I've spent many hours recently thinking about the left side of the infield for the 2013 Rockies. Admittedly, part of that is because I'm dying to see Troy Tulowitzki back at shortstop again, but there's also a part of me that's really interested in that battle for playing time that will be going on to his right this spring.
As we sit here eleven weeks from Opening Day, there's at least five guys I see who have a decent shot a grabbing a good chunk of the playing time at the hot corner in 2013. Let's highlight each of them starting with the oldest.
1) Chris Nelson
Career MLB Plate Appearances: 593
Nelson has become one of the more polarizing players for the Rockies over the last couple of years. Many fans believe that even though he's struggled at the major league level so far, he's going to turn into a productive player for the Rockies in the future. I am not one of those fans. Instead, I believe any scenario involving Nelson getting anywhere close to regular playing time is bad news for Colorado.
Before we go any deeper here, I think it's important to note that the numbers on Nelson at the plate are murky. There's so many extraneous variables in play. He never really got anything close to regular at bats at the major league level before 2012, his home / road splits are enormous, and he had a boatload of plate appearances
on the moon in Colorado Springs before the humidor was put in place.
Knowing this, I'm going to separate his plate appearances over the last three years into three different categories in hopes of gaining some clarity.
A) His 2012 season at the MLB level.
B) All of his plate appearances at the MLB level before 2012 (when he was really more of a bench bat
C) All of his 2010 and 2011 plate appearances at Colorado Springs
Nelson's 2012 season at the plate:
Total PA's = 377
OPS = .810
OPS+ = 102
BABIP = .374
Nelson's MLB time before 2012:
Total PA's = 216
OPS = .659
OPS+ = 68
BABIP = .295
Nelson at AAA in 2010 and 2011 (Pre Humidor)
Total PA's = 671
OPS = .889
BABIP = .349
There's plenty to pick at here but there's two big points I want to address. First, I believe that Nelson's .374 BABIP last season is a smoking gun. Even if you believe that Nelson is a player who is naturally going to have an above average BABIP (which I do), it would be foolish not to think that there's going to be a large regression in that number in 2013. Second, I don't put any weight into his Colorado Springs numbers at all. To illustrate why, I've compiled a group of Sky Sox players who where on the 2010 and/or 2011 teams and had at least 150 plate appearances with production similar to Nelson.
Scott Beerer (158 PA’s) = .915 OPS
Mike Jacobs (495 PA’s) = .910 OPS
Cole Garner (672 PA’s) = .903 OPS
Brad Eldred (434 PA’s) = .893 OPS
Eric Young Jr. (417 PA’s) = .892 OPS
Mike Paulk (322 PA’s) = .860 OPS
Joe Mather (234 PA’s) = .847 OPS
Matt Miller (586 PA’s) = .840 OPS
For obvious reasons, this doesn't inspire much confidence for me in Nelson's bat. He's a tough guy to read, but at then end of the day Nelson is likely a "AAAA" player - Good enough to be on a major league roster, but not good enough to be productive on a consistent basis. My hope this off season was that somebody desperate for a third baseman would kick the tires on Nelson after his 2012 season at the plate, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen right now.
2) Jordan Pacheco
Age: 26 (Turns 27 later this month)
Career MLB Plate Appearances: 593
Pacheco and Nelson actually have an amazing amount of things in common, and most of them are not good as it pertains to the third base job in 2013. They both will be 27 on opening day (meaning that they are unlikely to get much better than they are now as players), they both have exactly 593 career plate appearances, they both have been below average hitters in that time (Nelson a career OPS+ of 89 while Pacheco a career OPS+ of 91), they both had high a high BABIP in 2012 that's likely to regress in 2013, they both have a career WAR that's negative, and they graded out equally terrible with a glove at third base last season according to all three major defensive metrics and the eye test.
Pacheco took a very different road than Nelson to get to the major league level, but since they've arrived, they've actually been very similar players. The one big difference with Pacheco of course is his ability to play first base and possibly be a backup catcher. This alone makes him a slightly better candidate to have on the roster than Nelson but as far as third base is concerned, both appear to be lousy options.
3) Ryan Wheeler
Career MLB Plate Appearances: 119
Perhaps the biggest dark horse for the position; Wheeler was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks on November 20th in exchange for reliever Matt Reynolds. It's almost impossible to pin down what he would look like at third base if given the chance to play there on a consistent basis in 2013, but we do know he has two things going for him over Nelson and Pacheco right off the bat.
One, Wheeler has some pop. Nothing huge, but he did hit 15 long balls at AA Mobile in 2011 and 16 in just 399 plate appearances last year at Reno in the extreme hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. Secondly, Wheeler is nearly three years younger than the two men who split most of the innings at the hot corner last season, making his ability to improve as a player more likely.
There's still concerns though with Wheeler. While I'd like to give him a shot over Nelson and Pacheco, he struggles against left handed pitching, he was poor at the plate in a limited sample size last season in Arizona, and folks I've talked to say he's not good defensively (although I find it hard to believe that he could be any worse than what we saw last season).
Ultimately, Wheeler is likely to end up as a bench player getting some innings at both first and third base, but as of right now, he's certainly in the running for this job.
4) DJ LeMahieu
Career MLB Plate Appearances: 309
Three days younger than Wheeler, LeMahieu has the best combination of youth and experience of any candidate for this job. LeMahieu already got his own Rockpile from me a few weeks ago so I won't go into too much detail here, but there's a decent chance that if DJ doesn't get the job at second, he could end up at third. When polled in that Rockpile last month, only 19% of Purple Row voters thought that LeMahieu would win the second base job despite his solid glove work up the middle last season. (I'm not sure if this is a result of high confidence in Josh Rutledge or low confidence in LeMahieu)
Either way though, LeMahieu is probably still the best glove the Rockies have at third base (even though it's not his best position) and it might be by a wide margin. That alone could win him the job if Nelson, Pacheco, and Wheeler don't impress this spring.
5) Nolan Arenado
Career MLB Plate Appearances: 0
After being the darling of Spring Training in 2012, Nolan Arenado has fallen off the Purple Row radar a tad this winter. I understand why after his less than spectacular season at Tulsa, but in reality, he should be a part of the major league conversation more than ever now that he has a full season at AA under his belt.
Arenado may not be ready to start the season in Denver as the Rockies may decide that he needs a bit more seasoning in the minors, but I'd be very surprised if Nolan is not knocking on the major league door pretty quickly this year. His stock isn't quite as high as it was a year ago, but that doesn't mean he's still not a good buy. In fact, just this weekend John Sickels, SB Nation's own prospect expert, had this to say about him...
Glove is very good, should be a solid but not outstanding hitter in a neutral environment, say .275/.330/.450, however Coors Field should play to his strengths and goose those numbers.