So Many Moving Parts In The Colorado Outfield

Last year, the Rockies had three primary outfielders — Carlos Gonzalez in left, Dexter Fowler in center, and Michael Cuddyer in right — who started at least 99 games, with Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson the primary backups during Gonzalez’ absences and Cuddyer’s occasional trips to first base.

Now? Now, Fowler’s in Houston. Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs are in Colorado. Gonzalez is a center fielder. Cuddyer was originally slated to move full-time to first base after Todd Helton retired, but then Justin Morneau arrived, and now Cuddyer may or may not be his platoon partner. And between Blackmon, Dickerson, and Charlie Culberson, they still have three guys with extremely similar names who I just absolutely can’t ever tell apart.

So let’s start with what we know: 

Gonzalez is still awesome, mostly. If you’re looking for a five-category player, then you can stop right here. Gonzalez hit .302 last year, just about dead on to his .300 career average.  He hit 26 homers, the fourth straight year he’s hit at least 22. He stole 21, the fourth straight year he grabbed at least 20. He was on pace to put up stellar totals in runs scored and driven in as well, except for the other thing you can count on him for: he missed a bunch of time due to injury. Thanks to an injured finger, Gonzalez took all of five plate appearances after July 31, then had an emergency appendectomy earlier this month.

That’s not exactly new for him, since he’s played in more than 135 games exactly once in his career, back in 2010. While he’s actually only been on the disabled list twice, he’s constantly missing a few games here and there with injuries to his finger or his knee or his hamstring or his wrist, and he’s taking a bit of a risk now — he opted against surgery to the finger, hoping instead it would heal with time.

So what’s a fantasy player to do? You draft him highly, because he’s 28 years old and does nothing but put up numbers. (Yes, his strikeout rate increased last year. No, I’m not particularly concerned.) But you draft him with caution, or at the very least make sure to have a pretty solid backup plan — especially if you’re in a league that separates out the outfield positions, and he’s your center fielder — because like his teammate Troy Tulowitzki, it’s difficult to count on him to be out there every day.

Cuddyer is probably not winning the batting title again. Cuddyer hit .260 in his first season in Colorado, pretty close to the .271 career average he brought into 2013. Then, somehow, at age 34, he topped .284 for the first time ever and shot all the way up to .331. BABIP isn’t everything, we sometimes warn. Cuddyer’s BABIP was .382. Sometimes, it is everything.

Still, when paired with 20 homers and 10 steals — neither number particularly outside his career norms nor his 2014 Steamer projections — it was a pretty nice little season for Cuddyer, and a nice value for those who had almost certainly drafted him cheaply or grabbed him for free off the wire. But really, draft with a huge amount of caution here. Cuddyer had only four homers in the second half, and like Gonzalez, often misses time with various bumps and bruises; unlike Gonzalez, he’s headed into his age-35 season. So if that BABIP comes down, as it almost certainly will, maybe you’re looking at something like .280 with 20 homers and 8-10 steals. Worth rostering? Certainly, especially with his likely positional flexibility at first and right. Worth drafting like a batting champion? Ah, no.

The new guys might like Colorado, but you may not like them. However it is Barnes and Stubbs are going to get playing time — if Cuddyer is at first, or Gonzalez is hurt, or whatever ends up happening in left — they’re going to add one very welcome feature: defense. Barnes ranked as one of the better defensive center fielders last year; Stubbs didn’t actually, but had a pretty good reputation with the glove prior to 2013. That’s wonderful for the Colorado pitching staff, but you’re not a Rockies starter. You’re a fantasy player, and — other than helping keep a guy in the lineup — you don’t care about defense, so unfortunately you don’t care about Barnes. Entering his age-28 season, he’s got a career .233/.282/.330 line in roughly a season of play. Yes, you can expect that to improve somewhat in Coors Field. No, it’s not likely to improve enough that you’ll care. If you squint hard enough, you can look at his .280/.335/.401 line against lefties in a limited sample size, but still. You can almost certainly do better, especially when he might be in the minors.

Stubbs is a little different, because while he kills you in batting average, he has four straight seasons of double-digit homers (high of 22) and five straight seasons of double-digit steals (high of 40). Just remember, he’s one of the most extreme platoon guys in the game, where he’s decent against lefties and nearly unplayable against righties. Since that puts him squarely on the short side, that limits his playing time. But assuming that he gets semi-regular play and you can live with a batting average anchor, some power and speed in Coors Field is a mildly interesting piece to have on your bench.

Dickerson might be a name to know. Left field is still a bit uncertain, but Dickerson appears to have a leg up in what might be some sort of job share with Stubbs, Blackmon, and Barnes. Paul Swydan pointed out what Dickerson might be able to bring earlier this winter:

For sake of comparison, here’s a blind projection for 2014:
Player A: .279/.327/.476, .346 wOBA, 106 wRC+, 0.8 WAR in 299 PA
Player B: .258/.330/.428, .330 wOBA, 108 wRC+, 0.9 WAR in 518 PA

Morneau is Player B. Player A is … Corey Dickerson. Dickerson, who will earn the league minimum next season, is projected by Steamer to be roughly as valuable as Morneau in about 57% of the playing time.

Dickerson burst onto the scene with 32 homers in the Sally League in 2011, and leaves the minors with a .321/.379/.601 line in 1,647 plate appearances, so he’s earned his shot. In 213 big league appearances late in the year, playing left and center, he held his own with 23 extra base hits. In the minors, he had little to no platoon split, though with the presence of Stubbs, it remains to be seen how much Colorado lets Dickerson face lefties.

Making Dickerson’s projection difficult is the fact that he’s not guaranteed to play every day, because in addition to Barnes and Stubbs, there’s Blackmon to worry about. (Local beat writers have no idea how left field shakes out, because even the team doesn’t know yet.) Fortunately, we can keep discussion of him short because there’s just not a lot of fantasy relevance here, with just a touch of power, a little speed, and very little chance to be a full-time player. For now, keep his name in the back of your mind should playing time swing his way, but otherwise he’s not worth the spot.

So after all that: Gonzalez is still great, though injury-prone. Cuddyer is useful, but don’t expect another batting title. Barnes is probably not that interesting as a backup, but Stubbs might be, and Dickerson is an intriguing name for 2014.

Of course, this could all change by mid-season. Gonzalez could get injured. Cuddyer could see more time at first than we think. And looming in Triple-A is 2010 first-rounder Kyle Parker, who has done nothing but mash (.510 slugging) in three seasons in the organization.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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jdbolick
Member

You should be particularly concerned about Gonzalez’s strikeout rate, as it didn’t just “increase,” it sky-rocketed from 19.9% to 27.1%. The ISO also jumped, so this appears to be a case of exchanging contact for power, but such a dramatic change in the profile so far into his career is reason to be worried, especially if his BABIP comes back down to his usual ~.330. The precipitous drop in Z-Contact% should be sounding alarm bells. Now add in the recovery from injuries along with the stress of moving to a more demanding defensive position and Carlos Gonzalez looks like a strong candidate to disappoint in 2014.

the dude
Guest
the dude

he has been a disappointment since 2012. people drafting him last year and now especially this year are just asking for a wasted pick.