It’s been a long time since first base has been anything other than a question mark heading into a new Rockies season. In three out of the last four seasons, which include Todd Helton’s twilight, first base has been a black hole of production for the Rockies. First-sackers have been below replacement level in each of those seasons, with the exception of Justin Morneau’s 2014. Even including that season, the Rockies have been one of the five worst teams in baseball at first base since 2012. It’s no different this season: first base is a position of weakness for the Rockies entering 2016.
The starting first baseman is Mark Reynolds, who will be playing on his sixth team in the past five seasons. Ever since the Rockies signed Reynolds, the word "platoon" has been tossed around, as if the Rockies intend to sit the right-handed Reynolds against right-handed starters. The Rockies might have been pursuing a platoon if Reynolds were left-handed and his partner right-handed, which would give the newly signed Reynolds about 70 percent of starts. But the Rockies did not sign Reynolds to be the weak side of a platoon. He’ll get more days off than entrenched first basemen like Brandon Belt and Anthony Rizzo, but Reynolds is the one to expect penciled in to start against all left-handers and probably the majority of righties. Reynolds brings a decent glove to first base, which is welcome, but the most interesting part of his game is his bat.
For his career, Reynolds has been a slightly above average hitter with a lot of power. But in the past three seasons, which is a better sampling of what to expect in 2016, he’s been a below average hitter with declining power. Since 2013, Reynolds’s batting average has been a meager .216. However, because he does exhibit patience at the plate—he swings below 50 percent of the time—Reynolds is able to garner enough walks to salvage his on base percentage into something playable. But at .303 over the past three seasons, that’s nothing to write, text, or email home about either. Additionally, his .395 slugging percentage indicates that he doesn’t make up for lacking on base ability with power. Though it's true that Reynolds has hit 56 dingers in that time-span, which is about as many as Ryan Braun and Luis Valbuena have hit since 2013 with a similar number of plate appearances.
The offensive asset Reynolds brings that is sorely missing from the Rockies, top to bottom, is the ability to take a walk. Reynolds has posted a walk rate over 10 percent in every season since 2008. If he is able to do so again in 2016, he’ll join Troy Tulowitzki and Dexter Fowler as the only Rockies regulars to post walk rates above 10 percent in a single season in the past five seasons.
Reynolds also posts prodigious strikeout rates. In 2015, he struck out 28 percent of the time—it was the lowest strikeout rate of his career. In short, Reynolds is not a "three true outcome" hitter. He walks a lot relative to everyone else on the Rockies, but he still doesn’t walk that much; he doesn’t hit as many home runs as one would think, though he has some power; but boy does he whiff.
Playing half of his games at Coors Field, Reynolds can expect some bumps to his batting line, as well as his home run totals. I'm only expecting to be impressed by his strikeouts though.
Major League Depth
Ben Paulsen should see the most time at first base after Reynolds. He’ll get into more games than a typical depth player, but he is firmly behind Reynolds on the depth chart. My guess is that the split will be 60/40 in favor of Reynolds.
In 2014, Paulsen had an exceptional, though brief, major league debut. He hit .317/.348/.571 with four home runs in just 31 games and 66 plate appearances. In the following year, Paulsen filled in admirably at first base after Justin Morneau suffered another concussion in May. In 116 games and 354 plate appearances in 2015, Paulsen hit .277/.326/.462. He dingered 11 times and played solid defense at first base.
It’s far from cynical to note that Paulsen’s 2014 was a mirage born of a small sample. His 2015 performance showed that he is able to be close to a league average hitter, although I suspect his numbers would have declined if he had played more. Digging deeper into Paulsen’s seasons at the plate suggests this.
Paulsen’s strikeout and walk rates remained relatively consistent in both 2014 and 2015. These figures are a legitimate source of skepticism heading into 2016, as well as a reason why he is behind Reynolds on the depth chart. Paulsen is very aggressive at the plate. In 2015, he swung 57 percent of the time. That was the tenth highest swing percentage in all of baseball for players with at least 350 plate appearances. Like Reynolds, Paulsen strikes out in droves. In his brief 2014 appearance, he struck out 28.8 percent of the time; in his extended showing in 2015, it was 26.6 percent. Due to his free-swinging ways, he doesn’t walk much, about six percent of the time, but he doesn’t make enough contact to compensate for the lack of walks.
Reynolds sits atop the depth chart right now, but that can change. Two of the leading projection systems, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA and Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS, disagree as to which player will be more valuable in 2016. On the one hand, PECOTA projects Reynolds to have a slight edge over Paulsen in on base percentage, but it thinks Paulsen will have more power, play better defense, and provide more value. ZiPS, on the other hand, forecasts Reynolds to regain his power stroke at Coors Field and prove to be the best every day option.
PECOTA: .231/.322/.436; 12 HR; 0.4 WARP
ZiPS: .238/.325/.487; 25 HR; 0.7 zWAR
PECOTA: .260/.316/.455; 17 HR; 1.2 WARP
ZiPS: .260/.313/.451; 19 HR; 0.2 zWAR
The first base depth chart beyond Reynolds and Paulsen is hazy. Earlier this offseason, reports indicated that the Rockies intended to give Carlos González playing time at first base. That might be less likely now because the outfield isn’t quite as full as it was a few weeks ago, but it can still allow the Rockies to rest CarGo’s knees from time to time without taking his bat out of the lineup.
