Infields of Gold
by Jim Silva
At the start of last season, the Colorado Rockies had a chance to have three Gold Glove infielders playing at the same time. How often has that happened? More often than you’d think, actually. In fact, one example, the 1973 Orioles had three guys in their infield win it in the same year they played together. Brooks Robinson (3rd base), Mark Belanger (shortstop), and Bobby Grich (2nd base) all won the Gold Glove in 1973 playing for the Orioles – their centerfielder (Paul Blair) won it in 1973 also. Still, it is a cool thing to have, and not exactly common. The Rockies still have Gold Glove winners D.J. LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado, but are currently stuck with an extremely expensive albatross of a shortstop in Jose Reyes after trading away Troy Tulowitzki, the third member of the Rockies’ Gold Glove infielder’s club. Until last season, Reyes had been a reliable 2.0 to 4.0 WAR producer, mainly because of his bat. The last time he picked up at least 1.0 defensive WAR was in 2007 when he was 24. Using DRS (defensive runs saved), Reyes has cost his team between 4 and 16 runs a season every year since 2010, including eight runs last season in 116 games. It was widely speculated that when the Blue Jays included him in the Tulowitzki trade, the Rockies would turn around and trade him for more prospects since the Rockies are rebuilding and have no desire to keep a declining player who is making $22 million a year. That curiously didn’t happen, creating speculation that the Colorado management didn’t have a cohesive plan. The situation darkened when Reyes made comments indicating that he had no interest in playing for the Rockies, and then was accused of domestic abuse during this off-season, making him about the least tradable player in all of baseball. He goes to trial in April. The Rockies had weakened arguably their greatest strength in an attempt to acquire prospects and undoubtedly thought they could move Reyes. Maybe it will work out for them, but sadly the best outcome might be for Reyes to be suspended for a good chunk of the season saving the Rockies part of the $22 million they owe him in 2016.
In the meantime, the Rockies are drooling over their shortstop of the future, Brendan Rogers, their first round pick in last year’s draft who has already risen to the 20th spot in all of baseball on BP’s top 101 prospect rankings for 2016. As if Rogers wasn’t exciting enough, they have another young shortstop, who is much closer than Rogers to being ready for the majors, in Trevor Story. Story repeated AA last season and spent a half season in AAA showing a solid glove, good range, and donating 20 baseballs to fans watching him from the outfield seats. Story’s slash line was .279/.350/.514 between his two stops in the minors in 2015. Half of that was accomplished in the hitter’s paradise of the Pacific Coast League, but for a shortstop who has a solid arm and solid range and is only 23, that is something to be excited about. In spite of Story’s power and speed – he is also a high percentage base-stealer (probably a great cook too!) – he is considered somewhat of a disappointment with the bat because of his poor strike zone judgment. The shortstop struck out 141 times last season in 512 at-bats, which was a solid improvement from 2014 when he struck out 144 times in only 396 at-bats. 2013 was even worse – he struck out an earth-shattering 183 times in 497 at-bats at the high A level. Story walked 60 and 51 times respectively in 2014 and 2015 so it isn’t all bad news, but nobody can strike out that often in the minors and claim to be ready for the better pitching at the major league level. Good news – Story repeated high A and improved dramatically, then did the same with AA, so he is capable of great growth. That’s good news for the Rockies, who are currently stuck with Jose Reyes through the 2017 season (there is a $4,000,000 buyout for 2018) unless he can regain value this season and get himself traded. If Reyes stays with the Rockies through 2016, Story has a little time to repeat AAA and nail it like he has done in the past with lower levels. Rodgers spent his first season collecting a baseball paycheck last year in the Pioneer League, so Story likely has a couple/three seasons to establish himself before being caught from behind, if the Rockies give him a chance. If Reyes gets suspended for a long stretch, then put your money on Story to get his chance.
DJ LeMahieu was Tulo’s full-time keystone partner for the last three seasons and collected the aforementioned Gold Glove in 2014. DJ saved the Rockies 17 runs that year at second base, but dropped off to 3 runs saved last season – still solid. What he did for the first time last season was contribute with the stick, creating 75 runs, 28 more than his previous high RC. LeMahieu was good for 2.0 offensive WAR and 2.3 WAR overall – his first season above 2.0 (1.4, 1.2, and 1.5 in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively). His slash line of .301/.358/.388 is good work for a slick-fielding second baseman. If he can repeat those numbers, or continue to improve (he is 27) then he might continue to make the All Star Game like he did for the first time in 2015.
The beast at 3rd base, Nolan Arenado, won his first Fielding Bible Award – oh – and his third Gold Glove in his third season in the majors in 2015. Arenado has saved 64 runs in those three seasons besting Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, and Kyle Seager for total runs saved since 2013. Those guys won the last three Fielding Bible Awards and/or Gold Gloves. Arenado has range and a cannon for an arm, and great feet to set up every play. He also is willing to give up his body as evidenced by a couple scary forays into the stands making catches on foul pops last season. “Sharknado” put up 5.8 worth of WAR with a huge breakout year. His glove is old hat by now, but he finally hit the way the Rockies have been expecting. Arenado led the league in home runs with 42, RBI with 130, and total bases with 354, posting a slash line of .287/.323/.575 (an OPS of .898) and finishing 8th in MVP balloting. His first half was a little better than his second half (.926 OPS versus .866 OPS) but he was generally consistent from start to finish. Arenado has established himself as the star of the Rockies, and remember he is only 24, so he is here to stay.
