Let’s Talk Some More about the Rockies’ 2023 Center Field Options
But this time, let’s take a Spilborghsian approach.
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Over the last few weeks, I’ve focused on some of the Rockies' center field options. The topic seems relevant given Bill Schmidt’s late-season comments on the team’s hopes to find a left-handed, lead-off hitter who (preferably) plays center field. In exploring the Rockies’ options, I’ve looked at players on the farm, like Brenton Doyle, and free agents such as Kevin Kiermaier and Cody Bellinger. Enough pieces have been written about Brandon Nimmo that I’ll cede that stage
At this point, you may be wondering if I intend to write about anything else during this offseason. And the answer is that I had planned to focus on Brian Serven this week.
However, some comments from former Rockies center fielder Ryan Spilborghs have me re-thinking things, so here’s one more newsletter on the Rockies’ center field options. Some of this, I’ve touched on before, but I wanted to revisit them with a slightly different focus.
On a recent podcast with Mark Knudson and Manny Randhawa, Spilborghs discussed a number of topics. (His comments on the challenges of being a hitting coach are worth your time.)
But here's the interesting part (for me):
One of my observations of Coors Field -- and I believe it, and I use it for the rest of baseball -- I've always shied away from thinking center fielders should be free agents or older. I don't believe that. I believe center fielders, specifically to Coors Field, need to be young with the ability to cover ground, I could care less if they hit. And so that's something that the Rockies have in spades are athletic center fielders that run really crisp routes.
But you can't worry about their offensive numbers. They had one in Sam Hilliard that I felt like was underused even though his hitting profile was really bad. He would have been an upgrade over anybody in center field just given his age and his ability to run and run routes. That's a spot where [if] I'm in a front office, especially with Colorado, I would always push them to using sub-arbitration center fielders and almost recycle. And then the guys that do hit, you push them to the corners, so that way, you control the costs.
Silborghs, then, wants players "who are Major-League-ready defensively" whose job is run prevention. Period. Any offense is extra. "Use your best defensive center fielder," Spilborghs says, "and just have them go get it." In addition to providing exceptional defense, these players are cost-effective.
He opposes signing Nimmo (too old, probably too expensive, and requires a compensation pick); he likes Trent Grisham but sees age as a liability; and he views Yonathan Daza as having "earned the opportunity" to be the Rockies starting center fielder -- though he points out that playing center at Coors quickly ages an outfielder (e.g., Dexter Fowler and Charlie Blackmon).
Let's play out Spilborghs' personnel philosophy. Without signing any free agents, by only looking to the farm, what are the center field possibilities for the Rockies, and is this a viable move?
Who's on the Farm?
For this list, I worked from MLB Pipeline, which is limited to the top 30 prospects. Their names below are arranged alphabetically, and I've included their ages since Spilborghs sees that as key, as well as their expected MLB arrival date.
Jordan Beck -- Possible center fielder (Age: 21; ETA: 2025)
Brenton Doyle -- Gold Glove-winning center fielder (Age: 24; ETA: 2023)
Yanquiel Fernandez -- Outfield corner (Age: 19; ETA: 2025)
Juan Guerrero -- Outfield corner (Age: 21; ETA: 2025)
Nolan Jones -- Right field (Age: 24; ETA: 2022)
Benny Montgomery -- Center fielder (Age: 20; ETA: 2025)
Sterlin Thompson -- Outfield corner (Age: 21; ETA: 2025)
Zac Veen -- Probably an outfield corner (Age: 20: ETA: 2023)
Again, this is just from their top 30 prospects, so there are other players in the system who do not appear on this list.
What Are the Takeaways?
Remember: These are developing players, and only two have seen dedicated center field playing time. However, Brenton Doyle's Gold Glove provides proof of his defensive skill. We know that he raked for the 41 plate appearances he saw in Albuquerque (wRC+ of 199),. So he meets Spilborghs' standard for stellar defense — plus, he has the added bonus of potential offensive power.
