Strike One: It was just a few short months ago that everyone who followed the Colorado Rockies was fixated on the immediate future of superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado. There were plenty of people around baseball – very few of whom who actually live around here and follow the Rockies on a regular basis – who were absolutely certain that Nolan was going to be traded at any moment. They were sure that he and Rockies General Manager Jeff Bridich could not co-exist short OR long term, and that Arenado was a goner.
Even if he wasn’t traded prior to spring training they said, and the Rockies held on to Nolan until the July 31 trade deadline, they’d be hopelessly out of contention by then and have to deal him to a contender.
None of those prognosticators were, by the way, Rockies owner Dick Monfort, who never had any intention of trading his best player. In fact, inside the building, the Rockies administrators were – and are – fully planning on contending for a post-season birth in 2020. That does not happen without Arenado in the line-up.
Now that the pandemic has turned everything inside out and upside down, everyone – Arenado, Bridich and everyone else – just want a chance to play ball. What happened last off season has become pretty much insignificant.
So, for the Rockies, they now have a chance to hit the reset button on off the field dealings with their five-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glover. Thanks to COVID-19 and the resulting shutdown of MLB, the Rockies front office gets a do-over.
For 2020, there probably won’t even be a trade deadline to worry about. Nolan will be a Rockie for all of this season and into the next off season. When next year’s hot stove league begins to heat up, everyone will come face-to-face with the year Rockies fans have been dreading: Arenado’s opt-out season in 2021.
It’s a legit concern of course. After the 2021 season Arenado can opt out of the final five seasons of his eight-year, $260 million deal…and leave $164 mil on the table. (Remember, if the players get paid half of their salaries for this season, Arenado will still have lost at least $17 million this year.) So before he (and his agent) would do that, they’d have to be certain that a) the Rockies weren’t going to be play-off contenders within that time frame and b) that he could get a new contract worth that much – or more – in a free agent deal.
Neither of those are a sure thing.
The Rockies could very well be in the post season this year and for many years to come. They have a solid young core of players and starting pitchers and have some bad contracts about to drop off the books. So, they’ll probably remain in the play-off picture at least, for the next few seasons.
As for getting a $164 mil/five year deal someplace else? Nolan will be 30 years old when he becomes eligible to opt out of the Rockies deal. Free agents who are north of 30 have NOT been getting big money on the free agent market the past few off seasons. And that was before the financial strain caused by the pandemic. The baseball industry is like everyone else – it will have been significantly damaged across the board.
So Arenado can stay in Colorado and have the security of having five years and $164 deal guaranteed to him, or he can leave and take his chances.
I’d say the Rockies are now in the stronger position now.
Strike Two: One of the most significant changes on the field that fans will see when MLB play resumes this summer is the use of the designated hitter in all games, including those in NL parks. It’s a safe bet that one Charles Blackmon will make history in becoming the first DH to ever take an at-bat at Coors Field.
Charlie has found his new and best position.
All debates about the validity of the DH aside, this is good news for the Rockies.
Blackmon – who will turn 34 right around the time this MLB season is projected to resume – remains one of the game’s elite hitters. He’s been producing at the plate at an All-Star clip for several seasons now. And the fact that he could save all his energy for his plate appearances and not have to exert himself in the outfield should mean he can keep up that level of offensive production for at least a few more seasons.
If that’s not enough of a bonus for the Rockies, keep in mind that Blackmon as the DH means there won’t be a Blackmon in the outfield hurting his team defensively, as he has for the past few seasons.
Playing centerfield at Coors Field, as Blackmon did for most of his career with the Rockies, takes a physical toll on any player. By the end of the 2018 season, he was clearly a liability out there. The thought was that moving him to right field last year would benefit his defense. It didn’t. He remains a well below average defensive major league outfielder.
In other words, the perfect DH.
The Rockies have a couple other candidates for the position. Daniel Murphy is also a DH masquerading as a first baseman. Ian Desmond is an excellent athlete without a true defensive position. They might find themselves at the DH spot from time to time. But it’s likely that Blackmon becomes the Rockies full time DH for most of the season, and that can help Colorado stay in play-off contention all the way through.
Strike Three: Blackmon isn’t the only Rockies player who will benefit physically from a shortened season.
For the past several years, we’ve been hearing about how much more physically taxing it is on all the Rockies players to play 81 games at high altitude. Tougher on the mind and the body.
Full disclosure: As someone who has played a full season of professional baseball in Denver – and who actually grew up playing all sports at this altitude all year ‘round – I’ve never bought into this theory. Sounds and feels like excuse making. When I was playing, the thought of Denver being too tough to play in because of the thin air was never even brought up.
Nonetheless, it has been now, and now is what matters. Rockies players (and front office) believe it. So it’s real. I guess.
In theory then, playing half as many games at high altitude should only be half as taxing on the Rockies players. Does that mean they will be doubly productive?
A guy like Arenado, for example, never wants to come off the field. As observers, we can see him getting worn down after a certain number of consecutive games. It’s actually sort of easy to see when Nolan needs a day off. And games when Nolan isn’t in the Rockies line-up are not often good days for the good guys. So, in theory, fewer games should mean fewer days off for Nolan, which is a good thing for the Rockies, too.
And having everyone come back to Spring Training 2.0 healthy will be a bonus, too. Infielder Brendon Rodgers, for example, coming back from a serious shoulder injury, was slated to start the season in the minors while he worked his way back to full health. Now after this long hiatus, he should be fully ready to go. Same with all the Rockies pitchers who suffered injuries late last season. All should he ready to let it fly.
That old adage that coaches and owners often say is, “we can contend if we can just stay healthy.” That should be put to a test during a shortened season in which almost everyone on every team should be better able to stay healthy. Half a season, half as many injuries?
We shall see. That’s dependent on everyone returning to Salt Rivers Field healthy and having found a way to stay in good shape during this unprecedented lockdown. It shouldn’t take but a few days of camp to see who was able to get his work done at home…and who wasn’t.