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How will the outfield play out?

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With Blackmon and Tapia in the corners, Hilliard and Hampson are battling for center

With names like Charlie Blackmon, Raimel Tapia, Garrett Hampson, and Sam Hilliard, the Rockies 2021 outfield feels the same as it has been for the last few years. But at the same time, it’s also different. David Dahl, a 2019 All-Star outfielder who could play all three spots, started in 57 percent of Rockies games in 2019 and 35 percent in 2020. His injuries and salary were too much for the Rockies, so he’s a Texas Ranger now. Kevin Pillar, who got the majority of the starts in center field in 2020, is gone too. Ian Desmond is opting out for the second straight year, and with the Rockies having a team option for a $2 million buyout for the final year of his contract in 2022, Desmond’s time with the Rockies is likely done.

With Blackmon as the veteran anchor in right, the rest of the outfield is filled with Rockies who have been around for a while, but are still looking to have that breakthrough, consistent season to claim a starting role for Colorado. In 2020, nine different players suited up in the outfield and posted a combined 0.7 WAR, which ranked No. 22 in MLB. As a unit, the outfield is good at collecting hits, but could stand to improve defensively. Offensively, at least in terms of 2020 batting average, the Rockies ranked in the top eight at all three spots: No. 5 in left at .298, No. 8 in center at .258, and No. 4 in right at .296. Defensively, in 2020 the Colorado outfield ranked No. 22 in Total Run Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average (the number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made) at -3 (the league average is 1), according to Baseball Reference.

The starters

Right Field: This will be the third season with Charlie Blackmon patrolling right field. Blackmon was responsible for one of the greatest storylines in 2020, hitting .500 17 games into the season and was still over .400 28 games in — very close to the halfway point. He finished hitting .303/.356/.448 with six homers, 42 RBI, and 21 runs scored. At 34, he is the oldest position player on the team and second oldest on the team, behind only Daniel Bard (36). After not being ranked in the top 10 last year, Chuck Nazty is now ranked No. 9 in MLB Network’s Top Right Fielders list in his 10th year in the majors. He may be getting older, but he’s still one of the best players on the team and his leadership — in terms of work ethic and study preparations — are of great value to the young outfielders around him.

Center field: Garrett Hampson and Sam Hilliard have been waiting in the wings for the Rockies, stuck in that place between getting enough time to make adjustments and gain experience to claim the starting spot and being successful and consistent enough to earn consistent playing time. That could change this year without a veteran in the mix (outside of utility man Chris Owings) and the Rockies not bringing in any outfielders to replace Pillar and Dahl. Both Hilliard, 27, and Hampson, 26, are much faster than the average MLB player and capable of highlight-reel plays. With both being young players, it’s also possible for them to man the green expanse that is center at Coors Field.

Their battle for starting center fielder rages on in spring training. Hampson, a right-handed batter, might have the slight edge in experience after making his MLB debut in 2018 and playing in 182 games over the last three years, including 53 in 2020. Hampson, who’s listed first on the MLB.com depth chart, finished 2020 hitting .234/.287/.383 with five homers, 25 runs, 11 RBI, six stolen bases, and 60 strikeouts compared to 13 walks. Hilliard, on the other hand, debuted in 2019 and has played in 62 MLB games over the last two years, including 36 in 2020. The left-handed-hitting Hilliard, who is the Athletic’s and FanGraphs’ projected starter, hit .210/.272/.438 with six homers, 13 runs, 10 RBI, three stolen bases, and 42 strikeouts compared to nine walks. Hilliard has more power, while Hampson could be that bunting, make-things-happen guy.

While one player could certainly rise up and earn the title of starting center fielder, manager Bud Black has also talked about rotating in the hot hand and putting out the best lineup every day more than favoring lineup consistency. So far this spring, through Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Rangers, Hilliard has played five games in center, four in right, and three in left, all while hitting .292 in 24 at-bats with four RBI, three stolen bases, four walks, and seven strikeouts. Hampson has made seven starts in center, two at second base, and one in left. He’s hitting .217 with two RBI, one stolen base, three walks, and seven strikeouts.

