The biggest predictor of the future of the Colorado Rockies could be the bench.
The big league bench can be about as wondrous of an assembly process as team officials would like to make it. For the Rockies, established veterans claim everyday spots throughout the diamond. For a mixture of younger players, they collectively fill the holes where there aren’t already veterans. 36-year-old catcher Drew Butera looks to be covering the hole after Tony Wolters, but he appears to be the only veteran in such a spot.
How the roster will be set will tell us valuable information. How manager Bud Black makes decisions on that roster will expand on that information even further. How the team plays with a mix of younger players will provide a drastic outlook toward the direction of the franchise. The state of the Rockies bench just might be the indicator for where the team is headed once high paying contracts expire.
Expanded Benches: The New MLB Rules
With the luxury of a 26th roster spot this year, all MLB teams will sport a deeper bench by one player. September call-ups will cut down to only 28 players, far fewer than the 40 it has been for years.
As part of the new rule, MLB will allow 13 pitchers on the roster through August. An equal number of position players will round out the pre-September roster, making for a five-position-player bench.
Ian Desmond, Raimel Tapia and Sam Hilliard look to cover left field and two bench spots. Dom Nuñez, Elias Díaz, Butera, Yonathan Daza, Josh Fuentes, Garrett Hampson, Brendan Rodgers, Chris Owings and Eric Stamets are roster candidates for the remaining three spots.
Without the luxury of a designated hitter in the National League, positional versatility is arguably more important for bench guys. That versatility may be more important in the infield, however, as Desmond, Tapia and Hilliard can limit available bench opportunity to the infield dirt.
Perhaps all that really matters is if a bench guy can swing it. If Josh Fuentes keeps hitting .400 this spring, he could be listed on the roster as beer vendor and there would still be a spot for him. Spring training was the time for Scott Hatteberg to learn how to play first, as the movie Moneyball showed us; the Cactus League may tell the true “state of the position” for a handful of bench guys, and it might mean having multiple gloves in their bags.
The Bench As We Know It
The current state of left field reasons for Desmond, Tapia or Hilliard getting a start on any given day based on platoon. This trio will likely cover two bench spots on Opening Day. Desmond appeared in 140 games last year. Tapia appeared in 138. Hilliard made his debut in late August, hitting .273/.356/.649 over 27 games.
As far as the infield goes, Garrett Hampson appeared in 105 games last year and fits the bill for a utility infielder. He hit .247/.302/.385 in 299 at-bats. Daniel Murphy hit .279/.328/.452 and Ryan McMahon hit .250/.329/.450. Those numbers can reason Hampson behind his counterparts on the right side of the infield, but over the course of a 162-game schedule, Hampson can still rack up plenty of work. Mix in the ability to cover in the outfield as well, and Hampson is an asset worthy to be called a true utility man.
One Certain Necessity
A catcher on the bench is essential. MLB.com’s Thomas Harding says Butera and Diaz “have the best shot” at backing up Wolters this year.
Butera has big league experience dating back to 2010, and has occasionally filled the void in Colorado behind Wolters for parts of the last two seasons. Butera was in a big league uniform for 16 games last year, later released, and then signed again to a minor league contract this winter. He hit .300/.389/.511 in Triple-A Albuquerque last year over 67 games.
Diaz is a five-year veteran with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He comes off a 2019 season where he hit .241/.296/.307 in 101 games for Pittsburgh. He has the largest sample size of 2019 MLB stats among backup catching candidates. Diaz did lead the NL in errors behind the plate last season, but the luxury of receiving input from his new manager Bud Black, a former pitcher, could be valuable. Proving to withstand 101 games is a huge asset out of a backup. A lighter workload as a backup could reason him more fresh for work behind the plate, too.
Rodgers was the third overall pick in 2015. He made his MLB debut last season and appeared in 25 games for the Rockies; he appeared in 37 for Triple-A Albuquerque. He is returning from surgery on his right labrum, a serious procedure the Rockies will be careful not to rush. There remains a chance he won’t be on the 26-man roster on Opening Day because of it. If good shoulder health is assumed, he could be in a spot to receive routine infield work.
Owings also makes a case for infield candidacy. He is owed $1 million if he makes the Opening Day roster, but a quality spring training could indicate whether he fills a bench role as an infielder. Owings is 28 with more experience than other bench guys, and he’s all too familiar with the NL West after spending several years in Arizona. Experience alone could reason his price tag worth it.
Fuentes has garnered considerable attention with his bat so far in spring training. His MLB debut came early in 2019 after five minor league years through Rockies affiliates. Fuentes suited up for 101 games and 437 plate appearances in Triple-A (.254/.298/.448), and he primarily plays corner infield. He’s also Nolan Arenado’s cousin, and appears to benefit quite a bit from it.
Daza collected 418 plate appearances in Triple-A last year. If left field is confirmed as a three-player mix, Daza could be sent to Albuquerque by default. It may be advantageous, however, given that if any one of five outfielders goes down or has an extended slump, Daza is a call away collecting routine at-bats. He ranks in the 93rd percentile for sprint speed, which plays well in the expansive outfield at Coors Field. He’s worked 105 plate appearances at the big league level thus far.
Stamets finds himself in the mix as a utility infielder. He could be in a similar position to Daza, on call in case of a Rockies injury or emergency. 2019 was his debut season in the big leagues, where he hit .049 for Cleveland over 41 at-bats. He was then sent back down to Triple-A, subsequently elected free agency, and signed with Colorado shortly after. Stamets has fought through the minors for eight years, 763 games, and now familiarizes himself with brand new faces in his third MLB organization.
Nunez appeared in 16 Rockies games last year and joins Butera and Diaz on the list of available catchers. Last year he hit .244/.362/.559 in 213 Triple-A at-bats. 39 other at-bats came at the big league level, where he hit .179/.233/.410. That also gave him the opportunity to familiarize himself with the big league pitching staff. The 25-year-old is four years younger than Diaz and reasons for a watchful eye over the next few years, if not as a backup right now.
A big league bench provides an opportunity to ease in young players. The Rockies bench and beyond fits the bill, but just how much those young players are used this year may tell us the most important information of all.
The Decision Maker: How Bud Black can show us the long-term outlook of the franchise through his use of bench players
The manager almost always has the final say with the lineup. Black also has to win to keep his job—Clint Hurdle was fired less than two years after a World Series appearance. Black will have to answer for the immediacy of winning for the sake of Arenado and the front office.
Tapia, Hilliard, Hampson, Fuentes, Nuñez and Daza have an average age of around 26-years-old. If a potential Arenado departure and 2022 salary unloading frees up as much as it would appear, it would be advantageous to see what these guys can do.
If Black can forecast the true outcome for 2020, we’ll see where those young guys fit into the mix and how much they play. From there, we’ll get a better idea of a true long-term outlook for the Colorado Rockies.