This is my final part of my look at what the Rockies need in terms of output for the Western Division pennant to finally fly at Coors Field. This time a review of the outfield. After watching what some say is the best outfield in baseball led by Andrew McCutchen, the importance of a great outfield is even more evident. The best outfield the Rox had was arguably (IMHO) the 1995 squad featuring Dante Bichette in left (okay, defense wasn’t exactly Alex Gordon), Ellis Burks in center, and the man who belongs in the HOF, Larry Walker in right. That outfield had Mike Kingery as its fourth outfielder and fan favorites Trinidad Hubbard and Quinten McCraken in the 5th outfield group. The entire cost of that outfield was around $12 million. Which is less than the Dodgers are paying the Padres Matt Kemp to play for them. Talk about inflation!
Bichette had an OPS+ of 130, Walker 131, and Burks 102. The starting three combined to hit 90 home runs, steal 35 bases, and genuinely scare the opposition. In 1996 they had another great year though Walker hurt his shoulder and was limited to 83 games, but Burks had a 149 OPS+, Bichette 112, and Walker 116, while belting 89 homers and stealing 81 bases! That team stole 201 bases that year while hitting 219 homers. Then the big three in 1997 had one more great run (with Walker’s MVP year) as Burks had a 122 OPS+, Bichette a 103, and Walker an incredible 178 OPS+! They hit 107 homers (yes, pre-humidor but still) with 82 between Burks and Walker, and stole 46 bases. This was of course before thinks like Defensive Runs Saved and Z-ratings and route effeciency were just dreams in computer stat kids 8th grade homework. But as far as pure offense (even in an offensive era) that group is hard to beat. Though I have to believe that Walker would have led the league in DRS. I know people praise the Kevin Kiermaier and Alex Gordon and even Starling Marte but…Larry Walker is the best defensive outfielder I have ever watched. Of course Dante Bichette might have been the worst so…
In 2007 the outfield was similarly a mix of defense and offense, with Matt Holliday and his occasional adventures with fly balls playing the Bichette role, Willy Tavares playing the key defensive role, and Braw Hawpe providing solid right-field coverage…plus his big arm. Ryan Spillbourghs provided a bit of pop and solid defense as the #4 man. And then in 2009 the season ended with yet again the same mix. Dexter Fowler who should have been a great defender…but wasn’t in center, Brad Hawpe playing right, and the last half of the season a future Gold Glover came on to take left. CarGo displaced Seth Smith who was that 4th outfielder (Spilly was their 5th that year) became the late night thunder.
If the Rox can develop a pitching staff that can keep them in games and a bullpen to hold them, an infield to gobble up balls and smoke enough of them then the outfield, always the key to the Rockies success given the wide open spaces may well be the part of the future Rockies that tips the balance. The trade of Corey Dickerson and the signing of Parra was a sign the Rox know defense is as key as offense at Coors and against the stacked pitching of the NL West (when the Rox hitters splits are complained about no one ever takes into account the pitcher-friendly parks in LA, SD and SF or the number of aces they get to face 18 times a year).
More and more teams are trying to find a way to hide defensively questionable outfielders, be it a move to DH or to 1B (as with Corey Dickerson and Matt Holliday this year). There are a lot of great outfielders defensively playing right now – maybe the best ever though television certainly helps that evaluation. So with the need for defense first in the biggest outfield in baseball but the inability to carry weak bats in their starting lineup while covering for other positions, here is what a division challenging Rox team will need in 2017-2018
CF – OPS+ of 100. DRS of 7-10. Route efficiency of at least 90% (a new stat I really like as it shows which players just have speed and which are great defenders).
RF – OPS+ of 120. DRS of 3-5. Rout efficiency of at least 85%.
LF – OPS+ of 130. DRS of 3-6. Route efficiency of at least 85%
4th OF – OPS+ of 100, DRS potential of 5, route efficiency about 90%.
