Entering the off-season, the outfield was arguably Colorado's strongest positional group outside of shortstop. After all, the Rockies had two All-Star starters at the corners in Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer, plus a center fielder with a career OBP north of .360 in Dexter Fowler. Then of course the Rockies traded Fowler for Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes, injecting some serious question marks into Colorado's outfield picture that have lingered for most of the off-season.
Let's examine the state of the outfield position as the Rockies enter 2014:
The Sure Things
The comparison made by Troy Renck earlier this week of Carlos Gonzalez to Larry Walker is an apt one. When he's healthy, Carlos Gonzalez does just about everything on the baseball diamond well - and he makes it look easy. CarGo's ridiculous bat speed allows him to launch line drive homers that are out of the park in a flash, while his terrifying speed and exquisite instincts make Gonzalez one of the best base-runners in baseball. Meanwhile, Gonzalez covers a ton of ground in the outfield, and if he doesn't get to a ball on the fly, many a base-runner has been gunned down by his phenomenal outfield arm - skills for which he has been awarded three Gold Gloves.
Not only does CarGo have all the tools in the toolbox, he's signed to a reasonable deal through 2017 and is just now entering his baseball prime. On a rate basis, Gonzalez is one of the elite players in baseball and I don't think you'll find many that disagree on that point. It's not just a function of playing at Coors either. In the park-adjusted hitting stats, CarGo also excels - his 149 wRC+ number (meaning he was 49% better than a league average hitter) led the Rockies last year and was 13th in MLB - not to mention that he hit .332/.381/.606 away from Coors last year.
Unfortunately, Gonzalez has shown the propensity over the last few years, like Walker did when he was in his prime, to get dinged up and miss some time. Last year it was a lingering finger injury that basically kept him out of action after the All-Star break, before that it was various injuries sustained in the outfield. He hasn't reached 600 plate appearances in a year (generally considered to be the full year threshold) since 2010, in which he won the batting title and placed 3rd in NL MVP balloting. For the Rockies to challenge for playoff position as they did in 2010, Gonzalez will need to approach those results again - and in order to do that, he's got to remain healthy.
Quite simply, Michael Cuddyer had a career year last year, attaining offensive production levels that he is extremely unlikely to ever approach again. Cuddyer's league leading .331 batting average at age 33 last year beat his previous high by 47 points, while his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .382, eclipsing his previous high by 54 points (and his career average by 80 points) and rating as the 3rd highest in MLB last year. Obviously a higher BABIP feeds into a higher average and a normalized BABIP would have made Cuddy closer to a .300 hitter than a .330 hitter - still though, that's still a very useful offensive player, especially with the power that Cuddyer produced.
Cuddy was an All-Star last year and his offensive numbers absolutely backed that up (.331/.389/.530 line, 20 HRs, 140 wRC+). A regression towards his career averages (.277/.345/.462), which we should definitely expect this year, would still provide the Rockies with a quality offensive player.
It's on defense where Cuddyer's value to the team comes into question. On a rate basis, UZR rated Cuddyer as the 6th worst defensive player in baseball last season and hasn't rated him positively as a defender since 2005. The damage he'll do to the Rockies in the outfield this year will be somewhat mitigated if the team plays him more at first base, but he'll still be giving back some value there. That and his projected offensive regression makes Cuddyer likely to be a much less valuable asset in 2014, yet still a league average player and clearly the second best option at the position. For the Rockies to seriously contend this year, he might have to come closer to that 2013 form.
The Center Field Derby
When the Fowler trade went down, there was a general expectation among most Rockies fans that Gonzalez would shift into center field and that the other outfield slot would be filled by a platoon including Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson and a right-handed bat like Barnes, whose primary calling card is his exquisite center field defense. The picture was muddied somewhat when the Rockies later acquired Drew Stubbs, another career center fielder who wows scouts (though not the metrics) with his defense, from the Indians in exchange for reliever Josh Outman.
