by Jim Silva
The Rockies made the playoffs last year, but unless you live in Colorado you may not have noticed. It was a big deal in Colorado because the Rockies hadn’t seen the post-season since 2009. The NL West was the toughest division to climb out of last season with the Rockies finishing third, winning 87 games, and grabbing the second Wild Card spot after Arizona, their division mate. In what most would think of as a twist, the Rockies thrived on the backs of a young pitching staff. It looked like their hitting succeeded if you didn’t pay attention to park adjusted stats. Only three full-time position players who wore the Purple and Black garnered at least 100 wRC+ (where 100 is average) which looks at runs created by a player and adjusts for park and league. The team wRC+ ranked 12th out of 15 National League teams. So as strange as it is to hear this uttered about a team that finished first in the NL in runs scored, the Rockies need more dudes who can hit.
You probably already know this, but Coors field is the most hospitable hitting environment in the MLB. The 2017 Park Factor, which calculates how easy it is to score runs in a given stadium, scores Coors Field at 116 where 100 is neutral, with scores above 100 favoring hitters over pitchers. For reference, Arizona’s home park comes in second at 105 and at the other end are the Padres and Mets home parks at 95. What this means is hitters get a tremendous statistical boost (about 16 percent above league average) when playing in Coors Field while pitchers stats take a pretty substantial hit. This is a simplification, as individuals get different benefits and penalties based on what kind of players they are. What this means is that park adjusted stats are even more important when looking at players who spend half their time in Coors Field as opposed to guys who play their home games at a neutral park. Nolan Arenado (129 wRC+), Charlie Blackmon (141 wRC+), and Mark Reynolds (104 wRC+, but below average WAR because his defense and base running numbers dragged it down) were the only above average offensive contributors among Rockies position players who were with the team most of the season. So ignoring Arenado and Blackmon who produced above average wRC+ (again, which is park adjusted) and had WAR above 2.0, let’s look at the rest of the position players to find places where change seems particularly necessary.
Generally speaking, the easiest places to add offense are at first base and left field as they are the least defensively challenging spots on the field, assuming you are a National League team – so no designated hitter. The Rockies planned on playing Ian Desmond at first base after spending $70 million to ink him to a deal before the season. Never mind that Desmond had never played first base. When Desmond broke his left hand during spring training, the Rockies brought back Mark Reynolds, who had signed a minor league deal after being their primary first baseman in 2016 when he played replacement level ball. In 2017, he did the one thing he does well just like he’d done in his prime. He hit home runs in bunches – 30 of them. Normally that would be enough to call it a great season and assume that the position was filled well. Reynolds produced 104 wRC+ which means he was a slightly better than average run producer after the ballpark and the league are taken into account. But remember, Reynolds was playing at the premium offensive position on the field. 104 is fine, but nothing to get too excited about, especially when you look at the rest of his game. His base running was below average and his fielding was actually poor, which is odd when you take into account that Reynolds is a former shortstop. His dWAR was -1.2, which means he cost the team runs with his glove. If you look at the totality of Mark Reynolds, he added runs with his bat and gave back some of that contribution with his glove and his base-running. So he ends up being a 0.9 WAR guy which is somewhere between a triple-A replacement and a low level major league starter. This is not intended to knock Reynolds – he filled in admirably for Desmond, but he was filling in, and should not have received almost 600 plate appearances for a playoff team. So first base is one spot where the Rockies will have to improve if they are going to beat their 87 wins from 2017.
Left field was mostly a hot mess for the Rockies in 2017. Gerardo Parra played good defense and contributed 90 wRC+ in 425 plate appearances. He spent most of his time in the field playing left (a little under 80%), but also put in some time in right with a few more innings in center and at first. Raimel Tapia spent a little less than half his time in left and most of the rest in right. His wRC+ of 81 was achieved in 171 plate appearances – he is just 24 and this was his first significant exposure to big league pitching. About 75% of Ian Desmond’s time with the glove was spent in left. His spring training injury that put him on the DL to start the season meant that he only reached 373 plate appearances. He put up a wRC+ of 69, which was definitely not what the Rockies expected when they signed him. A couple other guys saw limited time in left, but Parra, Desmond, and Tapia got the lion’s share of time in left as well as most of the plate appearances. Since 100 is average wRC+ you can see how they did in left field – a premium offensive position. The position did not yield the offensive production one would expect in 2017.
Second base is the realm of DJ LeMahieu, who made the All Star team (his second) in 2017 and also won a Gold Glove (also his second). DJ contributed 1.8 WAR in 2017, and looking at only his offensive contribution, LeMahieu generated 94 wRC+ – slightly below average – with a line drive/ground ball swing (55.6 ground-ball percentage). He will be the starter and get almost all of the playing time at second because of his glove and probably his perceived offensive value, but objectively, he is an average to slightly above average starter and not a star, so it wouldn’t destroy the team if the Rockies chose to add more offense at the position. That is blasphemous talk in Denver where LeMahieu is well-loved, but the Rockies best prospect is a middle infielder who might be just a year away. Brendan Rodgers could push Trevor Story off short to second where Story’s defense would likely play up, and Rodgers’ overall game would likely surpass both Story and LeMahieu. This is an unlikely scenario for the start of 2018 as Rodgers just finished a full season of high-A ball, but the Rockies also have Ryan McMahon who has played some second base and appears ready for a full time spot in the Majors – more on him later.
