Over the weekend, the Rockies cemented another middle-of-the-order player’s status in Denver, signing third baseman Ryan McMahon to a six-year deal that will keep him in town until the end of the 2027 season. The contract guarantee is $70 million and covers four years of free-agent eligibility, as McMahon was still arbitration eligible for 2022 and ’23. The 2021 season was the first time his status as a regular seemed ironclad, and he responded with his best season yet, hitting .255/.331/.449 with 23 homers in 151 games and splitting time between second and third base.
Now, the thought going through your head right now may be, “Uh oh, Szymborski is writing about the Rockies, he must be planning to eviscerate them!” But while that’s frequently a good guess, in this case, this strikes me as a perfectly reasonable contract for them to sign. It’s a long deal for a player who isn’t a star, but like with Steven Matz’s four-year, $44 million deal with the Cardinals, the Rockies aren’t paying McMahon as if he were a star. If three years from now, the relationship between him and ownership has deteriorated, Colorado doesn’t seem likely to send him out of town with a $50 million bonus for his new team.
Let’s start with the ZiPS projections.
ZiPS Projection – Ryan McMahon
As a free agent, ZiPS would suggest offering McMahon six years at $71.3 million. That’s not quite his status because of the two years of salary arbitration, for which ZiPS projected him getting paid $6 million and $10 million, giving a total contract estimate of about $60 million.
That said, I wouldn’t classify this as an overpay for another reason: I think ZiPS is probably too bearish about McMahon’s playing time. Breaking in the majors as a Rockies prospect can be frustrating, as it’s an organization that highly values seniority, arguably more than any team in baseball. In 2017, the team was slow to call him up from Triple-A Albuquerque, where he had an OPS over 1.000. They finally did so in September but found lots of playing time for Ian Desmond instead, generally limiting McMahon’s cup of coffee to pinch-hitting duties. The franchise then essentially wasted his age-23 season, shuttling him up and down from the minors repeatedly and leaving him sitting on the bench for large stretches in the majors. In total, for 2018, McMahon entered the game in the latter stages as a pinch-hitter 41 times for the Rockies, an absolutely shocking number for a good 23-year-old prospect and something I’d personally consider a firing offense for whoever made that particular decision.
Add that to the uncertainty of the COVID-shortened 2020, and ZiPS sees a resumé with a lot of holes for a regular entering his age-27 season — not ideal for a system that heavily leans on past usage for projecting future playing time. But if I order ZiPS — and hey, I get to do that — to start McMahon’s projections with 600 plate appearances in 2022, the deal’s valuation, with the reductions for expected arbitration salaries, jumps to six years and $72 million. If the Rockies screwed up here, so did my projections!
Unlike in the past, I am quite confident about McMahon’s playing time, if healthy, as the club’s obsession with incumbent advantage now works for him rather than against him. He’s not going to ride the bench because the Rockies made a confusing five-year signing in free agency. As the veteran with a healthy contract, he’s no longer going to start the season shuffling between positions, as he did even in 2021 when the team had a curious fascination with Joshua Fuentes. If the new $182 million player in town, Kris Bryant, can’t dissuade the Rockies from using McMahon at third, I doubt anyone else could.
But let’s go another way and assume, for the sake of argument, that this is actually an overpay for Colorado. Would that be such a bad thing? The Rockies had a very public falling-out with their franchise player, Nolan Arenado, and quickly alienated a player who could have been his successor in Trevor Story. The team has not been a good one the last three seasons, and the franchise’s reputation problems around the league are well known. Even when the the Rockies have been competitive, as they were in 2017 and ’18, there has been a real struggle to find quality secondary talent beyond the top few stars. If they’re going to play October baseball, they need a lot more Ryan McMahons, not one fewer. I’m obviously quite bearish on how the Rockies are run, but if they are going to turn things around, they need to retain dudes who want to stay in town, and they may occasionally have to pay them more than they would get elsewhere as an inducement.
McMahon is not a replacement for Arenado, nor is he even really a star. But he’s an average player signed to a reasonable contract, and if the Rockies are a better team in the future, he’ll likely have something to do with it.