Carlos Gonzalez: Why the Colorado Rockies Made a Mistake by Extending Him
At first glance, it appears as though the Rockies got a great deal on a premium player, but don't be fooled.
The Rockies haven't had much success with long-term contracts, and Carlos Gonzalez has hardly proved that he is a premium major league talent. This could get, well, rocky.
Gonzalez, 25, came into his own in the outfield for the Colorado Rockies last season. The young left-handed hitter exceeded all expectations, posting an incredible slash line of .336 / .376 / .598, belting 34 home runs and driving in 117 runs.
Praised as a "five-tool outfielder" throughout his career in the minor leagues, he utilized all five of those tools in 2010, hitting for average, hitting for power, stealing 26 bases while being caught stealing just eight times and collecting eight outfield assists.
An impressive season, without a doubt, and at first glance, you can see why the Rockies have no problem paying "CarGo" over $11 million a year over the next seven seasons—but did they have to?
Should the Rockies have waited to extend Carlos Gonzalez?
Acquired in the deal that sent former Rockies star outfielder Matt Holliday to the Oakland Athletics, Gonzalez played his first full season in 2010, appearing in 145 games in the Rockies' outfield. In years prior, he played in just 89 games for the Rockies in 2009 and 85 for the Athletics in 2008 before he was traded.
Interestingly enough, Gonzalez has bounced around the minor leagues, even at a young age. After signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela, the D-Backs sent him to Oakland in the mega-deal that landed Arizona Dan Haren, and the A's later sent him to Colorado for half a season of Holliday.
Don't get it twisted—the Rockies are happy to have him.
With that being said, however, the young outfielder has accrued just over a year of major league service time. That means that without his extension, he wouldn't have been eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season. Even more interestingly, the Rockies could have had Gonzalez for at least one more cheap season. The outfielder isn't even eligible for arbitration until 2012.
By most people's standards, the Rockies jumped the gun on this one. Buying out a talented player's arbitration years before they actually reach arbitration isn't all that uncommon. What is rather surprising is that the Rockies are paying him $11 million a season without even fully knowing what they are getting themselves into.
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If anything, you would think that the Rockies would have learned from their mistakes in the past, offering free agents long-term contracts without being fully aware of what they're getting in return.
The first mistake came in the form of one of the worst free agent signings in the history of baseball, when the Colorado Rockies inked starting pitcher Mike Hampton to an eight-year, $121 million deal after the 2000 season, one of the most lucrative sports contracts of all time. (According to Wikipedia, it is now the 29th largest contract of all time.)
The deal, which would pay Hampton more than $15 million annually, was signed after he posted a record of 15-10 with the New York Mets the year prior to go with an ERA of 3.14. Though SABRmetrics weren't used much back in 2000, if they had been, the Rockies may have avoided this fatal flaw, as Hampton's 3.82 FIP may have raised a few eyebrows.
Regardless, the deal was signed, and Hampton disappointed more than a few people in the first year of his contract. He posted a record of 14-13 in his first full season with the Rockies, and his 5.41 ERA was among the worst of qualifying pitchers.
In recent years, the Rockies organization has made several adjustments to their ballpark to limit pitchers struggling like this, including adding the humidor, but in terms of performance, Hampton wouldn't have been much better. His command was sporadic and his psyche took a nasty hit in Colorado.
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The following year was even worse. He posted a losing record of 7-15 with the Rockies and an ERA over six in 30 starts. Just two seasons into their eight-year pact, the Rockies had seen enough. They would go on to eat a large portion of his contract and trade him to the Florida Marlins, along with Juan Pierre, for four players, including Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson.
The second long-term commitment the Rockies made was to longtime first baseman and face of the Rockies franchise Todd Helton. After a 2002 season that saw Helton post a slash line of .329 / .429 / .577, along with 30 home runs, the Rockies signed Helton to a nine-year, $141.5 million contract.
Unlike Hampton, Helton performed well over the course of his contract. He batted over .300 during the first five years of the deal, with his lowest home run total being 15, as he resorted to being more of a contact first baseman. He played above average defense and compiled 31.8 WAR through 2010.
The biggest flaw in Helton's game has always been injuries. He missed significant time in 2008 with back problems and has missed time in every year since. It worried the Rockies enough to rework the back end of his contract, which would extend him two years at a lower salary and defer $13.1 million.
As time passes by, however, this seems to be the way the Rockies franchise likes to operate. In the 2010 offseason, they locked up the new face of their franchise, All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, to a 10-year, $157.75 million extension. Though it is unfair to judge an extension that has not taken effect yet, it is worth noting that the Rockies extended a player that they already had under contract until after the 2014 season.
So why was it unwise to agree to an extension with Carlos Gonzalez so prematurely?
The Rockies had time to wait on Gonzalez. Since he was not eligible for arbitration until after the 2011 season, they could have waited to see how he performed following his breakout year. If he regressed to normal, which seems likely at this point, judging from his astronomical highs in 2010, they may have been unable to extend him at a friendlier rate.
Scott Boras, Gonzalez's agent, must have been thinking the same thing. Known for taking his players all the way through arbitration and into free agency, Boras jumped at the opportunity to get his client, an unknown talent in the outfield with great potential, security for the rest of his life.
In fact, if Gonzalez is able to maintain his success, he'll be eligible for another huge deal when he reaches free agency again at age 32—a year older than fellow Boras client Jayson Werth, who just inked a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Washington Nationals.
Now that the Rockies and Gonzalez have agreed to an extension, they are in it for the long haul. Bill James projects Gonzalez to post a slash line of .308 / .357 / .545 with 28 home runs. However, to most baseball experts, James' projections are compared to "best case scenarios," and Gonzalez might not even perform that well.
He doesn't have great speed but can steal bases, and he isn't a great defender but isn't a slouch in the outfield either. He could work on lowering his strikeout rate and raising his walk rate; patience at the plate has never been his forte.
When the ink dries on Gonzalez' contract, the Rockies will have a large chunk of money tied up in a select group of players—Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, Jorge De La Rosa, Aaron Cook, Huston Street and Gonzalez, with another potential huge contract on the way for young ace Ubaldo Jimenez. It wouldn't have hurt the Rockies to wait Gonzalez out for a few seasons to see how he performs.
So even though Rockies fans should be glad to have a talent like Carlos Gonzalez around for the foreseeable future, you have to wonder whether he'll ever be able to have another season like he did in 2010, and if waiting a few years would have saved the Rockies a few dollars. Only time will tell.
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