With the trade of Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros in December, the Colorado Rockies lost their only prototypical leadoff hitter. In fact, Fowler had the second most plate appearances atop the Rockies lineup in team history. He had 1,684 plate appearances as the leadoff hitter and got on base at an outstanding .368 clip. He has not had an OBP below .347 since his 27 plate appearance debut in 2008, and also has speed: he has stolen double-digit bases in each of his five full years in the MLB. He is, in short, the ideal leadoff hitter. But now he is gone, and there isn’t an obvious replacement. So who are the lead candidates to hit atop the lineup?
The lead candidates, according to manager Walt Weiss, happen to be the two players who have a good chance of replacing Fowler in the lineup in left field with Carlos Gonzalez moving to centerfield.
The leadoff spot, as we’re sitting here, we’re looking at [Corey] Dickerson and [Charlie] Blackmon getting a crack at that,” Weiss said. “What happens with this [Fowler trade] is those guys end up getting more at-bats.
Dickerson and Blackmon are the obvious answers. Dickerson impressed in his Major League debut last season but does not have much speed or, more importantly, ability to get on base. He stole just 43 bases in his 377 Minor League games and was caught a frightening 30 times. He didn’t improve in the Majors, stealing just two bases last year. Even more worrisome is Dickerson’s on-base woes. Last season, his OBP was .316, which is Jimmy Rollins-esque for a leadoff hitter (also known as not good).
Thankfully, Dickerson doesn’t have a problem with walking. He walked 7.5% of the time last season, which is below the average of 8.5% but not frighteningly so. Maybe Dickerson can solve his on-base percentage issues this year, and if it does he could actually make a pretty good Fowler impression. He has decent power, and could eventually reach double digit speed. If he wants to be the leadoff hitter, though, he will need to get on base.
Blackmon was fantastic last season as a batter, hitting .309 with a .467 slugging percentage. Based on that, he should be the obvious pick to be the leadoff hitter. But there are some underlying problems. Blackmon established himself last season, but up until his hot streak last year he seemed like the classic AAAA player; someone who is too good for Colorado Springs but not good enough for the big leagues. He had 835 AAA plate appearances, and posted a .309/.384/.493 triple slash rate.
In the MLB, even last season, Blackmon has not been the same player. He just doesn’t get on base at the rate that he does in the Minors. He has a total of 14 walks in 481 plate appearances with the Rockies, including seven in 258 plate appearances in his “breakout season”. That’s definitely not going to cut it atop the lineup, and Blackmon seems like a good candidate to regress.
A third candidate to be the leadoff hitter would be my personal favorite: Carlos Gonzalez. Gonzalez, to put it simply, is the best hitter the Rockies have, with apologies to Troy Tulowitzki. When healthy, he is a truly elite hitter. Which is exactly why he should hit atop the lineup. Gonzalez had a 9.4% walk rate last season and a .367 on base percentage. He also has speed, with at least 20 steals in every year since 2009 despite being hobbled by injuries. To put it simply, he would be the leadoff hitter who would instill fear in the pitcher, with his bat (.958 OPS last season), speed, and ability to walk. So while Dickerson or Blackmon will likely be the leadoff hitter on opening day, I think Gonzalez would be the best choice.