Left field: Can you believe that Tapia made his debut in 2016? The 27-year-old has 306 games under his belt since then, including 51 in 2020 when he took over the starting role in left field. He finished eighth in the National League with a team-leading .321 batting average. He slashed .321/.369/.402 with 26 runs, 17 RBI, one homer, eight stolen bases, eight doubles, and one triple. He also struck out 38 times while walking 14 times. He also has the ability and speed to make incredible plays, but also has made head-scratching mistakes at times. He’s also got swagger and goals of a batting title, which seems to make him a hot pick for a breakout year. He’s certainly earned a chance to prove he can be the guy in left field and a valuable leadoff hitter for the Rockies.

The backups

The good thing about a competition for the starting spot in center is that the Rockies have a backup ready to go. In the Rockies case, most of the outfielders can play all three spots and sometimes more. If injuries strike the infield or if there is a Trevor Story trade, Hampson could make his way back to the infield. Hilliard is also likely the top backup in right field, while Hampson is next up in left field. Tapia can also play center.

Outside of the Hilliard-Hampson-Tapia shuffle, the Rockies have two primary backups for all of the outfield spots in veteran Chris Owings and prospect Yonathan Daza. Owings, 29, is much like Hampson in that he is also a backup infielder. He played in 17 games for the Rockies in 2020, two appearances apiece in each outfield spot and 11 games in the infield. He hit .268/.318/.439 with two homers, one double, nine runs scored, and five RBI in 44 plate appearances. Daza, 27, could be considered the best defensive player out of all Rockies outfielders, especially in center field. He spent 2020 at the alternate site and struggled in two stints in the majors in 2019, hitting .206/.257/.237 in 97 at-bats with one triple, one double, three RBI, seven runs scored, and one stolen base with 21 strikeouts. He is currently ranked No. 18 on our PuRP list.

Depth options

Bret Boswell, the Rockies eighth-round pick in 2017, is on the 40-man roster after the Rockies bumped him up to shield him from the Rule 5 draft. After playing at Double-A Hartford in 2019, Boswell, who is ranked No. 24 in our PuRP list, spent 2020 at the alternate site. A shortstop in college, who has also played second and third in the minors, Boswell is now focusing on the outfield. He could be another multi-position player, which the Rockies seem to love right now. The lefty-hitting and righty-throwing 26-year-old is likely to start the season in Triple-A Albuquerque.

The 2021 spring training roster is full of outfielders who are trying to make a good impression in hopes of a future call-up. Atop that list is 23-year-old Jameson Hannah, who is slashing .571/.667/1.000 in seven at-bats with one homer and five RBI. Hannah is ranked No. 19 on our PuRP list, but is making the most of his time in spring training after coming to the Rockies as part of the Jeff Hoffman trade with the Reds. He’s yet to play above Single-A and is scheduled to start the season in Double-A Hartford.

22-year-old Ryan Vilade, the Rockies second-round draft pick from 2017, is also training to be a versatile infielder/outfielder depth piece for the Rockies. A shortstop by trade, he’s been getting lots of corner outfield practice over the last two years, as well as time at third. Vilade, our No. 3 PuRP, spent 2020 at the alternate site despite not having played above Single-A. Like Hannah, he’s expected to start the season as a Yard Goat.

On the farm

Three non-roster invitees at 2021 spring training are all expected to start the season for the Isotopes in Wynton Bernard, Casey Golden, and Nick Longhi. In two at-bats this spring Bernard, 30, has hit an RBI single and an RBI double. The Rockies, who are Bernard’s fifth team, signed the righty outfielder to a minor league deal in the offseason. He’s gone back and forth between Triple-A and Double-A since 2017 with the Cubs and Giants farm teams. Longhi was also signed to a minor league deal by the Rockies earlier this year. He was drafted by the Red Sox in 2013 and spent 2018 and 2019 at the Triple-A level for Reds. Drafted by the Rockies in 2017, Golden played for Single-A Lancaster in 2019, hitting 23 homers, 19 doubles with 64 RBI, but also had 158 strikeouts in 383 at-bats.

In case of disaster

With so many outfielders able to fill in at right, center, and left, there are a lot of players to go through before a disaster really hits. However, if the Rockies decide to change philosophies and spend money on a free agent, former Astro Josh Reddick and former Met Eduardo Núñez, who is also an infielder turned outfielder, are both available. When Ian Desmond announced his decision to opt-out, he also said “for now,” so a return isn’t 100 percent ruled out...