roster mismanagement.
Robert is a serious baseball man—the owner of many rare hats from long defunct minor league franchises, as well as the seasoned general manager of a multitude of fantasy teams. (I believe he has a batting cage in the basement of his house.) Which is why I was so surprised that he let passion lead him to such a ham-fisted conclusion.
Robert is not alone in his opinion that, by parting with a possible Hall of Famer, the Rockies had betrayed us. The Ringer, a sports and pop culture website, posted an elegy titled, “The Rockies’ Nolan Arenado Deal Is Yet Another Shameful MLB Trade,” which lamented that:
“Just half a decade after Colorado executed essentially the same move with Troy Tulowitzki—albeit for a better prospect package—this is all the more shameful because of what it means for the club’s fans. The Rockies have been in the top 10 in annual attendance in the past three seasons attendance was allowed, and it wasn’t too long ago that their fans thought they might cheer for Arenado for the rest of his potentially Hall of Fame career.”
This presupposes that all Rockies fans needed to be content was the promise of Nolan Arenado at third base for the next six years. The truth is that Denver—like anyplace, anywhere—loves a winner. And the Rockies were never going to be one with Arenado’s contract on the books.
Of course, we’re conditioned to think of the Rockies as losers. From 2011 to 2015, the club never finished higher than fourth in the National League West. But then—thanks largely to Arenado, but also to Trevor Story, Charlie Blackmon, veteran arms in the bullpen, and promising starting pitchers emerging from the team’s minor league system—they put together back-to-back playoff appearances, in 2017 and 2018.
Arenado has always been upfront about his desire to play on a winning team. He told Robert as much. Local sportswriters, too. Fans, waiters, telemarketers, Siri, inquisitive newborns, his Hello Kitty diary: Arenado couldn’t shut up about how—deep in his soul where his true essence lay—he desperately, achingly, needed to win.
And after the Rockies made the NLDS during the 2018 season, didn’t the team finally look like perennial winners? Story wouldn’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season. Blackmon couldn’t opt out of his deal until 2022. The franchise controlled a stable of young, talented starting pitchers—German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, and Jon Gray—into the next decade. Rocktober forever, baby.
And if you’re Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich, don’t you look at that and see nothing but upside? The core of your team is locked in for three more seasons on team-friendly deals. Even if Arenado begins to regress in his mid-30s, you’ve still wrung three or four winning seasons out of this squad.
So the adults came to the table, Arenado signed on the gilded line for eight years and $260 million, and the Rockies immediately started losing.
I’m not sure why the Rockies are bad again. Well, that’s not true: Only one of those pitchers, Marquez, really panned out, and Bridich made some questionable moves, like letting DJ LeMahieu walk in favor of Daniel Murphy. What I mean to say is that nobody is at fault. Everyone here was trying to win. But they didn’t.
And now the Rockies are one of the worst teams in baseball. According to the Ringer article, the team was forecasted to rank 29th out of 30 MLB teams in projected total WAR—a stat that helps measures players’ values to their team—and that was before they traded Arenado.
There’s no fixing that, not with a $30 million-plus salary tied around your neck for the next six seasons. Arenado could have taken the Rockies off the hook by opting out of the deal after the 2021 season. Yet there’s a chance his 2020 slump extends into 2021, at which point few teams would be eager to match what the Rockies were locked into paying. Arenado loves winning, but does he love it more than $150 million?
The Rockies’ farm system is bereft, so no help there. Free agents? The Rockies can’t compete with the Yankees for the likes of pitcher Gerrit Cole, who the New York Yankees signed to a nine-year, $324 million deal last offseason, and they’d be better off spending $17 million on a new humidor every year than guaranteeing it to a retread like Madison Bumgarner, the former San Francisco Giants ace, now of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Oh, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres are inked into the top of your division for the next three to five years.
The way I see it, Bridich had two options: Keep Arenado and bequeath to Denver the thrill of witnessing the majesty of him play through 2026—and the ignominy of cheering for a year-in, year-out loser for just as long. Or you do what you did in 2015, when you shipped the Tulo-sized millstone to Canada. You had to eat $40 million in the form of Jose Reyes’ contract. The prospects you got from the Blue Jays, although rated better than the ones you’d get for Arenado, never amounted to much. And you suffered the humiliation of seeing the leader of your franchise don another team’s colors.
But you were free. Free to keep Charlie Blackmon around on a workable contract. Free to sign much-needed relief pitchers. Free to move Trevor Story into shortstop. Free to make moves that eventually earned the Rockies back-to-back playoff appearances.
And the last time anyone here thought about Tulowitzki—the former beating heart of our franchise, whose icy glare thrilled our cockles—was when they found his faded souvenir T-shirt jersey at Goodwill, smiled at the nostalgia, and slowly put it back in the bin.
My only concern with this trade is the news I heard immediately following it: That the Rockies are trying to give Story a long-term contract. Larry Walker, Tulo, Arenado—when will the club learn that mid-market teams don’t have the luxury of giving prime-aged players mega-deals? It’s not that they can’t afford one. It’s that they can’t afford to miss on one.
I’d rather the Rockies stay nimble, to trade Story for good prospects this year before they sign him to a contract that requires them trade him for bad prospects next year. Same with Marquez. That’s no way to build a consistent winner, I know, but if you’re not the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, or another big-market team, it’s fantasy to expect to win year-in, year-out anyway. This way, at least you remain flexible, with a steady stream of prospects always on the cusp. It’s a strategy short on marquee names, but Coors Field doesn’t need them.
Which brings us back to Robert’s argument. In 2011, when the Rockies finished fourth in the NL West, attendance at Coors Field was 2.9 million. In 2018, when they went to the NLDS, it was 3 million. Whether the team is good, bad, or really bad, visiting Coors Field remains just about the best way to spend an evening (or afternoon). It’s the one advantage Rockies fans have over most every other club in the league, including the big-market franchises.
And you want to deprive me of that because the Rockies were punished by the economic realities of being a mid-market team?
If we’re allowed to attend games in 2021, I’ll be there. If you’re not, that’s OK—the beer lines will be shorter for me. And you’ll just be punishing yourself.