The Future Could Be Now

March 23, 2009 | 11:30 pm | 15  

Ian Stewart and Dexter Fowler have been the Rockies hope of the future for several years.
The future is getting very close to being the present.

Fowler was considered a long shot to make the team when spring training opened.

Stewart was given a chance but there was debate on whether he would benefit more from regular playing time in the minor leagues than a backup role in the majors.

With two weeks remaining in spring training, Fowler and Stewart were seemingly the two major debates the Rockies face in setting their season-opening lineup.

There are growing signs that they are both in line to make the team.

Monday, manager Clint Hurdle told Stewart to start working at second base during batting practice, an indication that Hurdle is looking for ways to make sure Stewart gets enough at-bats to stay in the big leagues.

His time will be limited in left field in light of the fact that Seth Smith, like Stewart, is a left-handed hitter. He will get a few at-bats each week at third base, filling in if Garrett Atkins takes a day off as well as on days that first baseman Todd Helton rests his surgically repaired back and Atkins moves over to first.

And with the ability to step in at second, Stewart can spell the right-handed hitting Clint Barmes on days that Barmes takes off as well as days when Barmes returns to shortstop to give Troy Tulowitzki rest.

That puts Omar Quintanilla and Jeff Baker, the projected backup infielders when the spring started, in limbo.

Quintanilla’s strength is his ability to back up at second and short, but with the freedom to move Barmes back to shortstop, his natural position, thanks to the presence of Stewart, Hurdle has flexibility.

Baker, meanwhile, is an offensive factor, who can play second, third and the outfield – just like Stewart, who has the edge of as much natural power as anybody in the organization. The Rockies also continue to worry about the durability of Baker, whose pro career has been pockmarked by ongoing injuries that sideline him.

With Fowler, the emergence has been more gradual, and has coincided with Fowler’s development at the plate. The most gifted outfielder the Rockies have, the switch-hitter Fowler, who has yet to play at the Triple-A level, was initially overmatched this spring. Ten games into the spring he not only was 3-for-20 at the plate, but had struck out 10 times.

A project for new hitting coach Don Baylor, Fowler has since discarded his split-hand grip when he bats left-handed, and begun to be more of a factor at the plate. In 12 games prior to Tuesday, he was not only 10-for-22, but had struck out only twice.

Fowler is the one true center fielder on the Rockies big-league roster.

Keeping Fowler would require careful handling by Hurdle. With so much promise, the Rockies do not want to put Fowler in a situation to be overmatched, but they also know he has to play. Fowler, however, would seem to have a skill set that could create opportunities for him to play four or five days a week.

With projected left fielder Smith and incumbent right fielder Brad Hawpe both left-handed hitters, Fowler could move into center field every time the Rockies face a left-hander, Opening Day center fielder Ryan Spilborghs moving to either left field or right field, depending on who gets the day off.

As a switch-hitter, Fowler also would be there to provide Spilborghs with an occasional day off.

That would leave Matt Murton and Scott Podsednik to choose from for the fifth outfield spot.

The odd man out in such a scenario most likely would be left-handed hitting Scott Podsednik. With Spilborghs the only strictly right-handed-hitting among the starting outfielders, and Stewart’s availability to provide left-handed options in the corner outfield spots, the fact Murton is a right-handed hitter works in his favor.

Podsednik came to spring training figuring to provide left-handed-hitting support for Spilborghs as well as a speed factor off the bench.

Fowler, however, has a major edge in defense on anybody in the organization, and while he hasn’t proven himself as a big-league base stealer, like Podsednik, he does have pure speed.

The question the Rockies have to answer is whether the future has arrived for Stewart and/or Fowler.

15 Comments »

  • Matt | March 24, 2009 | 12:32 am

    Love the article Tracy!! I can’t help wondering though if Fowler wouldn’t be better served starting off at AAA, then being an early season call up like Longoria last year. Either way, I can’t wait to see what he can do! In many ways the Stewie/Dex/Smith trio reminds me of the excitment Holliday/Atkins/Hawpe brought to the team when they were on the cusp! Hopefully we’ll see similar results!

  • Robb | March 24, 2009 | 7:00 am

    Good stuff, Tracy. As always. With Atkins hurting, is there a chance that he starts the season on the DL? My concern about that is it does make the Rockies a little over-LH with Smith/Stewart/Hawpe/Helton, but that isn’t such a bad thing. I just don’t see how Stewart can be left out of the line-up.

  • Redhawk | March 24, 2009 | 8:28 am

    Matt,

    the reason the Logoria, with the Rays last year, and Weiters with the Orioles this year started the season at AAA had nothing to do with being ready, it had to do with delaying the start of their Arbitration clock. (and giving the MLB team one more year of control) Since Fowler was in the majors last year, I believe that clock has already started.

    I believe Fowler needs regular AB’s, and he might be best at AAA to learn. We are dealing with small sample size in ST, so basing his readiness on 40 ST ab’s is not an accurate test. He may be ready..just don’t base it off of ST.

    However Stewart tore up AAA last year, and has nothing left to prove there. He should be the starting 2ndbaseman, and Barmes should go to his natural role which is super-sub.

