Looking Ahead to 2017 – The Rox Opening Day Position Players (forecast)

As things wind down in 2016 (and the Rox may yet make me a prophet and win 78 games), most of us are already looking forward to the next year. With great cause. A few less bullpen meltdowns and this team is not only in the Wild Card hunt but pressuring the Dodgers for the West (well and a healthy Trevor Story).

 

So with 2017 to look forward to, one of the deepest farm systems in baseball, and one of the best infields in baseball (when healthy), why not start thinking about the 25 man roster today for Opening Day in Milwaukee. There are players who will be free agents in the off-season to think about, possible trades, and projections for other spots. Also, we have to remember, the Rox payroll is likely to only jump around $5 million next year, in terms of allowed budget. So with that in mind…let’s forecast the 25 man roster (status as of 2017):

 

Catcher:

Tony Wolters – 2nd Year

Tom Murphy – Rookie

 

I know that Patrick Saunders of the Post has been saying they would consider bringing back Hundley because they want a veteran back there but, giving the budget limitations the millions to be spent bringing back Hundley have to be targeted elsewhere. Plus, to be blunt…Hundley is a horrible receiver. Yes, supposedly the pitching staff all trust him and like his presence but…the wild pitches, passed balls, horrible framing, and horrible throwing speak for themselves. It’s a bit like Mark Sanchez…he doesn’t do anything well…except make 25 man rosters. Murphy needs to improve behind the plate but to be blunt…he has looked about as good as Hundley. And Murphy has develop still in him since he was injured for large chunks of his minor league career. I suspect the catching duties will be split between the two of them, since Wolters hasn’t played a ton of games either and wore down as the season progressed.

 

In the end, you have a farm system to produce talent and allow you to spend money elsewhere. While I could see Murphy traded (or Wolters) to get back talent elsewhere (the bullpen for one), and then bring Hundley back, that would be a major surprise. Prospect Dom Nunez, who is very much in the mold of Wolters, right down to being a former middle infielder, had a poor year with the bat in Modesto (the whole team did really), and will likely start at High A again with a goal of moving to AA mid-season. So barring injuries, these two should be the pair for 2017 and 2018.

 

Third Base :

Nolan Arenado – (5th Year, FA 2020)

 

This is a huge no-brainer. And I expect Nolan to win another Gold Glove and with the Rox in the playoff hunt next year to be a candidate finally for the MVP. But…this is the offseason to sign the long-term deal with Nolan. You have Reyes and CarGo money going off at the end of 2017, and he is going to get a big bump in arbitration anyways. If no long-term deal is worked out then the trade Nolan rumors will get heated-up. He would fetch huge return several years from Free Agency, but they clearly need him and want him for the run to October. But if the Rox underperform in 2017’s first half…then I would not be surprised to see Nolan dealt. So the most important deal the Rox pursue in the off-season is not a free agent, it is Nolan

 

The best 3rd base prospect in the farm system has been Ryan McMahon, but he absolutely stunk up AA this year (a bit better than Trevor Story did in his first go around, a bit worse than Nolan did in his year in Tulsa). A lot of factors were involved in his disastrous season: new position (1st), perpetual road games (what Hartford stadium), and being young (21) for AA. He will repeat in Hartford (at least, we hope its Hartford) in 2017 but if he gets it figured out, he could be in AAA by mid-season. If Nolan is dealt and McMahon struggles, look for either Story or the #6 prospect in baseball Brendan Rogers to be your 3rd baseman of the future. Both have the bat to stay there and Rogers many expect to end up there because of his size (what, Cal Ripken, Tulo and Corey Seager haven’t proved you can be big and play that position).  But best case Nolan is playing 3rd for the Rox into his 30s and goes down as one of the 10 best third basemen in baseball history. Does Nolan believe in the Rox future? Will he give a hometown discount? And if not…who will get blamed if Nolan gets traded?

