The Rockies Need To Stop Pretending That Four Is Enough

Not to be a broken record, but the Rockies just can’t hit. I have written about this before and if anything it has gotten worse – hence the need to update it. I know they look like they can hit because they finished 9th in MLB in runs scored this year after finishing 7th in 2018. But that’s the fallacy of raw stats – if you don’t figure in the league and the park when you look at the stats, especially in places like Coors Field, then the numbers become misleading. Only the Giants and Marlins finished behind the Rockies in wRC+ – a stat that measures runs created by a player or a team after taking into account the league and the park in which they play (basically the actual run scoring environment). With a team wRC+ of 86, the Rockies were 14% below league average (which is adjusted to 100 every year) and 25% behind the Dodgers. If you look at both leagues together, the Rockies finished 26th out of 30 teams ahead of only the Royals, the Giants, the Marlins, and the Tigers – ack! If you need more proof that the Rockies are swinging wiffle ball bats up there, take a look at their individual numbers. Only four Rockies regulars had wRC+ numbers that were league average and if you attended even one Rockies game you can probably name them – Arenado, Story, Blackmon, and Dahl. Two other hitters broke 100 but neither had even 90 plate appearances (Sam Hilliard and Yonder Alonso). No other Rockies hitter reached 90 and only 3 players broke the 80 mark, including their last two free agent signings aimed at fixing the offense – Ian Desmond and Daniel Murphy (Ryan McMahon was the third). Raimel Tapia was the only other Rockies hitter to reach 70 wRC+ with 73, aside from Chris Iannetta who was released after posting a wRC+ of 70 in 164 plate appearances. That’s a whole lot of offensive futility.

If you look at the Rockies offense, position by position (still using wRC+) it might give you a better reference point. The Rockies finished 28th out of 30 teams at first base, catcher, and second base, 18th out of 30 at center field, and 23rd out of 30 in left field. Right field, shortstop and 3rd base were the only three positions where the Rockies finished out of the bottom 3rd – 5th, 10th, and 6th respectively. Oof. If you still aren’t convinced that the Rockies are swinging banjos up there then go do some digging of your own. This is not a new problem for the Rockies and they are going to have a hellish time fixing it in one off-season because it is so widespread throughout their lineup. The Rockies have been unable to fix the easiest spots in the lineup as evidenced by their signings of Desmond and Murphy to fix left field and first base, so why would one believe that they could fix more difficult spots like catcher, second base, and centerfield? It is unlikely that the Rockies could or would fix all of those holes with free agent signings – especially the “would” part (based on their recent history). So that leaves us looking within the organization. Do the Rockies have players currently in their employ that might give them even league average production?

Let’s start with the outfield – center and left (assuming they keep Blackmon in right) – where they have a few potential answers to their current problem. The Rockies ran a slew of guys out there in 2019, including David Dahl, Raimel Tapia, Garrett Hampson, Yonathan Daza, Ian Desmond, and Sam Hilliard among them. Desmond was at least playable for the first half of the season with a batting average of .274 to go with 11 of his 20 homers. His second half was miserable, and I have written quite a bit about him. Let me sum up – Desmond seems like a great guy, but he now has three seasons with the Rockies and his total WAR is -1.7. If he was playing in pretty much any other park it would be obvious that he is killing the team, but Coors Field makes him look like he is at least average, and he is clearly not. The Rockies have to let him go. He is taking playing time from younger players who are better hitters and fielders and he is eating up a ton of outs. Sorry Dezzy, but time to move on.

