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It’s Not Entirely Clear What the Rockies Are Doing

The Nationals started to unload yesterday, making moves that, depending on your perspective, were either a few weeks too late, or a week and a half too early. It had been easy for a while to say the Nationals just needed time to come around, and our projections never really lost faith, but at some point a baseball team has to make up ground, and they were unable to get into a groove. There’s plenty to be written about what’s happened to the Nationals, but that might be better left for another day, or for another time when we can have a greater understanding.

The moves the Nationals made on Tuesday mean hardly anything for their future. It was more about just giving up on the present. And as far as the individual deals are concerned, you can see how Matt Adams should have a role on the Cardinals. Likewise, you can see how Daniel Murphy should have a role on the Cubs. And yet it was far easier to see how Daniel Murphy could’ve had a role on the Rockies. The Rockies being one of the teams with a higher waiver priority than the Cubs. Murphy wouldn’t have gotten to the Cubs in the first place had another team from the National League put in a claim, and while Murphy could’ve helped anyone, it sure seems like he could’ve made the biggest difference for Colorado. I don’t really know what they were thinking in allowing him to go by.

Understand that it’s never that comfortable to second-guess a major-league organization. Teams have reasons for the things that they do — and for the things that they don’t — and we’re not always privy to the whole of the truth. Maybe the Rockies feel like Murphy isn’t good. Or maybe it’s just a matter of money, given that Murphy is still due another few million dollars from here through the end of the season. I don’t know if maybe the Rockies’ front office was told that it couldn’t add any more to the payroll. The Rockies already came in with the highest opening-day payroll in franchise history. There’s not much front offices can do regarding mandates from ownership, so this shouldn’t be interpreted as a finger-point at Jeff Bridich.

It’s just, *someone* has some explaining to do. Someone who’s in some kind of position of authority. Because Murphy seems like a near-perfect fit for a Rockies team fighting for its postseason life.

When Murphy was traded to the Cubs, the Rockies were 68-56. That was good enough to have them a half-game out in the NL West. They were also tied for the second wild card, even with the Phillies and Cardinals, and a half-game back of the Brewers. The Rockies lost yesterday, but they’re still just 1.5 behind the Diamondbacks. They’re tied with the Phillies, and now a half-game back of the Brewers for the second wild card. The Dodgers loom another two games back. The point of this paragraph being, the NL playoff picture is chaotic, and the Rockies are right in the middle. They’re in exactly the kind of spot where even a modest upgrade could make a major difference.

The Rockies have a real chance at another one-game playoff, and they also have a real chance at advancing directly to the NLDS. I know they might appear comparably weak, given that they have a negative run differential, but that hardly means anything anymore. We’re coming up on the silly season, and any little thing could mean the difference between staying home or getting a shot at the title. The Rockies are around the highest-leverage spot on the win curve. For that reason alone, the club should’ve been willing to accept Murphy’s remaining salary. From an owner’s perspective, the benefit of making the playoffs can mean several millions of dollars.

Ownership should’ve been willing to take on the money, and the front office should’ve been willing to take on the player. Because here, it’s really hard to make an argument otherwise. The Rockies have some excellent players, but they don’t have quite enough depth. Murphy might not be much of a second baseman anymore, but, the Rockies don’t need a second baseman as much as they need a first baseman. That position, Murphy can handle.

To this point of the season, the Rockies rank fifth-worst in baseball in combined WAR at first base. The rest of the way, they project for the second-worst WAR at first base. And, on top of that, the Rockies also project to be third-worst in left field. The reason I bring up two positions is because Ian Desmond can play either one. See, it’s not just that the Rockies have played a lot of Desmond. It’s that they’ve played a lot of both Desmond and Gerardo Parra. Parra has started to lose playing time to David Dahl, and Desmond has started to lose playing time to Ryan McMahon, but, to just fast-forward to the point, let’s all look at a table:

Player Comparison

Player
3-year wRC+
2018 wRC+
Projected wRC+
Projected WAR

Daniel Murphy
138
108
120
0.6

Ian Desmond
89
80
90
0.1

Gerardo Parra
72
80
83
0.0

Ryan McMahon
71
74
92
0.1

The Rockies have decided to move forward with Desmond and McMahon playing first, and Parra and Dahl playing left. As far as the longer-term future is concerned, it’s good to see McMahon and Dahl getting a few more reps, but for right now there’s also the shorter-term to consider. I get why dropping Desmond would be hard to stomach. I don’t know why Parra is still on the roster. The Rockies had an obvious chance to get better at first, and then Desmond could’ve gone back to the outfield. They stood pat. They just didn’t appear interested in a meaningful stretch-run improvement.

It’s not like there aren’t legitimate concerns about Murphy. He’s getting into his mid-30s, and his season started late because of major knee surgery. And there’s also this: So far in 2018, Murphy hasn’t hit a single batted ball 105+ miles per hour. Last year, he hit 19. The year before that, he hit 40. The year before that, he hit 34. It’s possible Murphy’s power has been sapped. It’s possible his lower body still isn’t quite right.

But let’s forgive Murphy for a slow first week and a half. I think that’s okay, given how often we hear about a player needing to get back up to speed. Since, say, June 22, Murphy has put up a 132 wRC+, ranking him in the 80th percentile. In Statcast’s expected wOBA, over the same time span, he’s ranked in the 88th percentile. In terms of rest-of-season projections, Murphy’s offense ranks in the 83rd percentile. Even if he’s diminished, Daniel Murphy has still been pretty good, over an extended stretch. I’ll point out that, again, since June 22, Murphy has posted baseball’s very lowest strikeout rate. He’s struck out less often than Michael Brantley; he’s struck out less often than Andrelton Simmons; he’s struck out less often than everyone.

Murphy still makes contact, and he still makes dangerous contact. For a couple of months now, he’s looked basically like himself at the plate. And if anything, that kind of skillset should appeal to Colorado more, since Coors Field rewards batted balls and lower exit velocities. Park factors might’ve made Murphy an even better fit than he already looked like. But the initial argument should be convincing enough. The Rockies haven’t gotten nearly enough from a couple of positions. They don’t project to get nearly enough from a couple of positions. Murphy could’ve helped at least one of those, at a very low cost, but the obvious waiver claim didn’t happen. I don’t know why, but I know it looks weird.

I’m sure the Rockies must have an explanation. Maybe they’ve decided they really like Ryan McMahon. Maybe they decided they didn’t want Murphy’s personality in the clubhouse, or something. For all I know, Parra is the glue that keeps the Rockies together. But from an analytical perspective, it sure looks like the Rockies screwed up. I’ve asked around to try to figure out why Daniel Murphy isn’t on the Rockies right now, and no one in the game can give me a good answer. That makes it hard for me to believe the Rockies have a good one of their own.

Read more: fangraphs.com

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