 

Shortstop:

Trevor Story (2nd Year)

 

Again, a no-brainer. As long as the hand comes back strong…pencil him in. And to think, last year we were waiting to see if Jose Reyes or Daniel Descalso or Cristhian Adames was going to be our shortstop in 2016. Story started off all power and strikeout…and set records. But look at the numbers…his strikeouts got fewer as the season went along as did his pitches/AB. A lot of rookie start and then struggle as pitchers adjust. Story started strong, struggled for a few weeks in May and June, and then was playing a lot like a veteran…until that darn headfirst slide into 2nd. As bad as the bullpen was in 2nd half, if Story had stayed healthy, playing his quality defense, I think the team still misses the playoffs but in an 84 win season. I guess we get a better draft pick  in June. I think Story is going to continue to improve. I can see him hitting .290 with 30+ homers in 2017 and 2018, and play above average defense. And maybe in 2017 get more MVP votes than Corey Seager.

 

Down on the farm the team has Pat Vailaka (more on him shortly) and then…nothing until Brenden Rogers. I was actually surprised Rogers didn’t get moved to Modest in August but, he was 19 playing against 21, 22, and 23-year-olds so, enough challenge for his first pro season. Next year the team will see 3rd round pick Garret Hampson, who has almost no power but more speed on the bases than any player since EY and EY Jr. The 81st player taken in June went straight to Short-Season A ball this year and played well, hitting .301 with a .404 OBP and a .441 OPS. His power might develop at some point, but I think DJ’s power is as high of a homer potential he might have in him. But an .845 OPS, good defense and 36 SB 68 games…yeah, that will play at Coors (Trea Turner’s mini-me maybe). So the future is looking good at short.

 

Second:

DJ LeMahieu (6th Year – FA 2019)

 

Okay…time to confess. I thought DJ was a AAAA player or a bench scrub as recent as 2014. But then his defense took off (Gold Glove in 2014) and then the power (2015) and now the average (and best 2-strike approach in baseball in 2016). And yes, his value on the trade market will never be higher but…it is still 2nd base…people don’t give up tons for 2nd baseman. Unless you are Robinson Cano, Roberto Alomar or Brian Dozier. So I just don’t see him being traded. DJ won’t turn 29 until July isn’t a FA until 2019. Whoever would have imagined DJ with an OPS+ of 127 and an OPS of .913. Oh, and a WAR of 3.8! I mean, those are Tulo numbers! A sign of how good DJ is, his BABIP since coming to the pros – .313 (2011 with Cubs), .353 (2012), .328 (2013), .332 (2014), .362 (2015), and .391 (2016). Regression? DJ can’t even spell that word! Aside from Nolan I can see DJ being the next most likely to get a contract extension. Consider how much Ben Zobrist (with some positional flexibility but at 36) got this offseason.

 

As for prospects, much like Dom Nunez and Ryan McMahon, their future plans took a hit this year as Forrest Wall flat stunk (.684 OPS), and his defense isn’t good enough to get him to the Majors. The only alternative to DJ is Cristhian Adames or Pat Vailaka, but neither gives you the same level of offense or the ability to hit in any position in the batting order DJ does. Can Wall improve? Yes, he wasn’t that highly touted both in the draft and prospect rankings before this year for no reason. Especially because 2nd baseman don’t get any love (his shoulder being his issue, though farm reports say he is now showing enough on his throws to play short now). Wall will repeat High A I assume but if Hampson rakes in Ashville next year then we could see High A having the future 2nd baseman for the Rockies…but he might be playing short there (where the team has its High A team is still to be determined).

 

First Base:

Mark Reynolds (11th Year – FA)

Jordan Patterson (Rookie)

Stephen Cardullo (Rookie)

 

This is the tough position to forecast, so I fudged a bit here. I believe that the Rox are happy with Reynolds and especially with his defense (which is worth a lot to the Rox with their infield and pitching staff). Even with a reduced homer output he still has an OPS of .806 and an OPS+ of 100 (league average). His WAR is .1 for the year, but at least with FanGraphs his defense isn’t that highly rated. But as the old saying goes, who you going to believe, your stats or your eyes. Reynolds played this year at $2.6 million. If he agrees to come back for $3 million or less, then he fits both the budget and 25-man roster. But he might have priced himself out of the market. I can see him viewed as right-hand power of the bench as well…in the Ryan Rayburn role. Reynolds can play the outfield…as needed.

