Rockies

Rockies 2018 Position Breakdown: The polarizing middle infield and the star on the horizon

As we continue our breakdown of the 2018 Rockies position by position, today we look at perhaps the most polarizing two spots on the roster: middle infield.

With incumbents Trevor Story and DJ LeMahieu returning to starting roles at shortstop and second base, respectively, double-play turns will look similar this season. The tandem will undoubtedly be a source of rational and civil debate in the same conversations that took place last season.

The value of both players’ defense is undeniable and recognized. But, it’s with the stick where the camps are made, as the unique skill sets of both have driven a wedge between local and national media coverage alike.

Both players will absolutely play pivotal roles however because, as it stands, middle infield may be the team’s most shallow position. Though, not too far away, is a potential future cornerstone of the franchise.

The Starters

DJ LeMahieu

The two-time All-Star, Gold Glover, and 2016 National League batting champion returns for a contract year in 2018, and will once again be surrounded by controversy just because he’s an unusual player.

Coming away with his second Gold Glove in four straight seasons in which he was a finalist, the tallest second baseman in baseball knows the glovework will be there. But the more complex discussion comes with his bat. As the game moves more and more toward an emphasis on elevation and extra-base hits, the lanky two-bagger has firmly stated, “Nah, I’m good.”

The patented slap-single to right field--- his signature play which he ironically may be the best player in the game defending against with his six-foot-four frame---has turned his bat into a lethal, baserunner-creating weapon. Of his 189 hits last season, 149 were singles. In the top 10 hit-producers in 2017, this percentage of singles is second only to the much speedier Dee Gordon.

LeMahieu’s slap-happiness infuriates lineup constructors, national media, local media and opposing defenses alike just because no one knows how he fits into today’s game. Especially in what figures to be a weaker Rockies lineup than years past, is swatting .310 but slugging .429 really that valuable?

Ask the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks, both of whom have taken to regularly implementing extreme shifts whenever LeMahieu comes to bat.

With no true challenger to his lineup spot entering Spring Training, those conversations will rage on as he aims to play in more than 145 games for the fifth straight season.

Trevor Story

While Story may have taken a step back from his electric 2016 rookie campaign with the bat last season, his starting job at shortstop is still secure barring the most extreme of springs.

For the 2018 chapter, it’s all about putting the glove and bat together at the same time. After an abysmal start in 2017, hitting .197 through May, he began to return to form. He turned it on when it mattered the most, clipping .269 with six home runs and 22 RBIs after August 31, and will try to carry that into 2018.

Story’s ceiling is Adam Dunn with the bat, but instead of being relegated to designated hitter duties, he’ll be playing upper-echelon defense at one of the game’s premier positions. Where LeMahieu’s “issue” is generating too many of the least valuable version of hits, Story’s is creating those more valuable extra-base hits (49.2 percent of his hits in 2017 were at least doubles), but not at a high enough rate and failing to put the ball in play.

Like LeMahieu, Story’s only real threat for the starting job is Pat Valaika, who is more suited to a bench role.

The Reserves

Pat Valaika

As we ran down last week, Pat Valaika will be the Rockies’ go-to utility guy in 2017. Beyond LeMahieu and Story, Valaika is the only player on the roster with more than 50 innings at either middle infield position. After Alexi Amarista signed with the Detroit Tigers, the infield bench options are thin, making Valaika the first—and, as it stands now, maybe only—man out of the gate for Bud Black should Story or LeMahieu go down. He also has experience at third base and, to a lesser extent, first base and left field.

Valaika’s defense is serviceable enough for a bench role, and his pinch-hitting success sparkles up his utility player resume. In 2018, “Patty Barrels” will play a much bigger role for the Rockies as they seek consecutive playoff berths, both via necessity and merit.

Tony Wolters

Though the 2016 storyline was Wolters breaking camp with the team as a converted catcher, his path of least resistance for making the 2018 Colorado Rockies will likely be a return to his original position.

Wolters was drafted a second baseman by the Cleveland Indians in 2010 but made the switch to backstop in the minors before being claimed by the Rockies. Now, with the signing of Chris Iannetta, the competition with Tom Murphy and the lack of depth in the Rockies infield, the team needs a second baseman more than another catcher. He’s only played 15 major league innings at an infield position but is still the team’s best backup option behind Valaika on the infield.

Ian Desmond and Ryan McMahon

The Rockies will need to justify their $70-million-man with as much playing time as possible, which right now appears to be in the corner outfield with some innings at first base. But the longtime shortstop will likely be called on at some point in 2018 to play up the middle in a pinch. In the past two seasons, he’s only seen 5.1 innings of middle infield work,  one game at shortstop, but is still fairly high up on the totem pole for the team.

Ryan McMahon also has experience around the infield, but seems primed for the starting job at first base, though he may get a few innings at second as the season progresses.

The Longshots

There is not much in the way to keep the Rockies’ top prospect from getting the call except age and experience. While it has seemed likely that Brendan Rodgers is in line for an MLB debut in 2018 for a while, the status of the middle infield and his invitation to big league spring training may indicate that will happen sooner rather than later. He still has not played an inning at Triple-A, but his strong performance with Hartford last season and a great spring could send him to Albuquerque out of camp and to the doorstep of Coors Field.

There are other middle infielders in the system, like Daniel Castro who has minimal MLB experience with the Atlanta Braves and hit .306 for the Isotopes in 2017, but the Rockies likely won’t want to use a 40-man roster spot on him to spell an injury. For now, it looks like Rodgers or an external option are the next choices behind the players on the 25-man.

Conclusion

The Rockies have a ton of talent at the top of their middle infield depth chart with a pair of defensive wizards who have valuable yet divisive offensive profiles. They also have a potential superstar on the farm. But in between are a lot of question marks. Colorado can ill-afford to sustain a serious injury to the middle infield but by the end of the year it, health considering, it could be as strong as any spot on the roster.

In the very near future, the Rockies could be sporting two players up the middle with 30-home-run power.



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