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The Rockies need an impact catcher

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Rockies news and links for Friday, January 29, 2021

In their 27 seasons of existence, not counting 2020 because of a shortened All-Star Game-less season (and also because let’s try to forget 2020), the Rockies have never had an All-Star catcher. The Rockies have sent 25 outfielders to the Midsummer Classic, nine pitchers (the surprisingly second-highest total), eight shortstops, eight third basemen, seven first basemen, and three second baseman. Zero catchers.

The Rockies have had the starting catcher have a negative WAR eight times in franchise history, including four times in the last seven years (Tony Wolters in 2020 and 2017, Chris Iannetta in 2018, and Wilin Rosario in 2014). Ranking all MLB teams by WAR at the catcher position going into the 2020 season, FanGraphs put the Rockies at No. 30 (yup, dead last) at 0.2. When talking about the group, the only nice thing author Rian Watt could find to say was “At least the mountains are pretty.” The Rockies ended the 2020 season with a -1.1 WAR, tied for 28th in the MLB with Cleveland and only better than Detroit.

This lack of a standout catcher is really hurting the Rockies. It’s hard enough to pitch in Colorado and the Rockies pitchers, from starters to relievers, need all the help they can get. They need a knowledgeable catcher that can help guide them through a game. With the lack of analytics coming from the top down and with the tech-savvy former minor league pitching coordinator Steve Merriman gone back to Michigan, current pitching coach Steve Foster has his hands full trying to revive Jon Gray, keep Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela trending in the right direction, and manufacturing a fifth starter. The Rockies need a catcher that pitchers can trust and help them find success.

Despite his weaknesses offensively, the Rockies stuck with Wolters, aka the Rockies’ pitcher whisperer, for this reason, and because of his likeability (Gray called him the best teammate). Many fans are still mad the Rockies let him go. This preference on defense also explains the Rockies bringing back Iannetta in 2018 and acquiring veteran Nick Hundley in 2015-16. It’s also why MLB.com’s Thomas Harding ranks Iannetta as the second-best catcher in Rockies history, while Rox Pile’s Noah Yingling put him as tops. Thomas ranked Wolters fourth, while Yingling put him third. Hundley also got a nod for fifth-best from Yingling.

The defense and pitcher comfort level has to be there for any Rockies catcher. Watt echoes the need with Bud Black’s ways of prioritizing, saying, “Black has always liked experienced, defensive-minded catchers.”

But at what cost? The Rockies also need a catcher who can hit. If the Rockies hope to improve at all this season, the lineup, from start to bottom, has to be more solid. With it looking like the DH won’t be universal in 2021, the Rockies simply can’t have the last two spots in the lineup be automatic outs (with the exception of Germán Márquez of course). It’s clear All-Star catchers like Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Willson Contreras are hard to come by, but is it too much to ask for a catcher that has a good rapport with the pitchers and one that can be part of the offense? Even when the catcher pool across the league might be shallow, the Rockies have to find a way to be better.

In 2018 the Rockies catchers combined to hit .206/.307/.349. It jumped to .245/.317/.360 with Wolters improvement in 2019, but fell back to .217/.266/.285 in 2020. This has to improve.

The real bummer is that the Rockies had two good catchers and they let them go. After the Rockies acquired 2014 All-Star Jonathan Lucroy heading into the playoff run of 2017, all he did was hit .310/.429/.437 in 46 games. A free agent after the season, the Rockies let him go and Lucroy departed for Oakland. He’s played with three more teams since and his numbers fell, so maybe the Rockies made the right choice in not bringing him back. Or maybe he would have been better in Colorado.

Former Rockies prospect Tom Murphy only got scattered time over five years in Colorado. The most action he saw was 37 games in 2018 before being let go, only to be picked up by Seattle where he “would be the Mariners’ most valuable offensive player, ranking second on the 2019 Mariners in bWAR (2.6) and fWAR (3.2),” according to Lookout Landing’s Kate Preusser, who also admits that Murphy’s competition on the Mariners wasn’t great. Murphy went on to miss all of 2020 with a foot injury, so maybe the Rockies again made the right call. Then again, does 2020 even count?

I remember being really excited about Colorado’s farm system product Wilin Rosario, mostly for his bat. He hit 28 homers in 2012. However, he was just painful to watch catch because the ability to catch didn’t come easily to him. Then his power and his batting average leveled off and his time in the MLB ended after 2015. There is something to be said about a catcher who can also hit. Look at Hardings’ pick for best Rockies catcher ever: Yorvit Torrealba with a 3.2 WAR and great OPS marks (.694 regular season and .805 postseason), boosted by his clutch hitting in the 2007 and 2009 playoff seasons.

Entering 2021, the Rockies have Elias Díaz and Dom Nuñez on the catcher roster. Not having Drew Butera, who was picked up by the Rangers on a minor league contract, will already bring the Rockies catching batting average up.

Perhaps Díaz can be the shift the Rockies need. He hit .286/.339/.452 with 10 homers, 12 doubles, and 34 RBIs in 2018 with the Pirates, but he declined in 2019, and then only hit .235/.288/.353 for the Rockies last year with all of the catcher homers (two) and almost half the RBIs (nine out of 20), despite playing 20 fewer games than Wolters. Díaz and the Rockies agreed to a one-year deal for $1.2 million for 2021. Díaz is not as strong defensively as Wolters. Black said he has good hands and improved in blocking in 2020, but he’ll need to improve with the glove and at the plate if he wants to keep the job.

It’s time for the Rockies to have an impact catcher. Maybe that catcher will be Díaz. If not, maybe Dom Nuñez, who is currently listed as No. 22 in Purple Row’s Prospects list and is now known as the 14-year PuRP wonder, will breakout. If not, it could be a long time waiting for 19-year-old Drew Romo, who is ranked No. 5 in the Colorado Rockies own prospect rankings and isn't; expected to hit the majors until 2024.

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Colorado Rockies: MLB Network ranks Nolan Arenado third-best third baseman | Rox Pile

Since Ben Macaluso said it so well, here it is: “Anyone ranking Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado anywhere else besides the best third baseman in baseball is just wrong.” The MLB Network gave the top spot to Rendon, while Alex Bregman took second, and Manny Machado at No. 5. It’s just wrong.

Do Jeff Bridich and the Rockies have a plan? Any plan? Is it in this mailbag? | The Athletic ($)

In my opinion, the answer seems to still be one of three things:

a) Yes, but unless you went to Harvard, you wouldn’t understand.

b) Save money. Do nothing.

c) Stop making any trades or getting free agents because they are always a mistake. So never try again.

d) No and it doesn’t matter. There is no clear red line Bridich can cross that would result in a definite firing.

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