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Rockies' many position battles get underway

Starting rotation, outfield among areas that need shaping

By Thomas Harding /

Monday, February 19, 2018 4:02 PM MT

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Monday's first full-squad workout marked the beginning of a healthy amount of competition for roster spots and starting opportunities -- particularly among pitchers, outfielders, first basemen and catchers -- in Rockies camp.

"There's competition, whether it's a few spots on the pitching staff or a couple spots on the 25-man roster, and maybe a starting position," Rockies manager Bud Black said. "We feel good about a lot of the guys going into the season. There might be a new face that starts Opening Day for us, if everything stays the same health-wise."

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Here is a quick look at the position battles:

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Starting rotation: Right now there are seven pitchers vying for five spots. But in truth, righties Chad Bettis and Jon Gray, as well as lefty Tyler Anderson, are secure. It would take some unexpected events to oust righty German Marquez, who was the only one of four rookie starters in 2017 to be still starting games at season's end. So it'll likely be lefty Kyle Freeland and righties Jeff Hoffman and Antonio Senzatela battling for one spot.

And there may or may not be the safety valve of carrying a starter in the bullpen to begin the season. Last season, the Rockies kept Marquez as a reliever -- lefty Chris Rusin was on the disabled list with an oblique injury -- but he was optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque after not appearing in a game the first nine days. He returned shortly thereafter and was a rotation mainstay.

Outfield: Left-handed hitters David Dahl, Raimel Tapia and Mike Tauchman will compete for what appears to be two slots.

Interestingly, Dahl, who displayed power during a 2016 callup but didn't play in the Majors last year because of a rib injury, and Tapia, whose ability to hit for average and above-average speed make him a leadoff candidate should the Rockies want to move Charlie Blackmon to third in the lineup, have shown enough in their Major League stints to be looked at as starter candidates on teams with less depth.

However, the Rockies have Blackmon in center field, Ian Desmond in left and Gerardo Parra, who should be back from surgery for a broken hamate in his right hand in plenty of time, in right. Dahl, Tapia and Tauchman -- who was used off the bench thanks to his speed after a callup last year -- have skills that translate to a bench role.

Video: CIN@COL: Tapia goes 3-for-4 in near-cycle bid

First base: Lefty-hitting Ryan McMahon, the team's No. 3 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, has a shot at starting at first out of the gate, but nothing is guaranteed.

"The skill set is there to be a Major League player," Black said. "The test will be here in Spring Training, whether he's able to handle all areas of the game, [including] defense. We have a critical eye every day on our players. Spring Training performance we'll watch and evaluate.

"We'll watch the at-bats, we'll watch the swings. There will be some evaluation of the statistical performance, but one way or another, that may not be an accurate evaluation."

Video: Ryan McMahon ready for bigger role in '18

Desmond, who worked on his outfield skills during the offseason but spent time working at first base on Monday, is an option here as well.

Also, Pat Valaika, the team's best pinch-hitter last year, is a middle infielder by trade but could earn starting opportunities as McMahon's complement at first base.

A platoon of McMahon and Valaika could be a way of spelling McMahon against tough left-handers. Valaika hit .289 with six home runs and a .939 OPS against lefties in 83 plate appearances last season. Right-handed-hitting Mark Reynolds, last year's starter but currently a free agent, hit .231 with seven homers and a .760 OPS in 170 plate appearances against lefties last season.

Speaking of Reynolds, don't discount the possibility of him or another first baseman being brought in, especially if McMahon struggles and the outfield candidates aren't at the point that the Rockies feel the younger outfielders aren't ready to start.

Catcher: Already, pitchers are impressed with the knowledge of veteran Chris Iannetta, who signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract during the offseason. Left-handed-hitting Tony Wolters and right-handed-hitting Tom Murphy are vying to back up Iannetta, with Wolters having seen vastly more playing time the past two seasons.

Worth noting

Now what? In his first official full-squad meeting, Black reminded the Rockies that they want to go further than last year, when they lost in the National League Wild Card Game.

"It was a great first step for us as an organization and as a team," he relayed. "Specifically, we've got some work to do. There are still some places to go for this team that ultimately lead to where we want to be, and that's a world championship."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.