[Editor's Note: This is the site's first piece by new contributor Ryan Romano! Welcome him aboard.]
Last year, the Colorado Rockies weren't a very good team. They won only 74 games, and while that was an 11-win improvement from the year before, it still wasn't enough for them to escape the NL West cellar. Now, when a team wins as few as 74 games in a season, there's generally going to be some speculation as to why. A layperson might see that the Rockies' starters had the fifth-worst ERA in the majors last year, and might conclude that a trade for a starting pitcher would be in order. To this layperson, the news of Brett Anderson's trade to the Rockies yesterday would be well received.
Let's pretend for a second that Anderson doesn't have a Prioresque health record. Let's assume he stays healthy next year, qualifies for the ERA title for the first time since 2009, and is worth two wins to the Rockies. He might be able to do it — you never know.
The fact is, starting pitching was not Colorado's main problem last season. As anyone who knows anything about baseball knows, Coors Field is, and always has been, the most hitter-friendly park in baseball. Hence, the Rockies' aforementioned starter performance, when viewed through a sabermetric lens, was actually the 11th-best in the majors in 2013.
Now, were Colorado's starters great last year? Hardly. If they had been, the Rockies would have won more than 74 games. Does Jorge De La Rosa — the team's second-best starting pitcher last year behind Jhoulys Chacin — have an injury history of his own? Certainly. Can Anderson be a useful contributor for the Rockies in 2014? Barring another injury, I don't see why not. Why, then, was this a bad move?
How about a blind comparison? These are two Steamer projections for 2014:
Player A is Anderson. Player B is Drew Pomeranz, i.e., the main player that the Rockies gave up in this trade. As you can see above, they're probably going to end up having comparable contributions. What's the difference between the two? Anderson's salary is $8 million in 2014; Pomeranz's is $500,000. Even when you take into account the fact that Oakland is also sending $2 million to Colorado, this is still an increase of $5.5 million for a pretty similar player.
This boils down to opportunity cost. The Rockies only have so much payroll to go around, and with a large chunk of it going to their two biggest stars, they must be thrifty with the rest of it. According to Wendy Thurm, the Rockies were already at $75 million in payroll for the 2014 season before this deal; last week, Dick Monfort (the Rockies' owner) said that payroll wouldn't exceed $95 million. That leaves $20 million to spend on upgrades to the roster, and this trade means that more than a quarter of it has, essentially, gone to waste.
They had a similar opportunity to upgrade at first base, seeing as how their 2013 crop was the second-worst in all of baseball, but they already signed Justin Morneau. Unfortunately, even the most optimistic projections have Morneau contributing one win above replacement level in 2014. He's not great with the glove, he can't DH in the National League, and he's not exactly an asset on the basepaths. Plus, he struggles mightily against southpaws, as he was the third-worst hitter in the majors against them last year.
Even if Morneau is only worth one win in 2014, that'll still be an upgrade over the Rockies' first basemen from a year ago, except this, too, isn't a good move for the Rockies. As Paul Swydan outlined last week, Corey Dickerson, the 24-year-old masher who will make the league minimum next year, is projected to put up fairly similar stats to Morneau, in much less playing time. By simply going with Dickerson at first for a full season, Colorado could have had the same production for $6 million dollars less (Morneau's contract pays $6.5 million in 2014), just as they could have had the same production for $5.5 million dollars less by sticking with Pomeranz over Anderson.
Instead of Anderson and Morneau, a good start would have been to sign Omar Infante, as Swydan recommends. He's projected to be a 2-3 WAR player, and his projected contract has him at $9 million for 2014 — by $/WAR, that's a much better deal than those for Morneau or Anderson. Colorado's second basemen were the ninth-worst in baseball last year, and the upgrade from them to Infante should be worth something on its own.
The Rockies are in win-now mode, and there's nothing wrong with that. Michael Cuddyer is entering his walk year, as is De La Rosa, and the farm system, while decent, isn't exactly on Boston's level. The issue isn't that Anderson and Morneau don't help, it's that the benefits are minimal given the significant share of their remaining budget allocated to those two players.
Let's shift our focus to the other club in this trade. The Oakland Athletics were, in fact, a very good team last year, as they won 96 games and captured the AL west crown for the second straight season. Unlike the Rockies, the Athletics weren't as good in terms of starting pitching, finishing 17th in the majors in that regard; moreover, they'll most likely lose Bartolo Colon, their best 2013 starter, to free agency. So why would the A's deal away their Opening Day starter if the rotation was a liability?
Well, they've already taken a big step to improve upon it, as they signed Scott Kazmir to what could end up being a steal of a contract. Their other four starters from last year — Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin — are all fairly young (Milone is the oldest at 26), so there's room for improvement there as well. And don't get me started on the wunderkind that is Sonny Gray.
Still, though, the starting pitching could be problematic in 2014. That's where Pomeranz comes in. After getting sent to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, Pomeranz was disappointing at the major league level, despite consistent excellency in the minors. 2013 was a perfect example of that, as he put up a 3.10 FIP (10th-best in AAA) despite pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. When the Rockies called him up to the show, however, he was awful, posting a 6.23 ERA and 5.39 xFIP — numbers that don't exactly inspire confidence, even in a small sample size (21.2 IP).
As I said before, the Rockies' stadium is a horrible environment in which to pitch; the opposite is true of the Athletics' home field, which consistently comes up as a pitcher-friendly park. The move there could mean progress for Pomeranz. Even if he doesn't start, Pomeranz will be of value out of the bullpen. While Oakland had the seventh-best relief corps in baseball last year, their closer (Grant Balfour) will leave as a free agent, and Jim Johnson, his theoretical replacement, has serious meltdown potential. Also, keep in mind that Pomeranz makes half a million dollars next year, and is under contract for the next five years. In the end, there's no such thing as too much depth, and Pomeranz provides that in abundance (and for a pittance).
Lest I forget, Pomeranz wasn't the only pitcher Oakland received in this deal; the A's also nabbed Chris Jensen, making it that much better.
For every reason that this deal was foolish for the Rockies, it's good for the Athletics. Both teams can contend in 2014; the difference is, this trade makes that more likely for Oakland, and less likely for Colorado. The A's added depth for one year of Brett Anderson, while the Rockies added a year (maybe two) of Anderson at the expense of upgrades elsewhere.
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