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Who’s on first in 2021?

Will recently-signed veteran C.J. Cron win the job, or will Josh Fuentes capitalize on his 2020 success?

After the Rockies did not pick up Daniel Murphy’s option at the end of the 2020 season and his subsequent retirement, it looked like that path was laid clear for Josh Fuentes to take over as the Rockies first baseman of the future after his breakout 2020 campaign. However, the Rockies signed two veteran players in mid-February in Greg Bird and C.J. Cron. They also signed veteran Connor Joe in November. All three were signed to minor league deals with invites to spring training. Now, things are a little less certain at first base.

Entering spring training, the depth chart looked like this:

After a week of spring training action, this still appears to be the order, so let’s take a look at the “state of first base” as if this is the Opening Day depth chart.

The starter

Much like the catcher position, the starting first baseman is a bit up in the air. As mentioned above, the current favorite to win the starting gig is most recently signed Cron. Renee Dechert wrote about the signing, “[t]he 31-year-old first baseman and designated hitter appeared in 13 games with 52 plate appearances for the Detroit Tigers in 2020 before going down with a knee injury. During that time he slashed .190/.346/.548 for a wRC+ of 138 and an fWAR of 0.3. In 2019, he played 125 games for the Minnesota Twins and slashed .253/.311/.469.”

So far in five spring games, Cron has hit just 1-for-13 (.077) with a .220 OPS. He has also struck out six times (46.2%), drawn a walk, and scored a run. He is not currently on the 40-man roster.

The backup

If Cron figures to be the majority starter, that means that Josh Fuentes will once again likely be relegated to a bench role. The 2018 PCL MVP slashed .306/.320/.439 with two homers and 17 RBI in his 30-game audition with the Rockies in 2020. He also posted a DRS of 8 — second highest on the team. Most notably, he finished sixth in Purple Row’s 2020 Ranking the Rockies series.

With the trade of Nolan Arenado and the retirement of Daniel Murphy, this seemed to be Fuentes’ big shot, but it seems as though he’ll either be used at a different position (such as third base or perhaps in the outfield) or relegated to a bench bat.

So far in six spring games, Fuentes has hit 4-for-13 (.308) with an OPS of .819. He has notched two doubles and three RBI, but has struck out five times (38.5%) and has yet to draw a walk.

Depth options

Here is where I’ll talk about Bird and Joe, neither of whom are on the 40-man roster at this moment, but either or both could make the roster, likely as a veteran bench presence.

Denver-native Greg Bird, 28, was signed by the Rockies on February 11. He was drafted by the Yankees in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, but his career has been marred by injuries. He has never played a full season of major league baseball and hasn’t seen major league action since 2019. In fact, 2018 was the only season he played more than 50 games. He has a career major-league slash of .211/.301/.424 in 186 games.

In six appearances this spring, Bird has hit 1-for-13 (.077) with a .277 OPS. He has the lowest number of strikeouts (4) and has drawn two walks.

Connor Joe, 28, was signed by the Rockies in November. The IF/OF has bounced around a little bit in his career since being drafted 39th overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014, most recently spending time with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020. However, did not play at the major league level in 2020; his only major league experience comes from the eight games he played for the San Francisco Giants in 2019. In those eight games, he hit .067/.125/.067 in 15 at-bats and posted a DRS of 2 in the outfield. He has only played left field at the major league level.

In six spring training games, Joe has hit 2-for-8 (.250) with an OPS of 1.080. Of the candidates vying for first, he’s the only one with a home run. However, if Joe factors into the Rockies’ roster, I’d bet he would be utilized more as a utility man, like Chris Owings, than a true first baseman.

On the farm

Beyond these four, the Rockies have a plethora of corner infielders in their farm system. Perhaps the most “major league ready” prospect is Colton Welker (No. 5 PuRP). Welker was drafted as a third baseman in the fourth round of the 2016 draft but, like other Rockies prospects, has been working at the other infield positions as well. In 2019, Welker played 27 games at first for the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats and 63 at third. He will likely start his season in Triple-A, but might have a major league cameo later in the season.

So far in spring training, Welker has been on fire. In seven games, he has a slash of .385/.429/.615 with three doubles, four RBI, and one walk. However, all of his defensive reps have been at third base rather than first.

The Rockies also acquired third baseman Elehuris Montero in the Nolan Arenado trade. The 22-year-old is currently on the 40-man roster, but hasn’t played above Double-A. In 2019, he hit just .188/.235/.317 in 59 Double-A games and committed seven errors. Even though his time has been completely spent at the hot corner thus far, Montero will likely start getting reps at other infield spots and won’t factor into this position battle just yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts the season in Hartford.

Other options that the Rockies have are recently drafted Michael Toglia (No. 4 PuRP) and Aaron Schunck (No. 6 PuRP). However, they both have a bit of a trek through the minors still due to their recent draft status (both in 2019) and the loss of the 2020 developmental season. They will likely start in High-A in 2021 and work their way up from there.

In case of disaster

The Rockies have way too many corner infield/utility options to choose from. If they run through all of them over the course of the 2021 season, that’s the true disaster.