Wednesday Rockpile: The Position Battle That Matters

Now that we're already well into Spring Training, many Rockies fans have heard about the position battles going on. In case you haven't, Steve Foster of ITR has a good rundown of them. However, I disagree with his assessment that the fifth starter battle is the most important.

Yes, Felipe Paulino's struggles yesterday (four runs on eight hits in three innings, requiring 62 pitches) were troubling, but in the end there isn't a whole lot of potential drop-off from Paulino to Esmil Rogers. Even if the Rockies need to go to a man lower than Rogers on the totem pole, they have several solid depth options that wouldn't embarrass themselves on the big league stage. Nor is the backup catcher (a 1-2 start per week player that should have minimal impact) or the final spot in the bullpen (whether it's Matt Daley, Paulino, Rogers, or someone else the Rockies shouldn't experience too much variance in value provided).

No, of the battles Foster lists, the only one that will really have a major impact on Colorado's season is the second base derby. I think Foster is right when he says that erstwhile contenders Eric Young Jr. (injury) and Chris Nelson are out of the running for the position, leaving Jose Lopez and Jonathan Herrera as the main contenders for the everyday job (with Ty Wigginton on the periphery). So why do I think that this position battle is so important? Because the potential gap between Lopez and Herrera is so large.

You may remember my 2010 second base audit, in which I had the unpleasant duty of detailing Colorado's ineptitude at the position. This is part of what I had to say about Herrera:

Herrera was magic last year, especially near the end of the year, but I have trouble seeing his success as anything but a fluke. Talent-wise, Herrera is a very poor man's Juan Pierre (without the speed but with a better arm), the kind of utility player that is great to have as a 25th man late inning defensive replacement but not great if he's your starting second baseman. There's just no offensive projection there at all. If he does play in 2011 at a rate much greater than the one 25th man Omar Quintanilla played in 2009, Colorado is probably in trouble.

Yes, Herrera performed the best of any Rockies second baseman last year, and he's hitting pretty well this spring, but I'm still not convinced that he's even a major league player. In fact, I believe that Herrera is closer to the .279/.297/.292, .248 wOBA, 45 wRC+ hitter that he was in June when Tulowitzki was out than he is to a guy providing league average offense. Bill James, who is notorious for being optimistic on hitters, has projected Herrera to be a .253/.313/.319 (.285 wOBA, 75 wRC+) hitter in 2011 (while Marcel expects a better .313 wOBA, 95 wRC+ campaign).

It all comes down to whether you're a believer in the improvement that Herrera seemed to show at the plate at the end of the year. I'm not--I wouldn't be too surprised if Herrera managed a .330 OBP this year, but his horrendous slugging would bring his wOBA down near .300 (league average is generally about .333). Add in above average defense at an up-the-middle position and I see Herrera's value ceiling (playing every day) at around 1.8-2 WAR. A more realistic (still optimistic) expectation would be around 1 WAR as an everyday player.

Off-Topic.

 

Meanwhile, Jose Lopez has already proved that his ceiling is much higher--he has two seasons in which he has been an above average player by fWAR, and that was in a pitcher's park. His defensive reputation isn't great, but on the whole it looks like Lopez is about average at second base statistically. Offensively, Lopez has never been a guy with great OBP or a whole lot of patience, but his slugging potential balances those deficiencies out to some degree. His 2010 was regrettable (.268 wOBA, 66 wRC+) but I'm a believer in his offensive potential, his improved hitting environment, and his existing track record. I see Lopez's everyday ceiling to be around 3 WAR with more realistic expectation to be around 2 WAR.

Your evaluation of Lopez, like Herrera, is largely dependent on your view of how relevant last year's stats are for projecting this year's performance. If you tend to place a lot of importance on recent performance, it's no wonder that Herrera looks like a better option to you. Personally, I see the difference between the two hitters to be worth at least one potential win--probably closer to two, actually.

That's why I believe that this position battle is so important.

Links

The other position battle with some importance is the crowded outfield picture: namely, how much playing time Seth Smith can carve out for himself going into 2011, as he has a much higher ceiling for production (especially slugging) than Ryan Spilborghs or Willy Taveras.

Matt Daley is looking to rebound toward the form he showed in his rookie season. Which is nice--if he can be the 2009 Matt Daley, he will at the least acquit himself well in the limited opportunities he will receive. It won't matter a lot in the big picture, but Daley's a guy that is hard to root against.

I think that Jorge De La Rosa will be a crucial part of the Rockies' success during the season, but his level of performance is even more important in a potential playoff situation. His salary certainly reflects that expectation, and De La Rosa's fantastic outing against the Cubs yesterday was certainly a good sign that he can be that number two starter for Colorado.

Meanwhile, the hero of the Cubs game was PuRP catcher Jordan Pacheco, who slugged a three run homer. Pacheco has impressed both the scouts and the brass so far with his tremendous aptitude for hitting. I don't believe that Pacheco will win the back-up catcher job as he is better served playing more regularly, but he's certainly established his bona fides at the plate with his performance thus far.

Finally, the Rockies (6-5) take on the Angels in Cactus League action today, with rotation candidate John Maine getting his first outing against other teams.

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