Rockies infielders adjust to life after Nolan Arenado

Aug 31, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Colorado Rockies third baseman Ryan McMahon (24) and shortstop Trevor Story (27) and first baseman C.J. Cron (25) and second baseman Garrett Hampson (1) wait during a pitching change in the fifth inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of what happened in 2021, the Colorado Rockies’ infield was going to have tough shoes to fill.

The club during the offseason lost one of its best-ever players when third baseman Nolan Arenado was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals in the midst of a swarm of controversy created by poor communication, pettiness, and other factors that eventually led to the eventual ousting of general manager Jeff Bridich not long after Rockies owner Dick Monfort chose the executive over the on-field superstar. A crop of infielders led by impeding free agent Trevor Story and hopefully budding star Ryan McMahon were put in the unenviable position of replacing Arenado’s production and presence as a result.

All in all, the unit performed admirably, aided by a couple of under-the-radar minor league free agent signings and a top prospect who finally showed signs of potential after middling around the upper levels of the organization for a few years. The end result was a group of infielders that ranked somewhere around the middle-to-upper third in the majors. Unfortunately, there may be more questions than answers going forward.

Most valuable: Trevor Story (4.2 rWAR, 3.5 fWAR)

Story struggled offensively and really wasn’t himself in the field for a large portion of the season, bottoming out with an OPS barely over .700 in mid-June. But the perennial star shortstop upped his game down the stretch, regaining his stride defensively while hitting .268/.356/.542 over the final two months of the season. Story, who drew concern about his throwing arm from opposing talent evaluators around the trade deadline, seemed to gain strength in that department leading into the offseason.

The question now revolves around whether the Rockies will try to retain their homegrown All-Star. An extension seems doubtful, both because Story seems to have lost confidence in the franchise as well as the fact that the Rockies–largely as a result of their own doing–have been burned by several long-term deals in recent years. But there’s no guarantee that Story, in the midst of a strong free-agent market for shortstops, won’t just accept Colorado’s qualifying offer and stick around for another year and $20 million-ish in an attempt to build his value heading into 2023. Is it a long shot? Sure. But in a post-pandemic economic environment in baseball, anything is possible.

Least valuable: Matt Adams (-0.3 rWAR, -0.4 fWAR) and Colton Welker (-0.4 rWAR, -0.3 fWAR)

The two players who make up this unfortunate category were certainly on opposite ends of the spectrum. Welker was a late-season call-up who missed the majority of the minor league season due to a PED-related suspension but was given a chance to prove his readiness at the major league level. He failed, hitting just .189/.250/.216 in 40 plate appearances, but the 24-year-old infielder and former top 100 overall prospect will have more opportunities.

Adams, meanwhile, performed similarly in the same amount of plate appearances but was wasting a valuable roster spot during a pivotal part of the season. Fortunately, the Rockies came to their senses rather quickly and gave Adams’ playing time to the likes of fellow minor league free agent Connor Joe, who contributed 1.6 rWAR/1.5 fWAR in limited playing time.

Biggest surprise: C.J. Cron (3.4 rWAR, 2.3 fWAR)

Cron is another infielder who came to the Rockies on a minor league deal, and he parlayed that into a multi-year extension by hitting .281/.375/.530 and leading the club in homers with 28. He did a considerable amount of that damage during a red-hot August, when Cron hit .387/.463/.828 with 11 homers; he failed to slug over .500 in any other month during the season. But even when Cron struggled with the bat, he remained a solid on-base threat by demonstrating an ability to draw walks. Cron’s 11 percent walk rate was second best, behind only Mark Reynolds in 2017, of any Rockies first baseman since Todd Helton retired.

A solid defender as well, Cron has found his way into the Rockies’ lineup as a regular, and the team rewarded him at the conclusion of the season with a two-year contract extension.

Biggest disappointment: Joshua Fuentes (0.4 rWAR, -0.3 fWAR)

Fuentes was given a fair shot to earn a starting spot with the Rockies after a solid 2020 season that saw him emerge as one of the best defensive players in the game. The catch was, he had to pick things up offensively; despite hitting .306 in the pandemic-shortened campaign, Fuentes’ overall production at the plate suffered due to a lack of power and patience. Unfortunately, those things didn’t improve in 2021.

Defense was still Fuentes’ calling card, as his 11 Defensive Runs Saved in part-time duty shows. But the 28-year-old infielder walked just 12 times in 284 plate appearances, failing to supplement a decrease in batted ball luck that also wasn’t helped by a complete lack of power. Fuentes finished the season with a .225/.257/.351 line before being demoted to Triple-A.

What happens next?

The Rockies seem set with McMahon at third, Cron at first, and Brendan Rodgers–owner of slightly above-average production and the team’s best road hitter in an almost-breakout 2021 season–at second base heading into next year. The big question, of course, is what will they do at shortstop assuming Story leaves in free agency? Rodgers was decent there in minimal playing time, but the Rockies don’t seem to view him as a long-term fit for that position. And, there’s really no one else within the organization who is a realistic solution to fill the shoes of Story, who has proven to be an elite-level talent when factoring in all phases of the game.

Colorado likely won’t be in play for any of the high-level free agents this offseason. That group includes Story, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Javier Baez, and Marcus Semien. Free-agent options behind those five are bleak; Andrelton Simmons can’t hit a lick, but he may be the best option when considering his defense and cost. That’s not good. And, there aren’t a lot of realistic trade targets either, considering most of the impactful shortstops on expiring contracts after next season are on contending teams.

A combination of trying Rodgers at shortstop, shifting McMahon around, and allowing the likes of Fuentes, Garrett Hampson, and Colton Welker fill in gaps is probably the club’s best course of action, but it’s not going to result in many extra wins. Elehuris Montero, a third baseman whom the Rockies acquired in the Arenado deal, is also on the radar for a potential call up after hitting .278/.360/.529 across two levels and would end up in that aforementioned group.

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