Josh Rutledge is back up with the Colorado Rockies, and with the injury to third baseman Nolan Arenado, this will be more than the “occasional pinch hitter” stint he had in the early parts of the season when he totaled just 15 plate appearances over 11 games in a 19-day span.
No, Rutledge looks likely to start at second while Arenado heals, moving D.J. LeMahieu from the keystone to the hot corner. Despite his flaws, this four-to-six week path to playing time (and perhaps longer if Arenado eventually opts for surgery to place a pin in his broken finger, something that won’t be determined until later this month), this makes Rutledge an interesting add for those in need of shortstop or second base help.
Now, the current Fangraphs depth charts don’t peg Rutledge for a great deal of playing time (just 115 plate appearances over the rest of the season), thanks to the presence of Charlie Culberson as a defensively capable third baseman and the assumption that Rutledge will be sent down when Arenado returns.
If that’s true, then Rutledge only makes sense temporarily. There are easy narratives to craft, however, where Rutledge ends up with more playing time – Arenado’s return takes longer than expected, Troy Tulowitzki eventually takes his annual trip to the disabled list (not a certainty, and let’s hope it doesn’t go down that way), and/or LeMahieu continues to struggle at the dish.
While the Rockies have been successful so far, they’re getting little offensive production from LeMahieu and Culberson, who own wRC+ marks of 63 and 36, respectively. Culberson’s versatility could keep him around, sure, but Rutledge’s offensive downside is about what LeMahieu’s doing now and is roughly Culberson’s upside. If Colorado determines they need a little more pop from their infield, Rutledge has a chance to carve out a role. Remember, while he struggled mightily in 2013, the biggest knock on Rutledge is his glove, not his bat.
In any case, the long-term playing time isn’t a concern for the add recommendation at present. Rutledge is going to play in the coming weeks. The team plays 16 times at Coors Field between now and the end of June (to 16 road games, four of them at Miller Park), which obviously helps, too.
His terrible 2013 (wRC+ of 60, .294 OBP) may mask the fact that Rutledge wasn’t a complete zero as a fantasy option. In what amounted to half a season, he tallied seven home runs and stole 12 bases, enough that his .235 average didn’t hurt you at shortstop. In 2012, it was much the same, with eight home runs and seven stolen bases in roughly half a season, this time with a .274 average. On a per-game basis, Rutledge ranked eighth and 23rd in shortstop value in 2012 and 2013, respectively. He’s proof positive that a player need not be a terrific baseball player to be a usable fantasy asset.
This year, he’s done little in his 29 plate appearances, but he was playing fairly well at Triple-A. While his isolated slugging was far below his previously established minor league levels (it’s worth noting that he’s only spent 400 plate appearances at any level, at High-A, which kind of makes him hard to get a solid read on), there are some positive indicators, the biggest of which is a spike in walk rate. Rutledge profiles as a near 20-percent strikeout guy, so even if his BABIP floats above .300, as it should, he’s unlikely to post a .300 batting average. The walks, however, are encouraging – his 10.9 percent walk rate in 64 Triple-A plate appearances is hardly reliable but would mark a huge increase from his top mark at any level (7.8 percent at High-A). Even if he can just increase his walk rate from his 5.2 percent career mark to, say, seven percent, the impact in the number of times he’s on base would be appreciable.
Right now, Steamer and ZiPS both seem to agree Rutledge is a smart add if playing time is present.
In other words, expect Rutledge to post prorated 15-15 numbers over however long he gets playing time, with an average far higher than you’d initially expect. That’s a top-10 line at shortstop (where we’ve focused this article because this is a shortstop post, but he has second base eligibility, too).
Of course, with a small sample likely to determine a great deal of Rutledge’s near-term playing time, there’s a chance he could hit a cold spell and flop. There’s a roughly equal chance he starts hot and commands regular playing time, though, and a chance he lands somewhere in between, performing well enough to make the Rockies think about their options on the infield. (Hold out hope he acquits himself well enough defensively, which still looms as a roadblock.)
Until Arenado returns, at the very least, Rutledge is worth an add for those in need of shortstop help or in deeper formats – he’s owned in just two percent of Yahoo leagues and has a 0.0 ownership tag on ESPN, so he’s widely available to take for a spin.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.