State of the Position: The battle for second base is brewing

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

DJ LeMahieu or Josh Rutledge? Choose your side.

Over the last 14 years, the Colorado Rockies have sported a merry-go-round of mediocrity manning the second base position. The list reads off like a "who's who" of failed franchise experiments: Mike Lansing, Todd Walker, Jose Ortiz, Ronnie Belliard, Luis Gonzalez (2004 & 2006), Aaron Miles, Kaz Matsui, Jayson Nix, Ian Stewart, Clint Barmes, Jose Lopez, Marco Scutaro, and Josh Rutledge. These 13 players have combined to give the Rockies a grand total of 3.8 rWAR from their Opening Day second basemen over that 14 year period, and 3.3 of that was from just Matsui's 2007 campaign.  In other words, since the turn of the century the Rockies are averaging less than 0.1 rWAR from their Opening Day second basemen in years they haven't gone to the World Series. This position has been a nightmare!

State of the Position

Incumbent starter

Technically I'm cheating a little bit with that opening, because the man who actually eased the Colorado second base curse last season to a degree wasn't in Denver at the start of April. In fact, he wouldn't show up until a quarter of the way into the season when the team sent Josh Rutledge to Colorado Springs for his dreadful .242 / .298 / .327 batting line.

It took all the way until May 16th for DJ LeMahieu to appear in a game for the Rockies, but once did, his name appeared in the box score of 109 of the team's next 120 games. Trends began to develop. LeMahieu hit for a decent average, but he couldn't draw many walks. He used the opposite field, but rarely possessed the power to drive the ball into the gaps. He swiped 18 bags, but also got thrown out seven times. One thing always stood out above all else with LeMahieu in 2013 however. His defense.

The warts in other parts of a player's game all become tolerable when he's a strong glove man at a position up the middle who turns in a solid if not spectacular performance on a nightly bases. Even with a .673 OPS, DJ LeMahieu brought something the the second base position the Rockies are not used to...

Stability!

For once, it looks like the Rockies actually have a tolerable floor at this spot going into the season providing LeMahieu stays healthy. Then again, the Rockies thought they had that with Marco Scutaro in 2012.

MLB-quality depth

However, as we've seen so many times at second base with the Rockies, the guy who starts the season at second base may not end up being the answer. Only this time, it could be a good thing.

Enter Josh Rutledge, last year's opening day starter at the position. His stock took a mighty tumble early last season when he struggled both offensively an defensively and lost his spot on the big league roster, but as I noted early in the winter, I think Rutledge is going to rebound.

The more complete analysis of my stance here is in that link, but I really want to drive home something I think most people are missing with this player.

Here's his minor league numbers over the last three seasons...

2011: Modesto (High A) - .931 OPS (523 plate appearances)

2012: Tulsa (AA) - .846 OPS (379 plate appearances)

2013: Colorado Springs - 1.032 OPS (162 plate appearances)

Last three minor league seasons combined: .917 OPS (1,064 plate appearances)

Now combine these with two more numbers; .775 and .812. That's the OPS Rutledge posted in first stint with the Rockies in late 2012 (291 plate appearances) and in his September call up in 2013 (63 plate appearances).

The point I'm getting at is that over the last three seasons, Rutledge has done nothing but hit. Well, almost. The lone exception obviously being his dreadful 251 plate appearances in the first half of last season when he posted a .584 OPS. However, that came attached with a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .245, which is especially low for a guy like Rutledge who uses the entire field to spray the ball around.

Despite those 251 plate appearance being freshest in most memories, I'm willing to bet they are the exception rather than the rule. I expect Rutledge to bounce back in a big way at the plate and post at least an MLB average line in terms of the park weighted statistics (meaning a wRC+ and OPS+ of 100 or higher).

This should set the stage for what I anticipate will be a very hard fought battle for second base. If Rutledge does hit like I expect, the question then becomes how much more damage he would have to do with the bat to overcome the advantage LeMahieu has on defense. That's a topic not everyone is going to agree on, and it could be a major dividing point among fans by the middle of the season.

On the farm

The cupboards are bare at this position for the immediate future. In fact, even looking down the line several years into the future, the best internal options for future second basemen from the farm might come from guys like Trevor Story, Rosell Herrera, and Ryan McMahon advancing rapidly through the system and getting pushed over to second base from shortstop or third because they are blocked by Tulo and Nolan Arenado.

In the immediate future, the Rockies have Charlie Culberson who could bounce between Denver and Colorado Springs multiple times this season as baseball things happen and the 25 man roster changes. He can play all over the place, and in the event the both LeMahieu and Rutledge aren't available, one of those places could be second base.

If things really turned ugly and the Rockies still wanted to look internal, they could call up Cristhian Adames, an all glove / no bat shortstop who spent all of 2013 with the AA Tulsa Drillers and is already on the 40 man roster. He's also just 22, so there's potential for improvement here.

Who's available in the event of a catastrophe?

If the Rockies have to look outside the organization for second base help in 2014, it's not going to be pretty. In all likelihood they would be picking through somebody else's garbage in order to find a stop gap.

In the unlikely event that the rest of the team is perfectly healthy and the injury bug quarantines itself to the second base position of a Rockies team that finds itself contending for the division during mid summer, then the club may get more ambitious. The targets will vary depending on which teams are out of the race, and realistically, there aren't many good ones.

Perhaps the Mets would be willing to part with Daniel Murphy for a decent prospect if they find themselves on their way to their sixth consecutive sub .500 season by July. Another possibility would be calling the Cardinals about Mark Ellis as he could just prove to be extra depth for the red birds as they already have Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and newly signed Jhonny Peralta in the infield.

No matter what though, the Rockies making a splash from outside the organization at second base is extremely unlikely this season. What you see is basically when you're going to get, and what you've got is a battle brewing between a couple of players who bring two very different sets of skills to the table.

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