Yes, that is a tall order. The Rox have struggled for years on offense on the road but the mistakes on defense at Coors have been as noticeable as well. Finding four outfielders who can be at least league average, considering the quality of the outfielders in the NL West is going to be imperative. And finding outfielders who are good instinctually in tracking down balls (especially when a Rox pitcher misses his spot and the ball goes in the opposite way the defense is aligned) will be interesting to watch. My understanding is the Rox have given special attention to that in their minor league developmental approach. As Parra shows, speed is good but great instincts can make you a Gold Glover.
Last year the primary outfield was:
CF – Charlie Blackmon (turns age 30 in July) OPS+ of 102. His route efficiency was in the top 10 in baseball according to MLB. (DRS not available without a subscription.
RF – Carlos Gonzalez (turns 31 after the season) OPS+ of 116 (that rough first two months while his knee found its stability really hurt). No longer a Gold Glove but played solid defense (MLB doesn’t release all player’s route efficiency)
LF – Brandon Barnes OPS+ of 68. Rated as a plus defender
4th OF – Corey Dickerson OPS+ of 118 (defense was especially bad last year due to foot).
For comparison, Gerardo Parra (turns 29 in May) OPS+ of 139 while with Milwaukee (Baltimore was a nightmare). Still rated as a positive defensive player.
Having to play Brandon Barnes last year pulled down the offensive stats of the outfield substantially, though their defense benefited from his play over Dickerson or Paulsen (also the first few months of the year Drew Stubbs played an excellent centerfield…until he came up to bat).
One of the biggest debates is what will the Rockies do with CarGo in 2016? Or 2017? Everyone assumes that a trade is forthcoming but 30-40 homerun power is not easy to find, and without his offense the Rockies may have been historically bad in 2015. If the Rox believe that 2017 is the beginning of their time to challenge for the NL West, does keeping CarGo make sense? And while everyone is chomping for a trade so the team can get prospects, there seems to be a failure on some of those same voices to remember that prospects fail more times than they succeed. CarGo is a proven commodity, and when healthy, in the upper echelon of offensive players (sadly thanks to the knee his speed is gone). And what of Charlie Blackmon? By 2017 he will be 31. He was a 2.4 WAR player in 2015 but is he just reaching his peak (he had a number of bizarre injuries earlier in his career).
One Possible Outfield Arrangement in 2017
LF – Parra
CF – Dahl
RF – Blackmon
Another would have
LF – Parra
CF – Dahl
RF – CarGo
Or if the team feels both are expendable:
LF – Parra
CF – Dahl
RF – Tapia
4th – Patterson
As much as the potential trade market around Blackmon and CarGo are worth watching so too is the development of both Dahl and Tapia. Dahl, playing the 2nd half without a spleen and against competition on average 2.5 years older had an excellent final stretch. His power is beginning to develop while the speed and defense are what some scouts call “true 5 tool worthy.” Tapia has shown everyone in Spring Training he can hit. He continues to work on his outfield defense (using speed more than efficiency still). He is still very slim and as he fills out should gain some power. Jordan Patterson’s development is another factor to watch. All three will be at AA or AAA and if their performance demands a promotion, it seem Bridich will act. Parra appears to be here until 2018 regardless. Might the Rox play out the string with CarGo and if their player development has not peaked like they hoped, sign him for a 3 year extension, along the lines of Gordon in KC? And while OPS+ captures park effect and power, it fails to acknowledge speed. An outfield featuring Dahl, Blackmon and Tapia could steal over 75 bases, in essence adding to their OPS scores.
But it was this list of interesting problems that encouraged the Rox to deal Corey Dickerson into the teeth of a buyer’s market, and come away with Jake McGee. Will any of the 2015 outfield figure in the 2017-2018 launch of competitiveness? Can the guys coming up and brought in provide great defense and above league average production for a whole season? If the Rox are to be competitive as early as 2017 this mystery might be the most interesting to see solved.