 

But again, budget matters. And the team has two rookies that might be positioned to take over the role. First let’s talk Jordan Patterson. Patterson has done everything the team has asked since he was drafted in the 4th round in 2013. He was a team captain at South Alabama and is a natural character guy. In the minors he has simply hit, though this year was weird as he had an OBP over .400 for most of the year but no homers before July, but ended up with 14 homers and an OPS of .856 (OBP of .376). He does strikeout…a lot (119 in 427AB but drew 47 BB. He can play left and first. But the biggest issue…he’s a lefthander. Evidently it is illegal to play for the Rockies in the outfield if you hit right-handed. If Patterson is not on the 25-man roster in 2017 I can see him being traded, either to sweeten a deal or straight up. As for Cardullo, is there a better story in minor league baseball this year? Great guy from what I hear. He’s 29, which reminds us he isn’t a prospect. But he has held his own at the big league level. He can play both corner spots and 1st and in a pinch 3rd, with an .840 OPS in 16 games (103 OPS+). But the biggest thing…he hits right-handed. He can replace Ryan Raburn (better defender as well) on the roster or both he and Reynolds. Cardullo is the only right-handed bat on the 40-man who can play both 1st and the outfield. I suppose they could resign Hundley and move Murphy to 1st but…he’s never been there before.  What this highlights is how Kyle Parker’s failure has hurt the team.

 

Down on the farm Ryan McMahon has made the switch to 1st from 3rd, and will probably stay at 1st unless Nolan is traded. But McMahon’s struggles, while not the end of the world, reminds the Rox too much of the failure of Corel Prime, the last 1st baseman of the future. Best case scenario the team signs Nolan and McMahon goes back to Hartford and hits the dailights outs of the ball. If not Patterson (a lefty which is nice at 1st), or McMahon (a lefty as well) the next up is likely to be Brian Mundell, who had a very good season at Ashville with an .888 OPS as a 22-year old. But he is at least 2 full years from Coors Field.  Think back to the early days of the team and you had a long period of knowing who was at first with Big Cat and Helton. Since Helton’s bad back the future of that position has been highly questionable (save for the healthy year they got from Justin Morneau). This could be a position the team looks to fill via a trade. But budget remains an issue so big bats like Moreland from Texas or a return of Matt Holliday are simply not on the horizon.

 

Outfield:

Charlie Blackmon (6th Year, FA 2019)

David Dahl (2nd year)

Carlos Gonzalez (10th Year, FA 2018)

Stephen Cardullo (Rookie)

One of Jordan Patterson or Ramiel Tapia (Rookie) 

 

There will be a trade of at least one of the outfielders by Colorado this offseason. And the one I think gets moved is Gerardo Parra. And the next response is, “Who would trade for Gerardo Parra?” The answer is no one…for him directly. But a deal where a bad contract – most likely a pitcher – with a contract of near equal value (though the Rox would prefer to get a 1-year contract back and would be willing to eat some of the price for Parra in 2018 if need-be). I think Bridich probably kicks himself for this signing more than any other. Parra has never been a patient hitter, with his high watermark for walks in a season is 48 (in 663 PA). His average is 36 in 600PA. He simply doesn’t walk. He has had two years with OBP for a year only twice, in 2015 (great 1st half, horrible 2nd half) and 2011. His lifetime Slugging is .400. And yes, he used to be a good defender. Now…not so much. Why was he signed with the future coming (okay, yes, Dahl could have flamed out and who knew Charlie B would take the next step). But they still owe him $18 million. And he no longer has a position (repeat after me…he is not a first baseman…5’11” is not a first baseman height). A deal for a starting pitcher who has a year left but has failed for his current team would bring a veteran arm (to replace DLR), who could be moved to the bullpen if the current crop takes the 5 starting spots. But of the potential outfielders this team has, easily the worst is Parra…and yes, I am including Stephen Cardullo in that list.

