Spring Training this year is going to bring with it a fresh set of questions regarding the structure and operative status of the 2014 roster. In this article, I will be discussing what I see to be the five biggest questions going into Spring Training that are likely only to be resolved by Spring performances. Several of these questions are intertwined, likely to produce a cascading domino effect of sorts once certain decisions are made.
1. Will someone unseat Jordan Pacheco as the backup catcher?
Of all of the players currently unable to be sent freely to the minors, Jordan Pacheco is probably the guy most likely to be cut from the team in favor of someone else. He was the least valuable player on the team last year in most of both projected and measured value metrics. However, the fact that he is the only catcher on the roster alongside Wilin Rosario gave him a huge advantage in terms of his offseason presence, regardless of his 2013 performance. Pacheco will enter Spring Training as the favorite simply by virtue of being on the roster.
Now, to be fair, Pacheco as a backup catcher is a lot more appealing than the idea of Pacheco as a full-fledged utility player, and with the collection of utility candidates in the mix, it seems unlikely that Pacheco will find himself back in consideration for such a role. The biggest worry is that his hit tool (which I have never denied is incredible... when it's on), which is his only notable tool, has a history of disappearing with limited playing time, which he would be getting with Rosario ahead of him.
Pacheco's most likely displacer is Michael McKenry, a former Rockies draft pick who was traded to Boston after a September callup for Colorado. McKenry was then flipped to Pittsburgh in the mid-2011 season, where he eventually secured the role of their backup catcher, through being non-tendered at the end of last year. Though McKenry doesn't have any tools superior to Pacheco's hit tool, some think he might offer a better overall package, though some others feel that spending too much effort worrying about one of the least relevant players on the team to be a wasted effort. I would disagree; I want the best player for the job, and hope the team keeps an open mind about moving on from Pacheco this year.
Of the remaining catchers in MLB camp this year, only Matt McBride might have a legitimate chance to make a move on the position. The Rockies seem enamored with McBride, whom they acquired in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade in 2011. Having now re-signed him two straight seasons, the Rockies clearly see something, and he had a half-decent season going with the Sky Sox before injury ended his season prematurely. Tom Murphy and especially Ryan Casteel are not proven MLB ready talent yet, while incoming MiLB free agent signee Jackson Williams and longtime organizational depth catcher Dustin Garneau's talents are likely fringe MLB quality at best.
Unless the Rockies acquire another catcher before the season begins, this looks like a Pacheco/McKenry/McBride race.
2. Will the Rockies need Franklin Morales to start?
Many were surprised to see us reacquire for top prospect Franklin Morales from the Red Sox, and were even more befuddled at the idea that the Rockies intend to give him a starter's workload in the Spring. I, however, believe that this makes perfect sense when you look at the composition of our rotation. While Morales was mostly used out of the bullpen in Boston, he was a frequent spot starter as well. And with our rotation's two top lefties Jorge De La Rosa and Brett Anderson no more than year removed from serious, career changing injuries, the reasoning behind the move is plainly obvious: Morales is the sixth starter in case someone more important gets hurt. Before the reacquisition of Morales, the first guy in line to fill a lefty spot in the rotation was Christian Friedrich, who has dealt with serious health concerns of his own. Though Rockies fans may have uncomfortable memories of Morales, I feel comfortable with the idea that he may be a better option for such a role than Friedrich is.
Morales is unable to be optioned freely to the minors, which means that should the rotation be healthy going into the season, Morales will probably be first in line to make the team in a long relief capacity. This also provides some interesting depth for our bullpen which, with the presence of Rex Brothers and Boone Logan, would contain three lefties. Were one of said lefty relievers to have to swapped out of the roster for one reason or another, this would put less pressure on the Rockies to reach for another lefty replacement like a Kraig Sitton or Tyler Matzek, and they could more comfortably fill the void with a Rob Scahill or Chad Bettis.
3. How will the outfield bench be set?
Before the acquisition of Drew Stubbs, the Rockies had three outfielders set to join Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer on the roster. Stubbs, who is a 95+% certainty to make the team barring a Tyler Colvin-esque failure, displaces one of them. The question is, which of Corey Dickerson, Charlie Blackmon and Brandon Barnes has to spend some of the season with the Sky Sox? The answer is a lot more complex than people are giving it credit for, and may only be decided at the very last minute based on Spring performances.
