[T]hese Rockies, they don’t do self-reflection. Nor do they do reality.
— Marc Carig, The Athletic
If you’ve followed the Rockies lo these 28 years, Lord knows you’ve seen some bad press conferences.
But Tuesday’s attempt to justify the Nolan Arenado trade was the worst I can remember. Owner Dick Monfort looked like a minor-league ballplayer trying to play major-league ball. GM Jeff Bridich, as usual, looked like the subject of a hostage video.
“This brings closure to something we have been dealing with for over a year,” said Monfort, establishing the tone of Rockies-as-victims that would permeate the following hour.
“In 2019, we signed Nolan to what I would call a career contract, something we were committed to. Nine months later, Nolan asked us to look for a trade.”
Huh. Skip anything between those two events, Dick? What would cause a player who had just signed an eight-year, $260 million “career contract” to ask out nine months later?
Rockies brass offered no explanation. Bridich archly informed the assembled peasants that he never tries to speak for players.
What we have on the record is pretty thin. In January 2020, 11 months into the contract and two months after Monfort says Arenado asked for a trade, Bridich told the Denver Post: “We have listened to teams regarding Nolan and really nothing has come of it. We are going to move forward pretty much as we expected — with Nolan in the purple and black as our third baseman. So we can put this to bed . . . .”
Thomas Harding of mlb.com reached out to Arenado by text for a reaction.
“There’s a lot of disrespect from people there that I don’t want to be a part of,” Arenado replied. “You can quote me on that.”
Asked to elaborate, he repeated his message: “You asked what I thought of Jeff’s quotes and I say I don’t care what people say around there. There is a lot of disrespect.”
Arenado declined to be specific, but added: “I’m not mad at the trade rumors. There’s more to it.”
In 2017 and 2018, the two years before Arenado signed the deal, the Rockies had winning records and reached the playoffs. They didn’t go far, but there was a sense following seasons of 87 and 91 wins that if they continued to add talent, they had a window, behind a young, homegrown pitching staff and the powerful bats of Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon, to be a serious contender.
In that context, the club declined to re-sign second baseman DJ LeMahieu and signed veteran free agent Daniel Murphy instead, a decision that turned out to be disastrous. Even Monfort admitted it was a mistake. LeMahieu signed with the Yankees, won a batting title and finished in the top four in American League Most Valuable Player voting in both 2019 and 2020. Murphy had two forgettable seasons for the Rockies and retired.
Prior to the 2018 season, Bridich spent over $100 million on contracts for three free agent relief pitchers — Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw. All three struggled mightily in Colorado, as free agent pitchers often do. By the time Arenado was traded, they had all been released.
Prior to the 2017 season, Bridich signed free agent Ian Desmond, a longtime shortstop in Washington who would play first base and the outfield in Denver, to a six-year, $70 million contract. Like the relievers, Desmond failed to live up to the big contract.
In 2019, the first season of Arenado’s new deal, the Rocks were 44-40 at the end of June, then collapsed, staggering to the finish line 71-91, 35 games out of first place in the National League West. Arenado finished strong, but the pitching fell apart. More than half the starting rotation went down with injuries, and it hadn’t been very good to start with.
“It feels like a rebuild,” Arenado said in September, surveying the wreckage. As I might have mentioned before, pitching collapsing has been an endemic problem playing at elevation, but physics are not to blame for Bridich’s repeated failures in the free agent market.
“[T]he hope for Arenado and company is going to be that the Rockies add reinforcements this coming offseason and try to contend in 2020,” one national reporter wrote.
This set the stage for the conflict that broke into the open that offseason. After Bridich’s succession of failed offseason moves, the team made no major additions following the disappointing 2019 campaign, expressing a belief, as Monfort did again Tuesday, that the roster was extremely talented and poor performance was an inexplicable anomaly. The pandemic-shortened 2020 season brought another losing record — 26-34 — with the club again starting fast and then collapsing.
We are left to fill in the blanks around the thin public record. At his introductory press conference in St. Louis, Arenado declined to detail the reasons for his unhappiness in Colorado, choosing to look forward.
Based on his comments to Harding, it’s clear that Bridich pissed him off. We don’t know exactly how. Maybe by going public with the fact he had entertained trade talks. Maybe by saying nothing had come of them, making the talks public and shutting them down at the same time. Maybe something else entirely that Arenado considered contrary to private assurances, which we can infer from his comment, “There’s more to it.”