“I take a lot of pride in my defense, even a little bit more than my offense honestly,” Doyle said to Kevin Henry back in June. “Anything I can do out there to help in the field, I want to do. We’re the last line of defense out there and I take a lot of pride in that, and that means busting my butt to get some balls and saving some runs for our team.” Now, that’s the attitude and skillset Ryan Spilborghs is looking for.
See for yourself:
Just as an FYI, the Rockies are headed for an outfield traffic jam in 2025. Clearly, all of this is speculative because who can predict player development? But as it stands, the Rockies may have five outfielders who are MLB ready that year.
Also, while some of these players have spent some time in center field, only Doyle and Benny Montgomery are true center fielders. Since Spilborghs stresses the need for exceptional defensive play in center, hoping one of the corner outfielders can provide solid center-field defense seems like a risk he would not be willing to assume.
By the way, take a moment to appreciate just how rapidly Zac Veen has developed. Although the Rockies have experimented some with him in center, under the Spilborghs model, Veen probably won't have the defensive skill to play center, so he would stay in a corner.
One other note is worth mentioning. The Rockies recently removed Wynton Bernard, another true center fielder, from their 40-man roster. Was that a good move? By Spilborghs' thinking, at 32, Bernard would probably be too old.
Let's throw in this tweet from Bryan Smith.
To reiterate, "a look at playoff teams this year reveals a collective belief that CF is a position where you should prioritize defense over bat."
The Rockies have not done that — at all. According to FanGraphs, the Rockies center fielders were last in Def. For comparison, the Guardians led MLB with a Def of 14.4 while the Rockies were -10.0. They earned a -17 DRS, 29th in MLB and better than only the Cubs. In terms of Outs Above Average, they ranked 27th with -3.
Now compare the those who played center in 2022:
The number are not good — there’s a reason this was the least-effective center field defense in MLB. That is, the 2022 Rockies did not in any way prioritize relying on a defense-first center fielder. And they did not take advantage of now-Atlanta-Brave Sam Hilliard in center. He was, by far, the the Rockies best center field defender, yet he saw comparatively little playing time given his poor offensive showing.
Presumably, the Rockies hoped the center fielders' offensive output would compensate for any marginal defense, à la the Phillies (who, it should be noted, both outslugged and outdefended the Rockies). In addition to providing marginal defense, the Rockies center fielders had an Off of -102.0 (27th in MLB) and a wRC+ of 86, 26th in baseball.
Short version: There was nothing good about the Rockies center field in 2022.
Bill Schmidt's comments about looking for a lefty center fielder are completely counter to Ryan Spilborghs' approach. Moreover, paying for Brandon Nimmo, Kevin Kiermaier, or Cody Bellinger seems like a very bad idea — and there’s the added drawback of blocking younger players. The Rockies have solid defensive outfielders in their system who are ready to play and will receive much lower salaries.
Spilly has convinced me. Let Yonathan Daza and Brenton Doyle share center field duties with Randal Grichuk taking an occasional turn. We know from 2022 that Daza can generate offense, albeit not with a lot of power, and Doyle’s potential is real.
The Rockies need to devote the offseason to paying for improved pitching and finding a way to get everyone else to slug. Let the pricey free agents sign elsewhere.
Look for Oberg to continue his career in the Rockies’ front office.
What I'm Reading
David Hill's "Three Players for the Colorado Rockies to Target This Season" (Call to the Pen) -- It's pretty clear that Hill has taken a different approach to center field than Ryan Spilborghs would.
Manny Randhawa's "Rockies Beat: Draft Doings in December" (MLB.com) -- Randhawa begins looking at the 2023 draft.
Dave Nichols’ “Scott Little, Two-year Manager of Spokane Indians, Fired by Colorado Rockies” (Spokesman-Revies) — The Rockies continue to make personnel changes in their system.
Since this newsletter began with Ryan Spilborghs, it only seems fair to wrap things up by seeing him in action.
It’s not center field, but this is an amazing catch.
Thanks for reading —
@ReneeDechert (Mastodon) ★ @Renee.Dechert (Instagram) ★ @ReneeDechert (Post)