12/3/2013 9:35 P.M. ET
Rockies seek corner bat, preferably Morneau's
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
DENVER -- Having signed veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins to a one-year contract last week and improved their depth by acquiring right-handed starter Jordan Lyles and outfielder Brandon Barnes from the Astros in exchange for Dexter Fowler on Tuesday, the Rockies are in a better position to pursue a corner bat with the Winter Meetings set to begin Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Of course, the Rockies could wrap up their free-agency plan before even arriving at the annual gathering, since Justin Morneau has been identified as their preferred candidate to replace the recently retired Todd Helton.
By trading center fielder Fowler, who was due $7.35 million for the 2014 and eligible for arbitration afterward, for two pre-arbitration players, the Rockies could have gained the payroll flexibility to offer Morneau a two-year deal to become the regular first baseman.
Morneau, 32, a four-time All-Star participant during his time with the Twins (2003-13), finished the 2013 season with the Pirates, hitting a combined .259 with 17 home runs and 77 RBIs. The hope, should the Rockies land him, is that he'll provide leadership and recapture some of the production he showed with Minnesota before he sustained a career-threatening concussion in 2010.
The 152 regular-season games he played with the Twins and Pirates, plus the postseason games with the Pirates, were good signs that his injury-prone seasons are behind him.
The pursuit of Morneau also could help the Rockies with another goal -- increasing the number of at-bats for slugging catcher Wilin Rosario. The thought is that the left-handed-hitting Morneau, who hit .280 with an .819 OPS against right-handed pitchers but .207/.525 against left-handers, could rest against righties while Rosario plays first base.
The plan would mean that Michael Cuddyer, the defending National League batting champion, would play mostly right field but could move to first base on limited occasions.
Acquiring Lyles gives the rotation a young veteran. At just 23, Lyles has already appeared in 72 games (65 starts) over three seasons (14-29, 5.35 ERA) and has tendencies the Rockies like -- the ability to throw strikes and force ground balls.
With other needs to fill, the Rockies were more willing to listen to offers for Fowler. In addition, Carlos Gonzalez, a two-time All-Star and three-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner, could move from left field to center. Barnes also could be in the mix -- either in center if Gonzalez doesn't change positions, or left.
One issue for the Rockies is the leadoff spot. One possibility is second baseman DJ LeMahieu. LeMahieu has hit .286 in 190 games since joining the Rockies in 2012 and is 19-for-28 in stolen-base attempts, but he would have to improve his .319 on-base percentage. Barnes is solid against right-handed pitching (.296 last season) but has not put up good on-base numbers.
Another leadoff possibility is the winner of the contest for left field, between Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson, both of whom performed well when injuries opened the door to playing time in 2013. Blackmon hit .309 with a .336 on-base percentage in 82 games, and Dickerson batted .263 with a .316 on-base OBP -- but with 23 extra-base hits in just 69 games. Charlie Culberson, a right-handed hitter, and Barnes are competitors for starts.