We do know that Arenado has repeatedly expressed a desire to play for a winning organization. We can suppose that, like many of us, he was encouraged by the back-to-back postseason appearances in 2017-18. We can speculate that Bridich assured him, during discussions around the new contract, that he would do what it took to keep the team competitive. We can imagine that Arenado decided Bridich was not up to the task, or had perhaps misled him, following the 2019 collapse.
In any case, when a star player and a club official have irreconcilable differences, the person running the franchise has to make a decision. When it became clear to the late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen that quarterback John Elway and coach Dan Reeves could not co-exist, Bowlen made the logical choice: He could replace his head coach with someone comparable. He could not so readily find a quarterback as good as Elway. He fired Reeves, hired Mike Shanahan, and the rest is history.
Monfort could have done the same thing here. Arenado is among the best third basemen in major league history. Bridich is far less accomplished as a GM than Reeves was as a coach. Still, if we can take Monfort at his word, he never considered dumping Bridich.
Would it have been possible to salvage the club’s relationship with Arenado by bringing in a new GM? There’s no way to know. Again, Monfort claims never to have considered it.
Because Arenado had requested a trade, Monfort says he figured he would opt out of his contract at the end of the 2021 season and leave as a free agent. That would leave the club with two choices: play out one more season with Arenado and accept a late first-round draft choice as compensation when it was over, or trade him by the deadline and try to get more in return.
This Monfort conclusion is also debatable. The economics of baseball have been dealt a body blow by the Covid pandemic. Revenues plunged in 2020 with no fans in the stands. The current free agent market makes it appear unlikely Arenado could have replicated the salaries in his Rockies deal as a free agent at the end of this year.
Some have speculated the Rocks were afraid not that he would opt out but that he wouldn’t, leaving them on the hook for annual salaries of $35 million with much less revenue to fund them. This view is supported by the Rockies’ decision to pay the Cardinals a reported $50 million over time as the price of getting them to take on the hefty contract Bridich had negotiated just two years earlier.
Paying $35 million for Arenado to play one more year for the Rockies makes a lot more sense than paying $50 million for him to play for somebody else unless you’re afraid he won’t opt out and you’ll be on the hook for another $164 million. Monfort made a thoroughly unconvincing case that the mid-tier prospects the Rocks received from the Cardinals made the $50 million payment worthwhile.
Whatever the real reason, and we may never know, Monfort decided to trade him. There is a pattern to salary dumps of top players such as this. The team doing the dumping usually tries to get a replacement or blue-chip prospect at the same position as part of the package it receives in exchange, assuming it isn’t making the deal because it prefers somebody else on its roster already.
When Cleveland traded star shortstop Francisco Lindor last month, it got back a package including two young major-league shortstops from the Mets. When Tampa Bay dumped former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, 21-year-old Luis Patino, one of San Diego’s top pitching prospects, was in the group coming back. When the Red Sox traded star outfielder Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, they received, among others, 24-year-old outfielder Alex Verdugo, who finished 12th in A.L. MVP voting in his first year in Boston.
Following this pattern, the obvious ask by the Rockies when giving up their star third baseman would have been 20-year-old Nolan Gorman, a 2018 first-round draft choice and the Cardinals’ top third-base prospect. When the names of the young players the Rocks received for Arenado were revealed, Gorman’s was not among them. Neither were the three other Cardinals prospects ranked among the top 100 in baseball.
Instead, they settled for a package of one big-league pitcher and four mid-level prospects roundly mocked by analysts as inadequate compensation for one of the best players Colorado has ever produced.
The closest analog was the Cubs’ trade of Yu Darvish to San Diego, in which they accepted a major-league starting pitcher and a passel of very young players, none of whom has been around long enough to be graded among the Padres’ top prospects. But club president Jed Hoyer was transparent about why: After draining the Cubs’ minor league system to go for broke at the major league level in the late teens, a quest that ended a century-long championship drought, the club is now restocking the cupboard.
No such explanation was forthcoming from Rockies brass. In fact, they went out of their way to say the deal does not signal a rebuild. So why weren’t Gorman or any of the Cardinals’ other top prospects part of the return?
Who knows? Nobody asked.
Not that they would have gotten a straight answer, but the question should have been posed anyway.
Woody Paige of the Gazette asked a pertinent question — whether Monfort had considered firing Bridich as GM or himself as Bridich’s supervisor, given the deeply disappointing outcome of the saga.
