The Colorado Rockies are off to a National League-best 14-6 start and have seen their playoff odds shoot up to 37.8 percent (it’s early, yes, but that figure didn’t eclipse 7 percent in 2016). They’ve been able to take full advantage of terrific defense, an improved bullpen, and an inconsistent-but-explosive starting lineup to go 7-3 both at Coors Field and away from it.
The good part of this is that things could be—and may get—even better.
Other than the rotation, which currently includes three rookies and has been plagued with injury and inexperience issues from the start, the club’s biggest weakness has been its bench depth. The four players who have made 10 or more trips to the plate—Dustin Garneau, Stephen Cardullo, Alexi Amarista, and Cristhian Adames—have combined to hit just .134 (11-for-82) with five walks and 33 strikeouts. Adames, in particular, has struggled to adjust to his role, starting the season 0-for-10 with five Ks.
Colorado’s brass started to address this issue by recently promoting Pat Valaika, whose two-out double in the seventh inning set the stage for Charlie Blackmon’s go-ahead homer in a win over the Washington Nationals on Monday. The Rockies believe Valaika has a bright future as a utility and bench player despite his relatively modest minor league numbers (.261/.311/.414 in five seasons). For them, it’s more about process than the results at this particular development mile marker, and Valaika has earned a reputation for having a strong approach offensively and flashing an above-average glove at multiple positions.
Beyond that, the Rockies will soon see the return of Ian Desmond—and, not long after that, David Dahl and Tom Murphy. With Mark Reynolds playing at an absurd level, Desmond likely won’t occupy first base when he joins lineup, instead taking up residence in the outfield. That could push Gerardo Parra, who is playing above-average defense (3 Defensive Runs Saved) to go along with a .327/.364/.462 batting line, to the bench. That scenario could also affect Carlos Gonzalez, perhaps giving the soon-to-be free agent more days off as he continues to navigate through a slow start (.214/.273/.314).
Desmond would likely take the roster spot occupied by Cardullo, but adding Dahl to the big league club would be trickier unless Reynolds cools off or the Rockies decide to move him to the bench otherwise. Still, struggling to find a spot for a dynamic player who hit .315/.359/.500 in his first exposure to big league pitching last season is a good problem to have. At worst, Dahl may spend a little extra time getting back into game shape at Triple-A Albuquerque, where in 2016 he punished Pacific Coast League pitchers to the tune of a .484/.529/.887 line prior to his July promotion.
Murphy’s path to the 25-man roster is theoretically much clearer. Garneau, in what has been essentially a straight platoon with Tony Wolters, is off to a suboptimal start offensively, hitting .152/.222/.333 in 36 plate appearances. Murphy, based on his minor league pedigree combined with his major league performance in a decent sample (.266/.341/.608 in 88 PAs), would seem to have a leg up on that roster spot once he’s healthy.
However, don’t discount Garneau completely as of yet. The Rockies are awfully high on his presence behind the plate, and for good reason: Garneau defensively is a top 10 catcher in all of baseball so far in 2017, according to Fangraphs, and Colorado pitchers have a 2.36 ERA with him receiving as opposed to the 4.74 ERA the club has posted with Wolters serving as the backstop.
In short, the Rockies face a few tough decisions once their injured position players are healthy enough to return. But, those tough decisions are good problems to have—and, in almost every scenario, the club will be better at the end of the day regardless of which way it decides to lean.
Ah, the power and beauty of depth.