DJ LeMahieu will spend at least one more season as the starting second baseman in 2018. While Rockies fans enjoy another year of Gold Glove caliber defense and excellent on-base ability at the top of the lineup, it is a contract year for LeMahieu, and one can’t help but ponder what lies ahead for LeMahieu and second base in Denver.
LeMahieu, 29, has solidified himself as a model of consistency at the keystone in recent years. His always stellar defense has been complemented by three straight seasons of .300+ hitting. Since coming to the Rockies in a trade with the Chicago Cubs during the 2011-2012 offseason, LeMahieu has made his mark with opposite-field hitting. In each season from 2015-2017, LeMahieu has led all of baseball in opposite-field batted ball direction. This has even led to one of the more dramatic defensive shifts in all of baseball, as the NL West rival Arizona Diamondbacks shifted their outfield to the point where not a soul was in left field. LeMahieu has elicited high praise from Rockies hitting coach Duane Espy, who refers to the second baseman as “a right-handed version of Tony Gwynn.” And even then, it’s easy to make an argument that LeMahieu doesn’t get all the recognition he deserves.
LeMahieu has underwent a quiet transformation as his career with the Rockies progressed, and he’s become one of the best second basemen in baseball. He was an All-Star in 2015 and 2017, a Gold Glove Award at second base in 2014 and 2017, Wilson Defensive Player of the Year at the keystone in 2013 and 2017, and won a National League batting title in 2016 (and career highs in all three categories of a .348/.416/.495 triple slash). In terms of intangibles, DJ also provides the team with a calm, cool, collected clubhouse presence, and he won the Rockies Heart and Hustle Award in 2015.
But second base is anything but settled in Denver. LeMahieu will (barring an extension) be testing the waters of free agency for the first time following the 2018 campaign.
Ryan McMahon appears to have the inside track for the Rockies’ starting first baseman in 2018, but one could easily envision the highly regarded young prospect sliding over to second base should LeMahieu miss any time. Pat Valaika thrived in a utility role in 2017 and should he break camp with the team. He’ll offer a capable option at second base if he isn’t thrust into an everyday role. The backup catcher position will be a battle between Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy. Wolters is a converted middle infielder and by all indications can still provide quality defense at second base. If he makes the roster, he could also see some time at the keystone.
The Rockies signed a minor-league deal with utility-man Shawn O’Malley over the offseason. While O’Malley has not shown much in his time in the big leagues with the Los Angeles Angels in 2014, or the Seattle Mariners from 2015-2016 (he didn’t even play at the MLB level in ’17), the 30-year-old has experience at second base, as he does with all positions except first base, catcher, and pitcher. The Rockies also re-signed Daniel Castro to a minor-league deal in late-January after he spent time with the organization at Triple-A Albuquerque in 2017. While Castro also has not shown much ability with the bat in his time in the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves, he has posted quality defensive numbers at second base, and will be around as a depth option.
On the Farm
PuRP No. 1 Brendan Rodgers may make his MLB debut sometime in 2018 but, barring an exceptional celestial event, he will not make the Opening Day roster. Rodgers is a shortstop by trade, but the Rockies are giving him time at second base so he gets familiar with the position. While I don’t want to speculate too much on what General Manager Jeff Bridich and the rest of the front office are thinking, if the organization were to let LeMahieu walk away, it certainly seems plausible that Rodgers could slide into the role of second baseman in 2019 and beyond.
Then there’s PuRP No. 9 Garrett Hampson, who has had nothing but success in his first two minor league seasons. For his efforts, Hampson made the 2018 All-KATOH team at FanGraphs and has an MLB ETA of 2019. There’s also PuRP No. 16 Forrest Wall, who suffered an injury-plagued 2017, but he appears to be making a full transition to the outfield.
It would be tough to see a talented fan-favorite player like LeMahieu go, but the Rockies have a lot of minor-league depth in the middle infield, including one of the best prospects in baseball in Rodgers.
If Catastrophe Strikes
Somehow, Neil Walker is still a free agent. If disaster strikes it would be better for the Rockies if it happened soon so they could pick up Walker. He’s coming off a solid 2017 split between the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers, when he slashed .265/.362/.439, and is just a year removed from an even better .282/.347/.476 batting line with the Mets. If LeMahieu were to sustain a significant injury, Walker would be a great backup option. If the catastrophe is really bad and Rodgers isn’t ready, the Rockies may need to turn to one of O’Malley or Castro.