Most important positional battles for the Colorado Rockies: Part One

Colorado Rockies second baseman Ryan McMahon (24) fields the ball ahead of second baseman Garrett Hampson (1) during workouts at Coors Field. Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

If Dick Monfort’s pre-season comments are any indicator, the Colorado Rockies will (at least at the start of the season) try to push for the playoffs with a 60-game schedule. While a lot of factors would have to swing in their favor, it’s not entirely outside a realm of possibility that the Rockies will overperform expectations.

The Rockies have legitimate top-end talent but have struggled with the bottom half of their lineup for a few seasons now. Figuring out their depth could be what takes them from a non-playoff/fringe playoff team to a perennial feature in the postseason.

Both All-Stars in the previous campaign, David Dahl and Charlie Blackmon should expect to start every day yet again. The Rockies hope for a standout candidate to emerge as a solid third outfielder. There is a possibility that two of these candidates impress and Blackmon is moved to the DH spot for this year, both for health and defensive purposes.

Still, at this point, it seems as if Blackmon will at least start the season in the outfield. The competitors in this group are Matt Kemp, Raimel Tapia, Sam Hilliard, and distantly, Garrett Hampson.

Offensively, it seems as if Sam Hilliard has an advantage over the others. Tapia has yet to thrive against big-league pitching, but he’s flashed enough potential to keep him around as an intriguing bench player. Hampson had decent immediate success in his first 24 game stint in 2018, but really struggled at the plate last year, posting an OPS below .700 and a wRC+ of 63 per FanGraphs, (meaning he was roughly 37% below average offensively).

Kemp is a weird case since his sample size from last season is so small. He posted an abysmal wRC+ of 20 in his 20 games played last season, but in his last full-length season, in 2018, he posted a very respectable wRC+ of 122. Not only that, but he was 16th in the MLB that season in xSLG, per Baseball Savant, wedged comfortably between Aaron Judge and Ronald Acuna. Could he return to form? It’s a possibility, even if a remote one.

Defense is another conversation, and also somewhat complicated with certain players. When measuring outfield defense, most of the time, UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and OAA (Outs Above Average) are used. This makes a player like Raimel Tapia an interesting case. UZR grades Tapia as a very poor defender, but OAA, which uses tracking data for the flight of the ball and starting position of the fielder, grades him in the 87th percentile as an outfield defender.

It’s possible that UZR doesn’t quite account for the size of the Coors outfield, which is why Hilliard also shows as a slight negative, despite being one of the faster players in the MLB (93rd percentile in Sprint Speed).

If this is the case, this makes Garrett Hampson’s positive UZR even more impressive. Yet OAA has Hampson as an exactly average outfield defender, with 0 recorded OAA. Matt Kemp, however, isn’t really even in the conversation defensively. By these metrics (and his reputation), he’s been a significantly negative defender for his career.

Based on these numbers, Hilliard probably has a slight edge going into Summer Camp. Whichever outfielders don’t start likely go into contention as the team’s DH.

While DH is another positional battle, figuring out the starting infield would let Bud Black have his pick from the remaining players at Designated Hitter.

While it’s indisputable that Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are mainstays in the Colorado lineup, it also seems likely that Ryan McMahon has locked down a spot somewhere on the right side of the infield. Even while posting a lackluster wRC+ of 88 last season, his batted ball profile suggests that the has a lot more in him.

The fact that McMahon can play both first and second base gives Bud Black a lot of flexibility with the final starting spot in the infield. If McMahon sticks at first, Garrett Hampson can compete with Brendan Rodgers for the starting job at second base.

While neither of these players have excelled, with Rodgers posting a wRC+ of 25 in his small sample of 25 games, there’s still reasonable hope that he can translate his minor league success to the big leagues.

Potentially the safer route would be for McMahon to play second base and let Daniel Murphy play first base. Murphy is a capable fielder, posting 3 Defensive Runs Saved at first last season, but he may have taken a step back offensively with a meager 86 wRC+. It also could be that his struggles at the plate were more reflective of dealing with various small injuries that bugged him last season.

Whichever route the Rockies take with their last spots in the infield and outfield, the remaining bats would compete for the club’s first regular use of the Designated Hitter. The club could just use Blackmon in the DH spot to prioritize speed and coverage of ground in the vastness of Coors Field. If not, Kemp, Murphy, or Rodgers could all compete for at-bats and rotate as the DH.

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(All statistics are from FanGraphs unless otherwise stated.)

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