 

Dahl was listed as the 6th most valuable going forward of the current crop of rookies in baseball. As they pointed out not only is he young but having missed a season and a half due to injuries, he is still developing as a player. Imagine what he might be like in 2018? Blackmon is probably never going to be worth more on the trade market (I could see them trading both Parra and Blackmon but trading Blackmon hurts both in terms of solid bat and someone to hit leadoff). Blackmon is 30, but still has two years til FA (could be an interesting mid-season trade, especially if Tapia rakes in AAA the first few months of 2017). Dahl can continue to play left (as large as most fields’ centerfield) but is the future centerfielder clearly. But keeping Blackmon, who has been a major factor in the road offense (he has hit better on the road than home this year and his power has been much more on display on the road). Blackmon of the three is not only the most valuable in terms of trade but also in terms of WAR to the team. As for CarGo, he will probably hit .300 again this year, but his power is down from last year. But his defense is much better this year (one of the reasons I don’t get excited about the move of CarGo to first…part of his current value comes from his defense and I am not sure his bat plays up enough at 1st to put him there, with this year providing just an .865 OPS and a 112 OPS+. But, his power and defense are an important combination for this team in 2017. Again, a trade remains possible in either this off-season or more likely at the trading deadline.

 

I already mentioned Cardullo as a very cheap right-handed bat that is superior in terms of defense compared to Rayburn but also provide a 1st base option. Dahl will be earning the league minimum next year, CarGo $20 million, and Blackmon after arbitration likely in the $8 million range (if not more). If they keep Parra that would be almost $40 million in outfield, or even with him gone it is still nearly $30 million for the outfield. Being able to play 2 or 3 rookies (if Patterson is the 4th/5th outfielder) offsets that high cost by costing only around $1.6 million total. I believe Tapia is most likely to start in AAA unless he forces his way on to the team (or if both Parra and one of the others are both traded and there is a spot open for him to get 400+ AB). Tapia needs to get lots of at-bats.  Hence he will probably start the season in AAA. His offense could still use some refinement (okay, he can flat hit but a bit more loft would take him into the 20 homer category) and his defense, while vastly improved…like Tom Murphy could still use a bit more fine tuning.

 

As for prospects…well, this is the wealth of the organization. Since Dan O’Dowd left (and let us remember, most of the prospects on this club are his choices…he knows talent, if not management and I remain a fan of his…mostly), the team’s developmental process has changed. It used to be a full season in each league, with advancement only coming when things were “perfect.” The Rox are still slower than a lot of teams (see my comments on Brenden Rogers), but as we saw this year, a lot of players moved up levels, and some, like Dahl and Carasitti, three levels. What I still think is interesting is that a player like Dahl can be in a slump at a given time (Freeland also wasn’t lights out in AA), but they knew he (they) were needing AAA to advance their play. Maybe Dahl got bored in Hartford or the travel just wore him down. When he got to AAA he just destroyed the ball and was at Coors before he knew it. But then others, like Murphy (who basically hit .400 after July 1 and killed the ball with an OPS over 1.000…well over) and Patterson, who had an amazing season even if the Ks picked up when he decided to go for more power, stayed in AAA all season. What this tells me is for Bridich and the excellent developmental team (I think the Rox really do need more pub for those guys in the national media…they are great…but of course that would require a stop in flyover country and national media aside from our own great Tracy Ringolsby, couldn’t find Colorado on a map…sorry, venting). Development is clearly more art than science.

 

But what is exciting is that the team has been willing to make the hard decisions, ones they didn’t foresee before the see before the season started. Tony Wolters on the Opening Day roster? Advancing Dahl from AA. Cardullo getting Paulsen’s spot (well-deserved by the way), and Carasitti (which probably was more desperation than anything and he could use more developmental time) all went from AA or non-roster invitee to the majors and made contributions. Also Tyler Anderson, after a year away from baseball went from “does he still exist” to #2 starter like that. So…good news, if they have talent, they will use it, even if it is a surprise (save for Hundley instead of Murphy…grumble).

