Entering the 2009 season, there were numerous questions surrounding the infield of the Colorado Rockies.
Would Todd Helton's back hold up?
On the heels of his excellent rookie year in 2007, was Troy Tulowitzki's 2008 season a "sophomore slump", or was that the real Tulo?
Could Ian Stewart become the player that everyone thought he would be?
Would Clint Barmes and Chris Iannetta be productive as everyday starters?
By the end of the season there were few doubts remaining, if any. Those questions and more were answered with a resounding, "Yes!", and the Rockies are solid at all five infield positions as they look forward to spring training in 2010. (Player ages at the start of the 2010 season are in parentheses.)
Helton (36) played 151 games at first base and finished fourth in the NL in batting average (.325). He also drove in 86 runs and his .998 fielding percentage was tops among everyday NL first basemen. His power was down (15 home runs), but he posted a .416 on-base percentage courtesy of 89 walks. As long as he continues to take care of his back, there is no reason to expect any real drop off from him next season.
Tulowitzki (25) started off slowly in 2009, batting just .226 through the end of May with five home runs and 16 RBI. No player benefited more when the Rockies installed Jim Tracy as manager, as from June first on, Tulo pounded out 27 big flies and 76 RBI to lead the Rockies to the NL Wild Card. He also finished fifth in the NL MVP voting.
As good as he is with a bat, he's even better with his glove at shortstop, where he will likely win multiple Gold Glove awards over the course of his career. He is definitely in the discussion when considering the best all-around shortstops in the game.
Stewart (25) also flashed the leather in 2009 down at the hot corner, and hit a number of tape-measure home runs as well. The experimentation with him at second base is over and he will be settling in full-time at his natural position going forward.
His batting average is a concern (now at .238 for his career in 841 plate appearances) as well as his penchant for striking out (249 career K, one every 3.4 PA). He needs to improve his plate discipline (only 87 BB and a .328 career OBP), but considering his age, that seems a reasonable expectation. If he does make that step forward then he is a legitimate threat to hit 30+ home runs with 90+ RBI as a full-time starter in 2010.
Barmes (31-yes, that's correct) is the biggest concern among the regulars. Even though he is outstanding in the field at second base, as he brings a shortstop's range and arm to that position, he simply has no plate discipline whatsoever—only 90 BB in 2,077 career PA versus 331 strikeouts, and a career .299 OBP.
However, he did show significant power in 2009 with 23 home runs and 76 RBI in 604 PA, but his woeful OBP led to a poor 84 OPS+ for the season. At 31 years of age, it is unlikely that he will be able to make the necessary changes to become anything other than the all-or-nothing hitter that he is at this point in his career.
Iannetta (27) recently signed a three-year contract with a club option for a fourth season, making him the catcher of right now as well as the future. Though his batting average was poor in 2009 (.228), his PA/HR and PA/RBI ratios were in-line with his career averages and were also among the top five or six of all catchers in MLB.
Based on his career performance, if given a full season of catching as a regular (525 PA) he should produce 25 home runs and 80 RBI. Regardless of his batting average, that is significant production from behind the plate.
Eric Young Jr. (24) got a little taste of life in the bigs at the end of 2009 (30 games, 61 PA) and generally looked overmatched at the plate. That said, he owns a minor league career OBP of .385 and averaged one walk for every other game played during his time on the farm.Couple that with 303 career steals over 568 games in the minors and you have the makings of this club's future lead-off hitter.
Young is likely to see significant time at second base in 2010 (with Barmes spelling Tulo at shortstop and Stewart at third base) as well as in the outfield in order to help him progress at the big league level as he has nothing left to prove in the minors.
Two of the biggest needs for the Rockies at this time is a backup corner infielder and a backup catcher. There isn't anyone currently in the system who is likely to make the team coming out of spring training who can fill that utility infielder role, and it is starting to look less and less likely that Yorvit Torrealba will return to Colorado. Miguel Olivo has been mentioned multiple times as a prime target should Torrealba walk away from the current two-year, $5.6 million offer the Rockies have on the table.
GM Dan O'Dowd has hinted that right fielder Brad Hawpe may give Helton an occasional day off at first base (Hawpe's high school and college position), and with Barmes's ability to play all over the infield there may not actually be a need for a utility player. That could possibly free up a roster spot to bring back Jason Giambi as a left-handed pinch-hitter, though he would be strictly limited to that role as his ability in the field is all but gone.
As a whole, the Rockies are in fine shape around the infield. Barring injuries and severe slumps, the Helton-Barmes-Tulowitzki-Stewart-Iannetta everyday quintet should account for roughly 115 home runs and 425 RBI. However, they are also likely to tally 500+ strikeouts. All but Iannetta are among the top fielders at their positions as well, making this one of the best all-around infields in the game.