Don’t forget to check out previous installments in the positional preview series! You can find them here: Catcher
The Rockies enter the 2015 season in good shape at first base. They have the reigning National League batting champ who is very good defensively in Justin Morneau and the opportunity to pair him with a perfect platoon partner in Wilin Rosario. Let’s dive in a bit deeper and see what we can expect from the Colorado first basemen this year.
The incumbent starting first baseman for the Rockies is Justin Morneau, who experienced somewhat of a resurgence with the Rockies in 2014, his first season with the team. Morneau, who turns 34 in May, had an impressive slash line of .319/.364/.496 last year, good for a 123 wRC+. Justin is also an important piece of what is probably the best defensive infield in baseball, a deserving Gold Glove finalist in 2014 whose 8 DRS and 7.2 UZR/150 were both second best among NL first basemen. All of these numbers, as well as Morneau’s 2.5 fWAR and 3.2 rWAR, were his best numbers since his injury-shortened 2010 season.
Both ZiPS and Steamer are projecting the soon-to-be 34 year old Morneau to regress this season. ZiPS has him down for 108 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR while Steamer projects him at 114 wRC+ and 1.5 WAR, but I actually believe there’s a chance we’ll see his numbers improve if manager Walt Weiss is able to platoon him correctly. Since 2011, Morneau has posted a 130 wRC+ against right handed pitching (last year it was even better at 141) versus a wRC+ of just 46 against left handed pitching. If Weiss is able to give Morneau as many PA’s as possible against right handed pitching and Wilin Rosario as many PA’s as possible against left handed pitching (more on that in a minute) the Rockies will have an ideal platoon capable of producing some truly great offensive numbers.
In the early going, it appears that the backup to Morneau will be former catcher Wilin Rosario. Wilin spent his first three seasons with the Rockies behind the plate, but his abysmal defense there has forced the Rockies to look for alternate avenues to find some value for him. Rosario spent extensive time during the winter and showed up early to spring training to work on his first base and outfield defense (he might get a look there as well). Rosario also battled injuries in 2014 and struggled through his worst offensive season as a Major Leaguer, with a slash line of just .267/.305/.435 (86 wRC+) despite the lowest strikeout rate of his career.
People going into the season will likely question Wilin’s ability to proficiently play first base, and rightfully so (though I think he absolutely deserves a chance there), but his biggest strength, and an ability that has never been questioned, is hitting left handed pitching. Last season, Rosario slashed .317/.346/.644 (156 wRC+) against lefties and for his career he has been even better, owning an unbelievable slash line of .328/.361/.647 (159 wRC+). The downside, however, have been his struggles to hit righties, as he has a career wRC+ of just 75 hitting right on right. The presence of Morneau on the roster should allow Walt Weiss to mitigate this issue and let Rosario focus on his strength, which is mashing southpaws. Of course, it would be impossible to have Morneau exclusively face righties and Rosario exclusively face lefties, but assuming health (big assumption, I know) and proper platooning, the Rockies could get production in the neighborhood of 130-135 wRC+ and around 4 WAR from their two first basemen this season. That would be just fine.
Minor League Options
Down on the farm, the Rockies have multiple decent injury or trade replacement options in Kyle Parker, Ben Paulsen, and Matt McBride. Parker, 25, is the most highly thought of prospect of the group and would probably get the call if a replacement for Rosario is needed due to his right handedness. Parker got his first cup of coffee in the Majors last season as an injury replacement and later as a September call-up and was thoroughly unimpressive, with a slash line of .192/.192/.231 and 14 strikeouts in 26 PA. 2014 was also his first year in AAA and he was roughly average as a hitter there, leading to some questions about his ability to hit against more advanced pitching. Nonetheless, the Rockies will probably want to take a longer look at Parker at some point, and he will at the very least be a September call-up this season.
Should the Rockies need a replacement for Morneau, left handed Ben Paulsen would be the most likely choice. The 27-year old Paulsen was much more impressive than Parker in his first brief Major League stint in 2014, slashing .317/.348/.571 (139 wRC+) in 66 PA. Paulsen, though not as highly thought of as a prospect, has been an above average hitter in both of his seasons in AAA and is on the Rockies 40-man roster along with Parker, making it easier for them to be called up to the Big Leagues.
In the event of a catastrophe involving multiple injuries and/or trades to the players above, the Rockies could choose to go to Matt McBride. The 29-year old McBride has a wRC+ of just 46 in his 115 Major League PA spanning two different seasons, but part of that is due to his unsustainably low .247 BABIP. He would likely be a passable first base option for the Rockies in the short term.
That wraps things up for first basemen. Be sure to subscribe, follow View from the Rooftop on Facebook and Twitter, and check back on Monday, March 9, for the next installment 2015 Rockies Position Preview: Second Base.