Monfort said he did not consider firing Bridich but did consider firing himself. He did not explain why he decided not to.
Monfort described himself as a fan and said he tries not to interfere in baseball decisions. On the other hand, it was he, not Bridich, who led off the press conference with a prepared statement attempting to justify the trade. This mixed message is emblematic of the Rockies’ organizational problem.
Monfort’s meandering commentary made it obvious he is unqualified to have any role on the baseball side of the business. And that’s OK. Most owners are. That’s why they hire experts to run the baseball operation and let them explain themselves at press conferences when necessary. This is a problem when Bridich is your expert, given his lack of credibility and disdain for the press.
Monfort’s inability or unwillingness to see the inadequacies of the front office he leads is just another disheartening revelation of the Arenado saga. Veteran baseball reporter Mark Saxon recently tweeted that he’d heard a player agent describe Bridich as “the worst communicator in MLB.” If you’ve watched him in press conferences, you would be hard-pressed to argue.
Bridich’s sullen affect is easier to understand in the context of a quote he gave Rockies broadcaster Drew Goodman for his book, “If These Walls Could Talk”: “I think I’m personally blessed with a capacity to not really care what is said about me all that much. The reality is — and this is going to sound petty and bad — if you just objectively look at the people who are evaluating us every day, you know they’ve never come close to doing this job and all the work that goes into it.”
As a longtime sportswriter, I can tell you this view is shared by many people in professional sports. And they certainly have a point. Not counting former players turned analysts, media critics by and large have not played the games they cover at a high level, nor run organizations.
But that’s the way the world works. Political reporters have seldom been elected officials. Art critics are not generally great artists.
So the smartest players and executives understand everybody in the ecosystem has a job to do. Bridich wouldn’t make the large salary general managers command if baseball weren’t supported by millions of fans, who crave information. The media are an important conduit of that information. The executives get paid a lot, the reporters get paid relatively little, which should make Bridich happy. So dealing with the press becomes a test of humility and the willingness to be accountable. Some executives are gracious about this interaction and some are not.
It’s also worth noting that one of the analysts who ripped the Arenado trade was Jim Bowden, who has indeed done Bridich’s job, and done it better than Bridich has. Bowden was a general manager in Cincinnati and Washington, won two division titles, and was named MLB executive of the year by Baseball America in 1999 before becoming an analyst.
When your performance is lousy — the Rockies are 350-453 in the six seasons since Bridich was named GM, with zero division titles and a 1-4 record in the playoffs — and you also resent anyone questioning or criticizing you, you’re going to become an object of scorn by your fan base, which is what Bridich has accomplished.
And when there’s a dispute over who caused a divorce as messy as this one, Bridich’s sour public affect and Arenado’s cheerful one — to say nothing of their relative contributions to the team’s success — are going to make it easy for fans to pick a villain.
From an executive standpoint, the Rocks are currently one of the worst organizations in baseball, with an unqualified top dog in Monfort and a GM who just alienated the team’s best player and resents questions about it.
There are frequent calls for Monfort to sell the team, but he has little incentive to do it. The Rocks are a cash cow in non-pandemic times, with fans pouring into Coors Field because it’s a gorgeous place to watch a game whether or not the team is any good. Now that he and other investors are building a massive commercial real estate project next door, it’s even less likely.
So the next best thing would be Monfort finally acknowledging he needs a more robust front office on the baseball side. If he’s unwilling to fire Bridich, that would entail hiring an experienced executive as club president over Bridich, someone with a track record as a general manager or club president elsewhere who has the ability to bring an objectivity to the Rockies’ operation that Monfort does not. If that doesn’t suit Bridich, well, he can make the same decision Arenado made.
Unfortunately, if Monfort’s public pronouncements are to be believed, he is utterly oblivious to the incompetent leadership this episode revealed. Two of the most minor-league moments in Tuesday’s press conference came when Monfort admitted he pays no attention to the annual rankings of baseball’s top prospects because a couple of Rockies who turned out well weren’t listed years ago, and when he turned a question about letting LeMahieu go into a weird personal tangent about how much he liked him.
Owners get to be willfully ignorant, sentimental and incoherent — it’s a privilege of being rich and writing the checks. Successful baseball executives do not.
Regrettably, there is no sign that Monfort is self-aware enough or cares enough about winning to make the necessary changes. So the Rocks will roll on as they are, wasting the talents of some very good players because the people running the baseball operation are not up to the task.