Trevor Story was somewhat of a revelation in 2016 with a wRC+ of 122 as a true rookie. Power is Story’s game and even in a down year like 2017, he managed 24 home runs and 60 extra base hits. He is only 24, so his strikeout rate of almost 35% last season could still improve. If it doesn’t, he won’t be a regular for much longer. His wRC+ dropped to 81 – the lowest total of his pro career. His first half was just plain awful, but he rebounded to have a solid second half, and the Rockies won’t be quick to give up on a 24 year old infielder with 51 home runs in his first 875 at bats. Story is an average defender so his glove won’t push him to the bench. If Story starts out strong, the job is still his to lose, but if the Rockies drift out of contention and Rodgers looks like he is ready, Story might become a trade chip. They are not likely to get more offense at the position if Story is even halfway between his first two seasons in the majors so there isn’t really an upgrade ready for the start of the season. Colorado will stand pat for now.
Right field was formerly the realm of Cargo – Carlos Gonzalez – but he became a free agent and although it looked unlikely that he would return, that is exactly what just happened. The Rockies re-signed Gonzalez to a one year deal with a base salary of $5 million. It is unclear what his role will be – he probably will be splitting time at the corners. Gonzalez has always been streaky, but his good streaks were so good that they would carry the team for weeks. His best streak of 2017 came at the end of the season but wasn’t nearly enough to salvage an awful campaign. 84 wRC+ is unacceptable from a corner outfielder – especially one who doesn’t put up good defensive numbers anymore. David Dahl is likely to get the starting job in right. Dahl (who based on his injury history could easily be nicknamed China Dahl) missed all of last season with multiple injuries. Dahl, a former first round pick chosen 10th overall in 2012, is 23. He won the starting job with a nice half season audition in 2016 where he hit .315 and slugged enough to post a wRC+ of 113. If he can actually stay healthy, the Rockies will get the chance to see if he is the answer or a disappointment occupying another spot where they need an upgrade. He looks like he should be a solid starter but probably not a star. If he can stay healthy and come anywhere near what he posted in his half season of 2016 then that will be a tremendous upgrade from Cargo in 2017. if he is injured or doesn’t produce, the Rockies offense will be in trouble.
Catching has long been regarded as a defense first position and that may still be true, but the Rockies catching position was death to offense until they acquired Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy was a free agent and signed with the A’s. The Rockies signed prodigal son Chris Iannetta who is coming off a rebirth of sorts. Iannetta put up his first wRC+ above average since 2014 with a power and walk driven 120 wRC+. Could he do it again? Maybe. But Iannetta is 35 so it’s less likely that he is entering into a new productive phase of his career and more likely that 2017 was a blip. Iannetta should still be an improvement over the pre-Lucroy catching crew. It helps that Iannetta’s framing numbers were improved too. The Rockies have already made their catching move for the season, and it is also possible that Tom Murphy could regain some of his former prospect gloss now that he has had a normal off-season to recover from the injury that cost him the likely starting job during spring training last year. A catching tandem of Murphy and Iannetta will definitely provide more offense than the Tony-Wolters-Dustin-Garneau-whoever-else-happened-to-be-in-town-that-day group that the Rockies started with last season.
A few things could happen with the positions in 2018 that would add production to the Rockies lineup that would not involve a trade or a free agent signing. Raimel Tapia will likely improve. He is athletic, fast, and has excellent bat to ball abilities. Most of his offensive value is tied up in his speed and his ability to hit for a high batting average. He is 24, and reportedly worked hard during the off-season to add muscle. Since Tapia mostly doesn’t walk, he will need to hit over .300 and boost his slugging percentage a bit to become worth the at-bats. He has the defensive chops to easily hold down the starting job in left if his bat improves. Ian Desmond can’t and won’t be as bad as he was in 2017. If he even comes halfway back and is a 2.0 WAR player at either first base or in left, then the Rockies will have improved there as well. Ryan McMahon will be in the mix for first base and the most likely outcome is that he will end up at first with Desmond in left. If McMahon only meets his modest projections then he will be around a league average hitter. If he hits like his minor league career says he should, then the Rockies will score a lot more runs as McMahon gets on base, hits a ton of doubles, and carries a high batting average – kind of the anti-Mark Reynolds.
If the Rockies choose to spend more money, there are certainly hitters out there to be had. Logan Morrison is still out there and is coming off his best season of his career. He will be 30 this year and does two things quite well – he walks and he smashes baseballs into the stands. He put those two skills together last season to record 130 wRC+ with 38 home runs and a .353 on-base percentage due to 81 walks. Morrison is a gamble due to his age, his career .245 batting average, and his inconsistency. Still, LoMo is likely to be had for less than one would normally pay for a hitter coming off a 38 homer season. Mike Moustakas would not sniff 3rd base for the Rockies because Nolan Arenado plays all the time and is an historically great defender, but let’s say the Rockies already know they aren’t planning on signing Arenado when he becomes a free agent after this season. They could have signed Moustakas, who was certainly getting antsy to sign after his best season with the bat (116 wRC+), played him at first, and move him to third when Arenado departs for better free agent waters. Yeah, it’s a stretch and there is no comparison between the 27 year old Arenado and the 29 year old Moustakas, who just had his breakout season. But if you are the Rockies you have to look at contingency plans when you’re about to be stuck trying to sign your two best players to mega-contracts. The Moose ship has sailed as he finally yelled uncle and re-signed with the Royals for one year. Based on what the Rockies did last year when they stood pat with their rotation and were proved right, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them count on McMahon, Desmond, Dahl, and Tapia to make gains (or hope that Cargo rebounds) and fill the holes in the Rockies lineup that glared so brightly last season when they over-performed their way to the Wild Card game.