This offseason, the biggest name to talk about at 3B for the Rockies has been Nolan Arenado. This 20-year old prospect looks to be the next big thing in ColoradoWith the motto of the the Rockies 2011-2012 offseason having been "hire 1-year talent so we don't have to rush prospects", it's easy to forget the merits of the guys in the here and now. We've talked about how well Marco Scutaro naturally fits into Colorado's lineup, but what contributions are expectable from Casey Blake?
Before we even begin to try and analyze Blake's production, it's important to, once again, discuss the production dropoff from 2010 to 2011 and just how bad 2011 was at the hot corner for Colorado. Rockies 3B in 2010 were pretty passable. Ian Stewart gave the Rockies 441PA of league-average play, Melvin Mora was somewhat above average, and Johnny Herrera had some of his slappiest games at 3B. Overall, a .797 OPS from the 3B aggregate was distinctly above average (115 OPS+).
2011, however, was a much different year. 3B production league-wide was poor, so bad production ended up not being that comparatively bad: Ty Wigginton's .771 OPS was rated at a 117 OPS+ (suggesting that Wigginton as a 3B was about 17% more productive than the league-average bat), and even Kevin Kouzmanoff's .688 OPS only rated as a 94 OPS+. So knowing that the Rockies had THAT MUCH leeway to churn out some sort of league average production, Chris Nelson, Ian Stewart, and Jose Lopez were so bad that it pulled the Rockies' overall 3B production to 25th of 30 in MLB, a .629 OPS/78 OPS+. That's really bad.
So enter Casey Blake. Blake last posted a season above average in 2009 when he batted .280/.363/.468 for the Dodgers. Over the past two seasons, Blake's production dipped to .249/.327/.397. Much as a .723 OPS isn't COMPLETELY miserable, it did rate out as a 99 OPS+. A near-career high BB% and a career-low ISO (that is, SLG-AVG) in 2011 gives me some pause, but again, if Blake/Nelson/whoever can bat somewhere around league average, the improvement at the hot corner will be noticeable. Projections support the idea of Blake being near that "just below league average" mark, but longevity will be a major concern.
In terms of his batting profile, Blake hoisted a LD% of 19% and a strikeout rate just below 21% puts Blake right in the middle of the pack for the 2011 Rockies. It's not too bad, but the trends in his batted ball profile do leave me wondering if we're going to be able to squeeze one last season of production out of Blake, or if this steady erosion is really spelling the last we'll see of Casey Blake, with the 2012 Rockies. As he'll likely bat 8th in the lineup, he'll at least have that potential added OBP bonus from people pitching to get to the 9 spot. Not that it would mean much, but who knows: maybe the pitching staff will perfect the slug-bunt in 2012.
Really, this team is at least somewhat similar to the 2004 Rockies. 2004 saw a starting infield of: Shawn Estes, Charles Johnson, Todd Helton, Luis A. Gonzalez, Royce Clayton, Vinny Castilla, Kit Pellow, Preston Wilson, and Jeromy Burnitz. While Burnitz and Castilla had solid years for Colorado, the majority of this team was there just to keep the position warm for guys like Clint Barmes, Jeff Baker, Garrett Atkins, and Matt Holliday. Similarly, spots on the Rockies active roster are blatant placeholders: Ramon Hernandez, Marco Scutaro, and Casey Blake. Michael Cuddyer is harder to paint as just a placeholder, as the Rockies don't have a surefire RF waiting to come up as they do with other positions.
Personally, I don't know what it is about Blake that has me so intrigued. He's traditionally known as a gloveman who's had some flashes of competence with the bat (2 seasons above a .830 OPS, but not too far above). Maybe it's the chiseled beard. Maybe it's the persona of the consummate professional. Maybe I just want to watch a guy bat like a normal batter - not an extreme contact hitter, or high-walk/high-strikeout, or an all-or-nothing home run swinger. No, I think I just like Blake because he's just been the average "Solid Player" throughout his career.
Blake will be a good addition to the Rockies clubhouse and lineup in general. With pitchers and catchers reporting yesterday, it's time for the season to start already so we can see the fruits of all of this offseason labor.