The offseason began with a battle between Tyler Colvin and Charlie Blackmon for the last outfield bench spot, a duel that early on Blackmon was expected to win. With Eric Young Jr. refusing to be ignored, the out-of-options outfield convert was pretty much assured his spot for at least the first few weeks of the season, leaving just the one bench outfield spot open. Both players performed admirably in Spring Training, but Colvin ultimately won the job, largely due to Blackmon's foot-related injury history setting him back. Colvin, who saw excess playing time as players like Todd Helton, Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gonzalez spent various amounts of time out with injury, qualifies as a starter and will be covered in another article. Young, Blackmon, Andrew Brown, Matt McBride and Rafael Ortega will be our focus today.
Eric Young Jr.
Eric Young Jr. entered the season on a lot of people's radar as a player wasting a roster spot. Young has had a history of struggling to perform both offensively and defensively at the MLB level, and many felt it was time to give up on the player. This was Young's first season devoted entirely to outfield play, as before Young spent time at second base where despite his athletic talents, he struggled to display his defensive capabilities. Young's speed makes him an automatic asset in any outfield position in terms of potential field covered. Did Young perform better defensively this year. The answer across the board seems to be yes. On the more casual side, Young made no errors in the outfield and showed much better use of routes to make plays. Similarly, on the metric hand, UZR liked Young everywhere but right field, despite a history of Rockies outfielders struggling to impress that system. Chalk this up as a net win for Eric.
Perhaps Young's most notable play this year came in August, the month where the Rockies as a whole best demonstrated their potential talent. Young's hot streak came to a sudden end as the outfielder joined half the rest of the team on the disabled list with an oblique injury. Young certainly made enough of an impression to retain his roster spot, and will likely be beginning 2013 as one of the two outfield reserves once again. He had by far his best professional season at the plate, maybe having something to do with his change in role. While not a full time starter in 2011, Young spent more time making starts during his time with the Rockies that season, giving him significantly more 2011 plate appearances despite actively participating in more games in 2012.
Young's on base skills and slugging results were both unexpectedly high, including a little spot of power emerging (Young demonstrated some minor power in the MiLB, but it had yet to translate to the majors; while four home runs isn't exactly anything to write home about in general, it's a significant step forward in this case.) The only notable negative for Young was a significant decrease in stolen bases. Young stole 14 bases, which while good for second on the team, is a significantly smaller rate than he demonstrated in 2011 or in the minors. The Rockies in general were not a running team last year, so perhaps we will see a return to this under new management and coaching next season.
After breaking his ankle and seeing his first major league action cut short in 2011, Charlie Blackmon entered spring training scorching hot, only to see his chance at a roster spot end as a nagging case of turf toe sprung up, and Tyler Colvin demonstrating his capabilities as a major leaguer weren't necessarily a 2010 fluke. Blackmon began the season on the major league disabled list, soon being activated and sent to the minors. He struggled with the Sky Sox, before seeing the foot problems return and going back on the DL. He rehabbed with the Tri-City Dust Devils for a few weeks before returning to regular play at AAA, this time looking more like himself. With the team struggling to fill the field at the MLB level, Blackmon earned himself another callup in August.
Like Young, Blackmon saw a notable improvement in the field, particularly in left. At the plate, Blackmon also took a big step forward. In his 2011 player review, I argued that Blackmon's MLB taste last year was ultimately a failure, despite the fact that he did a lot of little things right. This year, Blackmon showed improvement in most areas except perhaps plate discipline, as he struggled to take the walk, but he turned himself into a solid singles/doubles hitter that solidified his talent over some of the other candidates fighting for starting opportunities. The Rockies' outfield is still mighty crowded, and Blackmon is likely to need to fight for his roster spot again next Spring, unless the Rockies trade an outfielder.
Matt McBride, Rafael Ortega and Andrew Brown
The Rockies had three other faces appear in the outfield in a smaller capacity this year, two of whom made their MLB debuts with the club: Matt McBride, the fourth man in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade who also spend significant time at first base, and Rafael Ortega, a middle-top tier prospect who sneaked in his MLB debut at the end of the season as both Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler has joined the wounded on the home stretch. McBride had one of the best offensive seasons in Sky Sox history, and keep in mind that this is the year the humidor was installed down there. Though McBride, like many players in 2012, saw his contract purchased in advance of September, he had most definitely earned a chance at a September callup and would have seen his debut regardless of how the team was doing.
Ortega, on the other hand, was a bit of a fluke. Running low on players for the final two series on the season, the Rockies needed an outfielder that wouldn't waste a 40-man spot. The only two outfielders likely to be protected by the Rockies in the offseason were Ortega and Tim Wheeler, and while Wheeler is obviously closer to the majors overall, it was Ortega that got the call due to the fact that he was still playing baseball with the Rockies camp in Arizona, while Wheeler had not played since the AAA season ended three weeks earlier.
McBride's MLB debut was underwhelming, striking out a lot, walking very little and failing to translate any of his lower-middle tier power capabilities. McBride did not impress the defensive metrics at either first base or in the outfield. I had determined that McBride was an outright candidate this offseason, but the utility man survived the first wave of cuts. Ortega's extremely short sample that featured just one start is difficult to analyze with any sort of certainty, especially considering that Ortega isn't likely to be back in the majors until perhaps late 2014, but his debut against the Dodgers was certainly one of the most entertaining moments of the 2012 season for me. Despite the Rockies being blown out 7-1, Ortega was 2-3 with a speedy infield hit, walk and stolen base in his debut.
Finally, we come to Andrew Brown. Brown was claimed off waivers from the Cardinals early in the 2011/12 offseason before being outrighted soon after. He was retained on his MiLB contract, and being one of the only right handed power bats in the system anywhere near the majors, became one of the most likely midseason callups if ever needed. Brown has seen a short stint in the majors with St. Louis, and spent two longer stints with the Rockies in 2012. He put up decent power numbers, struck out a ton and was an adequate defender, enough for a small positive fWAR. Because of his skillset, I expected Brown to be retained on the roster this offseason, and so far this is the case.
I won't be doing grades this season. No matter how many times we'd try to frame our offseason player grades, someone would have a problem with them. This year, we've each been given our own freedom on how to represent what we think of each player. As I look at this collection of players, I see overall an average field of talent that perhaps overperformed in 2012, but could also feature much worse characteristics. Ortega still projects to be a possible starting center fielder one day, Blackmon could be effective as either a starter or a benchman moving forward, while Brown and especially Young have shown the team reasons to keep them in consideration for bench roles. Only McBride had a truly weak season from this group, and he has that balanced out by the incredible AAA performance that likely contributed to the team's decision to keep him for the time being.
Overall, while this is hardly a group of top tier baseball players, I like things about each of them and do not see outfield depth as a problem in this organization right now.