Scottsdale, Ariz — Building a bench in baseball can be a bit tricky. As Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black says, you’d like to fill each spot with a guy who can hit, maybe hit for power, have a decent glove, and hey if he could run that would be nice too. But there’s a name for those types of players: Starters.
But despite recent injuries, the Rockies find themselves with plenty of exciting and versatile players who could find their way into a bench role in 2017. And in the National League, that always matters. “You’ve got your backup catcher, you have your outfielder,” Black says. “There should be a couple spots there for a defender and a bat or two if that works,” noting that the best case scenario includes a power bat to strike fear in the hearts of the opposition late in close games. “That’s a nice piece to have,” he says. “I know that from the other side, you’re worried about that. One swing can change the game in your favor.”
And while Mark Reynolds has been pushed into a starting role with the injury to Ian Desmond, he was brought back to the Rockies with all of this, especially the power, in mind. “That’s a part of the attraction,” says Black. “Mark is a veteran player who has been through it and I think he sort of knew what we had when he signed here. He was comfortable with being that guy. For six months, things change, things happen. We saw a thing happen here, unfortunately [with the Desmond injury].”
As he joked earlier, guys who can hit and play defense tend to end up as starters, and that is where Reynolds was, and decently so, a year ago. “He was the Opening Day first baseman, wasn’t he? He played every day. He performed, played great defense, and he hit enough to stay in the lineup. It’s performance based.” Black said.
Despite the fact that he still hasn’t been added back to the 40-man roster yet, Reynolds’ place on the team and his role, both current and future, are the least in question of anyone else in this conversation.
Let us revisit Black’s list.
Backup catcher: With the injury to Tom Murphy, Dustin Garneau, who has 151 plate appearances at the MLB level, will be the backup catcher unless the club chooses to look for outside help. But that seems unlikely with Murphy set to return in April. Garneau has been fantastic this spring and has earned the spot with his improving bat and long-standing relationships with each of the Rockies pitchers going back years.
Outfielder: Because the Rockies are so left-handed heavy in the outfield, Chris Denorfia has a great shot to make the roster. He brings some right-handed pop and a decent speed and defense combo. He’s had a nice, if not overwhelming spring, and has been a favorite of Bud Black’s for a while so it seems likely he will be on the roster come Opening Day.
Jordan Patterson is another player who fits in this spot but he seemed destined to just miss MLB to start the year when the team was fully healthy. Now, he could serve as Reynolds’ primary backup at first in addition to whatever the team may need him to do in the outfield. He has made the most of his team-leading 44 spring training at-bats, slashing .318/..348/.591 with six doubles and a pair of home runs.
Infielder: The Rockies have three utility guys battling it out for the final spot on the roster; Cristhian Adames, who has been excellent in spring training, Alexi Amarista, who has not, and Pat Valaika who Black says has really caught his eye since coming to the organization: “[He’s] getting better. This guy is a good player. He’s opened my eyes, he’s opened Mike Redmond‘s eyes. The guys who have had him, they like this guy, man,” Black said. “I like that he moves around the diamond with no apprehension. He can play shortstop, he can play third, he can play second. This guy is a Cowboy, even though he is a Bruin.”
The circumstances of the business of baseball will likely keep Valaiak off the Opening Day roster. He has options remaining while Amarista and Adames do not. But of Patterson and Valaika, Black made it clear they have a future with this team. “These guys are college players who have been in the system for quite awhile They are in their mid-20’s,” he says. “You know what they’d tell you? They’d rather be on that plane to Milwaukee. If they aren’t on that plane to Milwaukee, at some point they will be on a plane somewhere.”
Ideally, the Rockies could carry both Denorfia and Patterson, then make a choice between Amarista and Adames knowing that whoever is designated for assignment has a decent chance to return to the team, and if not, Valaika remains very much in play.
It’s a tough balance, Black says, between using the best depth you have available on your bench and making sure guys are getting regular playing time, especially as they are still developing. These decisions will come down to the wire, but ultimately, Black says this is a good problem to have.
“We have guys that are built to play.”