This will be the first in a series of looks at position battles for the Colorado Rockies in 2023 spring training.
If you were forced to pick a single position where the Colorado Rockies have typically had a standout player on the field nearly every season, first base would be on the very very short list.
It starts of course with Hall of Famer-to-be Todd Helton, who manned the position for 17 stellar seasons. Before Helton, there was Rockies icon Andres “Big Cat” Galarraga, who won a batting title for the Rockies in their inaugural season, but who’s sensational glove work was how he earned his nickname.
Justin Morneau was a batting champ in 2014, and so was Michael Cuddyer, who was primarily and outfielder but also played some first. Converted third baseman Mark Reynolds did a nice job at first too, hitting 30 homers in 2017 with an underrated glove. (For purposes of this column, we’re going to pretend the failed Daniel Murphy and Ian Desmond experiments didn’t happen.)
The position was in good hands last year as well, with All-Star C.J. Cron. However, like Morneau, his time in purple pinstripes won’t last long. The coming season will be his third in Denver, and it marks the end of his current two-year contract. Cron is a strong candidate to be traded before the Major League Baseball trading deadline at the end of July, provided he’s fully healthy and swinging the bat like he did during the first half of last season.
Cron was outstanding right up until his All-Star appearance. A wrist injury in early July curtailed his power stroke, but the nine-year veteran still ended up with career highs with 29 homers and 102 rbi for the season. He hit 20 of his homers before the injury. Cron was Colorado’s lone offensive bright spot a year ago, with free agent Kris Bryant sidelined for most of the season with a series of injuries.
The University of Utah product may be the incumbent All-Star at first going into the season, but he’s not the future of the position.
Two young players, each with a taste of the big leagues and having shown some serious promise, wait in the wings. Michael Toglia and Elehuris Montero are both strong candidates to make the opening day roster and cut into Cron’s defensive time at first base. There will be times this season when Cron will be asked to leave his glove in his locker and take some at-bats as the designated hitter, leaving open the opportunity for one of the new kids in the park to play some first.
Toglia is a former first round draft pick from UCLA, a switch hitter with power from both sides of the plate. In his brief time in the big leagues last season, he hit just .216 with two home runs. The biggest concern for the 24-year-old: Strikeouts. Waaaaaay to many of them. Toglia punched out 44 times in 111 at bats over the last two months of the season. On the plus side, his glove work is already above average and he’s expected to improve on that too. It’s worth noting that Toglia can also play the outfield – he made his big league debut in right field a season ago – which gives him an excellent shot at being a big leaguer on opening day. That’s the same path Helton followed when he arrived at Coors Field late in the 1997 season while Galarraga was in his final year in Denver.
The Rockies would love to see Montero become a standout. He and pitcher Austin Gomber were the two big pieces the Rockies got back from St. Louis in the widely panned Nolan Arenado trade. If one or both can become stars, it would take some of the heat off the front office.
Montero is a third baseman as well, so his infield versatility will help his bid for a roster spot. Last season he flashed some power, hitting six homers in 176 at-bats. The relatively low .233 batting average will need to improve for him to force his way onto the field as a regular. And the same issue – strikeouts – hampers him as well. Montero went down on strikes 60 times in 53 games last season. That needs to be fixed.
These two youngsters – and you can toss versatile newcomer Nolan Jones into this conversation as well – will be watching a healthy Cron start at first base when the season opens in San Diego on March 30th. However, they’ll get their opportunities as the season progresses. Which of them can show the ability to make consistent contact and become a solid run producer will determine which one will be Cron’s replacement down the road.
Catch Mark with Manny Randhawa of MLB.com on The Park Adjusted Rockies Podcast, available from the BLEAV network and on all major streaming services.