David Dahl played well when he wasn’t on the IL, and he played all three outfield spots – 37 starts in left, 36 in center, and 19 in right. His defensive numbers (UZR/150) in center improved dramatically in reduced appearances from 2018 from around -17 to around positive 10, but his defensive numbers in left and right weren’t positive. So what kind of outfielder is he really? It isn’t clear, although Dahl is fast so the improved range number in center that drove his improved UZR might reflect real growth. The Rockies could just stick him there and hope he stays healthy, but covering center in Coors Field is extremely challenging as well as taxing on the body and Dahl is fragile as the day is long. It might make more sense just to stick Dahl in left and hope the reduced workload makes his seemingly inevitable stay on the IL shorter than usual. It is hard to find a starting center-fielder who can field the position and hit, but Dahl has made it very clear that health is not in his skill set, so the Rockies have to balance the desire to maximize Dahl’s abilities with the understanding that they will have to go to some lengths to keep his bat in the lineup. That said, Dahl isn’t a star so maybe the Rockies just play him until he breaks. I know that sounds harsh, but that is pretty much the calculus the Rockies are faced with.

Once upon a time, Raimel Tapia was one of the Rockies top position prospects who hit for a high average and showed excellent speed on the bases and in the outfield and possessed a good outfield arm. Tapia is only 25 (roughly the same age as Dahl) and has accumulated 686 plate appearances and a career 73 wRC+. With little power and an inability to draw walks (4.7% walk rate), Tapia makes too many outs to give him regular at bats. It is hard to give up on a top prospect but he is pretty much a known quantity now after playing almost everyday in 2019 and putting up a WAR of -0.9. He could still man a bench spot if you believe that the defensive metrics have been unfair to him, but he swings and misses far too often (22.4% K rate) for a hitter with little power, and has a career UZR/150 of -7.7. He still has electric speed and an excellent arm, but the rest of his game is lacking. Furthermore, Tapia is out of options so the Rockies can’t send him down without exposing him to a waiver claim. Assuming he still has some growth left, his top end is probably a .300 hitter with a .330 OBP with little power. That would be fine for a 4th outfielder or even a fringe starter if you believe in his defense, but that is wishcasting at a time when the Rockies have to make a decision about him as he is also arbitration eligible in 2020. Someone will take a chance on him, but it shouldn’t be the Rockies.

Sam Hilliard came up for the last month or so of the season and showed that he might be one answer. Hilliard has real power, and in his 25 game audition he hit 7 home runs to go with the 35 he hit in triple-A. He walked enough to get his on-base percentage to .356 which could indicate growth or could be small sample size noise. If it is real, then there is hope that Hilliard could be at least a league-average producer in left field or better than that if he could carry center field. It isn’t clear what kind of defender Hilliard will be. He made some rookie errors in his short time up but he is much faster than you would expect for such a big man (6’5 and 238) so there is some hope that he could cover the spacious pasture the Rockies call center field. It would be worth sticking him out there at least for half a season to see what they’ve got, allowing Dahl to spend a (hopefully!) healthy season in left.

Yonathan Daza, who is comparable in age to Tapia and Dahl, hasn’t had much of a chance to play, in part because the outfield was crowded, if not with necessarily superior players, at least with players making a truckload more money or who were out of options so had to be kept on the roster or waived – Desmond and Tapia. Daza raked at every stop in the minors, but he doesn’t have a lot of power (30 homers in 2624 plate appearances) and he isn’t a great base-stealer in spite of his excellent speed (96 steals in 157 attempts). He can play all three outfield spots and his increased walk rate at triple-A suggests a better path forward than Tapia. He didn’t hit in his first exposure to big league pitching and put the ball on the ground more than 50% of the time (like Tapia), but it was only 97 plate appearances. I would expect the Rockies to give him a legitimate shot to displace Tapia as the 4th or 5th outfielder during spring training.

