In the first season after 17-year veteran Todd Helton’s retirement, the Rockies took a chance on hard-hitting Canadian comeback story Justin Morneau. Standing on Helton’s corner of the diamond, wearing Larry Walker’s No. 33, Morneau proved himself worthy of fans’ affection with an inspiring show of professionalism despite a discouraging campaign from the boys in purple. Look for former starting catcher, Wilin Rosario to see some time at first base, as well as appearances from a few late-2014 surprises.
That would be Morneau, reigning National League batting champion. In his first year with the Rockies, Morneau put together arguably the greatest year of anyone on the roster -- and did it in spite of buzzing skeptics. The former MVP put up his best numbers — a line of .319/.364/.495 — since 2010, when a collision at second base resulted in a concussion that nearly cost him his career. The play that dangled the then Twin Cities star's playing career in jeopardy came from a sharply hit ground ball off the bat of former Rockie Michael Cuddyer. It wasn’t until 2012 that Morneau was putting together mostly-full seasons of play, but with production far beneath his pre-injury form.
After a final year and a half in Minneapolis, and 25 lackluster games in Pittsburgh, Morneau landed with the Rockies two Decembers ago for $12.5 million through 2015, with a $9 million mutual option to follow. Projections for Morneau around this time last year suggested more of the same, with a bit of a Coors Field boost. In 20 games more than projected, the veteran lefty outperformed every prediction, including a 1.4 WAR increase. This year, the ZiPS projections for Morneau show a slightly more optimistic computation.
Where Morneau proves to be most beneficial to this Rockies team is in his ability for offensive success away from Coors Field. Not only was this apparent in his .309 road average, but in high-stakes displays of discipline. Note the eighth-inning double in San Francisco that kept the Rockies from being no-hit twice in one season.
Not to go unmentioned is Morneau’s ability to contribute on the defensive side of things as well. A .997 fielding percentage is no small accomplishment when a chunk of games are played under a first baseman-unfriendly Colorado sun while fielding throws from a massive crop of less-than-stellar infielders who found playing time with the Rockies last year due to injuries. Morneau was a Gold Glove finalist by season’s end, but lost out to Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who collected the fourth of his career.
With Rosario bounced from behind the plate, he will likely see next highest number of games at first base. Rosario’s defense isn’t expected to be any better as an infielder, but the Rockies wouldn’t mind getting him some plate appearances on Morneau’s days off. This is all assuming the club doesn’t trade Rosario at some point before or during the season.
There have been small comments made this offseason about Daniel Descalso, whose versatility -- including the ability to play first base -- was a selling point on the free-agent utility man, but with the likes of Ben Paulsen and Kyle Parker chomping at the bit, there are better options available.
Paulsen, 27, performed very well in his time with the team last season, and in the event of the absence of Morneau or Rosario, will likely be the first man the Rockies reach for. He hit for a .317 average in 31 games, with four big flies and an OPS of .920. Kyle Parker saw less playing time spread over more positions than Paulsen, and struggled with the bat at the big league level, but is still available as MLB-ready first base depth.
On the farm
Aside from Paulsen and Parker lingering in major league purgatory, the Rockies primary pipeline depth could come from players converted from other positions.
Ryan Casteel spent a lot of time at first base in addition to his duties behind the plate in 2014, and though he struggled to hit with the kind of pop he demonstrated in Modesto, his average improved from .270 to .280. Casteel was selected to play in the Arizona Fall League this past year, appearing primarily at first base.
Ryan McMahon has the defensive ability to develop as a full-time third baseman, but the 20-year-old standout has made short work of the lower minors and could run into stagnation behind the golden glove of Nolan Arenado as early as 2017. McMahon may yet be too young to tell, but if he sees many more seasons with around 32 errors, he could be better suited for the other corner of the infield.
Jordan Patterson made the Rockies top prospect list by the skin of his teeth, clocking in at number 20. Patterson profiles as an OF/1B, most recently at the Low-A level. Patterson hasn’t shown the same kind of power as either Casteel or McMahon but offers speed in addition to steady defense.
If it’s a last minute scratch from both Morneau and Rosario, Descalso could fill in for a game. After that, it’s likely whichever up-and-comer infield/corner outfield prospect the Rockies have on their bench. This could mean guys like Cristhian Adames if Paulsen or Parker aren’t already in the clubhouse. The amount of depth the Rockies infield has should be able to pick up the pieces long enough for the frequenters to return without any major cause for panic, including an ill-advised trade.