MLB

Rockies slide: Charting Colorado’s tumble from contenders to losers

Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Oct. 2, 2018.

Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland pitches 6 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just four hits. In the top of the 13th inning, catcher Tony Wolters raps a two-out single off Cubs reliever Kyle Kendricks, scoring Trevor Story to give the Rockies a 2-1 lead. Right-hander Scott Oberg closes out the 4-hour, 55-minute game, striking out the side to preserve the Rockies’ wild-card playoff win.

The victory comes just a day after Colorado lost, 5-2, to the Dodgers in Los Angeles in Game 163 to determine the National League West title.

Although the Rockies’ offense goes dormant in a three-game sweep at the hands of Milwaukee in the National League Division Series, the future looks bright. Their young pitching staff is ready to bloom. The offense, though inconsistent, is packed with power and potential. Third baseman Nolan Arenado, shortstop Trevor Story and second baseman DJ LeMahieu comprise the best infield in baseball. Outfielder Charlie Blackmon, the 2017 NL batting king, has become a perennial all-star.

So what happened?

After signing Blackmon to a six-year, $108 million contract in the spring of 2018, and Arenado to a breathtaking eight-year, $260 million contract in February 2019, why are things such a mess now? Why, less than three weeks before spring training is scheduled to open, are the Rockies projected to finish near the bottom of the the NL West in 2021? Why is Arenado’s future in Colorado, as well as that of Story, in question?

Following is a timeline of the Rockies’ fall:

* Throughout the 2018 season, the Rockies front office makes it clear it is not interested in re-signing LeMahieu. He ends up signing a two-year, $24 million deal with the Yankees and becomes a star in New York, finishing fourth in the 2019 AL MVP vote. Several Rockies, Arenado in particular, are upset that the Rockies don’t try to retain LeMahieu, whom teammates viewed as Colorado’s fiercest competitor.

* Colorado’s only major acquisition during the 2018-19 offseason is signing veteran Daniel Murphy to a two-year, $24 million contract, coincidentally the same amount the Yankees give LeMahieu. The Rockies plug Murphy in as their first baseman but he proves inadequate. Worse, in his two seasons in Colorado, he hits just .269 (nearly 30 points lower than his career average), posts a .742 OPS and hits only 16 home runs in 172 games.

* The Rockies open the 2019 season with a 3-12 record. Their starting pitching, so good in 2018 (4.17 ERA, second-best in club history), falters. Freeland, who finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting in 2018 with a 2.85 ERA , stumbles.

A technician rather than a power pitcher, Freeland loses his edge. Over this first 12 starts, he goes 2-6 with a 7.13 ERA and gives up 16 home runs, the most in the NL. He’s demoted to Triple-A Albuquerque for a tuneup and a confidence boost. Freeland ultimately goes 3-11 with a 6.73 ERA. The starting rotation finishes the season with a 5.87 ERA (second highest in franchise history).

* Prior to the 2018 season, general manager Jeff Bridich had invested $106 million in the bullpen, signing Wade Davis ($52 million), Bryan Shaw ($27 million) and left-hander Jake McGee ($27 million) to three-year deals. Although Davis leads the NL with a career-high and franchise-record 43 saves in 2018, his ’19 season is a disaster. Hampered by a strained oblique and poor mechanics, his 8.65 ERA is the second-highest by a reliever in major league history.

Shaw (5.38 ERA) and McGee (4.35) also prove ineffective as Colorado’s bullpen puts up a 5.14 ERA and records only 28 saves, tied for the third-fewest in club history.

* The Rockies go 6-19 in July, making it the worst full-calendar month of baseball in franchise history. Colorado hits just .251 and posts a 6.63 ERA. In a 5-1 loss to the Dodgers on July 31 at Coors Field, Davis serves up a three-run homer and two-run homer in the ninth inning, essentially ending his role as closer.

* As the Rockies suffer multiple injuries and scuffle toward a 71-91 record — the 20-game dropoff in wins from the previous season is the largest in club history — Arenado vents his frustration.

