In 21 seasons of Major League Baseball the Colorado Rockies have had just one second baseman ever play in an All-Star game. That could only be the Rockies first ever second baseman: Eric Young Sr. (why would it be anybody else?).
The Rockies have proven they do not necessarily need an All-Star at the keystone, however the lineup has always been more dynamic with just above-average production from second base. Between Ronnie Beliard (2003), Mark Ellis (2011), Kazuo Matsui (2006-2007, 2010), and Marco Scutaro (2012), the Rockies have had multiple intriguing players that for one reason or another did not have a prolonged stay.
Of late the Rockies have had lukewarm production at second base. If you don’t believe me name this year’s opening day starter at second…..and that’s what I thought. Not even manager Walt Weiss knows. The Major League batting average from second baseman last year was .263. As for Colorado, their second basemen hit a surprising .270. However second base is also a spot that can yield some offense in favor of solid defense.
The question Walt Weiss faces coming into spring training: D.J. LeMahieu or Josh Rutledge?
LeMahieu was acquired via trade from the Cubs along with outfielder Tyler Colvin before the 2012 season. Last season the Louisiana State University product played in 109 games for the Rockies and played second and third base in the infield. 86 of those were starts at second base. Defensively LeMahieu held his own: he led the league in range factor per nine innings (putouts+assists/innings played).
Although he failed to have the innings to qualify as a league leader, LeMahieu held the same fielding percentage as league leader Darwin Barney of the Cubs (.993). The 25-year-old is by no means a defensive liability. Offensively he is an interesting addition. In two seasons with the Rockies LeMahieu has hit .286 (.280 in 2013) with a .319 on base percentage.
The issue is the lack of power. His career totals for home runs sits at four, two in each of his two seasons with Colorado, while last season his slugging percentage was 26 points lower than the league average for second baseman. As far as league averages go, LeMahieu is enormous at 6’5″ and 205 lbs. His size may not translate to power numbers but if he keeps hitting singles and playing defense there is no reason his size will not translate into durability. Plus who really wants to slide into a 6’5″ second baseman trying to break up a double play?
Josh Rutledge enters spring training as LeMahieu’s primary competition for the starting job. In 2012 when Troy Tulowitzki only played in 47 games, Rutledge debuted that July with a 2-2 outing with 2 RBIs, then played in 73 total games the rest of the season. All he did in those 73 games was hit .274 and hit eight home runs. Last season was an offensive drop-off, however. In 56 games started at second base Rutledge’s batting average on the season dropped to .235. As a matter of fact, in a season with more games played and plate appearances than a year earlier, Rutledge’s production dropped in hits, doubles, triples, home runs, and RBIs.
In his second season his defense was greatly improved, although his fielding percentage was still eleven points lower than LeMahieu’s. For Rutledge it is all about the potential his bat has. Compared to his debut season, his home run percentage dropped a half a percentage point, while his extra base hit percentage dropped by a whopping seven percent.
The drop in production led to a trip back to the minor leagues in late July. Another stint in the minors may have been just what the doctor ordered. Upon returning from September 1st to September 29th; Rutledge raised his batting average from .211 to his end of year mark of .235. That is a .328 batting average for the month.
Support from second base will no doubt be a key to success as we approach spring training. Rockies fans are likely hoping for a good problem of having two viable candidates, providing good depth to the team. In the end the burden lies mostly on Rutledge, because if his bat fails to show up the decision will be way too easy.