Dickerson has the highest ceiling of the three, and is the youngest by some margin. Should the Rockies see Stubbs as a platoon guy, Dickerson would definitely be the best fit for regular playing time against righty pitchers. However, by being the youngest and least experienced, he also makes sense on the surface for another trip to the minors. His speedy ascent through the minors these last two seasons is no doubt impressive, but could also be setting him up for disappointment based on a mirage of never having to adjust to a league. If Stubbs is going to be starting as frequently as I am guessing, having Dickerson on the roster may be a waste of his talents and setting him back even farther.
Blackmon is not exactly redundant to either Stubbs nor Dickerson, and as the player with the most prototypical "fourth outfield" toolset plus decent history against both lefty and righty opposing pitchers, Blackmon is likely the best "pure fit" for a bench spot without serious limitations on when using him would be valuable. He could pinch hit at basically any time, play adequate defense at any outfield position and be used appropriately in pinch run situations, essentially a checklist of things you want a good reserve player to be capable of. The biggest question here is whether or not the Rockies want even more lefties on the team, especially if Dickerson is the other winner of a spot and Ryan Wheeler ends up with the 25th spot.
Finally, there's Brandon Barnes, who seems to be the forgotten man in all of these discussions. Some jumped to the conclusion that because Barnes was the most similar player to Stubbs he would be the obvious odd man out. Not so, I believe. Firstly, Barnes has the most value of the three as a defensive player, making him ideal for substitutions late in a game. Further, if the Rockies do play matchups this year, Barnes represents an additional component to what could be a really good vs. lefty alternative, which would allow Cuddyer to move to first base to replace Justin Morneau, with both Stubbs and Barnes on either side of Gonzalez. Don't count him out by any means.
All three players can be optioned to the minors, and all three are making pre-arbitration money. The only things that will factor in the decision are how they relate to the rest of the roster and how they play in the Spring.
4. What's the deal with second base?
This year's second base battle looks a lot like it did last year, except this time it's DJ LeMahieu as the incumbent starter instead of Josh Rutledge. With Jonathan Herrera having moved on to Boston via trade, we are now left with a void in the utility infield spot. The trade of Herrera implies strongly that the Rockies have a degree of confidence that there will be a spot for Rutledge on the roster next year, even if LeMahieu is the second baseman. Rutledge doesn't make a great deal of sense as a roleplayer, but could be the guy to move to second base when LeMahieu is needed on the left side.
Though these two are the heavy favorites for roster spots, Charlie Culberson can't be counted out as a utility guy if the Rockies aren't impressed with one of the other two. The Rockies also brought in glove-first infielder Paul Janish on a minor league deal, and he has at least a small chance to fill the hole Herrera left a little bit more closely if the Rockies are uncomfortable bouncing LeMahieu about.
5. Will the Rockies carry an extra reliever out of the gate?
The biggest question is also the simplest of the five. It's also one that the Rockies may already have decided moving forward into the heat of competition. Last year, while the Rockies broke camp with a standard roster of a five an bench with a seven man pen, they ended up spending a fairly significant amount of the season with a four and eight arrangement instead.
The guy most on the bubble in terms of positional players is Ryan Wheeler. Wheeler has the advantage of having almost no other players on the roster as redundancies; he's the only true corner infielder on the roster. His left-handedness will work against him if both Dickerson and Blackmon are on the roster, and the Rockies already have a ton of first base depth available with both Cuddyer and Wilin Rosario capable of logging innings there, and Nolan Arenado projects to be one of our most frequently played players, with LeMahieu/Culberson/Janish able to relieve him if necessary. He's far from a necessity, to be sure, but it seems unlikely that the Rockies would opt to carry more outfielders or extra standard middle infield types on the roster instead, though it is possible that Culberson sneaks into this battle and steals the spot with the right Spring.
On the bullpen side, the wild card here is Tommy Kahnle. This year's Rule 5 selection has a much better shot at making the roster than Daniel Rosenbaum did last year, but only if the Rockies decide they can skip the extra benchman. Kahnle could make it easy on the Rockies and show up to camp with no progress made on his weak command, but if Kahnle has demonstrated significant improvement, it's certainly possible the Rockies feel the need to sneak him through. But it's not only Kahnle in this mix. Non roster invitees like Nick Masset and Manny Corpas could also find themselves worthy of an eighth bullpen spot.