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Left field remains a mystery heading into 2020

Blackmon and Dahl will anchor the outfield, but who will rise up in left field?

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How crazy is it that as I write this, the Outfield’s “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love Tonight” just came on the radio? Can it be a coincidence that Charlie Blackmon’s walkup anthem just happened to be on? Or is it a sign that one of the most reliable and best leadoff hitters in the game is back to anchor the outfield for the Rockies in 2020? Despite his age and less-than defensive prowess, I love Chuck Natzy, so I am going with the latter, but you all can debate about it in the comments. It’s pretty impressive to go into the 2020 season with two All-Star outfielders back in action in Blackmon and David Dahl. The offensive production in the outfield needs to continue to be a highlight for the Rockies. On the other side of the ball, defense needs to improve as the outfielders made 20 errors for a .979 fielding percentage that was ranked 27th in baseball last year, according to Baseball Reference.

The starters

Right field: Charlie Blackmon. The four-time All-Star hit .314/.364/.576 with 42 doubles, 32 homers, 112 runs scored and 86 RBI in 2019. He was in the zone in June, winning the NL Player of the Month, leading the majors with a .412 average, an OPS of 1.276, a .875 slugging percentage, and 30 runs scored in 22 games. He also hit 10 homers during the stretch. Wanting to save the wear and tear on his body, Bud Black moved Blackmon from the vast roaming plains that are center field at Coors to right in 2019, and the now-33-year-old fan favorite played 140 games with a few more days off built in. Charlie made four errors and had a fielding percentage of .983 as he adjusted to the new spot. He’s expected to have rest days scheduled in again this year. Black experimented with lineups in the end of 2019 and obviously during spring training this year, and Blackmon might be back in the leadoff spot, or he could be seen in the three hole to increase his RBI potential.

Center field: David Dahl. We’ve been excited about Dahl for years, but freak-show injuries —2013: hamstring and back; 2015: lacerated spleen; 2017: stress reaction in rib cage; 2018: broken foot — have delayed his rise. That changed in 2019 when he earned his way on to the All-Star team but he only started 92 games (36 center, 37 left, 19 right) and played in 100 before a high-ankle sprain ended his season. Black is now turning to Dahl, who will turn 26 on April 1, as the primary groundskeeper in center. His 2019 numbers finished at .302/.353/.524 with 15 homers, 28 doubles, 67 runs scored, 61 RBI, 28 walks and 110 strikeouts. On one hand, it’s beyond exciting to think about what Dahl could accomplish in a complete, healthy season, especially if he can lower that strikeout total. On the other hand, center field could be an injury trap for Dahl, which is why there could be more players (Raimel Tapia, Sam Hilliard, Garrett Hampson, and Yonathan Daza) rotating into the spot to give Dahl a break, as Dahl is also the primary backup in right behind Blackmon. On the bright side, Dahl has been posting about his offseason progress on social media beginning in November and is feeling good about a healthy 2020 campaign.

Left field: This is a little less clear cut. If you look at the Rockies depth chart, last verified March 1, it lists Raimel Tapia first, followed by Ian Desmond, and then Sam Hilliard. This could be a platooning position where the Tapia gets the nod to start, especially against right-handed pitching, and also because he’s the young player with promise and most of his career still in front of him. After playing in only 25 games in 2018, Tapia played in 138 games with 447 plate appearances, hitting .275/.309/.415, with 9 stolen bases (out of 12 attempts), 9 homers, 5 triples, and 23 doubles in 2019. The 26-year-old’s extra-base hitting potential and speed make him a valuable weapon, and who could forget his two pitch-hit grand slams in 2019? Defensively, he’s capable of highlight-reel plays and can cover a lot of ground with his speed, but he also made some head-scratching mistakes last year.

Desmond, who’s shifted from a failed experiment at first base to an expensive outfielder (he’s the fourth-highest paid player in 2020 as his $15 million is only behind Nolan Arenado, Blackmon, and Wade Davis), is now in the mix for time in left as well. At 34 years old, Desmond is tied with Daniel Murphy for oldest position player. In three years as a Rockie, Desmond is hitting .252/.313/.429 with an average of 16 homers, 64 RBI, 37 walks, and 117 strikeouts per season. However, against lefties, his line is much better: .279/.350/.626 in 2019. That’s where Desmond could see his role this year, as well as being a self-described “culture-changer” because of his experience and leadership. Desmond started 104 games in the outfield last year, including 67 in center, where he made four errors, and 37 in left, where he made one error. That’s 12 more starts than Dahl got last year.