It used to be that every year you could just write Todd Helton’s name into the first base spot and be done with it. Since 2011, the last season Helton put up numbers worthy of a starter, the Rockies have been doing a lot of mixing and matching of first basemen. Only Justin Morneau’s 3.2 WAR 2014 could be considered a big success. Next season looks to be another season of mixing and matching at first with the Rockies trying to decide between Ben Paulsen, Mark Reynolds, and Carlos Gonzalez, who has never played first base in the professional ball.
Paulsen played 91 of his 116 games at first last season, but didn’t nail down the job. Ben was flat neutral as a defender at first, not saving or costing the Rockies even a tenth of a run, so it was up to his bat to swing the scale one way or the other. Paulsen was a 3rd round pick in 2009 and hit some in the minors, but that’s the problem – “some” just isn’t enough for first base. He accrued 0.8 WAR over the course of 116 games and 354 plate appearances in 2015, so he helped the Rockies win – kind of. The rule of thumb when using WAR is that 2.0 WAR is the mark of a starter and anything lower is bench player. Trying to extrapolate Paulsen’s WAR to a full season still has him falling short of the mark and based on his minor league numbers, what you see is pretty much what you get. His average, slugging, and on-base percentage marks last season were in line with what he’d done in the minors, and he is 28, so expecting much growth means you are a hopeless Rockies fan.
The Rockies signed Mark Reynolds in December to compete for the first base spot, or get work as the corner infield backup man. Reynolds played mainly at first for the Cardinals last season, but also got on the field at 2nd, 3rd, and in the outfield. Reynolds is a masher who strikes out at often-historical rates – he holds the mark for strikeouts in a single season with 223 in 2009. He is also 4th, 7th, and 14th on the single season strikeout list. He is really good at striking out! He is also quite good at hitting home runs having notched seasons of 32, 37, and 44 along with four 20-plus seasons. So are all the long balls worth all the wind Reynolds stirs up around home plate? Part of the problem is that Reynolds registers all those strikeouts without accruing a decent number of walks to offset them. If he managed to pick up 80 walks to go with the home runs and whiffs (like he did in the middle of his career) then he would be a much more valuable player. As it is, his on-base percentages over the last three seasons have been .306, .287, and .315 which means dude is creating outs by the truckload. All those outs drag down his offensive value to the point where it is questionable whether you want him taking up a spot on your 25 man roster. Since 2010, Reynolds has been in the red for defensive runs saved every season but one – he saved six runs in 2014. So you can’t keep him around for his glove either, not that the Rockies are thinking that. If he gets regular playing time, Reynolds will hit home runs in Coors Field, of this there is no doubt. He will also strike out by the bushel and his glove will be no better than mediocre. The temptation for the Rockies will be to run him out there so fans can get excited by his moon shots, but he will likely be a sub 1.0 WAR guy like he has been every year since he registered 1.2 WAR in 2012.
This off-season there has been talk of moving Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies power-hitting left-fielder, to first to save his body some of the wear and tear that has put him on the disabled list enough in 2013 and 2014 to limit to 180 games played between the two seasons. Even at the start of last season Cargo’s balky knee was making him look old and limited and then he started to feel better and crushed the ball the rest of the way. The Rockies still might trade their expensive superstar, but if they don’t, they need to find a way to get him in the lineup as often as possible. A move to first base, where they don’t have an obvious solution, makes a lot of sense. Gonzalez is only 30 so he should have more 30+ homer seasons in the tank (40 last season). There is a cost to moving an outfielder with three Gold Gloves to the infield, but are the Gold Gloves legitimate? Gonzalez saved the Rockies five runs last year – not bad. Interestingly, his Runs Saved (RS) numbers have never supported his Gold Glove awards – not even once. He won the award in 2010, 2012, and 2013. His RS numbers in those years were 1, -13, and 11 respectively. Obviously the 2010 and 2012 numbers aren’t worth discussing – he clearly wasn’t the best defensive left-fielder in the National League. The 2013 numbers are good, but Starling Marte saved 24 runs that season significantly besting Gonzalez. It’s fair to say that Cargo is a decent left-fielder, but moving him away from left is not cause for the wringing of hands. Will playing first base help keep Gonzalez off the disabled list? It’s possible. Is it worth the gamble? Well, from an infield standpoint, it is hard to say how his glove will hold up, but assuming he is invested in learning the position, it is hard to believe that he wouldn’t be a huge upgrade over what the Rockies would otherwise run out there. It isn’t a straight math problem where you compare the options at first to the options in left and compare their numbers. If the Rockies get 200 more plate appearances out of Cargo by moving him to the infield then it is almost assuredly worth it. We will explore the question further when I write about the outfield situation next week.