If the Colorado Rockies don't make the playoffs -- and going into Sunday's action, Baseball Prospectus gave them only a 1.6 percent chance of doing so -- it won't be due to a lack of production on the part of its big money players.
The Rockies' lineup as a whole is frustratingly unbalanced: three of the best hitters in the National League in Carlos Gonzalez (.963 OPS), Troy Tulowitzki (.995 OPS) and Michael Cuddyer (.951 OPS), a competent centerfielder with a good bat in Dexter Fowler (.809 OPS), and then a rotating cast of below-average hitters such as DJ LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado, Jordan Pacheco and Josh Rutledge. It doesn't help, of course, that Gonzalez and Tulowitzki have been sidelined by injuries a couple times this season -- Gonzalez missed his third straight game on Sunday due to a sprained finger he'll likely be dealing with on and off for the rest of the year -- or that on the pitching side of things, a team staff that got off to a surprisingly hot start came back down to earth a bit and is now 20th in the majors by team ERA and 17th by Runs Allowed/Game. Not terrible numbers, especially not for a staff that has to pitch half of its games in Colorado, but combined with an offense that's only a bit above league average (again, even considering Coors), they're not a credible contender.
But none of that has anything to do with Tulowitzki, Gonzalez or Cuddyer. All told, the three biggest bats in the Colorado lineup will make $28 million combined this year and $37 million next year. Cuddyer's deal (3 years, $31.5 million, signed before 2012) expires after the end of next season, while Gonzalez and Tulowitzki's deals escalate into the $18-20 million AAV range until they expire, Gonzalez's after 2017 and Tulowitzki's after 2021 at earliest. Tulowitzki's contract has never come under any serious fire. He's the game's premier young shortstop, especially considering how hard Elvis Andrus and, to a lesser extent, Andrelton Simmons have fallen off at the plate this season; he won't be moving off of shortstop, barring unforeseen injury problems sapping his range; and his bat is elite for any position. Players like him come along very infrequently, and locking him up for the majority of his productive career should be expensive.
Carlos Gonzalez's contract has always had a few more doubters. He signed his seven-year, $80 million extension the January following his first full season with the Rockies in 2010, when he led the National League in hits and batting average, and hit 34 home runs and 34 doubles across 636 plate appearances. He struck out a lot, however (135 times), and didn't walk a whole lot in comparison (40 times), and his splits were concerning. In the inviting confines of Coors Field, he was a 1.161 OPS hitter, recording 26 of his home runs and 19 of his doubles there, while also striking out only 54 times at home as opposed to 81 times on the road, despite roughly similar numbers of plate appearances (332 at Coors, 304 away from it). Outside of his home park, 2010 Carlos Gonzalez had an OPS of only .775, which is nifty enough for a 24-year-old hitter in his first full season, but not the kind of performance that earns $80 million over seven years.
Skeptics of 2010 Carlos Gonzalez were right about one thing: his true talent was not a .336 hitter with power. Since that season, Gonzalez's batting average has sat around a still-respectable .300. However, his plate discipline numbers have improved: walks rose from 40 to 48 in 2011 and 56 in 2012. (With 41 already this season he's well on his way to a new career high at the end of 2013. And with 114 strikeouts as of Monday, he's destined to set a career high there too, but considering the current pitching environment it's hard to be too concerned about that.)
He continued to have massive home/away splits, however. Last season there was a 340 point difference between his home line (1.046 OPS) and his away line (.706 OPS). It's like Carlos Gonzalez in Coors Field and Carlos Gonzalez on the road were two completely different players.
Until 2013, that is.
This year, something strange is going on (something even stranger than Michael Cuddyer's sudden turn into a massive power bat, which is almost wholly a product of Coors Field): Gonzalez is hitting better away from Colorado than he is at home. He's still hitting really well in Coors, of course: .273/.354/.576 (.930 OPS) with 12 home runs, 12 doubles, and six triples (Coors Field is not only a great home run park, but a great triples park as well). But he's 70 points of OPS better on the road: .324/.379/.620, with his other 14 home runs coming in other teams' ballparks. Why?
Part of the reason is the teams the Rockies have played on the road so far this year: every other member of the NL West, a division which has a couple great marquee pitchers this season (Kershaw, Bumgardner, Patrick Corbin so far) but by and large has been mostly disappointing on the mound, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Chicago Cubs, Houston, Cincinnati, Toronto, Washington, and Boston. Of the teams not in the NL West, half of them have straight-up lousy staffs (Milwaukee, Toronto, Houston, arguably Chicago) and two of the remaining teams, Boston and Cincinnati, play in hitter friendly parks. In the six road games against St. Louis and Washington, the two strongest pitching teams on the list, Gonzalez was held to a grand total of four hits, none of them for extra bases. So far, it looks like the best explanation for Gonzalez's improved splits have been favorable matchups on the road. He has been particularly unkind to the Giants and Dodgers, both of whom struggled to find consistency in their rotations over the first half of the season, recording five of his 14 road home runs in their stadiums.
So it's still more likely that Gonzalez is an Andres Galarraga than he is a Larry Walker -- Walker's a guy who will probably never get his full due as a hitter because of how dismissive we are in this day and age of pre-humidor hitting stats coming out of Coors Field -- but that's fine, because the Colorado Rockies aren't going anywhere. If the Seattle Mariners wanted to pay Gonzalez $80 million to hit in Safeco, they'd probably be in for a rude awakening, but Gonzalez's bat plays fantastically at Coors Field and the Rockies get to play half their home games there. They just need to find guys to put around Gonzalez and Tulowitzki that can take them to the next level. And who knows? He's 27 years old. Maybe for a few years here, at his physical peak, Carlos Gonzalez will do more than just flash the ability to hit for power in other parks. If so, the Rockies better get it together and strike while his iron's hot.