In 2015, Daniel Descalso started two games at first base and played a total of 25 innings. He’s not the best option, but that’s essentially what depth means. If Cristhian Adames has a future as a utility infielder, it’s also possible to see him get reps at first base if both Reynolds and Paulsen are unavailable.
On the Farm
The future at first base is beginning to come into focus, but things might very look a lot different a year from now. There are three players in the upper minors who are not on the 40-man roster that might see some time at first base in the coming seasons. In order of proximity to the majors, they are Ryan Casteel, Jordan Patterson, and Ryan McMahon.
The Rockies drafted Casteel out of high school in the 17th round of the 2010 amateur draft to play catcher. From Rookie ball in 2010 to High-A in 2013, that was his primary position. Since then, however, the Rockies have been giving him more and more playing time at first base. In 2014, Casteel logged over 700 innings at first base between Double-A and the Arizona Fall League. Though Casteel primarily played catcher in his injury-shortened 2015, so he hasn’t fully migrated to the cold corner. In fact, if he is added to the 40-man roster at any time in 2016, it might even be to play catcher. Casteel sticks out due to his bat, though in the minors he’s exhibited an inclination to strikeout and a disinclination to walk. He looks to be a right-handed Ben Paulsen—fine, but not an everyday player on a contending team.
More on Patterson and McMahon
More on Patterson and McMahon
Patterson, a fourth rounder from the 2013 amateur draft, has logged innings in the outfield and first base from Rookie ball to Double-A. If he makes it to The Show, he’s a good candidate to be a utility player to similarly split time between the grass and the dirt. Patterson had a breakout year at the plate in 2015, as he hit .297/.364/.543 across High- and Double-A. But like so many others, Patterson’s walk and strikeout rates are uninspiring. Throughout his minor league career, he’s walked. 5.1 percent of the time and has struck out in 24.4 percent of his plate appearances. Patterson still has room to progress, but if the strikeouts remain, he, like Casteel, might end up being another right-handed Ben Paulsen.
The Rockies best hope on the farm for grooming anything close to the "next Todd Helton" is McMahon. Unlike Casteel and Patterson, McMahon has yet to log a single inning at first base in his brief minor league career; the 2013 second rounder has played third base. However, Purple Row recently learned that the Rockies are going to begin trying out McMahon at first base. The player who Baseball Prospectus recently named the 36th best prospect in all of baseball has a bat loud enough to get into the lineup without overthinking the position. While it sure sounds like McMahon can stick at third base, getting work at first base is a sound strategy, as Nolan Arenado will be standing in his way at third unless an unforeseen trade takes place within the next three years or so. McMahon should start 2016 with Double-A Hartford, and whether or not he gets playing time at first base there will be something to watch out for.
In Case of Emergency
Emergency options for 2016 can be sorted into two buckets. The first is the depths of the minors. Because 2010 first round draft pick Kyle Parker passed through waivers without a single team thinking he was worth a 40-man roster spot, he can now be considered an emergency option. This is supported by his inability to handle major league pitching. If there are multiple major league injuries and Casteel either regresses or is otherwise unavailable, it’s possible that the Rockies would add Parker back onto the 40-man roster.
Beyond Parker, career minor leaguer Tim Smalling could be an emergency option. In 2015, Smalling played mostly third base for Triple-A Albuquerque, but he also logged time at first base (as well as shortstop, the outfield, and one-third of an inning on the mound). If it comes to that, Smalling would be a Matt McBride-esque add to the 40-man roster and removed at the soonest possible moment.
Still available free agents might be better, though more expensive, options to fill-in in the event of catastrophe. They might not all be free agents for much longer though. Ike Davis is the most attractive name still out there. The 28 year-old lefty had a rough year in Oakland in 2015, but he’s been an above average hitter as recently as 2014. The still available Justin Morneau is just below Davis, though his injury history does not make him a good bet for 2016. And, as an outsider without all of the information, it really looks like retirement is Morneau’s best option at the moment.
The dregs of the still available free agent class are Corey Hart and Pedro Álvarez. Hart only managed to make it into 35 games for the Pirates in 2015, and he was dreadful. Hart hit .222/.246/.352 and struck out in 33.3 percent of his plate appearances—all signs of a player whose bat speed and pitch recognition have retired, even if the player hasn’t.
The 29 year-old Álvarez is a misleadingly good option for first base. The lefty has been an above average hitter with above average power every season since 2012. The problem is that he’s unplayable at first base. Think Wilin Rosario, but with flippers instead of cleats. In 2015, Álvarez made more errors at first base than all but two infielders, shortstops and third basemen very much included, in all of baseball. He’s the best bet of this group to hit, but he’s also the one who is sure to remind everyone that not everyone can play first base.
And that’s something Rockies fans have been reminded of again and again over the past few years. The 2016 season doesn’t look to be very different, but the future looks bright for the first time in a while.