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The Rockies’ free agent splurge on the bullpen hasn’t worked out


MLB: Miami Marlins at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockies had an unexpectedly good season last year. They won 87 games and clinched their first playoff spot since 2009. They lost the Coin Flip Game, unfortunately, but they left their fans with a great season and some optimism for the future. As a result, one can understand trying to improve the team in free agency.

Signing Chris Iannetta and Carlos González were cheap, reasonable moves. Iannetta was coming off a strong 2017 season, so there was hope he would not regress to 2015-2016 levels, and the Rockies had a need at catcher. He did indeed regress and is barely above replacement level, but he is only guaranteed $7.4 million through next year, and the rationale behind signing him was a good one. As for CarGo, it was just a one-year, $5 million deal (can go up to $8 million with incentives he is likely to reach) to bring back a positive regression candidate who has been with the team since 2009. Thankfully he has bounced back with a 105 wRC+.

Though not a free agent signing, I would be remiss to not bring up the Charlie Blackmon extension. I wrote about how it was a good deal for both sides, though hardly a team friendly contract. He has not been an MVP-caliber player this season, but he is hitting well, with a line of .289/.360/.505.

Where the Rockies went wrong is committing over $100 million to relievers. Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw each signed a three-year, $27 million deal, while Wade Davis signed the most lucrative contract ever for a reliever on a per-year basis: three years, $52 million.

The Rockies had a strong bullpen in 2017, ranking in the top ten in runs allowed when correcting for league and park effects. However, believing that is a sustainable strategy in Coors Field despite over 25 years of evidence to the contrary is foolish. Given the volatility of relievers, this strategy would be ill-advised anywhere. So far the results have been disastrous.


Wade Davis 4.60 86 27.1 12.4 0.6
Jake McGee 6.43 120 21.2 6.4 -0.4
Bryan Shaw 8.41 157 21.1 11.3 -1.5
FanGraphs, Baseball Reference

(Yes, I calculated those RA9- numbers myself! It would be great if somebody provided park-adjusted RA9 data. It’s 2018.)

Shaw and McGee have been terrible, even when adjusting for their home park. Davis has pitched well, but his numbers continue to deteriorate each year. The Rockies paid for vintage Davis from 2014-2015. Even 2016-2017 Davis would be great, but there was no reason to believe the Rockies were going to get even that. Most concerning is that he’s getting lit up by right-handed hitting to the tune of a .260/.367/.468 line, albeit against the minuscule sample of only 90 batters faced. Even if he does not fall off a cliff like Shaw and McGee have, he could still be pretty disappointing by the third year.

The Rockies committed $106 million, and their bullpen went from being in the top ten in runs allowed in baseball to the bottom ten (adjusted for league and park effects). That money could have been put towards J.D. Martínez, Lorenzo Cain, or Jake Arrieta. Or it could have been put towards trying to extend Nolan Arenado, who is going to hit free agency after next season.

The bullpen has been so disappointing that the Rockies had to trade for Seung Hwan Oh. At least the Rockies did very well here. The two prospects they parted with are low tier and will not be missed, and Oh has a cheap $2.5 million team option for next year.

The good news is that the Rockies are doing well at 56-47, just half a game out of the last wild card slot at the time of this writing. If they end up just missing the playoffs, though, many are going to wonder what could have been had they spent their money better in free agency.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.