The Rockies are off to a hot start. Exactly one-quarter of the way through the shortened, 60-game season, Colorado is 11-4, which is among the best records in all of Major League Baseball.
They’ve reached this mark through a combination of great starting pitching, timely hitting and emerging talent in the bullpen. German Marquez looks like an ace, Kyle Freeland has bounced back after a subpar 2019 season, Daniel Bard is one of the best stories in baseball, Charlie Blackmon is tearing the cover off of the ball, Daniel Murphy looks like the player the Rockies thought they were getting last year and Trevor Story has played like an MVP candidate, both at the plate and in the field.
Noticeably absent from that list of reasons why Colorado is playing well in 2020, however, is the team’s best player. For all of the good things that have happened so far this season, a list that is much longer than the one provided above, Nolan Arenado’s performance isn’t among them.
So far this season, the five-time All-Star has looked like anything but one of the best players in the game. The Rockies highest-paid player – in year two of an eight-year, $260 million deal – isn’t putting up numbers worthy of that contract.
At the moment, Arenado is hitting just .185. He has three home runs, which came in three-straight games last week against the Giants, and just five RBIs. Those are paltry numbers, the type that normally get someone sent to the bench.
And that’s exactly what happened yesterday. After an 0-for-5 showing on Saturday night, Arenado wasn’t on Bud Black’s lineup card for the team’s Sunday matinee in Seattle. As the Rockies looked for the sweep of the Mariners, their biggest star was riding the pine.
Normally, this wouldn’t be all that big of a deal. Even the best players, including those who are enshrined in Cooperstown, have rough patches. It’s not unusual for someone, even someone of Arenado’s caliber, to scuffle a bit. That’s baseball, a game that will humble everyone at some point in their career.
But given what happened prior to the start of this year, all the way back in February when the coronavirus wasn’t on anyone’s radar and the season looked like it would be played like the hundreds that came before it, Arenado’s struggles are magnified. That’s because the Rockies third baseman essentially called out his teammates, suggesting they weren’t good enough and that he’d consider playing elsewhere if not surrounded with more talent.
At the time, Arenado’s comments were positioned as a shot at Jeff Bridich. Colorado’s general manager hadn’t made any changes of note to his team’s roster following a disastrous 71-91 season a year ago, which raised plenty of eyebrows amongst Rockies fans, so the third baseman’s frustrations were understandable.
Almost everyone took Arenado’s side. He’s a great player, which earns him a huge benefit of the doubt. It was strange that Colorado was going to try to win in 2020 with the same group that was 20 games below .500 in 2019. And Bridich is fairly unlikable, an arrogant guy who comes across as aloof and condescending at almost every turn.
What was lost, however, was the reality of the situation.
Last season, the Rockies had a total payroll of $157 million, which was the 11th highest in the league. Given that Colorado isn’t a major market, which means the team doesn’t generate a ton of revenue off of their local TV deal, that’s a fairly respectable number. The team isn’t cheap, by any means.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get a lot for their money in 2019. Too many of their highest-paid players had down seasons, some turning in the worst performances of their career. As a result, the team fell apart after posting a 37-33 record by the end of June, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
Bridich might’ve wanted to tweak the roster during the offseason, but his hands were tied. None of the big contracts were coming off the books, as the Rockies biggest earners were all set to return in 2020. As a result, the general manager didn’t have a lot of wiggle room; Colorado isn’t in the position to be a top-10 team in terms of payroll.
There’s a chance he didn’t really want to make any moves, as well. After all, the roster had been to the postseason in two of the previous three years. There was plenty of evidence that 2019 was an aberration. Counting on bounce-back seasons from Freeland, Murphy and others wasn’t just wishful thinking.
That didn’t matter to Arenado, however. He was upset that nothing changed. He was ticked that the team didn’t try to improve.
This was misguided anger for two reasons.
First of all, Arenado knew what he was getting into. When he inked his mega-deal with the Rockies, he knew that Colorado wasn’t a team that could spend its way out of mistakes. They aren’t the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers or Cubs. Colorado has to wait for big-ticket mistakes to expire; they can’t sign someone new to take their place when the contract is still on the books. The third baseman was well aware of that reality. Or at least he should’ve been.
Second, Arenado should’ve had more faith in his teammates. It’s one thing for the media and fans to doubt that Freeland and Murphy would return to their old form, to think that Blackmon wasn’t over the hill and to question that David Dahl could recover from his injury. It’s a whole other thing for the team’s best player, the leader in the clubhouse, to not believe in the guys he steps onto the field with on a daily basis.
Two years ago, the Rockies were good enough to win 91 games. They missed out on their first-ever National League West title by the slimmest of margins, losing the tiebreaker game to the Dodgers in Los Angeles. With the exception of Murphy replacing D.J. LeMahieu, that same roster was returning in 2020. Arenado should’ve had a little more faith in it.
If he had, he probably wouldn’t have said what he did. If everyone else had, the baseball world wouldn’t be shocked by the Rockies hot start.
The fans and the media are supposed to overreact; that’s what we do. Teammates, however, are supposed to rise above knee-jerk reactions; they’re supposed to have faith in each other.
Through 25 percent of the season, the Rockies look like a playoff-caliber team. And they’ve reached that point with virtually no help from their best player.
Nolan Arenado should be thankful that his teammates are carrying him during his slump. And he should offer them an apology for suggesting that they weren’t good enough to play alongside him.
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