“How do I evaluate this team? We’re behind,” he tells The Denver Post in mid-September. “We’re going to lose close to 90-some games. And that wasn’t the plan when I signed, that wasn’t the goal.”

* On Oct. 1, two days after the season finale, owner Dick Monfort, manager Bud Black and Bridich meet the media. Despite the poor season, the trio insists that major changes are not needed.

“When some teams don’t play good over a long period of time, they choose to do a (rebuild), but our goal is to play better and to win,” Monfort says. “I also hear — what is the phrase? ‘You have a window of time’ — I think we have a huge window of time.”

* The Rockies’ 2019 payroll is a franchise-high $156.6 million, ranking 12th in the majors. Monfort makes it clear, however, that the Rockies don’t plan any big moves for 2020, noting that a new, more lucrative TV deal with AT&T SportsNet won’t kick in until 2021.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any huge splashes (in free agency),” he says. “We’ve pretty much spent what we have through 2020. But it’s going to help the franchise (in the future). It’s going to help the franchise keep players.”

* During the 2019-20 offseason, the Rockies make only one major league, free-agent signing, a minor deal adding right-hander Jose Mujica to a $563,000 contract. They do claim right-handed reliever Tyler Kinley off waivers from Miami and extend Story (two years, $27.5 million) and Oberg (three years, $13 million).

* Arenado, who has an opt-out clause after the 2021 season, is the subject of trade rumors throughout the winter, but Bridich quashes those rumors on Jan. 20. Shortly thereafter, Arenado responds, telling The Denver Post he feels “disrespected” by Bridich. Sources say Bridich questions Arenado’s leadership.

“I really don’t care what’s being said. I just know that I feel disrespected over there,” Arenado says, adding, “I’m not upset at the trade rumors. There’s more to this than that.”

* On Feb. 1, 2020, Monfort downplays the rift between Arenado and Bridich, saying it’s “blown out of proportion.” He adds that he hopes that the Rockies might be able to “add at the trade deadline, not subtract.”

* In mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic forces spring training to shut down. Major League Baseball finally begins playing games in late July, but there are no fans in the stands. The result, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred, will be $3 billion in operating losses. According to an estimate from Team Marketing Report, the Rockies lose $174.4 million.

* Colorado begins the truncated, 60-game season with an 11-3 record but goes 15-31 over the rest of the season, a .326 winning percentage that is the worst in the majors over that span. Rockies starters, led by Freeland’s rebound season (2-3, 4.33 ERA) and Antonio Senzatela’s emergence (5-3, 3.44), provide a ray of hope. The bullpen is again awful, with a 6.77 ERA that is the worst in franchise history.

* Colorado’s offense turns in a tepid showing with a .257 average that ranks as the second-worst in franchise history. Arenado, hampered by a bruised left shoulder, hits just .253 with a .738 OPS, far below his career average of .890. Usually one of the best clutch hitters in the game, Arenado’s average with runners in scoring position plummets to .175.

* In late October, Monfort, in a letter to season-ticket holders, hints that the Rockies will be cutting payroll for the first time in seven years and likely won’t pursue high-priced free agents.

“There will be nothing normal about this offseason as the industry faces a new economic reality, and each club will have to adjust,” Monfort writes.

* In the past, Monfort has repeatedly said he would like to sign Story to a long-term contract, but, lacking the money to pull off a deal, there is a strong possibility Story will become a free agent after the 2021 season, meaning the franchise’s best option could well be to trade the 28-year-old shortstop.

* While the Rockies run in place, the San Diego Padres emerge as a legitimate challenger to the mighty Dodgers in the NL West. Led by MVP candidates Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., the Padres went 37-23 to secure the NL’s second-best record in 2020. They continue to get better, re-signing versatile position player Jurickson Profar and adding Korean star Ha-Seong Kim to their offense while adding Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove to their starting rotation.

* Rumors that project Arenado being traded to the Cardinals heat up as spring training creeps closer.

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