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Colorado Rockies first basemen: A brief history

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Formerly a position of stability, the Rockies have yet to solve first base since Todd Helton’s retirement.

First base has been a trouble-spot for the Rockies in recent years. But in the course of the team’s history, the position has hosted some of the team’s most memorable and consistent players.

Opening Day of 1993: On that day the biggest star on the field was first baseman Andrés Galaragga. The Big Cat, or El Gato Grande, was a star before he got to the Rockies. He had finished seventh in the MVP voting for Montreal in 1988. His star had faded a bit before coming over as a free agent playing just 93 games for St Louis and posting a meager 93 OPS+.

If Galaragga had begun to fade his star began to burn bright in the spacious confines of Mile High Stadium, tying his former career high 150 OPS+ and posting a stellar .370/.403/.602 line in 120 games in 1993. Galaragga handed off his spot after a spectacular .318/.389/.585 season in 1997, in which he hit 41 home runs.

(In his follow up 1998 season in Atlanta, he hit .305/.397/.595 with 44 home runs. By OPS+, it was the best season of his career, and it is one of my favorite data points in combatting the LOLCOORZ narrative.)

The second chapter of first base opened in 1998, when a 25-year-old Todd Lynn Helton waived goodbye to the outfield forever. Helton had a 5-year peak between 2000-04 that rivals any in history, posting an average of .349/.450/.643 with 37 homers and 50 or more doubles per year. Even after a back injury robbed him of his power, the Toddfather remained a patient and feared hitter into his mid-late 30s.

Helton opened the season 16 straight years at 1B for the Rockies before handing off to another former MVP Candidate, Justin Morneau, for the 2014 season. Morneau had a better season for the Rockies than Helton had in years, as he won the batting title and posted a .319/.364/.496 line with a 125 OPS+.

2015-16 saw the position manned by Zombie Morneau, BABIP Ben Paulsen, Bizarro Mark Reynolds (.865 OPS vRHP .673 OPS vLHP) Gerardo Parra, Stephen Cardullo and Wilin Rosario. That factory of sadness accounted for an 85 OPS+.

Now, you could look at that and say “Wait a minute, I am sure there were plenty of guys not named Andrés, Todd or Justin who played first base here in the first 22 years of this franchise, and of course you would be right. When you add in the Ty Wiggington types and the New Kids on The Blockesque Jordan (Pacheco), Jason (Giambi), Jeff (Baker), Jerald (Clark) and John (Van Der Wal), who also got 500 PA at first in that stretch, and that total overall OPS+ from first base falls considerably.

Rockies First Basemen

Name Years BA/OBP/SLG OPS+
Name Years BA/OBP/SLG OPS+
Galaragga 5 .316/.367/.577 126
Helton 16 .316/.414/.539 133
Morneau 2014 1 .319/.364/.496 125
2015-16 2 .271/.323/.427 85

All of this leads to the question of what the Rockies as a franchise should do as they enter what appears to be a serious contention window. Like all best laid plans, this one could fall apart, but it certainly appears that upper management has been quietly working toward a draft and develop plan for contention that never took on the look of the tear it to the ground model used by teams like the Astros or Cubs. Unless there is a surprise sell off veterans like Carlos González, Charlie Blackmon, Adam Ottavino or Tyler Chatwood soon, it looks like this roster will largely remain unchanged going into Spring Training.

2017 Lineup(2016 OPS+)

POS Name OPS+
POS Name OPS+
C Tom Murphy 143
1B Ian Desmond 106
2B DJ Lemahieu 127
SS Trevor Story 122
3B Nolan Arenado 128
RF Carlos Gonzalez 110
CF Charlie Blackmon 129
LF David Dahl 112

Now, if you could count on those numbers all staying the same out of those positions next year, you could pencil in Ben Paulsen with his 40 OPS+ at 1B and that is still a playoff lineup. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be counting on .900+ OPS out of DJ and Chuck Nazty next year, not that they will be bad, just that they likely have already had their career years. Tom Murphy probably won’t hit 55 home runs, despite his #pace, and Trevor Story may even slump a bit.

The Rockies didn’t really have to think hard about who to play at first base for the team’s first 20 years of existence. Recently, however, it’s a question that comes up more and more often, and the answers aren’t sticking.