Thomas Harding of MLB.com reported on Thursday that Story is set to make a rehab start at Triple-A Albuquerque after “two productive days in the batting cage,” meaning his return to the lineup could come as early as the upcoming weekend series in Cincinnati.
Story was placed on the 10-day disabled list retroactive May 10 with a left shoulder strain, but his injury wasn’t the most concerning thing about him in the first month of the season.
It’s been a disappointing start to 2017 for Story, who took the baseball world by storm last year when he led National League rookies with 27 home runs despite missing the final 40 percent of the season with a thumb injury. In 2017, though, Story was hitting just .180 with 48 strikeouts over 111 at-bats in 33 games before being placed on the DL. His batting average ranks 93rd out of 95 players qualified for the National League batting title as of May 18.
Meanwhile, his replacement, rookie Pat Valaika, has been steady both at the plate and in the field in his nine starts. As a starter at shortstop, Valaika was hitting .267 with eight RBIs and three home runs in nine games (entering Thursday’s double-header against Minnesota). On the season he’s hitting .250 in 21 total games.
Compare that with Story’s 15 RBIs and six home runs and it becomes a complicated question pondering what to expect from Story upon his return, and just how long a leash manager Bud Black will have with the 24-year-old.
One of the knocks on Story during his minor-league career was his consistency. In his first three years in the minors his batting average ranged from .263 to .277 to .233. In 2014 he hit .332 with 29 extra-base hits in 50 games for Modesto (A-Advanced), but that same year he hit just .200 with 18 extra-base hits in 56 games when promoted to Double-A Tulsa. He rebounded nicely to average a .279 average between Double- and Triple-A in 2015 before making the big league roster in 2016, but that consistency concern is beginning to manifest itself again here in 2017.
It leaves manager Bud Black in a bit of a precarious position. If it’s only a nagging injury that has caused Story’s struggles at the plate, he may soon be back to the player he was in 2016 for the Rockies – hitting .272 with a .908 OPS. But if he’s truly in a funk, Black will have a tough decision to make between he and Valaika.
In fairness to Story, he has a 97-game sample size from 2016 that Black can draw from to show what he’s capable of doing when given a little leash. But in fairness to Black, that was under Walt Weiss and happened nearly a year ago. Under Black, Story has been a sub-.200 hitter with a penchant for strikeouts.
Black has already shown this year that he’ll ride the hot hand. Mark Reynolds, who leads the team in RBIs, home runs and on-base percentage, will stay in the Rockies lineup for as long as he’s hitting. Even when high-priced offseason acquisition Ian Desmond became available from his own stint on the DL, Black stuck with Reynolds at first base and found creative ways to get Desmond into the lineup in the outfield.
With Nolan Arenado and DJ LeMahieu also patrolling the infield, there’s less opportunity to move Valaika or Story around. If Valaika plays well over the duration of Story’s absence and Story struggles immediately upon his return, Black will have make a very tough call.