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State of the position: Two bats and a platoon in the Rockies outfield

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The Rockies should feel good about the top four names on the outfield depth chart, but that doesn't mean there are no questions.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

There is a bit more clarity in the outfield heading into 2015 than there was at this time last year. Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer inherited the two corner spots, while four players — Drew Stubbs, Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, and Brandon Barnes — were in the mix for the center field job. Injuries to both corner outfielders caused the outfield parts to move around quite a bit, but those six players still ended up accounting for over 98 percent of all outfield innings played in 2014. As in 2014, the biggest questions remain injuries and the center field situation.

The Sure Things:

Carlos Gonzalez is a sure thing insofar as he won’t have to compete for a job. One of the many fortunate ripple effects that resulted from Michael Cuddyer’s signing with the New York Mets is that it allows Gonzalez to play in right field, where he’s best suited. If he’s healthy, he’ll be the starting right fielder. The trouble is, CarGo has a hard time staying healthy. A visual representation, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus:

That’s a list that requires two separate screen shots in order to maintain readability — not that it contains joyful reading material. Rockies fans should not necessarily look at Gonzalez’s injury history as prophecy. Innovative thinker Rob Arthur recently suggested that PITCHf/x data can help us predict batter injuries. In fact, it might be a better predictor than only looking at past playing time missed. The idea goes like this: PITCHf/x data bears out what team scouts determine about opposing hitters. Scouts conclude that a given hitter — Carlos Gonzalez, say — is having trouble making quality contact on hittable pitches. Teams then relay this information to their pitchers, who throw more hittable strikes with less fear of a negative outcome. In other words, scouting is ahead of the data, and we actually learn about how players are scouted based on pitch data.

CarGo in 2014 was among the players Arthur identified as pegged for injury by this method. This is comforting information to have, but only because it allows us to emphasize something other than past injury while we cross our fingers and hope for a healthy Carlos Gonzalez. It in no way suggests that Gonzalez will be healthy. But if lets us know what to look for. If pitchers challenge CarGo with hittable strikes early in the season, it might be a sign that he’s not totally healthy. 

Corey Dickerson is the other sure thing. His .312/.364/.567 2014 triple slash should be enough to make left field his position to lose in 2015. The man knows how to hit a baseball. Not only that, but he’s equitable regarding where he hits it. Observe his (interactive) 2014 spray chart:

Source: FanGraphs

Dickerson’s use of every part of the field makes him an especially good fit for Coors Field, whose expansive outfield lends itself to extra base hits to right and left center. Dickerson can cover the zone. While he can be exploited up and in the strike zone and down and away. He’s strong in every other part of the strike zone, and several outside of it.

A recipient of much praise, it’s worthwhile to dwell for a moment on the negatives in Dickerson’s game. First, he’s what we might call a two-tool player. And his two tools, hitting for average and hitting for power, are closely related. They are the flathead and Philips-head screwdrivers of his toolbox. Dickerson is not a good baserunner. FanGraphs rated him just below average last year, but his multiple TOOTBLANs suggest that he might have been even worse. He’s not a very good defender, although he’s sufficient in left field. However, other than possibly first base with some seasoning, I wouldn’t trust Dickerson in center or right field. He lacks the speed to cover the same expansive outfield that assists his offense, and he doesn’t have a strong throwing arm. The defensive complement to the above spray chart shows that Dickerson only made a few moderately difficult plays in left field in 2014

Source: FanGraphs

What we’re left with is a player who, so far, has been very good at hitting, but little else. That means that any noticeable decline for either of his two tools, or even an extended stretch of bad luck, will have a dramatic effect on Dickerson’s overall value.

The Center Field Platoon

On paper, Charlie Blackmon and Drew Stubbs form the perfect platoon. Left-hander Blackmon hit .296/.347/.454 against righties in 2014. Against lefties he hit .267/.297.400. Righty Stubbs hit .328/.395/.550 against left-handed pitching, while he put up a .268/.309/.447 line against right-handers. Stubbs and Blackmon also posted quality defensive seasons. According to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Blackmon and Stubbs combined for a mark of zero. That mark ranges from acceptable to good for Colorado Rockies center fielders — the best seasons in team history for those who played as many center field innings as Blackmon and Stubbs, 513 and 835 innings respectively, ranges from one to three DRS. They’re similar players on defense, and each one makes up for the others primary offensive weakness.

