The Rockies advanced to the postseason last year (albeit only for a brief stay) for the fourth time in club history, and they did it in a manner uncommon for them: through pitching.
The Rockies ranked eighth in pitching WAR (18.6) in the majors last season and seventh in ERA- (90). The mark tied the 2007 club, which advanced to the World Series, for the best ERA- in their history, and it was just the eighth time the club has been better than average off the mound when adjusting for park and league run-scoring environments.
The Rockies, 23-20 entering play Wednesday, are following a similar path this year, ranking seventh in pitching WAR (4.8) and fourth in the NL. They have a 96 ERA-.
Under Bud Black, the Rockies went back to trusting curveballs at Coors Field with a specific location in mind. They’ve enjoyed the development of young pitchers and have added more than $100 million in free-agency bullpen help over the winter. The Rockies believe the answer to winning at Coors Field begins on the mound, not by outslugging opponents. These are not the Blake Street Bombers.
As the Rockies have bolstered their pitching, they neglected to address their most glaring holes in the offseason, including the most conspicuous gap amongst all clubs with postseason aspirations: their first-base position. (Left field and right are not far behind.)
The Rockies ranked 29th in right-field and first-base WAR production last season and 28th in left field. While the positional team leaderboards do not perfectly assign credit when players move between positions, the rankings do tell us a pretty clear story of some some significant issues.
As a team, the Rockies ranked 28th in wRC+ (87) last year, and this season they are last in the majors with a 75 wRC+.
Colorado did little to address these voids in the winter.
They brought back Carlos Gonzalez hoping he could rebound, but he’s been even worse in right field. Ian Desmond was a curious signing a year ago to play first base, and his contract is now one of the game’s great financial burdens. He struggled mightily in his first year in Denver to the tune of a 69 wRC+ and has now sunk to unthinkable depths, owner of a 32 wRC+ and a .171./.213/.349 slash line. The Rockies hope David Dahl will emerge to claim an outfield corner but he’s struggled to stay healthy and on the field to date in his career. Healthy now, he has only 62 plate appearances this season but could begin to see more time.
This author investigated the 10 biggest voids amongst contenders for ESPN Insider this week this week, and I wanted to further dig into the Rockies.
Colorado ranks 22nd in right-field production (0.0 WAR), 30th in left field (-1.5), and they are staring at a historically deep void at first base (-2.2), by far the worst first-base production in the majors.
If the season ended today, the Rockies would finish tied with the 32nd-worst WAR total for team first-base production since 1901. Of course, WAR is an accumulative measure, so the Rockies are actually on pace to shatter the mark set by the 1920 Athletics (-4.3 WAR), and the NL record for futility held by the 2013 Brewers (-3.9). You’ll remember that Ivy Griffin had a tough year in Philly in 1920 and he was out of baseball by 1922. The Brewers allowed Juan Francisco to man first base in 2013.
By using wRC+, the Rockies are a historic outlier when it comes to first-base performance with their wRC+ of 21. Interestingly, the Orioles are second on the list (42).
The Rockies have produced a combined -3.7 wins amongst their left, right, and first-base corner options, the three positions typically most responsible for run production. If the Rockies had even average MLB production at those corners, even replacement-level production, they might be leading the NL West. Nonetheless, they find themselves back as legitimate contenders (29.7% playoff odds) in a year when the Dodgers have real issues.
So the bad news is the Rockies have the biggest offensive voids amongst all hopeful contenders. The good news is that first base and the outfielder corners should be among the easiest positions to fill externally.
After all, Logan Morrison hit 38 home runs last year and settled for a one-year, $4-million deal in the offseason. After posting a 130 wRC+, Yonder Alonso agreed to a two-year, $16-million deal. Teams are not placing a ton of value on bat-only players.
And the Rockies ought to look externally: projections have the club’s left, right, and first-base options combining for -0.6 WAR the rest of the season.
Perhaps a young player like Noel Cuevas can continue to provide a spark, maybe Ryan McMahon gets another shot after struggling in April, or perhaps Raimel Tapia — hitting well in Triple-A — gets a call soon. Even if there are some internal options and answers, particularly in the outfield corners, it seems as if the Rockies ought to do something at first base. Desmond’s contact rate has cratered, and he’s become a ground-ball machine in the mile-high air. He’s given little reason to hope for a major rebound.
The Rockies ought to be calling every non-contender that has at least a league-average bat capable of playing first. Justin Bour is eagerly awaiting to be traded in Miami. C.J. Cron could help. Maybe John Hicks would be an upgrade. Justin Smoak might make sense if the Blue Jays begin to sell pieces. What would the price of 2018 breakout Matt Davidson be?
Colorado is on track to set some dubious history, but the good news is there should be a number of relatively affordable options in a game that was not valuing corner bats much in the offseason.
The Rockies have the most glaring void in baseball at first base. They have another in left and another in right. But if they fill them, they ought to have a chance to get back into the postseason in a year when the NL West is more winnable than anyone predicted.