Initially, it appeared that the job opening was for a corner outfielder - at which point Dickerson, the most defensively challenged of the four but the possessor of the highest offensive ceiling, was presumed to be the front-runner with Barnes getting pushed out of the spotlight. Since the announcement that the audition was for center field, though, the situation has changed for all four derby entrants.
At least two and probably three of the below players will break camp with the Rockies in under two weeks. Here's a quick capsule on what each player brings to the table, in order of most likely to make the roster to least likely:
In an interview with Troy Renck a few weeks ago, Stubbs declared that he doesn't want to be a bench player this year for Colorado. Unfortunately for Stubbs, he has played an awful lot like a bench player over the last couple of seasons. He had bad defensive numbers last year while hitting .233/.305/.360 for the Indians, accruing a total of 0.6 rWAR - that's why the Rockies could acquire him for Outman.
It's not as if Stubbs doesn't have the potential. After all, he was a three win player for the Reds in 2010 as a 25 year-old, providing value all over the field. Unfortunately, he's never been a good enough hitter to consistently provide that value since. The 29 year-old Stubbs is really fast, so I wouldn't put it past Walt Weiss to ignore that career .310 OBP and plug him on top of the lineup.
Scouts love the way Stubbs plays the outfield, but the metrics (yes, the same ones that hate Rockies outfielders) aren't as convinced, rating his range as below average despite that excellent speed. Still, he's a decent defensive option in center field, plus his MLB pedigree and $4.25 million salary gives him a leg up on the center field job. I'm not sold on Stubbs as a full-time starter, but if used correctly (and if the batting stroke re-emerges), he could be a decent weapon for the Rockies this year.
Blackmon came on very strong at the end of 2013 and might be the strongest bet of the quartet to perform well offensively in 2014. After all, he was above league average offensively in his short stint with Colorado last year (.309/.336/.467, 109 wRC+ in 258 PAs). He's a lefty, but his numbers against southpaws in his career (SSS alert, 120 PA) are actually better than his numbers against right-handed pitching. Blackmon's offensive ceiling is probably lower than Dickerson's (and maybe Stubbs), but his floor's probably a little higher.
Blackmon's a decent defender but he hasn't exactly wowed me (or the metrics) in that capacity. He's a lesser defensive option in center than Barnes or Stubbs, but probably rates better than Dickerson.
In all, Blackmon's the best fit of the four players as a utility outfielder, able to come off of the bench and provide some offense while being able to contribute defensively at all three OF positions. Considering that Stubbs will most likely be starting, Blackmon is a fine complement as a reserve.
The first and most important thing to know about Brandon Barnes is that he is a defender that both scouts and metrics love. His range factor was second in MLB last year among all center fielders (and third among all outfielders) and his arm also rates above average (he turned the most double plays in MLB last year as a center fielder). If Barnes makes the team out of camp, it will be unquestionably due to what we brings to the table as a defensive replacement.
Unfortunately, while Barnes has been passable at the plate in his career against lefties in 182 PA against them (.280/.335/.401 line), he is quite possibly the worst-hitting position player in the majors against right-handed pitchers. In 351 PA against right-handers, Barnes has hit .207/.251/.290 and a 49 wRC+, which is basically the equivalent of fielding a two-pitcher (non-Tyler Chatwood) lineup.
In other words, much like Justin Morneau should not hit against lefties this year, Barnes should not face right-handers at all. Unfortunately for Barnes's dreams of becoming a regular outfielder, the majority of MLB starting pitchers are right-handed, so that means it's highly unlikely that he'll ever be more than a reserve outfielder at the big league level. Fortunately for Barnes's dreams of remaining on a big league roster, his other skills should be sufficient for him to provide value to the Rockies in 2014.
As mentioned above, Dickerson has a higher offensive ceiling than any of the other three players, especially from a power perspective. The 24 year-old has mashed at every minor league level he has played at, including an unconscious .371/.414/.632 line (172 wRC+) in 345 PA at AAA Colorado Springs last year. In the big leagues, the left-handed Dickerson struggled against lefties in a small sample (.194/.275/.306 in 40 PAs), but he was overall a league average offensive player in 213 PA (.263/.316/.459 line, 98 wRC+).