It remains to be seen whether or not the team is interested in working a center field platoon. Due to injury, the Rockies did not get to try it out last year, as Blackmon had the playing time of a full time regular between center field, right field, and a little bit of left field. Meanwhile, Stubbs played in 132 games and garnered 424 plate appearances as the team’s primary center fielder. I would like to see the Rockies commit to trying out a strict-ish platoon with these two. Separately, Stubbs and Blackmon are fourth outfielders. Combined, they’re a solid everyday center fielder. Blackmon does have additional value because he can play each outfield position. I wouldn’t mind seeing him playing once a week in right field, at least until Carlos Gonzalez demonstrates that he’s fully recovered from knee surgery.

MLB Quality Depth

On the 40 Man Roster

It’s pretty wild to think that Brandon Barnes was on the active for every single day of the 2014 season. That probably won't be the case in 2015, though he'll see his fair share of action. He was one of the six outfielders to break camp with the big league club and was generally considered the least valuable of the six. The reason for that was because his value is primarily with his glove. That’s still the case, and it’s why Barnes will still get playing time with or without injury in 2015.

Kyle Parker — a living, breathing, baseball player — only got limited big league playing time in 2014. It’s likely that the 24-year-old will begin 2015 in Triple-A Albuquerque. He may very well be the first player called upon when injury strikes. If he is promoted, I don’t expect the Rockies to worry much about giving him plate appearances. More and more it’s looking like the Rockies see Parker as a backup first baseman and emergency corner outfielder.

If Wilin Rosario is on the active roster come April 6, then he might fit in this group. As a professional, Rosario has played exactly one game in the outfield. It took place in the Dominican Summer League in 2006 when Rosario was 17 years old. In the outfield, he’s an unknown quantity. He'd likely be confined to right field because at Coors Field there’s less ground to cover there. It would be an interesting site.

The Rockies gave 17 outfield innings to career minor league first baseman Ben Paulsen in 2014. If it happens again, then something went wrong.

High Minors Depth

If the Rockies need to add an outfielder not on the 40 man roster, the first one they might go to is 30-year-old Roger Bernadina, who the team recently inked to a minor league contract. Bernadina has been a below replacement level big leaguer over the past two seasons. He is versatile, though. Bernadina has logged either more than or close to 1,000 innings at each outfield spot. That means he can handle center field if he needs to. Just don’t expect him to hit. Determined to win the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, Matt McBride is among the Rockies' non roster invitees to spring training. McBride played a few games in the outfield in 2014. The team outrighted McBride in November, after which he elected free agency, after which the Rockies re-signed him. Aside from those two, the Rockies can call upon Triple-A outfielder Tim Wheeler, who may or may not be the Wheeler who played for the Rockies in 2014. Regardless, the outcome will be the same.

On the Farm

The Rockies two best position player prospects, David Dahl and Raimel Tapia, are outfielders. There are no other minor league outfielders in the Rockies system on any prospector’s radar. Unfortunately for the immediate future, both Dahl and Tapia are a couple years away from making it to The Show. Dahl will either begin 2015 in High-A Modesto or Double-A New Britain. Tapia should begin 2015 in High-A Modesto. Of the two, Tapia is a little bit more volatile. Prospects disagree on whether or not he can adjust his funky hitting mechanics at higher levels. If he can, though, observers agree that he could be an elite hitter.

Who’s available in the event of catastrophe?

It’s a testament to the relative depth of the position that players already on the 40 man roster and upper minors outfielders should be enough to fill in if disaster strikes. Not that "fill in" means "be good." What else could it mean if the Rockies trot out an outfield of Brandon Barnes, Roger Bernadina, and Ben Paulsen? The Jason Kubels and Dayan Viciedos of the world are too bat first to be useful, especially since even their bats aren't useful anymore. The Padres have excess outfielders. Among them, Cameron Maybin is the best fit and might be available if things in Denver turn bad and the Rockies are competitive enough to want to forego in-house warm bodies.