The Rockies infield is in the midst of a transition that began last year when Justin Morneau reinjured his neck and head, and sped up with the trade of Tulo. The question is how much more transition will happen by the 2017 and 2018 seasons that the Rockies can realistically be viewed as challengers for the National League West crown. The infield as it looks today simply isn’t a winning infield. Not to compete against the other four teams in the National League West. The Rox, given their home field advantage look to the uninitiated as an offensive jurgernaut, but they aren’t, especially after last year’s Tulo trade. The sad fact is that since 2010 the offense of the Rockies has been heading downfield, and given the need to slug it out at time at home and grind out runs on the road, the current infield simply isn’t sufficient.
And then there is the defense. Because there will be more groundballs at Coors (even with the renewed emphasis on the fastball in the organization for pitchers to go at least 6 innings they need a lot of 2 or 3 pitch groundball outs), they have to have solid defense at every position. And their catching has to make the leap to the next tier, holding its own offensively but becoming slightly above league average in terms of pitch framing (which is measured) and game calling (which still lacks a good statistic to measure it). So with the combination of offense and defense, here is what the Rox will need at each of the infield positions. For this I am using OPS+ on the offensive end and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) on the defensive side.
1B – OPS+ no less than 120. DRS of 5+ – During Todd Helton’s best years he was in the 140 and above. First base has always been a power position on the diamond. The Rox don’t need Anthony Rizzo – be nice to have him – but they need someone whose ability to get on base and get extra bases is in that 20% better than league average. As for the DRS, last year Paul Goldschmidt led the league for 1B with 18! The need to scoop and snag with also needing lots of ground balls means they need a better than average 1B. Doesn’t have to be a Gold Glover, just adding to his contributions with the glove.
2B – OPS + of 90 or greater. DRS of 3+ – During DJ’s breakout year last year his OPS + was…92. Dee Gordon was a 114. This is not a huge offensive position, but it cannot be too much of a negative. With the role of more and more shifts the 2B for the Rox has to be cover ground more than any other.
SS – OPS + of 105 or greater. DRS of 0+ – We have been spoiled the last decade of having Tulo play at Coors Field. Troy had OPS+ of at least 113 and even a 170 year. He also won several Gold Gloves, but then Andrelton Simmons came along and it was mute. The short stop in 2017-2018 has to be a positive offensive force, not All-Star level but positive vs. league average. And he has to help the infield defense give no runs away. Great short-stops can save double-digit runs. At least neutral is necessary. The defense in 2007 and 2009 was very solid all the way around. Ideally you want a 5-10 DRS but, they can live with playing net-net ball.
3B – OPS+ of 125 or greater. DRS of 10+ – It is hard to not describe Nolan here but more than anything because the defensive issues are important at short-stop and second and the lack of high-valued OPS from 1B, the offense has to come from somewhere. Third basemen have been power contributors for decades, and the Rox need one too. Given the size of the outfield a 3B who can sweep balls down the line and help the short-stop cover the left-side makes this position especially important.
C – OPS+ of 100 or greater. DRS of 3, pitch framing in top 10. Catchers don’t last long (unless your Buster Posey) and often you have to make a tradeoff between offense and defense (which is why the Baby Bull is playing in Japan now). A league average hitter behind the plate with a solid receiver and pitch framer will do more to aid this team than perhaps any other position.
Reserve – OPS+ of 95-105, DRS of 2. You want your reserve infielder to do one thing more than anything else. Pick-it. The need to provide rest around the infield will be essential if the Rox in their contending years don’t want to fade down the stretch. And because of that the reserve infielder should see a lot of time so they need to be near or a bit above league-average in terms of offense (granted in a limited number of AB, usually against their off-hand pitching foes). In an idea world you have a reserve you can play all 4 positions and the outfield, and play they well enough to not hurt the team. You also want someone who has enough pop in their bat you can use them late in games for pinch hit spots to start a rally.
That is not a top of the line infield, but it is a very solid one. It mirrors the Rox in some ways in 2007-2010. The renewed emphasis on defense thanks to the new metrics means that offense can be sacrificed at spots. But this team needs to be a better offensive team, not just on the road but at home. As we saw in 2015, that was not the case.
Possible 2017-2018 Roster of Infield
1B – ? – no other position has so many question surrounding it than first base. Ben Paulsen is going to get the chance to be part of a platoon, but his OPS last year was only 99. And he is not a great fielder. The farm system is a bit of a question mark after Correl Prime took a huge step backwards last year at High A, where he will repeat this year. He had a good winter ball season in Australia but he needs to make big strides this year (not a reference to his now 6’6″ frame). Other possibilities here are Jordan Patterson who went from A+ to AA last year and hit the ball very hard. Can his glove be a net positive there? Will he continue to hit, especially for power? This might be a position for a free-agent signing after next year, a trade, or an ongoing platoon.