Despite having the least amount of big league experience, Sam Hilliard is also vying for playing time in the left-field platoon. The 26-year-old is the highest ranked Purple Row PuRP outfielder at No. 5, and when the Rockies were out of it last year, Hilliard was a reason to keep watching. He homered twice in his first game and seven times total (four of those came off of Josh Hader, Noah Syndergaard, who he took yard twice, and Hyun-Jin Ryu) in 87 at bats, not to mention four doubles, two triples, two swiped bases, and a 1.006 OPS. He also got time in every post in the outfield (17 center, 6 left, 5 right). The strikeouts are a little problematic as he struck out 23 times. However, in a feature in The Athletic by Nick Groke($), Bud Black has praised Hilliard’s ability to make adjustments quickly and have insight into pitchers’ patterns. (The same article also breaks down the four impressive homers from 2019, and Hilliard remembers each one in vivid detail, which is very fun to read.)

Depth options

A lot of depth is in the shuffle. Tapia is the backup for center, Dahl for right, Desmond for left, and then Hilliard is third on the depth chart for all three outfield positions. Beyond that, Garrett Hampson, who is also a backup infielder, played center field and left field last year. The 25-year-old is a versatile, all-around backup for the Rockies. Hampson played in 105 games last year with 327 plate appearances, hitting .247/.302/.385 with eight homers and 15 stolen bases. Like Hilliard, he put up a September to remember, hitting .352/.400/.560 with five homers, 10 RBI, 16 runs, and 10 stolen bases in 100 plate appearances in his final 27 games of 2019. If he can pick up where he left off, the Rockies will need to find places for him in the lineup.

Another young prospect is 25-year-old Yonathan Daza, who Ping-Ponged back and forth between Triple-A and the 40-man roster in 2019. As an Isotope, he put up impressive numbers, hitting .364/.404/.548 with 45 extra-base hits, including 11 home runs, but then struggled against MLB pitching, going hitless in his first 12 at bats early in the season. He came back to the Rockies in August for the remainder of the season and couldn’t replicate the Triple-A numbers as he hit .206/.257/.237 in 104 plate appearances in 44 games with just two extra-base hits. Daza is ranked No. 19 on Purple Row’s PuRP list, which is down five spots from the year before, and is doing pretty well in spring training right now. He’s also a very strong defensive player, which the Rockies need. He’s currently listed as the fourth option in center and right field on the depth chart. Daza also earned a reputation for being a fun guy in the clubhouse as the creator of “Las Cucarachas” last year. Hopefully there will be no cucarachas mentality needed this year, but maybe Daza can come up with something associated with winning. It’s very likely that Daza will be the starting center fielder in Albuquerque, but he’s a nice option to have. Through the first seven games of spring training, Daza has registered five hits (one double) with one walk and three RBI and three runs scored in 16 plate appearances.

On the farm

In December, Mike Gerber, signed minor league deal with Rockies after playing with the Giants in 2019. Gerber, 27, and hitting didn’t mix at the MLB level last season as Gerber got only one hit in a limited 24 at bats. Gerber was, however, successful at the Triple-A level where he hit .308/.368/.569 and flashed some power with 26 homers. In limited time with the Giants and Tigers over the last two seasons (at total of 22 games), he has played every position in the outfield. Through 12 plate appearances this spring, the left-hitting and right-throwing Gerber has two hits, three walks, three runs scored, and four strikeouts.

Drew Weeks, the Rockies’ seventh-round draft pick in 2014, has been climbing up the farm ladder and played 125 games (both in left and right field) for the Triple-A Isotopes in 2019. He hit .285/.345/.530 with 20 homers 75 RBI and 73 runs scored. Weeks, 26, then spent the offseason playing in the Dominican Winter League. It seems likely he will start in Albuquerque again.

In Double-A Hartford, 2016 draftees Willie Abreu (24-year-old lefty right fielder who can also play left) and Vincent Fernandez (24-year-old left-hitting right and left fielder), as well as 2014 amateur free agent Manuel Melendez (23-year-old lefty who can play it all in the outfield) continue to develop.

One of the most exciting outfield prospects in the system is 21-year-old Brenton Doyle, who comes in at No. 15 on Purple Row’s PuRP list. Drafted in the fourth round in 2019, the righty is already making a splash as he hit .383/.477/.611 line in 215 at bats in Grand Junction last year with 22 extra base hits, including eight homers, Doyle stole 17 bases in 20 chances. He’s played mostly center and a little bit of right field and is definitely one to keep an eye on as he rises through the organization with a possible MLB debut in 2022.

Other options

If we get to the point where the left-field platoon, utility backup Hampson, and Daza aren’t enough options, I do believe the Rockies will be in serious trouble. If the Rockies suddenly decide they would like to spend money and get a free agent, Yasiel Puig is still available and there were rumors the Rockies were interested.