  • Matt | March 24, 2009 | 8:36 am

    You’re probably right about not getting too excited about ST AB’s. I wasn’t sure if Fowler had hit the playing time thresholds that Tampa was trying to avoid with Longoria last year. Does anyone know what that is? I thought there was a specific number of AB’s for position players and IP for pitchers.

  • Tracy Ringolsby | March 24, 2009 | 8:48 am

    Matt it all deals with service time. If a player comes up just short of six years the team can retain him for another season before he can become a free agent. With Fowler having been up last September, he most likely would need to spend two full months in the minors before being called up to make any difference. As for Longoria, he was called up early enough in the season that the service time issue was moot. He received credit for the full year.

  • Redhawk | March 24, 2009 | 8:50 am

    I should have added….if Fowler is ready…then I’m all for it. He brings speed which the team needs and defense. If he’s getting regular ABs and is major league ready…than I’m all for Fowler. I think he brings more then he subtracts.

    But if he’s going to ride the bench…I don’t see any point in taking away AB’s that he could get in AAA where he has yet to play.

  • Ava | March 24, 2009 | 11:31 am

    Tracy, I’m all for this particular scenario that you have laid out, but only if Stewart and Fowler get enough playing time. I’m kind of on the fence about Fowler since he hasn’t played in AAA yet. But, if he gets his chance we’ll find out soon enough if he’s ready. I’m sure he thinks he’s ready, but I’m worried about the physcological affect it could have if he’s not quite there yet.

    They could trade Baker, but I really like what Q brings to the defensive side of things. I’m curious as to what may happen with him.

    As far as Podsednik, if they have Fowler that won’t matter. They’ve really been working on being more agressive on the bases and so far it’s been working out very well. If Podsednik were to stay at the expense of Murton, I’d much rather have Murton’s bat in the lineup.

  • Dave | March 24, 2009 | 11:43 am

    Tracy,

    How come we haven’t heard any real talk of Matt Miller being a possible bench player or pushing for a starting spot? He’s had some pretty good minor league numbers. In 2005, he went for .331-30-101 at Asheville. In 2006, he hit .307 in 127 games between Modesto, Tulsa and the Springs. And in 2008, he hit .344 in 106 games at Tulsa and .331 in AAA. Including a down year in 2007 at Tulsa, his career batting average through 5 years is .309, with a .371 OBP and .471 SLG. Not to mention a .985 fielding percentage with 32 outfield assists. What’s not to like about this guy?

  • Jason carey | March 24, 2009 | 12:33 pm

    Tracy why can’t Stewart play leftfield when a LHP is throwing. He did have the 5th highest avgerage at .370 vs. A lefty last year. Stewart has a higher career average against lefties than he does right handers throughout the minor leagues. Stewart bat is much more potent against left hamders than right handers. Don’t the Rockies know?

  • Tracy Ringolsby | March 24, 2009 | 12:38 pm

    Ava and Redhawk,
    I agree with both of you. If the Rockies were to do this the key to its success is getting enough at-bats for each player. And I trust that a major part of the Rockies decision-making process would hinge on the ability to map out the plan to get ample playing time.

  • Jack | March 24, 2009 | 5:08 pm

    Rockies have some good young players at various positions, but it won’t matter if they can’t get any pitchers (or trading MVPs for nothing). Helton is a fan favorite, but I wish they would just trade him, take the hit financially, and play Atkins, Stewart, Tulo, and Barmes. If they had traded him couple of years ago they might have been able to keep Holliday.

  • Tracy Ringolsby | March 24, 2009 | 6:56 pm

    Jack, you keep repeating the same thing about Holliday. What would it have taken for Holliday to sign? We know $18 million a year wasn’t enough but we never hear a figure of what he would have accepted.

  • Robb (Durango, CO) | March 25, 2009 | 11:37 am

    I agree with what Tracy said. How much was enough? Obviously, $18 million PER YEAR was not enough for Matt. By next winter, he may have wished he took the Rockies money when it was offered. While it seems like the Type A free agents are still getting their money, you never know with the economy. What if he gets hurt in Oakland and misses 60 or 70 games? We live in a “what have you done for me lately” world and you can bet GM’s will look at his 2009 stats before making offers. Matt took the risk, which he is entitled to do, and it may payoff for him; we’ll see.

  • Tracy Ringolsby | March 25, 2009 | 4:13 pm

    Robb, please understand I am not trying to indict Holliday for rejecting $18 million. It is just I have a hard time calling someone hwo offers to pay an individual $18 million a year cheap. I also can’t indict an organization for dealing a player when the player never says what he will sign for. In that situation, you have to assume that he wants to test the open market, which is a right he has earned. I don’t blame the Rockies for making a trade anymore than I would blame Matt for testing free agency.

  • Jim | March 26, 2009 | 10:06 am

    Well said Tracy. Holliday said he liked it here, but when the Rox made him an offer right along the lines of what all but 3 or 4 teams would have offered him, he declined it. That tells us that he is looking for the sort of money and years that only those 3 or 4 teams could possibly offer him. Can’t blame him for choosing to go after that, and can’t blame the Rockies for trading him when that choice became known.

    I was under the impression that Holliday’s issue was the years more than the money. I would like to have seen the Rockies offer another year or two, but I can only assume that if Matt and Boras had responded to their original offer with even the slightest bit of interest, they would have.