2B – ? – DJ turns 28 this year, so he is just entering his prime. His free agency year isn’t until 2019. His defense makes his a net positive, even if he took a step backwards last year. But his bat has to be at least as good as last year and probably a bit better. The addition of his speed really adds to his game. Helping him to be a 2-3.5 WAR player last year depending on the source. The Rox have a future fit as a utility player Mike Benjamin, a 13th round pick in 2013 who had a .760 OPS at Modesto and is a solid fielder. Should the team think about trading DJ he might be first up, along with Cristhian Adames. The spot though is being held open for Forrest Wall, rated as the 4th best 2B prospect in baseball with great speed and a quick bat. But Wall will be playing High A this year and is probably best case scenario a 2018 arrival, unless he does what Patterson did and force a promotion to AA at mid-season. If this is DJ, they should be able to get what they need out of this position.
SS – ? – The short stop of the future will likely be starting his climb through full season baseball in Ashville this year. Everyone said Brendan Rogers was the best player in the draft last year. He disappointed at Grand Junction but that may have been fatigue. Some scouts say if the Rox are aggressive he could follow the same path that Carlos Correa did, who made it to the big at 21 despite losing part of a season to a broken leg. Might he be there in 2018? Possible if he fulfills expectations and becomes the next Tulo. In the interim some mix of Trevor Story and Cristhian Adames looks to fill the part. Story is not a great defensive short-stop, but not bad. He should be able to keep the position from becoming a net negative (as it was with Reyes last year after the trade). If I was penciling in I say Story, and if he provides .280/.320/.500 offense, I think the Rox will be very happy. Add in the 20 SB and the Rox infield becomes quick up the middle.
3B – Nolan Arenado – The only way this isn’t the case for the big push in 2017-2018 is Ryan McMahon (another potential at 1B as he starts AA, but they will keep him playing 3B as well until Arenado is inked long-term) is tearing the cover off the ball and the Rox are offered someone like a Matt Harvey and a prospect. ESPN only ranked him in the middle 3rd of the best players in baseball. The combination of power and defense is matched right now by Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson, and Donaldson is now 30. Machado is talked about as one of the 10 best players for the next 5 years. I think Nolan is right in that discussion. Just turning 25 this year he hasn’t hit is prime. If the Rox lock him up the numbers they need from 3B may get exceeded enough to allow a trade-off elsewhere in the diamond in favor of more defense or more offense.
C – ? – Nick Hundley is a free-agent after this year. He had his best year offensively last year with an OPS+ of 104 and weirdly 10 triples. He does a good job controlling the running game. But his most important role has been to help the pitchers take the next step and help developing the next round of catchers in the system. Tom Murphey has good feedback on his game calling and his pitch framing (his huge frame seems to help they say). He won’t hit for much average but should hit for power and has a decent eye so a 100 OPS+ looks possible. But by 2018 they could well have the man currently rated as the 7th best catching prospect, Dom Nunez, knocking on the door. He will start in High A, a converted middle infielder with a great eye at the plate and despite not having played the position, evidently excellent receiving skills. But in 2017 it should be Murphy, which is why he is starting out in AAA in 2016. A possible trade of Hundley during the season if Murphey is playing well is a real possibility. The Rox have never drafted and developed a league-average catcher (Chris Ianetta was close and Baby Bull was with the bat), so it is a sign of how deep the farm system is that they have two on the horizon. By 2018 they may both be contributing to the team’s push for a division.
Reserve – The Rox have tried everything here, from Charlie Culberson (fail), to Josh Rutledge (fail and a good reminder that Trevor Story is not a guaranteed thing), to Rafael Ynoa and Daniel Descalso. Getting the right mix of positive defense and enough offense has been tough to find. Adames has the chance to do that if his improvement hitting during the winter leagues shows up at the bigs. His glove will play. As to the other reserve, a big bat that can back up at 1B and perhaps OF, the Jason Giambi position, that part of the puzzle needs to be there to raise the reserve OPS+ but also to give the lightening off the bench the Rox have when they are competitive. From John Vander Wahl to Seth Smith to Corey Dickerson, a left-handed thunder bat for the 8th or 9th who can play and not hurt the team defensively is going to be essential. That role will likely be filled by someone not on the roster today and perhaps not even in AAA. But it is a necessary part for a competitive future.
Projected 2017-2018 Lineup
1B – Jordan Patterson/Platoon partner?
2B – DJ
SS – Story
3B – Arenado
C – Murphey.
On paper that looks like an infield that can provide positive OPS+ while playing run saving defense. And in the NL West, they cannot afford to have an infield that is either 62 Mets at the plate or Bill Buckner with the gloves.
Final Part of the Future – The Outfield