DNVR Rockies reporters Drew Creasman and Patrick Lyons battle for supremacy discussing various hot topics in-and-around the game of baseball.
We return to our knockdown, drag-out debate series in true Spring Training style for 2020 rematch of Creasman vs. Lyons: Falls Count Anywhere. Who ya got?
Let’s start the debate with some mild sparring. Perhaps a few chain-wrestling combinations and a couple jabs. Watch out for the occasional hay-maker though.
Our first topic isn’t anywhere close to being the biggest talking point involving the Rockies, but it is an intriguing talking point: Colorado’s catching.
Tony Wolters is a shoe-in to return to significant playing time for the Rox, but the depth chart contains a slew of questions.
The club acquired a solid right-handed contact hitter with questionable defensive abilities in Elias Díaz and returning rookie Dom Nuñez will get another long look in Scottsdale. Non-roster invitee Drew Butera is also likely to factor in the backup competition.
Topic #1: Have the Colorado Rockies improved at the catcher position since 2019?
Creasman: I’ll say yes. Some of that is addition by subtraction by losing Chris Iannetta who was brutal last season. Some of it is seeing how they could be played.
If platooned correctly, Wolters and Diaz still won’t put up slugging or on-base numbers that will have their advanced metrics looking good, but they could hit for a pretty high average out of the eight spot. Like .280+ high.
Overall, I think Díaz has a decent chance to be a sneaky-good addition and I’ve always believed a bit more in Nuñez as a prospect than the consensus. If his power surge from a season ago is the new normal and not an aberration, the best-case scenario for Colorado actually involves the youngster from Elk Grove taking over as he has the highest ceiling on both offense and defense.
Lyons: In possibly the least sense of the word, some improvement has been made. Wolters, another year older and wiser, should continue to make growth offensively. Aided by a .314 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), Wolters posted an overall .262 batting average, the highest in his four seasons with Colorado. Compared to the other backstops with 400 or more plate appearances in 2019, the former infielder with Cleveland was in line with the average.
While the power numbers lack intrigue, Wolters and his hitting coaches have created an approach that skirts around any lack of extra base potential. While I do expect Wolters to take a step forward in terms of his slugging percentage this season, his biggest contributions to this club is as a defensive catcher. A very good one, at that.
Topic #2: How will the playing time break down over the season?
Creasman: Wolters, until further noticed, has earned his spot atop the depth chart. If he can keep producing good contact, he should stay there. His steady defense and relationship with the pitchers gives him the edge.
I expect Díaz to win the backup job and get a majority of the starts against left-handed pitching. This comes with the caveat that he isn’t a nightmare behind the dish that bothers Bud Black too much.
I do think Nuñez is going to force his way into this whole situation by midway through the season. Any major slumps or health issues with the top two could be his chance to grab the reigns.
That said, I sill see him finishing with the third-most plate appearances with Butera once again making only a handful of spot starts in emergencies throughout the year.
Lyons: As part of the battery with both Jon Gray and German Márquez, Wolters has a leg up on any of the potential backups. Considering he was also handling Chi Chi González four of his final September appearances that totaled 27.1 innings, including five shutout innings against the Dodgers that helped the now-28-year-old pitch to a 1.65 ERA, that should make it clear Wolters will have a 60-40 split at the position.
Barring injury, starting two-to-three times a week for either Díaz or Nuñez should help each develop abilities at the major league level while getting ample playing time in Albuquerque the rest of the way.
While Díaz does not have any more options to the minors, he is also not on the 40-man roster at this point. I concur with Drew that Díaz will make the Opening Day roster as a player with parts of three years in the majors and 250 games played. Nuñez can continue to make development in Albuquerque and contribute when the typical bumps and bruises take its toll on Wolters and Díaz.
Brian Serven and Chris Rabago could also make their major league debut in 2020.
Topic #3: Will Rockies catcher be Over/Under 1.5 rWAR?
Despite what some numbers would have you believe, Wolters offensive improvement was not a fluke. Neither were the defensive ones. While he may never blow the world away, he alone could improve on his 1.4 rWAR mark from a season ago.
Last year was also his first full-time campaign at the most demanding job in the game. I expect he will better understand how to handle the rigors of the season and be able to continue to grow, remembering that he is at the peak of his physical prime and now in his fifth year after converting to catcher.
As discussed above, I think the young guys have what it takes to help fill in the blanks in Wolters’ game.
This will end up being one of the spots that people wonder how Colorado got so much more production in 2020 than in 2019 despite making zero MLB roster changes at the position during the offseason.
The tandem of Chris Iannetta and Wolters contributed for 1.4 fWAR in 2018, but regressed mightily by 3.1 fWAR in 2019 all the way to worst in the NL for catchers. Second-worst were the Pittsburgh Pirates who gave 332 plate appearances to none other than Elias Díaz.