Depth puts Rockies in better position for '14
Acquisitions of Stubbs, Morneau give manager Weiss matchup options
DENVER -- After a flurry of trades and free-agent signings, the Rockies believe they have improved their depth among position players -- a key issue that plagued them last season, when they finished 74-88 and last in the National League West.
The Rockies were among the clubs battling for the division lead into June. No one will know if the team could have hung in the playoff race had it stayed healthy. But instead, the starting lineup flailed and the bench didn't offer much production. To turn things around, the Rockies had to spend the offseason giving themselves more viable options in tough times or tough games.
While it may be a stretch to say the Rockies have improved enough to lose their shortstop and cleanup hitter, their center fielder, their All-Star left fielder and their closer and still be competitive, they will enter 2014 measurably better able to handle the rigors of a long season, as well as give manager Walt Weiss better players to go to off the bench.
"I think we liked our club going into last year," said Rockies senior vice president of Major League operations Bill Geivett. "But we found out that we weren't deep enough and we weren't experienced enough. So we wanted to increase our talent level."
The Rockies' feeling that their everyday talent is competitive is demonstrated by the fact they're undergoing changes at just two positions -- first base, where Justin Morneau fills the hole vacated by Todd Helton's retirement, and left field, where there will be competition for a platoon to replace All-Star Carlos Gonzalez, who moved to center after Dexter Fowler was traded to the Astros.
By adding Drew Stubbs to the outfield mix on Wednesday in a trade with the Indians, the Rockies have something that was lacking last season -- an established Major Leaguer to start in matchup situations, or come off the bench.
"Drew Stubbs is a player we've had interest in before, he is a tremendous defender, and a right-handed bat with power," Geivett said. "He definitely fits what we want to do, and he improves our talent level."
Last year, when Fowler sustained wrist and knee injuries, and Gonzalez was limited by a strained ligament in his right middle finger, the only experienced option was Tyler Colvin, who was trapped in season-long offensive struggles and is no longer with the club. This time, Stubbs, who was a former leadoff man with the Reds and has played in 632 Major League games, can take over in the case of injury to Gonzalez or All-Star and defending NL batting champ Michael Cuddyer.
But for the Rockies to be successful, those who were part of the problem last year will have to become part of the solution. Several players were forced into action, and the inexperience showed in rough at-bats and a lack of big-league savvy. But many of those players also exhibited talent, which the Rockies hope will help them step forward.
"We felt at times we weren't deep enough, and we weren't experienced enough," Geivett said. "But all in all, our younger players picked up some experience. That's one of the reasons we feel good about what we've done. We've added talent with our moves, but these young guys learned, and they should be able to help us win games."
Charlie Blackmon, whose career was blocked by a full outfield and his own injuries in the past, but has hit .291 in parts of three seasons, and Corey Dickerson, who hit .263 with 23 extra-base hits after being called up in June, are competing for left-handed at-bats in left field. Blackmon's track record as a pinch-hitter (.280, .357 on-base percentage in 28 career plate appearances) or in all action as a sub (.293, .356 and five homers in 46 plate appearances) could make him valuable when he isn't in the lineup.
Another bench bat on limited occasions could be Morneau. Weiss wants to start him as much as possible, but at times, Morneau won't start against left-handed pitching. He could be a fierce late-innings pinch-hitter on those occasions.
Also being challenged are infielders Josh Rutledge and Charlie Culberson, who will have to replace the situational hitting and defense of Jonathan Herrera, who was traded to the Red Sox for left-handed pitcher Franklin Morales.
Rutledge played well in 2012 (.274, eight homers, 37 RBIs in 74 games) with Troy Tulowitzki out, but struggled when given the second base job at the start of last season and must rebound (.235, .294 OBP in 88 games, 69 starts). But the Rockies believe Rutledge learned from his experience, when he was moved from short to second and led off at the start of last season.
Culberson batted .293 in 47 games and succeeded on 5-of-6 stolen base attempts. The Rockies shoehorned him into the outfield to get him playing time in 2013, but this time he can return to his natural positions. The Giants selected him as a shortstop as a supplemental first-round Draft pick in 2007.
The Rockies also are expecting production out of right-handed hitting Jordan Pacheco, who led NL rookies with a .306 batting average in 2012, but saw his average drop to .239 because of inconsistent playing time as Helton's backup at first base. The Rockies returned Pacheco to catcher, where he played in the Minors and where there figures to be a clearer expectation of his playing time behind Wilin Rosario.
Added to the possible bench mix is outfielder Brandon Barnes, who came in the Fowler trade along with starting pitcher Jordan Lyles. Barnes hit .240, but .296 against left-handed pitching, for the Astros last season. Barnes also is a center fielder who can move to the corners.