Garrett Hampson bridges the gap in our discussion between the outfielders and infielders. Hampson was a hot mess for the first half of the season after a good spring training where he still lost out at second base to Ryan McMahon. His second half saw the diminutive speedster hitting for average, stealing bases and hitting with more power that resulted in a second half wRC+ of 96. Add to that his good defensive numbers in center field and he could be the starting center fielder/leadoff man the Rockies have been looking for since moving Blackmon to right. He might also be the super utility man – he plays second, shortstop, and the outfield – that Desmond hasn’t been. Hampson has hit everywhere he has played in the minors so the second half run could be the real Garrett Hampson. If it isn’t, the Rockies need to let him prove it if they aren’t going to open the check book to bring in a new hitter. Hampson put up good defensive numbers in center while he was still learning to play there so that bodes well for his ability to get even better. If he could also carry the leadoff spot then the Rockies have a gem. If the Rockies go with a starting outfield of Dahl, Hilliard, and Blackmon, then Hampson could be the fourth outfielder and spell Story and whomever the Rockies decide is the starting second baseman. He could bat leadoff and contribute in the field if the Rockies believe that Hampson of the second half was the real thing. Hampson also played center well enough that he would make a good safety net for a prolonged Hilliard tryout at the big league level.

The guy who beat out Garrett Hampson for the starting second base job during spring training of 2019, Ryan McMahon, is another former top prospect for the Rockies. McMahon is a little younger than Tapia – he will start next season as a 25 year old – but also has a lot of plate appearances under his belt – 765 in the majors. He definitely increased his value from 2018 to 2019, improving in almost every offensive category. His power went way up as he drove 24 balls out of the park. He also dropped his strikeout percentage by two points to a still too high 29.7%, increased his walk rate to an acceptable 10.4%, dragged his average up to .250, and his OBP to .329. All that equaled growth from 69 wRC+ in 2018 to 88 in 2019. Looking at his splits, McMahon was not a platoon guy with pretty even production numbers against lefties and righties. If there is a bit more offensive growth in him, McMahon could possibly justify a starting job next season. If the Rockies think this is what he is, then he could provide some value off the bench or as a trade chip if another team thinks there is more in the tank or they look at the 24 home runs and see a power hitter. McMahon’s defensive numbers have been good to excellent at the corner infield spots and not so good at second base.

McMahon was better than Daniel Murphy at first base both with the bat and the glove but Murphy signed a two year deal and is eating a decent piece of the payroll (and has “magic veteran dust” all over him) so it is unlikely that the Rockies would bench him to install McMahon at first base. Murphy will play 2020 as a 35 year old and is now two seasons removed from his 4.4 WAR 2017. 2019 was a disaster of -0.2 WAR proportions and even if that is the aberration, it is unlikely that Murphy has a 4.0 WAR season in him again after two seasons below 1.0 WAR. For obvious reasons there is no room for McMahon at third. Like with the Desmond situation, the Rockies shouldn’t start Murphy. Trade him if you think you can get anything for him, or make him an expensive bench bat – or release him for the love of Larry Walker! Put McMahon at first base and give him half a year to show whether or not he can be a regular there until another prospect is ready to displace him. The closest minor league option at first base is 24 year old Roberto Ramos. Ramos would likely produce more offensively right now than either Murphy or Desmond after hammering 30 home runs for the triple-A Isotopes in 2019, but didn’t get a call up. He slashed .309/.400/.580 playing first base for Albuquerque so it isn’t clear why they wouldn’t give him the first shot at the position in 2020, aside from the salaries the Rockies are due to pay Desmond and Murphy. Ramos has back to back seasons of 30 plus homers and draws a lot of walks so the power and plate discipline are real even if the average isn’t. Every stop in the Rockies farm system is a good hitting environment so hitting .309 at Albuquerque doesn’t guarantee that Ramos will hit for average in the majors. That said, Daniel Murphy was signed for $24 million through 2020 with a mutual option for 2021 and Ramos would likely match or surpass his production for league minimum.

There is one more infielder who should give Rockies’ fans a reason to get out of bed in the morning – Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers was and is their best prospect and will likely get first shot at taking over at second base. He was good enough that it was once thought that Trevor Story was just keeping the shortstop position warm until Rodgers was ready. Story isn’t going anywhere at the moment, so Rodgers is almost a lock to take over at second assuming his shoulder injury is a thing of the past. The former number 3 overall pick is a natural shortstop who started playing second when it was clear that Trevor Story was a budding superstar. The 23 year old’s minor league career slash line is .296/.352/.503 so there is power in his profile to go with an ability to hit. His walk totals are of some concern as he has only walked at a slightly higher rate than Raimal Tapia but with more power and lower strikeout rates.