 

So after Patterson, Tapia, Dahl and Cardullo, is there talent still there in the minors in the outfield? While their top prospect lists (like Top 30 on MLB.com) is dominated by pitching (woohoo!) there are two guys the team is high on. One is Sam Hillard, yet another left, who showed an interesting speed/power combo in Low A this year (.797 OPS with 17 homers and 30 steals) but whose hit tool still needs refinement and a guy who started to get noticed this year (and will probably be on Top 30 lists next year after some national publicity) named Dillon Thomas, who posted a .778 OPS, a solid .353 OPS and a lot of doubles (37) [Sadly…guess which way he hits…does this team have something against righties?]. He will likely be at AAA next year and presents another interesting option. Of course I think if the Rox make a deal this off-season at least one of Patterson, Tapia, Hillard or Thomas will have to be included. And right now, they have an abundance of riches. After the last 6 seasons, that is great news! Oh, and keep an eye on former top prospect Russel Herrera, who now is a centerfielder, is a switch hitter who is much stronger from the right hand side. After flaming out as a prospect in the A levels and as a shortstop, he now is an interesting option (still age 23) who will likely be at AAA next year after hitting .292 with an OPS of .753 (after two sub .700 years at Modesto) but had an .805 OPS and stole 36 bases this year (only 8 CS). Sometimes the bat just takes time to come and Herrera was actually a bit young this year for AA, so…keep an eye on him, especially since he can hit right-handed…something sorely missing and can play all three outfield positions. In a deep farm system guys like Herrera can be lost in the shuffle but…keep and eye on him like Thomas.

 

Utility Man:

Pat Vailaka (Rookie)

Undecided (likely Cristhian Adames)

 

This is another interesting area. This year Daniel Descalso, when his play was limited, was pretty good. When he played every day his stats and performance fell (somewhat like Brandon Barnes in 2014 and 2015). Then there is Cristhian Adames. Adames has won winter-league batting titles. He hit in the minors. But for most of the season…he stunk at bat. We are led to believe this is due to playing time issues, and with regular playing time he has improved. But that is the issue. The Utility guys are only going to start 1 to 2 times a week. They are expected to have great gloves (a big issue with Descalso, a middle infielder by trade, who looked better at 1B and OF…and he didn’t look Gold Glove in either spot). But they have to be able to hit in pinch hit situation. He hasn’t. He is out of options. And the club loves him. But they can’t have two glove first utility guys. I give a slight nod to Vailaka in this situation because his glove is as good as Adames (or at least that is the scouting report), but he has some pop in his bat. Never going to hit .280, but doubles and homer power. You need that on the bench. I placed Undecided here because I think that the team is likely to spend at least some money to bring in a veteran here who can play 3B and 1B as well as maybe some outfield (wait, I think that is Matt Reynolds). The budget will be tight with Reyes and CarGo’s contract, the bad money on Parra and big raises due Arenado and Blackmon. The expiring contract of De La Rosa and Logan saves some money, but that is probably going straight into relief corp changes. But I anticipate the Rox spending money here, not in the catcher position, for a veteran with pop. And then it is a battle between Adames and Vailaka.

 

The loser of the two is likely to end up at AAA where they provide the prospect reserve force (I think Adames would clear waivers after struggling with the bat in his major league career). Of course there are other players, more in the Rafael Ynoa (can I say that while he is probably a great guy, getting him off the 40-man roster was a great move as was Paulsen). Usually utility guys are sort of made by roster decision so other than those two, there maybe others who rise to that role. Remember, DJ was a utility guy until…well, he became a great player.

 

So there is my prognostication on the 2017 Rox everyday lineup and reserves. After the Hot Stove season is over I will update this…unless I am perfectly correct…in which case I would love a job working for Jeff Bridich (no really…I am semi-unemployed, so…I will happy drive to Coors Field each day)

 

Next up, the pitching forecast for 2017 (you won’t be happy I think)

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