Rox filling big shoes in deep outfield
Replacing Holliday, Taveras not easy, but team has the talent
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Just before heading to Spring Training, new Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez inspected the expansive piece of real estate where he could be spending his days this season.
"When I was at Coors Field before the FanFest, I took a little time to check the outfield," Gonzalez said. "There are some big gaps. So I wanted to get prepared in Spring Training to be in better shape with my legs and be ready."
Coors has the biggest outfield in the Majors. Add in the ball's tendency to carry deeper than in other parks and the odd angles at which the ball can bounce off the wall, and the experience can be adventuresome for outfielders. Not to mention that in 2009, two of the three regulars will be different from the ones who started in '08.
Gone are left fielder Matt Holliday, traded to the Athletics, and center fielder Willy Taveras, signed by the Reds after the Rockies non-tendered him. Holliday worked himself from a defensive liability to someone whose goal of winning a Rawlings Gold Glove did not draw laughter. Taveras was simply one of the fastest players in the Majors, even though the Rockies felt his routes to the ball needed improvement.
Returning is right fielder Brad Hawpe, whose biggest defensive asset is an accurate arm. (Hawpe left Friday afternoon's 5-3 loss to the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium in the first inning with a lacerated left pinkie finger, and his status will be evaluated daily.)
The Rockies' plan includes Seth Smith in left and Ryan Spilborghs in center. Trying to push into a prominent role is Gonzalez, who as a rookie for the Athletics last season made 66 of his 76 outfield starts in center. The Rockies could shoehorn third baseman Ian Stewart into left for some starts as well. Scott Podsednik, Matt Murton and Daniel Ortmeier are competing for the bench.
The cast of characters can't readily replace Holliday's All-Star ability and experience or Taveras' wheels. The Rockies must make sure those deficits don't make the new outfield a liability.
"If we make it simple, and we're just concentrating on catching the balls in our area, I have a strong feeling our outfield can be an elite outfield," Spilborghs said.
Before that, though, the Rockies must come to know one another so they can play to their strengths.
Even though no one has eye-popping speed, the Rockies have a decent amount of talent.
Holliday deservedly received kudos, but for years, he has been making up for the fact he was a third baseman who was moved. Spilborghs, Smith and Gonzalez have much longer histories in the outfield, all as center fielders. Additionally, Hawpe's 41 assists over the last four seasons are third most among Major League outfielders during that span, and he is past the ankle and hamstring injuries that last season kept him from getting to some balls fast enough to make rally-killing throws.
Defense will understandably be a question when Stewart plays left, but he is athletic at third base and runs well enough for his size to give the Rockies some comfort. The dynamic of range can change, however, if top prospect Dexter Fowler completes his development at Triple-A Colorado Spring quickly enough for the Rockies to bring him onto the club.
"We might pinch the gap more than we did with Holliday and Taveras," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "We might align the three in some different scenarios than we have in the past to help all three of them provide the most range and coverage that they can."
|"If we make it simple, and we're just concentrating on catching the balls in our area, I have a strong feeling our outfield can be an elite outfield."|
-- Rockies outfielder|
One reason the Rockies made their first World Series in 2007 was that the defense had the highest fielding percentage in baseball history, at .98925. That stat is not the be-all and end-all, but it pointed to the difficult-to-measure trait of preparedness.
"I go back to '07, which we all do, because it turned out so well," Hawpe said. "We pitched to the defense so well. If you play a hitter away, you pitch him away, and he hits it away, then you make the play.
"I think that's what was so successful for the Atlanta Braves for so long. It was not just that they had Andruw Jones in center field, but they pitched to where they were playing defense."
First base coach Glenallen Hill, who instructs the outfielders, is in charge of information on playing hitters and coordinating the outfield defense with the pitching staff.
It sounds as if the abundance of information can be daunting, but Hill said it's actually liberating.
"When pitchers are hitting their spots and the defense is in a nice flow," Hill said, "you'll see the defense compensate for those times when they do miss a spot, and we can catch some of those mistakes."
Hawpe's experience and willingness to share it could help shrink the learning curve. Spilborghs has been a part-time player the past three years and has dabbled at all three spots -- last year, he made 19 starts in left, mostly when Holliday was out with a hamstring injury, 16 in center and 15 in right.
But Hawpe and Spilborghs are just two guys in a three-man unit. Someone will have to learn quickly.
"I don't know the right answer," Smith said. "We're not Taveras or Holliday. I don't know if it means we get to more balls or fewer balls, or score more runs or fewer runs. I don't think anybody does. It's what we've got to work with, and it's what we're going to run out there, if it's me.
"If I play hard, get good reads and make good throws, I think everybody's going to be pleased."
As a group, the outfield is more concerned with making plays than replacing players.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.