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The Rockies have a traffic jam at first base

The Rockies’ conundrum involves having so many first basemen and so few innings in which to play them.

Options are good — until they aren’t.

And that’s where the Colorado Rockies find themselves when exploring their possibilities at first base. Through years of roster mismanagement, the Rockies have too many first basemen and not enough innings to play them during a season when the organization should be trying to find their first baseman of the future and give young players regular playing time.

Let’s attempt to untangle the mess the Rockies have made.

The Starter

CJ Cron is clearly the Rockies’ starting first baseman. The 2022 All-Star turned in stellar numbers during the first half of 2022 (152 sOPS+) and, following a hand injury, less-than-stellar numbers in the second half (71 sOPS+). In addition, Cron experienced terrible home-road splits, 161 sOPS+ at Coors and 79 sOPS+ everywhere else. In other words, the Coors Effect is strong with this one.

That said, he led the Rockies in home runs last year with 29, and when he was good, he was very, very good, like this gem.

Cron’s defense, while not Heltonian, has improved, and in 2022, he had his second-best defensive year as measured by DRS with 5.

He is on the second year of a $14.5 million contract, and while fans had hoped the Rockies would trade their first baseman, both to bring in more prospects and to create additional playing opportunities for younger players, there’s no indication the team intends to do so. Instead, they will probably stay with their veteran first baseman on a team that really needs to be playing prospects and looking to the future.

That said, as the 2023 season starts, Cron and Kris Bryant represent the Rockies’ greatest power threat, which probably explains the Rockies’ reticence to move Cron since they are desperate for power.

Depth Options

Because the Rockies have not always been thoughtful about their roster, they find themselves with a glut of first basemen, a problem worsened on Sunday with an unexpected free-agent signing. More on that in a moment.

The first is Elehuris Montero, the third baseman who came to the Rockies through the Nolan Arenado deal. Because Montero was blocked by Ryan McMahon, he began spending time at first, and given that first base is often home for power hitters, the move made sense. Montero has proven himself to be a serviceable first baseman, but the defense remains a work in progress. Although he is a powerful hitter, he lacks discernment at the plate, a fact reflected in a 32.4% K%. There are some indications he improved this part of his game while playing Winter Ball with the Estrellas, but it’s a small sample size. Adding to the anecdotal evidence, Montero has made hard contact throughout Spring Training.

The second is Michael Toglia (No. 3 PuRP), the Rockies’ first-round draft pick from 2019. In terms of defense, Toglia truly is Heltonian and obviously the first baseman of the future. However, because Toglia is blocked by CJ Cron, the Rockies have spent time teaching him right field. (Now that Kris Bryant has been moved to right and will, presumably, share time there with Charlie Blackmon, it’s not clear where the Rockies intend to play Toglia, but that’s a topic for a different article of this series because the outfield traffic jam is considerably worse than the one at first base.)

Toglia brings with him the advantage of being a switch hitter as well as having serious power — when he’s not striking out. His 36.7% K% is positively staggering and a problem that he will need to address. As of this writing, he and Nolan Jones are tied for second at Spring Training in strikeouts with ten. It makes sense that Toglia will probably begin 2023 in Albuquerque.

The third is Nolan Jones, the Rockies’ offseason trade acquisition from the Cleveland Guardians. A natural third baseman (sensing a theme yet?), he was blocked by José Ramírez in Cleveland and was moved to right field in addition to learning first base. Like Montero and Toglia, Jones needs to see regular playing time so that the Rockies can determine whether he’s the lefty power bat they’re looking for or if they have instead traded for Sam Hilliard 2.0. In 28 games with the Guardians, Jones had a 33.0% K%.

Surprising fans on Sunday, the Rockies revealed that they signed former Cincinnati Red Mike Moustakas to an MiLB contract with an invitation to Spring Training. Among other things, they are looking at the possibility of him playing — you guessed it — first and third.

Moustakas has been hurt for much of the last two seasons, appearing in 62 and 78 games, respectively. In each season, he accrued -0.5 fWAR. In 2021 and 2022, he hit a total of 13 home runs.

Over the last two seasons, he has spent 527.1 innings at third base where he had -6 and -1 DRS. In terms of first base, Moustakas played 241.1 innings at first with 2 and -2 DRS.

That’s a long way of saying that although the Rockies have depth at first base, these are young players who need regular playing time. They are less likely to see it because of CJ Cron and, now, Mike Moustakas, assuming he makes the final roster.

On the Farm

The Rockies farm system has a number of first basemen:

  • Double-A: Grant Lavigne (No. 20 PuRP) 1B/DH
  • Double-A: Colin Simpson 1B/LF
  • High-A: Cuba Bess 1B/LF/3B
  • High-A: Trevor Boon 1B/LF/RF
  • High-A: AJ Lewis 1B/3B/C
  • Low-A: Jose Cordova 1B/C

The most remarkable here, at least now, is Grant Lavigne, who was drafted the same season as Michael Toglia. Lavigne had a red-hot Arizona Fall League, but the Rockies announced on Saturday that he had been sent to Minor League Camp. Where his bat fits into the Rockies’ long-term plans remains uncertain.

Closing Thoughts

We have a pretty good idea of what the Rockies will look like at first base when the season begins. The bigger question surrounds the decisions they will make as the season reveals itself. If 2023 is about player development and not blocking less-experienced players — something Bill Schmidt stressed throughout the offseason — the Rockies will need to have a plan to make that happen.