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With So Many Superstars, Why Can’t the Rockies Win?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Carlos González has expressed interest in a trade. Or maybe not. Or maybe he’s just expressed interest in being traded the same way you’d express interest in an appetizer sampler if someone offered to order it for the table: “Well, I’m not craving jalapeño poppers necessarily, but I’d eat one or two if you offered.”

Whatever the finer details, it wouldn’t be shocking if González were traded. The 30-year-old outfielder just made his third All-Star team. He’s hitting .318/.367/.552, and if you think that’s a Coors Field mirage, his 125 wRC+ is 19th among big league outfielders. Once upon a time, his hefty contract might have been too much for a team to take on, but he’s owed half a season’s worth of a $17 million salary this year, plus $20 million in 2017, after which a team that trades for him can slap a qualifying offer on him and receive a compensation-round pick if he walks. For a season and a half of a good hitter in an outfield corner, $29 million (give or take) isn’t a bad deal at all.

Meanwhile, the Rockies are on a 74-win pace. They don’t really have a reason to keep González, so any contender in need of a corner outfielder ought to take a look at him — that includes the Mariners, White Sox, and Giants at the very least.

Good veterans on bad teams get traded routinely — particularly out of Colorado, where the Rockies have had a lot of good players and a lot of bad teams. The Rockies haven’t had a winning season since 2010, and unlike, say, the Cubs and Astros of 2014, there’s no real sense of forward momentum. And that’s despite developing stars just fine, which is one of the hardest things to do in baseball. The 25-year-old Nolan Arenado is one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, and the reigning NL home run champion. Troy Tulowitzki was one of the best non-Trout players in baseball when the Rockies traded him to Toronto. Ubaldo Jiménez — no, seriously, stop laughing — had just finished third in Cy Young voting among a great group of starting pitchers when the Rockies traded him in 2011. And the Rockies have González only because they drafted, developed, and traded Matt Holliday to the Athletics.

Arenado was notably — and understandably — upset when the Rockies traded Tulowitzki last summer. If González is next out the door, Arenado, who was arbitration-eligible for the first time last year, and can become a free agent after the 2019 season, probably won’t be too far behind him.

So how has a team that’s had at least one superstar at all times in the past decade won so little?

It’s easy to blame Coors Field, but that’s not the whole story. Teams have won in extreme offensive environments since time immemorial — even the Rockies, who won a pennant in 2007 and went back to the playoffs two years later. During that same time they developed not only Jiménez but also Jeff Francis and Jhoulys Chacin — not exactly the 1995 Braves, but quality big league starters nonetheless.

Denver hasn’t gotten any higher or drier since then, but while the big league club was winning, the minor league system was foundering. Between 2005, when they drafted Tulowitzki, and 2009, when they drafted Arenado and Rex Brothers (who put in a superb season as the team’s closer in 2013 and then went in the tank), the Rockies struck out in the draft. Over three years, the only real big league contributor they drafted was Charlie Blackmon, an All-Star in 2014 who’s hitting .303/.369/.491 now. And since 2009, their drafts have yielded half a good season from shortstop Trevor Story and not a lot else. Meanwhile, they failed to develop Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, the two jewels of the Jiménez trade, by implementing a unique (and misguided) tandem starter system under GM Dan O’Dowd and manager Jim Tracy in 2012.

That level of profligacy in the draft and player development is a pretty good way to leave your stars surrounded by scrubs.

Meanwhile, Rockies ownership has been one of the sport’s great laughingstocks, which is saying something in the age of Miami’s Jeffrey Loria. Great owners spend enough to be competitive and then get out of the way, but Rockies CEO Dick Monfort has done neither. Monfort’s brother Charlie, his predecessor as Rockies CEO, caused a stir back in 2006 when the team openly adopted a Christian image, but a run of good results on the field far outweighed any controversy, because ultimately wins and losses are all that matters.

However, Dick Monfort has mostly made headlines by being mad online, namely emailing a critical season-ticket holder to say that Denver doesn’t deserve a big league team. Monfort’s stewardship of the franchise suggests a reluctance to fund a major league franchise. Despite finishing in the top half of the National League in attendance every year from 2009 to 2014, 2016 marks the first time in club history that the Rockies opened the season with a payroll higher than $100 million.

And the Rockies’ top-heavy spending habits make even that $100 million figure look bigger than it actually is. Colorado in 2010 signed Tulowitzki to a seven-year, $134 million extension, and is now paying his successor, José Reyes, $48 million over the next three years to go away. If you can’t draft and develop complementary players, won’t fund competitive pursuit of free agents, and put almost 20 percent of your payroll into buying out an over-the-hill player who had been suspended for 51 games after a domestic violence arrest, I’m not sure how current GM Jeff Bridich — or anyone this side of Branch Rickey — is going to be able to field a competitive team.

Denver hasn’t gotten any higher or drier since 2009, but you’d understand why González and Arenado would feel like it has.