Dickerson has that offensive upside, but quite simply his defense is miscast in center field. His arm is dreadful, stemming from a labrum injury in college, and he'd never played center field as a professional until the MLB level. Every routine fly ball seemed to be an adventure with Dickerson out there, which is why I'm more than a little leery of letting him patrol that real estate on a regular basis. That's the main reason why he's rated the lowest of the four derby contenders in terms of making the roster, though he's probably the best bet of all four to be that league average outfielder for the Rockies.
In this group of outfielders, the Rockies really do have those two stalwarts manning the corners and some question marks in the middle. If the CF derby quartet produces reasonable results for the Rockies in 2014 that will go a long way towards 2014 contention.
Outside of the six names mentioned above, the Rockies have several other options already in the system who will fill in the gaps at AAA Colorado Springs and AA Tulsa, awaiting the call to the Show. Very briefly:
On the 40 Man Roster
Parker, a 24 year-old righty outfielder who spent the year at age 23 for AA Tulsa, is a former Clemson QB and was Colorado's first round pick in 2010. In the most recent Purple Row Prospects (PuRPs) list, Parker ranked 5th, indicative of his power potential and a hit tool that could be major league quality. Parker profiles as a first baseman or corner outfielder.
The 27 year-old Matthes isn't going to be an impact player at the MLB level, but Colorado's 4th round pick in 2009 had enough power potential for the Rockies to add him to the 40 man roster this off-season. He's the kind of player who we could see as a short term injury replacement or a September call-up this year. Corner outfielder only.
Other High Minors Options
The Rockies have several other potential outfielders who could fill in in a pinch this year, though it might be a stretch to consider them as MLB quality depth.
The non-roster invitees for Colorado that are still in big league camp are 2009 first rounder Tim Wheeler (PuRP 27), who has actually played quite well this spring and could serve in a similar role to Matthes this year, and minor league journeyman Jason Pridie. The nice thing about both of those players is that they are center fielders by trade. In addition to those two, Matt McBride, who has played all over the diamond as a Rockie and profiles as AAAA talent, can also play the corner outfield.
On the farm
In addition to the names in the section above, all of whom are within striking distance of MLB, the Rockies have a few high caliber outfield prospects who very well could see Coors Field in the next 3-4 years. From the aforementioned PuRPs List, here are the outfielders you might see come through the minor league system soon:
David Dahl (PuRP 3)
The 20 year-old Dahl was Colorado's first round pick in 2012 and he set the Rookie level Pioneer League on fire as an 18 year-old while playing center field. He had a lost year in 2013 due mostly to injuries, but by all accounts he's shown up this year in the best shape of his life. He's a top 100 prospect in baseball and with a healthy year there's no doubt in my mind that he'll move into the top 50 or top 25 next year. He'll probably be in Low A Asheville to start the year.
Raimel Tapia (PuRP 16)
The 20 year-old Tapia emerged from the Dominican Republic this year and destroyed Pioneer League pitching (as a 19 year-old). The production in conjunction with fantastic bat speed and an excellent contact tool put him at the back end of a few top 100 lists going in to 2014. Now it's time to see if Tapia can sustain that success at the full season level, probably at Low A Asheville alongside Dahl as a corner outfielder.
Other PuRP outfielders
Jordan Patterson (PuRP 23) - read here for more
Max White (PuRP 25) - read here for more
Terry McClure (PuRP 28) - read here for more
Who's available in the event of a catastrophe?
There always seems to be some AAAA-type talent available to provide some depth when it comes to the outfield (like Xavier Nady last year for the Rockies) - not that it would really come to the point where the Rockies would need more than the 10 or so close to MLB options they've already assembled. A catastrophe would likely see a player like Matthes, Pridie, or Wheeler given regular playing time.