First base seems to be the Achilles heel of the Rockies infield. There hasn’t been a long-term solution since Todd Helton retired. Last year we started the season with hopes that Daniel Murphy was going to be the extra bat the Rockies needed. Instead he started the season with an injury. That left Mark Reynolds at the helm until Murphy was able to return.
Murphy returned after missing 20 games in April (22 games total), but the Rockies didn’t see the production they had hoped for. 2019 was the worst season of Murphy’s career. He posted a 0.2 rWAR and slashed .279/.327/.458.
Despite his rough 2019, Murphy will remain the Rockies first baseman. The veteran left-handed hitter will turn 35 before the Rockies return to Denver for the home opener. That makes him the oldest position player on the team, unless Drew Butera makes the roster. At Rockies Fest, manager Bud Black mentioned that we would see “a different Daniel Murphy” in 2020. Does this mean he lost weight and that he is working hard on conditioning? Perhaps. Hopefully these changes will mean improvements for the aging Murphy.
General manager Jeff Bridich predicts that Murphy will be a major asset to the team in 2020, even saying he could be the “quality at-bat we had hoped for last season.” One problem will still remain—his defense. Murphy has spent most of his career playing second base and while prior to coming to the Rockies he had some experience playing first, it’s not his primary position. Last season Murphy played really far off the bag and this year, manager Bud Black says that they plan on moving him closer to the bag to help him defensively.
If Murphy’s bat doesn’t improve from last season, his potentially problematic defense could leave a lot more to be desired at first base.
There are three players currently on the 40-man roster that could potentially see some time at the cold corner if Murphy struggles at the plate: Ryan McMahon, Josh Fuentes and Tyler Nevin.
McMahon is expected to be the starter at second base, but if things go south, in a crazy perfect storm we might see McMahon at first and Brendan Rodgers (No. 1 PuRP) at second. McMahon is currently listed as the primary second baseman and sits behind Murphy at first base on the Rockies depth chart.
Fuentes saw some playing time at first base in 2019, but it was a disappointing campaign considering his impressive 2018. He was the 2018 Pacific Coast League MVP, but in 2019 he only hit .254/.298/.448 in Triple-A Albuquerque and a dismal .218/.232/.400 in 55 at-bats at the big league level. There is potential to see Fuentes back at Coors Field, but I expect him start the season in Albuquerque.
Nevin spent his 2019 season at Double-A Hartford, and the Rockies clearly see some value with him. His contract was selected in November and he was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. His time in Hartford was a little less flashy than his prior season in Lancaster. He ended with a .251/.345/.399 slash, 13 home runs and 26 doubles.
On the Farm
There is quite a bit of potential at first base when we look at the farm system. In addition to Fuentes and Nevin, there are a few more options that could eventually claim first base as their own.
Brian Mundell (originally PuRP No. 30, now No. 29 with Roberto Ramos being sold to the Korean Baseball Organization this offseason) received a non-roster invite to spring training this year. As a converted catcher, Mundell has seen some time at first base but spent most of 2019 in left field. He found himself in the outfield since Triple-A Albuquerque already had Ramos primarily playing first base. With Ramos in the KBO, Mundell should be spending more time at first base in 2020.
While still very new to the system, Michael Toglia (No. 6 PuRP) could make a splash. He is a switch-hitter that was drafted by the Rockies in the first round of 2019, 23rd overall. His pure athleticism and the fact that he is a switch-hitter could help him leapfrog other first basemen in the system.
Grant Lavigne (No. 8 PuRP) garnered national attention with potential to be a top prospect after his impressive 2018, destroying Rookie level pitching. As impressive as he was in 2018, 2019 seemed to be more of a challenge for him in Low-A Asheville. I’m not sure how much we can expect from the 20-year-old this year. Lavigne could see himself bested by 21-year-old Toglia.
If Disaster Strikes
In 2017 the Rockies signed Ian Desmond to a five year, $70 million deal with the hopes that he would be a long-term solution at first base. Prior to signing with the Rockies, he had never played first base at any level. Desmond even vowed that he would master the position. That unfortunately did not happen and thankfully the Ian Desmond experiment appears to be officially over. Desmond is not expected to be at first base again. If that happens, things went very, very wrong with injuries and the Rockies were desperate for someone — anyone — to man the bag.