If there was a perceived weakness in Colorado's lineup entering 2012, it was their corner infielders. Traditionally, a lineup gets quite a bit of production out of its 1st and 3rd basemen, but the Rockies were going to trot out the aging Todd Helton at 1st and a combination of Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco (and not super prospect Nolan Arenado) at the hot corner.
The way it played out in 2012 in terms of production from those positions was basically what I figured would happen: those three players got 1,165 plate appearances and combined for 0.9 fWAR. Indeed, those positions remain the largest black holes in Colorado's lineup going into 2013.
While Tyler Colvin and Michael Cuddyer spent time at first base, both were primarily outfielders and will be covered in that section. At third base, Jonathan Herrera and DJ LeMahieu saw time, but they were previously covered, as was Jason Giambi's minimal contributions at first. In other words, I'll be covering Helton, Nelson, and Pacheco in order of their fWAR contribution to the 2012 Rockies.
Todd Helton (0.4 fWAR)
It's indicative of the production Colorado received from the corner infield that the 38 year-old Helton, who only played in 69 games due to a variety of ailments -- but primarily a nagging hip injury he had surgery on in season, was the most valuable. Considering the circumstances, it's hard to consider his season a major disappointment. In fact, his injuries allowed Colorado to get all four of their outfielders' bats in the lineup at the same time.
In 283 PAs, Helton hit a career low .238. Still, Helton's OBP/SLB of .343/.400 elevated his hitting to a level close to league average (91 wRC+). He's still the best pure hitter on the team in my opinion. Helton's position of first base is the easiest according to the advanced metrics -- and the four-time Gold Glover was again a positive defender at the position, making him a rarity on the Rockies.
In 2013, Helton will be 39 and entering the final year of his contract with the team. Even if he remains healthy, he will require ample days off during the season. If he's able to play, he'll be the starter on Opening Day, though I remain doubtful that he'll be more than a decent back-up in terms of production in his farewell season.
Chris Nelson (0.3 fWAR)
I've long been the driver on the Free Chris Nelson bandwagon, so it was more than a little gratifying this season to see him get some consistent playing time towards the end of the year (though his 377 plate appearances were well below Pacheco's). If we were looking only on offense, Nelson's season would be a terrific success. Alas, he was something of a nightmare on defense.
Nelson, the Rockies' 1st round draft pick way back in 2004, played most of his career as a shortstop, so it was assumed by many that he would slot as an above average defender at second or third in the big leagues. Alas, that was not the case, as Nelson's defense had the worst ratings among the advanced defensive metrics -- he was worth -1.6 wins per UZR (fWAR) and -2.1 wins per DRS (rWAR). Considering the amount of time he was on the field, those are truly abysmal numbers.
Remove that part of the game though and the 27 year-old had himself a pretty great year, hitting .301/.352/.458 with a 105 wRC+. Even better, Nelson played his best ball in the second half of the season when his playing time got more consistent -- after the All-Star Break, his line was .344/.381/.500 in 196 plate appearances. That's a superlative batting line, one that was under-reported among the Rockies' myriad woes.
By the end of the year, Nelson seemed to be the primary third baseman for the Rockies, so he'll likely enter 2013 as the favorite for that spot. He'll face some stiff competition from Pacheco and Arenado though -- and if he can't shore up that shoddy defense under the tutelage of Walt Weiss, he won't be anything more than a part-time player next season.
Jordan Pacheco (0.2 fWAR)
Believe it or not, but Jordan Pacheco got the 3rd most plate appearances (505) of any Rockies player in 2012, behind Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler. Interestingly, all three of those players hit over .300 in their trips to the plate. However, unlike the two gentlemen above him, Pacheco was a well below average player in the aggregate, posting just 0.2 fWAR and -0.7 rWAR.
How did this occur? After all, Pacheco's .309/.341/.421 line was wildly successful considering his lack of prospect pedigree. Unfortunately, the relative lack of walks and power meant that Pacheco's successes translated only into a 93 wRC+, or slightly below league average as an offensive player. If Pacheco had been an average defensive player at 1B/2B/3B/C, he could have still been a valuable contributor to the team. Alas, this was not the case.
The 26 year-old had been drafted as a second baseman in 2007, but had been moved to catcher almost immediately in the minor leagues, so how Pacheco would fare at third base was one of the most interesting story lines of spring training. The answer was not very well -- though his -1.1 wins per UZR and -1.5 wins per DRS were better than Nelson, I guess.
Given his offensive profile (excellent contact rate, low power) and his limited defense, the place where Pacheco is most valuable just might be as a back-up catcher if he can handle the position like he did in limited action in 2012. Failing that, he's a serviceable corner utility player due to his bat -- but he should be no more than that in 2013 unless his defense takes a big step forward.
Next week, we'll review the middle infielders and outfielders.