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State of the Position: Justin Morneau attempts to fill Todd Helton's shoes

First up in our evaluation of the Rockies infield is first base, where an unfamiliar face will play for the first time in well over a decade.

Justin Morneau followed former teammate Michael Cuddyer from the Twin Cities to the Mile High City.
Justin Morneau followed former teammate Michael Cuddyer from the Twin Cities to the Mile High City.
Rob Tringali

It is exceedingly rare for a team to have long-term stability at a position as the Rockies have had at first base. For several years, Rockies fans fretted over how the Rockies would construct a lineup without Todd Helton playing first base. That time has come, and it is indeed strange. In 21 MLB seasons, the Rockies have used just two Opening Day first basemen, Andres Galarraga and Todd Helton. No team has used even close to that few at any position.

State of the Position

New Starter

The depth on the farm at the first base position has been lacking for several years now, so it has been a safe bet for a while that the likely replacement for Todd Helton would be an affordable veteran free agent. Indeed, that is the course the Rockies took, signing former Twin (and Pirate) Justin Morneau to a 2-year $12.5 million contract (with a 2016 option) in mid-December.

Morneau won the AL MVP in 2006, was the runner-up in 2008 and bolted out to a 187 OPS+ and 4.5 WAR start in the first half of 2010 before being sidelined by a concussion. Complications from that concussion derailed his career and, quite frankly, made him affordable for Colorado. While his production (and playing time) has suffered significantly, he rebounded to be an above average MLB hitter in the last two seasons.

What Rockies fans might hope to expect from Morneau on the field this season has largely been obscured by the massive shoes he has to fill. Morneau will not only be directly replacing arguably the best player in franchise history, he is indirectly replacing two other significantly popular Rockies.

As a precursor to signing Morneau to that $12.2million contract, Colorado freed up at least $17 million by trading Dexter Fowler to Houston for what was predominantly deemed a very poor return. Fowler himself became a Rockie due to some indirect money maneuvering, as the money used to lure him to his first pro contract came from the salary space gained when Larry Walker was dealt to St. Louis.

In a way, Morneau is also stepping into Walker's shoes. In the season in which Todd Helton's #17 will become the first retired number in franchise history, Justin Morneau will become only the second Rockie ever to wear number 33, the first since Larry Walker a decade ago. I suppose if anyone deserves that honor, it's a fellow member of the MLB MVP + Canadian club.

With all of these distractions surrounding Morneau's arrival, it is worth noting what he is actually projected to do in Colorado.

Justin Morneau 484 115 .280 .343 .457 106 16 1.0

Those numbers are largely underwhelming for a first baseman, but they represent a solid step up from what Todd Helton produced in three of the last four years. ZiPS expects a rather large drop off in plate appearances over last season, which might undersell him.

Morneau's defense also is expected to be inferior to the most any standard, but beyond that, the biggest concern with Morneau in the line-up is how he will fare against left-handed pitching. As shown below, Morneau has indeed carried a sizeable split, particularly after his concussion.

2013 2012 2011 Career
Vs RHP .819 .902 .728 .893
Vs LHP .525 .569 .401 .708
Vs RH SP .723 .785 .692 .842
Vs LH SP .774 .745 .400 .800

But before tagging Morneau as a platoon-only player, note how he has fared in games started by southpaws (those last two lines include PA against relievers for those games regardless of throwing hand). Aside from 2011, his first attempt back post-concussion, he has held his own.

Left-handed starters don't tend to be as specialized or difficult to hit for left-handed hitters as LOOGYs, and there will be plenty of right-handed hurlers later in the game. Starting Morneau against a run-of-the-mill lefty (Eric Stults) might actually be the right decision.

MLB-quality depth

Morneau does not have to be a platoon-only player, though the Rockies would do well to give him the night off against a particularly tricky southpaw or to pinch hit for him in late leverage situations. Should the Rockies choose to go for the platoon advantage against a lefty, Michael Cuddyer would almost certainly slide in from right field to take Morneau's place, with Jordan Pacheco on the back burner. If the Rockies are fortunate, they just might have MLB-quality depth waiting in AAA as well.

On the farm

Evaluating depth at first base in a farm system is unlike any other position. The offensive bar is so high, it generally is not wise to count on a prospect with such a narrow path to usefulness. In part due to that reason, Baseball America listed only one first baseman in their top 100 prospects.

As it turns out, many first basemen in the league moved there after playing a more premium position in the minor leagues (Albert Pujols, Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Nick Swisher). For there to be a future first baseman in the Rockies' farm, that would have to be the route.

Unquestionably first on that list is former first round pick Kyle Parker, who has put up consistently respectable numbers throughout his minor league career as a right fielder. Equipped with plus power and suspect defensive skills in the outfield, Parker is an obvious fit as a future first baseman. He started 16 games at first base in AA Tulsa in 2013 and will start there a lot for AAA Colorado Springs in 2014. After a strong showing in the AFL, Parker could surface this season in some capacity. If Steamer projections are any indicator (106 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR if 550 PA), that would be a good thing for Colorado.

After 2012, catcher Will Swanner looked to be another possibility for first base in the future, as Swanner blossomed in Low-A Asheville at 20 years of age. Noteworthy struggles in the offense-friendly California League in 2013 have put Swanner dreams on hold, but the raw tools remain in place for a potential power hitter in the mold of Mike Napoli.

Ben Paulsen (AAA in 2013), Kiel Roling (AA) and Harold Riggins (A+) are minor leaguers that have fallen victim to their position - they hit well, but with their ability only to play first base, they are unlikely to make an impact at the big league level.

Who's available in the event of a catastrophe?

Should Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Kyle Parker and Jordan Pacheco all fall injured, the Rockies would probably turn to Matt McBride or Ben Paulsen from AAA as a placeholder. That is unless, of course, Colorado remains in contention. At that point, reasonable targets would be Adam Lind from Toronto (2014 salary of $7mil, $1mil buyout of 2015 option) or Michael Morse of San Francisco ($6mil salary in 2014).