Every once in a while a baseball team finds itself at a crossroads. I like to think of these crossroads as occurring on a hilltop clearing overlooking a dark and misty forest. While each team is on a different path, they all stand on their own lonely hilltop intersections and stare off longingly at the same point over the distant horizon. Unfortunately, points over distant horizons – being the ethereal things that they are – are loathe to betray the precise distance between themselves and those who gaze. Complicating matters further, the current path forward, while generally appearing to lead in the right direction, descends back down into that aforementioned dark and misty forest, and it’s known that teams who wander ill-equipped through the dark misty forest often go missing for years.
The crossroads offers two additional choices. Splitting off the path to the left is one end of a bridge hung high over the forest. It too appears to be headed in the right direction, but it too disappears into the horizon. The other side of the bridge cannot be seen, and nobody knows if it ends in the Promised Land – let’s call that place Worldseriesville – or at simply another hilltop clearing someplace else in the dark and misty forest. It might be an utter waste of time. On top of that, there’s a toll.
The final choice is to turn off the path altogether, pitch a tent in the clearing, and spend some time gathering additional resources for the journey. Maybe the team even plants some seeds and farms for a while. Again, it helps to be well supplied for the walk through the forest. And it might be handy to have enough on hand to pay the bridge toll should the next hilltop clearing offer a view of the horizon that seems just a little less out of reach.
Presenting this long and strained metaphor is my way of saying that we’re fast approaching the trade deadline of August 1st. To celebrate, I’ve updated the 40-Man Ladder, a rank-ordering of the most valuable Rockies currently on the roster, the details of which being best explained here. All statistics in the table below are courtesy Baseball Prospectus and are for games through July 20th. For full explanations of True Average (TAv), Deserved Run Average (DRA), and Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), please click the links in this sentence.
|1||1||Nolan Arenado||3B||24||5||Arbitration (Super 2) – Free agent after 2019||.310||4.6||407|
|2||2||Jon Gray||SP||24||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time||3.53||2.1||96|
|3||4||Trevor Story||SS||23||Min||Pre-Arbitration – No service time||.290||3.1||376|
|4||3||Carlos Gonzalez||RF||29||17||Owed $37M/2 years – Free agent after 2017||.295||2.3||383|
|5||6||Charlie Blackmon||CF||29||3.5||Arbitration – Free Agent after 2018||.291||2.1||363|
|6||7||Raimel Tapia||OF||22||Min||Pre-Arbitration – No service time|
|7||17||Tyler Anderson||SP||26||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time||4.19||0.6||42|
|8||5||Chad Bettis||SP||26||Min||Pre-Arbitration – 1 year service time||5.35||0.0||109|
|9||14||DJ LeMahieu||2B||27||3||Arbitration – Free agent after 2018||.289||2.6||364|
|10||8||Tyler Chatwood||SP||26||1||Arbitration – Free agent after 2017||5.28||0.1||99|
|11||10||Adam Ottavino||RP||30||1.3||Owed $10.4M/3 years – Free agent after 2018||4.13||0.0||4|
|12||11||Tom Murphy||C||25||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time|
|13||24||Carlos Estevez||RP||23||Min||Pre-Arbitration – No service time||3.53||0.6||34|
|14||15||Miguel Castro||RP||21||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time||5.08||0.0||15|
|15||20||German Marquez||SP||21||Min||Pre-Arbitration – No service time|
|16||29||Boone Logan||RP||31||6.3||Owed $6.25M/1 year – Free agent after 2016||2.83||0.6||26|
|17||16||Antonio Senzatela||SP||21||Min||Pre-Arbitration – No service time|
|18||28||Tony Wolters||C||23||Min||Pre-Arbitration – No service time||.237||1.0||144|
|19||35||Chris Rusin||SP||29||Min||Pre-Arbitration – 1 year service time||4.34||0.6||55|
|20||9||Jake McGee||RP||29||4.8||Arbitration – Free agent after 2017||4.91||0.0||27|
|21||19||Cristhian Adames||SS||24||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time||.201||-0.3||117|
|22||21||Eddie Butler||SP||25||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time||5.84||-0.4||54|
|23||30||Christian Bergman||RP||27||Min||Pre-Arbitration – 1 year service time||4.08||0.2||18|
|24||13||Jorge De La Rosa||SP||34||12.5||Owed $12.5M/1 year – Free agent after 2016||5.36||-0.1||73|
|25||27||Justin Miller||RP||28||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time||4.11||0.4||35|
