Arguably the biggest surprise for the Rockies through the first month and a half of the 2014 season has been the emergence of their outfield depth, which at this point, appears to be a tremendous strength and is perhaps one of the best units in the league.
Trading away Dexter Fowler during the offseason meant, to most people, a clear path to the big leagues for the top position player prospect in the system, David Dahl. The upper levels of the system were led by Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer and not much else; a bevy of fourth outfielders and AAAA types lingered behind the All-Star duo and created a ton of doubt as to who would fill the shoes of Fowler, let alone leaving unanswered questions about the quality of depth behind the oft-injured stars.
Things sure look a lot rosier than they did back in, say, January and February. What a difference six weeks can make.
Still, there are some opportunities for the outfield depth to be improved throughout the organization as we enter draft season. Here's a look at current and future big league players, by level, to give you an idea of the state of the position:
Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer
There's not much to say about these guys that isn't already well known. Both are elite-level hitters in their own ways. Gonzalez has one of the sweetest left-handed swings in the game and, when he's at his best, has proven that he can carry the entire Rockies offense on his shoulders. When he's off, he can be one of the easier outs in the lineup, but his speed and hard contact ability allow him to avoid extended slumps.
Cuddyer has turned into a base hit machine in his mid-30s, winning a batting title in his second year in Denver and picking up right where he left off this season before landing on the DL with a fairly worrisome hamstring injury. Cuddyer, who is a free agent after this year, is going to be a productive bat for a couple more seasons. That, coupled with his rumored leadership ability and clubhouse stature, made it seem like a lock that he'd receive a contract extension. However, that's much less of a guarantee now than it was even two months ago because of the next tier of players.
Blackmon and Dickerson are both among the biggest surprises in baseball to this point. Though Dickerson was widely considered the best hitter out of the four players who entered spring training battling for the everyday center field job, Blackmon locked it down largely because of his solid second half of 2013 and sneaky-good defensive ability. Once he went 6-for-6 in the Rockies' home opener, the job was essentially his on a permanent basis. He hasn't really looked back, posting a .352/.385/.614 line through 158 plate appearances. He'd probably be the leading candidate for National League MVP if not for his teammate, Troy Tulowitzki.
Dickerson was the odd man out a few days into the season when the Rockies were forced to send down one of their six Opening Day outfielders. Upon making it back to the big leagues nine days later, Dickerson let his presence be known. The 24-year-old Mississippi native has hit .404/.412/.809 in 51 plate appearances during his most recent stint with the Rox and is making a case for more playing time in the team's crowded outfield.
The Rockies probably thought they were getting their new starting center fielder when they acquired Stubbs from the Indians in exchange for Josh Outman in December, but instead, they picked up a bench bat who is a major upgrade from the ones they had during the previous two seasons. Stubbs occasionally gets some starts against left-handed pitching, but Blackmon's lack of a truly defined platoon split mostly keeps him on the bench. And that's not a bad thing.
Barnes was an afterthought for many people who were trying to predict how the Rockies would fit in all of these outfielders as the regular season approached. A very good spring, combined with some intangibles that the team pretty clearly fell in love with, allowed him to enter the outfield competition and land what seems like a permanent job on the big league squad. Barnes doesn't do anything extremely well, but he's a solid defender and at this point, looks like a fine contact hitter who could at the very least thrive at Coors Field.
There isn't much at Double-A in the way of guys who have a real shot at making an impact in the majors, but the Sky Sox have a pair of guys who should see at least some time with the Rockies either this year or next. Parker is not far away at all, and any sort of situation that further messes with the Rockies' depth at first base could result in a promotion for the 24-year-old former college quarterback. Parker is off to a strong start this year and is a lifetime .295/.374/.514 hitter in the minors, and that power should translate to the next level in some form, perhaps offsetting his defensive shortcomings.
Wheeler is basically in a make-or-break season. The 2009 first-rounder has stalled out badly at Triple-A after hitting well in the lower levels of the minors, especially at Tulsa in 2011, when he mashed 33 home runs and slugged .535. Wheeler has displayed a bit more pop in his bat this season than he did in 2012 and 2013, but he's still pretty underwhelming in his third season in the Pacific Coast League and is running out of time to show that he has MLB potential.
David Dahl, Raimel Tapia
Dahl and Tapia were regarded by some as the Rockies' top two position player prospects entering the season. Tapia has scuffled a bit, as his undisciplined approach at the plate is being exposed a bit in the South Atlantic League. Strangely enough, Dahl has similar walk and strikeout rates as Tapia but has exhibited much more pop, thus making his early season performance look a lot stronger. Dahl is slugging .511 compared to Tapia's .368, but both hitters have been prone to long dry spells in the early going.
With little to no impact outfield depth at Modesto or Tulsa, any sort of prolonged hot streak could mean an acceleration through the system for Dahl. However, he's got quite a bit to prove at his current stop first, and the Rockies clearly have him under the spotlight and expect big things from him.