John Fogerty’s famous lyrics have never been so true. There are five players at right now spring training who can all tell Bud Black, “Look at me, I can be center field.”
In 2020, Kevin Pillar made 20 starts (168 innings) in center field, while David Dahl came in second at 17 (152 innings). That’s almost two-thirds of the Rockies games played by former Rockies as Pillar signed with the Mets and the Rockies let Dahl go and he signed with the Rangers.
It leaves the position open as one of many starting roles that young Rockies will be vying for in spring training. Garrett Hampson, who had 14 starts and played 20 total games in center field last year, could be seen as the leading candidate. Hampson has the most speed, he’s a solid defender, and while his offense was streaky, he can be a catalyst in an offense that needs baserunners, bunters, and base stealers. He finished 2020 hitting .234/.287/.383 and struck out 60 times with five homers in 184 plate appearances.
Sam Hilliard is right behind with Hampson after playing 10 games at CF last season, including eight starts. Hilliard is also a solid defender and has more power than speed, while still being pretty quick, but also struck out a lot in 2020 – 42 times in 114 plate appearances. He hit .210/,272/.438 with six homers.
Chris Owings, who signed a minor league deal – the only kind of deal the Rockies seem to offer these days – in January. In only 44 plate appearances, he slashed .268/.318/.439 with two homers and 11 strikeouts. Owings, 29, certainly has the most MLB experience, even though most of it has been in the infield, and is also a solid defender. He played two games in center last year, starting one. Like Hampson, Owings is also a good infielder and each player might rotate in at second or shortstop in cases of injuries, struggles, or a certain rumored trade. Hampson and Owings are two of many versatile Rockies who can play many positions, which can be a sign of a team’s great depth and flexibility, or could be seen as a roster missing stars who specialize at their positions.
The final two possibilities are Raimel Tapia, who despite being the main man in left field is also reported to be in the mix at center by the Denver Post’s Patrick Saunders, and Yonathan Daza, who is currently ranked PuRP No. 19. It seems like Tapia has earned the left fielder starting spot, but with so many question marks, anything is possible. Daza was expected to start the season in Triple-A, but with Ian Desmond opting out of the 2021 season, he just moved up on the depth chart. For a while, reporters speculated (or maybe hoped) that the Rockies would go out and sign and an experienced center fielder, but I think we can safely put that dream to bed. The Rockies days of signing free agents seem to be done. It has been 797 days after all since the last one (and it was Daniel Murphy, who didn’t work out so well). That being said, there is some validity to the argument that no free agents are better than expensive, past-their-prime free agents, which are the only kind the Rockies seem able to sign.
Anyway, back to center field. Daza had two stints with the Rockies in 2019, but only hit .216 with 21 strikeouts and seven walks in 105 plate appearances. He spent all of 2020 at the Rockies satellite camp. What Daza lacks in experience and contact at the plate, he makes up for in being the best defensive player in the mix, capable of highlight-reel plays in the daunting wide open spaces at Coors Field.
Last week, The Athletic’s Nick Groke phrased the Rockies center field vacancy this way: “the Rockies need somebody, anybody, to play center field. They will probably rotate the hot hand there, if they can find one. And with Hilliard’s power potential, Daza’s defense and Hampson’s versatility, maybe they can approximate a helpful center fielder over a full season.”
It might be center fielder by committee, as left field was expected to be in 2020 before Tapia took over. That would certainly be a way to continue the common practice of not having a long-time, steady center fielder for the Rockies. In their 28 years of existence, the Rockies have had 16 different Opening Day center fielders. That position has the second most turnover behind second base, which has seen 18 different starters on day one. Charlie Blackmon held the post longest, claiming the starting role for five years before being moved over to right to limit wear and tear.
Another option would be to pick one player and try to get him more reps there. Not only in center field, but at third base, second base, and first base this year, I think the Rockies might be better served to the best player stay in the spot and get used to the terrain. Baseball is a game of routines and preparation and it seems like young players might have better shot at shining if they are allowed more reps. Right now, I think that center fielder should be Hampson, who recently told Saunders, “I’m excited about the outfield. I think I could be a really good outfielder. If I’m playing there every day, I think I can be one of the best outfielders out there. I really do.”
However, I also want to let the competition go through camp and let the best man win. What do you think? Who should be center field?
Who do you want to see start in center field on April 1?
This poll is closed
A platoon with the hottest player getting the start
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As Saunders notes, the Rockies strikeout rate was seventh-highest in the NL at 24.1 percent and while teams that strikeout more also usually hit more homers, that wasn’t the case in 2020 as they ranked 11th in the NL with 63. At-bats became more high risk, low reward. Leading the way was Hilliard, who struck out 36.8 percent of the time. Following Hillard were Ryan McMahon (34.2 percent), Hampson (32.6 percent), and Josh Fuentes (28.2 percent) – all well above the MLB average of 24.3 percent. Hilliard said this offseason he worked on “simplifying and shortening everything, to be able to get my bat through the zone quicker and stay through the zone longer, and not feel that I have to cheat to get to the inside pitch.”
A huge part of any kind of offensive turnaround, including any attempt to make up the void left by Nolan Arenado, the Rockies have to strike out less and homer more.
If your spirits are already down about the 2021 season, this won’t help. The Rockies haven’t talked with Trevor Story about his contract. It’s up after this year, but many don’t believe he’ll want to sign with the Rockies or they think he’ll be traded by the deadline. It’s just good to hear that master communicator Jeff Bridich is doing everything he can to help the Rockies keep their best player. Or not, which is what David Hill is arguing on the front office’s refusal to learn lessons.
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