|26||26||Mark Reynolds||1B||32||2.6||Owed $2.6M/1 year – Free agent after 2016||.269||0.6||329|
|27||34||Jason Motte||RP||33||5||Owed $10M/2 years – Free agent after 2017||3.73||0.3||19|
|28||12||Jordan Lyles||SP||25||2.5||Arbitration – Free Agent after 2017||5.67||-0.2||34|
|29||23||Nick Hundley||C||32||3.2||Owed $3.15M/1 year – Free agent after 2016||.257||0.3||168|
|30||31||Ryan Raburn||OF||34||1.5||Owed $1.5M/1 year – Free agent after 2016||.260||0.2||176|
|31||22||Gerardo Parra||OF||28||8||Owed $27.5M/3 years – Free agent after 2018||.228||-0.1||249|
|32||25||Ben Paulsen||1B||28||Min||Pre-Arbitration – 1 year service time||.219||-0.1||70|
|33||32||Jairo Diaz||RP||24||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time|
|34||36||Jason Gurka||RP||28||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time||4.97||0.0||10|
|35||X||Gonzalez Germen||RP||28||Min||Pre-Arbitration – 1 year service time||5.04||0.0||35|
|36||37||Scott Oberg||RP||26||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time||4.88||0.0||13|
|37||42||Daniel Descalso||IF||29||2.1||Owed $2.1M/1 year – Free agent after 2016||.320||0.9||96|
|38||39||Dustin Garneau||C||28||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time||.241||-0.4||67|
|39||41||Brandon Barnes||OF||29||1||Arbitration – Free Agent after 2018||.204||-0.1||105|
|40||40||Rafael Ynoa||Utl||28||Min||Pre-Arbitration – Less than 1 year service time|
|41||33||Chad Qualls||RP||37||2.75||Owed $6M/2 years – Free agent after 2017||5.51||-0.2||26|
Typically – as readers of past versions of this post will know – the narrative I attach to the list covers notable additions, subtractions, risers, and fallers. In this case I might have, for example, spilled some virtual ink on the ascension of Tyler Anderson, and how difficult it was to place him on the list. (On the one hand, it’s still a small sample. On the other, this is exactly the sort of pitcher – both is style and bottom line results – he was always supposed to be, making the performance more believable.) I might have discussed that.
I might also have written about how Boone Logan has re-established his value at the perfect time. (“Perfect” only in retrospect given that we know now that the Rockies wouldn’t have been contenders the last couple years even with this better version of Logan in the pen, and how at least now the Rockies have perhaps the best lefty reliever available on the market not named Chapman or Miller, with a good chance at extracting a prospect on the order of Germen Marquez or Antonio Senzatela to salvage a decent chunk of their original $18M investment.) I might have discussed that.
On the flip side, I might also have lamented how Jake McGee has pitched himself into a place neither he nor the Rockies like. (He’s played poorly enough – not just as a Rockie, but as a part of a trend going back to the latter part of 2015 with the Rays – that he’s unlikely to net much more than a token return . This means that, despite the fact that the Rockies have a bullpen depth chart overflowing with non-great relievers, he’s probably not going anywhere.)
I might even have discussed relative non-movers that might come as a surprise to some. (The difference between 2015 Chad Bettis and 2016 Chad Bettis is almost entirely driven by batted ball and sequencing luck, as evidenced by his near identical xFIPs of 3.89 and 3.92.) (Daniel Descalso’s inflated batting line is fool’s gold.) (Eddie Butler… I don’t know, once upon a time he did this?)
But I’m not actually going to discuss any of that. Instead, I’m going to crawl back into my metaphor just a wee bit longer in hopes of creating a philosophical framework in which you, dear reader, might better experience the trade deadline. Or at least better understand it. Or at least better understand how I experience it. You’re not excited about this, but I hope you’ll indulge me.
Let’s say that instead of a vast and mysterious forest, there was a sea of fire. Teams have but two choices: either pay the toll to cross the bridge, or hunker down and start farming. This is the metaphor I would present if I subscribed to the simple “you’re either a buyer or a seller” dichotomy. I’m about to oversimplify, and cast its subscribers in a worse light than I really want to shine, but it basically means this: if you’re in the right spot on the “win curve” – within a certain range of probability for making the playoffs, expected to be either just in or just out – it’s generally good to make trades that turn future potential value into present-day value. If you’re outside this probability range, you should do the opposite.
