After starting 138 games games at first base in 2018, the Ian Desmond, first baseman, experiment appears to be on hold if not over altogether — at least, that is, until 2021 when we’ll all be wondering why Bud Black is giving all the first base reps to Desmond instead of Tyler Nevin. But that’s for another time!
For now, Murphy looks like he’ll be the next in a line of short-term replacements at first base since Todd Helton retired. That’s pretty much been the state of the position at first since 2014. Let’s look at the details.
Murphy is a left-handed hitter who looks like he’ll add much needed pop to the Rockies’ lineup. It was not long ago when Murphy was one of the best hitters in baseball. From 2016-2017, he had a .334/.387/.569 batting line for the Nationals as their primary second baseman. Murphy had offseason knee surgery after the 2017 campaign, and that hurt his numbers the following season. He hit .299/.336/.454 for an OPS+ of 106 for the Nationals and Cubs, which is still a productive batting line.
Ideally, Murphy, who turns 34 in April, will be fully recovered from his surgery and regain some of the form he had in 2016-2017. It’s probably too much to hope for him to become one of the best hitters in baseball again, but it’s not at all too much to assume that Murphy will be a significant improvement at first base compared to the last two seasons.
Regarding first base, Murphy is not unfamiliar with the position, although it’s been some time since he’s played a lot at the cold corner. Murphy played 101 games at first base for the Mets back in 2009. He’s played 126 games there in the nine seasons since. He should be fine at first defensively, but in any case the Rockies didn’t sign him for his glove. If Murphy hits well, he just needs to be able to competently scoop up throws from Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story to have major value.
The Rockies look to be well positioned to take advantage of platoon splits at first base. Murphy hits right-handers very well, but he’s weaker against southpaws, but the Rockies have two right-handed backups who are quite good against left-handed pitching. The first is the displaced Ian Desmond. Starting Desmond at first against lefties could be pretty effective. Based on what we’re hearing from Spring Training, though, the Rockies don’t plan to take the idea of Desmond’s versatility and put it into practice by using him as a platoon partner for Murphy. Instead, he’ll probably remain in the outfield.
The other righty option is Mark Reynolds, who isn’t currently on the major league roster. Reynolds returns to the Rockies after a fine season in Washington, where he hit .248/.328/.476 for an OPS+ of 109 in 235 plate appearances. He’s no longer suited for an everyday role, but Reynolds could be an excellent complement to Murphy at first base.
Ryan McMahon is another option. My guess, however, is that McMahon would be first in line to be the everyday first baseman if Murphy finds himself on the injured list, but that he won’t spell Murphy at first very often, especially if Reynolds is around and productive against lefties.
Another member of the 40-man roster who could serve as first-base depth is Josh Fuentes. The 2018 Pacific Coast League MVP and number 16 PuRP will be 26 years-old by the time the 2019 season begins. He should be able to hold his own if the Rockies need him to play first base. But if he plays a lot something either went terribly right with Fuentes’s development or terribly wrong with first base injuries.
On the farm
The Rockies have a couple of exciting names progressing through the minors who may be able to lay claim to first base and hold on to it. Grant Lavigne, the 42nd overall pick in the 2018 draft, crushed Rookie level pitching in 2018. It was enough for him to gain national traction as a prospect, and it led the Purple Row community to rank him as as the number 6 PuRP. What the 19-year-old does against more advanced pitching in 2019 will be one of the most interesting storylines from the farm.
Tyler Nevin is considerably closer to the majors. Injuries led to a slow first couple of years as a professional for Nevin after being drafted 38th overall in 2015. In 2018, however, Nevin hit very well in Lancaster. The number 7 PuRP will face a big challenge against Double-A pitching in 2019. He’s still probably a couple years away from the majors as well.
If McMahon’s future is as a second basemen and utility infielder, then the future of first base for the Rockies will be with Lavigne and Nevin.
As now, the story at first base in 2019 is becoming familiar, and it’s unlikely to change until 2021 at the earliest. But this season, at least, first base should be one of the team’s strengths.