THIS IS A GUEST ROCKPILE BY EVAN LANG (@legacy3233)
When you think of franchise players for the Rockies — someone who had the majority of appearances at his position long enough to be called a face of the franchise — a player comes to mind for almost every position. First base? It was Andres Galarraga and then Todd Helton. Right field? Obviously Larry Walker. Center field? It has to be Charlie Blackmon. Shortstop? Troy Tulowitzki and now Trevor Story. However, when you think about catchers for the Colorado Rockies, who comes to mind?
The average Rockies fan would probably say Chris Iannetta or Yorvit Torrealba. Both backstops were voted to the Rockies’ all-time 25 man roster for the 25th anniversary season in 2018. While Iannetta and Torrealba are fondly remembered for their presence during Rocktober in 2007 and 2009, they don’t necessarily stand out as “franchise” catchers. Iannetta was named Opening Day catcher six times throughout his two stints in Colorado, but was only the most common catcher in four total seasons — only twice consecutively. Torreabla was the Opening Day catcher just once and had just two straight years as the starter.
Torrealba and Iannetta on the all-time 25 is a perfect microcosm of how the Rockies have tried to solve their catcher issue: try to plug the hole with either a veteran or a homegrown prospect. However, consistency at catcher has long plagued the organization. Since 1993, the Rockies have gotten a shockingly bad 19.5 total bWAR from their starting catchers, and an even worse 13.2 bWAR position wide. For comparison, the next two worst positions are center field (36.1 from starters, 82.8 position wide) and second base (41.5 and 44.7). The drop-off in performance is staggering. Meanwhile, only three catchers have been named Opening Day starter in at least three consecutive seasons, while just two have held the majority starting role for three straight seasons.
The Rockies have a long history of bringing in veteran catchers that exceeds the scope of this article, but few have been able to succeed long term. Joe Girardi was the first veteran catcher for the organization, and from 1993-1995 was the Opening Day and majority starter each year, accumulating 1.0 total bWAR. Kirt Manwaring was the Opening Day starter 1997-1999, worth an abysmal -3.1 bWAR across three seasons, and bafflingly the majority catcher over journeyman Jeff Reed, who was worth 4.6 bWAR in his heyday years of 1996-1998. Torrealba joined the Rockies from 2006 to 2009 (with a second stop in 2013), but was arguably a better public face and clubhouse presence than catcher with just 1.4 bWAR.
The Rockies have also tried and failed to develop multiple prospects. Ben Petrick was ranked the Rockies’ No. 2 prospect in 2000, where he was also ranked No. 35 overall in baseball. Petrick was remarkable in 1999 and 2000 when he first hit the majors, but his production dropped sharply in 2001. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1999, his body couldn’t keep up and he was forced to retire in 2003. Iannetta would break out in 2008 and post the Rockies’ single season best bWAR for a starting catcher with 3.2. He sadly wasn’t able to replicate this season and his production fell until he was traded after the 2011 season, although his first tenure would end with the Rockies’ best career bWAR for a catcher at 8.1. Wilin Rosario was the Rockies No. 1 and baseball’s No. 21 prospect in 2011 according to MLB Pipeline —above even Nolan Arenado. A highly touted power bat with a strong arm, Rosario was looking to be the Rockies’ catcher of the future. Despite hitting .273/.306/.473 across five seasons with 71 home runs, his terrible defense hurt him so severely that he was only worth 1.6 accumulated bWAR. He led the league in passed balls from 2012-2014. Rosario was released after the 2015 season and has not seen major league action since. After Rosario, the Rockies have flamed through several more prospects, with Tom Murphy as the next victim to the Rockies’ catching grinder. Despite being a highly ranked prospect within the organization, Murphy was given very little opportunity to succeed in Colorado. Over four years he appeared in just 81 games with 210 plate appearances before being waived in March 2019. He has since found a home with the Seattle Mariners, with whom he had a breakout season in 2019 as their starting catcher.
Tony Wolters proved to be a solid pitch framer and excelled at catching baserunners. Wolters was the Opening Day catcher in 2017 and 2020, and the Rockies’ primary catcher in 2017, 2019, and 2020. Wolters struggled as a hitter, but was saved by his defense and put up a total of 2.2 bWAR. Chris Iannetta returned to the club in 2018 and 2019, but his career was coming to an end. The one-time Rockies great was worth -1.1 bWAR through both seasons. He still had pop in his bat, but couldn’t keep up with the ball and his defense behind the plate was terrible. Iannetta was released during the 2019 season and retired shortly after. Wolters was non-tendered and became a free agent after the 2020 season.
So where does this all leave the Rockies in 2021? Ironically at the same place they have always been: a veteran and an up-and-coming prospect. Elias Díaz is currently in line for the 2021 starting job, showing the potential for solid offensive production. Behind him is Dom Nuñez, a 26-year-old rookie who is looking to prove he belongs after missing all of 2020. In the farm system, the Rockies have the promising Drew Romo (No. 8 PuRP), ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Rockies’ No. 10 prospect in 2021. Romo is an intelligent and talented catcher with great potential, so could he be the answer the Rockies are looking for? The Rockies’ catching history is fraught with the inability to find a long term solution. So once again, the question is this: Will the Rockies ever find their franchise catcher?
In his longest start of the spring, Rockies pitcher Jon Gray went for five innings against the Cleveland Indians while striking out six and allowing only three runs. After Gray was shut down in 2020 due to inflammation in his pitching arm, he showed his regained velocity by comfortably hitting 96 mph on his fastball and walking no batters. Gray told MLB.com’s Thomas Harding that he is looking to have a more consistent delivery while he pitches, and keep a strong mental focus. “Even if I don’t have my pitch, I’m going to be doing really well. I think I can figure things out right now. If I can do that, it’s great,” Gray said.
After a lonely and fanless 2020, Spring Training 2021 is here, but players still feel separated by social distancing in the clubhouse. Enter Chi Chi González, who is looking to earn a roster spot when there aren’t necessarily any rotation spots up for grabs. Chi Chi is brewing Cuban coffee in the clubhouse for his teammates and coaches, and it’s bringing him and the team closer together. ‘“Cuban coffee is my thing. It’s part of my culture. I grew up with it,” González said. “And I thought, why not? The guys enjoy it. And it makes me feel like part of the team.”’
With the departure of Tony Wolters during the offseason, the Rockies catching room is down to former Pirate Elias Díaz, and former prospect Dom Nuñez. The team is looking for increased offensive production from their backstops, something they have been sorely lacking for some time. Former catchers Tony Wolters and Chris Iannetta did little to contribute offensively during the Rockies’ contention window, and the team needs more potent hitting in the bottom of the lineup if they wish to succeed in the future. Both catchers are showing offensive flashes during Spring Training this year, with slashing .455/.478/.727 with a home run. Nuñez is hitting .412/.444/.706 with a home run and a triple.
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