The only time “hold” might be justified is if you happen to be a team who is a near shoe-in for the playoffs (the “real” playoffs, not just the wild card game). Why not “buy?” Well, because Cold Hard Math says the playoffs are essentially a crap shoot. Making the playoffs is a big deal, but once you’re there, the better team doesn’t necessarily win. So then why bother becoming a better team if, by giving up future value, you reduce your chances to get back into the playoffs in future years? But this is an extreme view and rarely does a team fall into this category anyway. This year, it’s really only the Cubs.
For the most part, Cold Hard Math suggests that teams should either be buying or selling. To do neither is to get worse by virtue of the fact that the buying/selling teams are getting better (in either the short run or long). Teams that fail to act decisively in one direction or the other are running in place. To neither buy nor sell is at best a shortsighted and ill-informed thing to do. At worst, it’s downright delusional.
Basically, it’s like walking through a dark and misty forest towards a distant point beyond the horizon.
Here’s the thing, though. Baseball teams do not exist to farm; they exist to seek the Promised Land. Farming is a useful means to an end, but not an end unto itself. In an era where prospects are more often discussed in terms of “when” they get to the majors rather than “if” (even though they certainly shouldn’t be), this is a point often lost in the conversation. On the other hand, no baseball team, even the most well-endowed, can afford to take the bridge at every crossroads. Eventually, you just don’t have anything left to pay the tolls.
Sure, teams can, and often do, vacillate between farming and bridging from hilltop to hilltop. Indeed, as noted above, this is what conventional sabermetric thought suggests offers the highest probability of reaching the Promised Land. In the Rockies case, it’s obviously been quite a while since they paid a bridge toll. And while the Rockies are blessed with many valuable assets by virtue of having been bad for a long time, it’s been many a hilltop – of both offseason and trade deadline varieties – since the Rockies decided settle down and farm either. Usually, what they’ve done is neither buy nor sell, sallying forth into the dark and misty forest.
Many fans – certainly the sabermetric ally inclined – have derided this habit. And if winning the World Series is the only goal, these fans are correct to do so. Being bound as I am by the unforgiving laws of the empirical universe, I can’t refute the Cold Hard Math. The Rockies odds of winning the World Series this year are near zero (literally). The outlook may be brighter next year, but no dispassionate projection would put a very high probability on that either, and that’s how sabermetrics works: dispassionately. Given that, the Rockies ought to trade Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu. The stocks for each will never be higher than they are right now. Trading Boone Logan is a no-brainer – he’s a goner at the end of the season either way.
But I suspect they don’t. And I’m OK with that.
Let’s try assessing the Rockies’ current state of affairs passionately rather than dispassionately. This whole baseball enterprise is, after all, created for our entertainment. Let’s be fanatic for a moment. This team, as currently constructed, has a long-tenured Rockie star player still getting it done, an MVP-candidate in his prime, and a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate manning short. Yes, I’m talking about Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado, and Trevor Story in 2016, not Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, and Troy Tulowitzki in 2007. The bullpen is shaky – as bullpens often are – but laden with talent and with the best of them all, the guy who throws this unnatural thing, just coming back on line. The starting rotation is still “so Rockies,” but includes one stud (Jon Gray), two guys who have demonstrated real success in recent memory and could recapture it at any point (Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood), and a bevy of young pitchers either on the staff (Tyler Anderson) or on the cusp (Jeff Hoffman) who could be almost anything over the next season and a half. All rotations suck until the moment they stop sucking.
Will all that click at the same time and get us a championship? Probably not. The Cubs probably won’t win either. Championships are rare events – if the universe were a fair and equitable place, each baseball fan would get to experience ultimate baseball glory only once every 30 years. But could all the current Rockies pieces click? Of course they could. The Rockies probably won’t win a World Series regardless of whether Charlie Blackmon or DJ LaMahieu or Carlos Gonzalez are wear purple pinstripes the next couple of years. But the Rockies almost certainly won’t if those guys are gone.
Each option at the crossroads – bridge, farm, or forest – represents a long shot with probabilities at which we can only guess. Again, we can’t see beyond the horizon. And hey, that’s OK – I mean, life itself is a long shot. It’s simply the case that some long shots are more fun than others. In the end, that’s the whole point. You see, at least for me, it’s not reaching the Promised Land that matters. I’ve always believed that finding the Promised Land happens more by accident than design anyway. It’s the seeking that’s important, and I’d like to have as much fun along the way. Farming certainly has its virtues. But the dark and misty forest looks like more fun.
There is a saying – a saying spawned in the last century by J.R.R. Tolkien, and turned meme in the century thence – that goes: “not all who wander are lost.” Depending on the context, this might sound trite. Perhaps in this particular context, it is exactly that. But at least in my case, there is indeed joy in the wandering.