The Rockies started the season with a pair of veteran catchers – Chris Iannetta and Tony Wolters, but ended up jettisoning Ianetta on August 15th in part because he was 36 and having a pretty mediocre season, but also presumably to see what they had in Dom Nunez. Interestingly, Nunez fits a similar offensive profile to Ianetta in that both men are low average hitters with power who draw a fair number of walks. The logic of the decision is pretty clear. Why carry a 36 year old Chris Dom Ianetta Nunez when you can carry a 24 year old Chris Dom Ianetta Nunez? Nunez had his moments during his 16 game audition, including his first game where he homered and pegged a runner trying to steal second. Nunez is not a top prospect and couldn’t build much on that great first game – he slashed .179/.233/.410 with one more home run in 39 plate appearances and allowed 8 of 9 runners to steal. It is unclear if the Rockies will pair him with Tony Wolters or try to add a veteran to fill the other spot behind the dish. Wolters is fun to watch catch as he is agile and athletic behind the plate, but in this, his first season getting to 400 plate appearances, he managed only a 62 wRC+ and was a -0.5 WAR player in spite of his above average defense. Wolters is 27 and has a 2.1 WAR season in his past so it is likely that the Rockies will bring him back because of his tremendous defense and just live with his bat at a position where the offensive bar is considerably lower. Doubtless the Rockies are wishing they still had Tom Murphy who they waived in March. Murphy finally put it together for the Mariners in his age 27 season blasting 18 home runs and posting a wRC+ of 126 and having a great season as a defender to earn 3.2 WAR. That has to count as an Olympus-sized unforced error as the Rockies never gave Murphy more than 96 plate appearances in any of his 4 seasons where he was called up, even though he was one of their top prospects. So where does this leave the Rockies? It leaves them hurting for some help at a position where there just isn’t much depth anywhere in the league.

Rodgers’ presence puts some pressure on the Rockies to make some decisions about McMahon and Hampson which in turn means they will have to make decisions about Desmond, Murphy, Tapia, Dahl and Hilliard. If the Rockies decide to go young and try to develop a solid core to support their stars, they might go with an outfield of Dahl, Hilliard, and Blackmon and an infield of Arenado at 3rd, Story at short, Rodgers at second and McMahon at first allowing Hampson to get 400 plate appearances as the 4th outfielder and spare middle infielder. Cut bait on Desmond and make Murphy a bench bat or push him out the door also. See if there is a taker for Tapia, give him one more chance to become valuable, or let him go as painful as that might be. Without Tapia around, Daza becomes the 4th or 5th outfielder and probably racks up frequent flyer miles shuttling between Denver and Albuquerque while proving that he is a hitter or another aberration of playing in good hitting environments in the minors. Tony Wolters gets most of the starts at catcher with Don Nunez backing him up and hitting some bombs while hitting .220.

More bad news for Rockies fans – the Rockies farm system is in steep decline based on rankings from multiple analysts. Baseball America ranked them 26th at mid-season based on injuries to their best talent and as well as disappointing seasons from top 100 prospects like Colton Welker and graduate, starting pitcher Peter Lambert. Their top 10 isn’t exciting if you consider Rodgers a graduate, unless you believe Welker and Lambert are a lot better than their 2019 showings. There just isn’t much above high-A. The upshot of that is that the Rockies can’t afford to be timid in their positional decisions wasting the best seasons of their stars. They also can’t afford to give veterans 500 plate appearances who can’t even produce league average offensive numbers. It is time to take some bigger risks before players like Arenado, Blackmon, and Story get sick of losing.

Author: elfuego25

When I'm not writing about baseball (or shoving kettle corn into my mouth at the ballpark), I am probably walking Daisy, who is a very good dog, researching my Portuguese-Irish roots, or wondering when my lovely wife will return from her latest fabulous trip. Yes, life is good!

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