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Position/Role Battles: The Rockies' Third Baseman

The Rockies signed Casey Blake as a veteran insurance plan at third base, but Blake's release earlier this week indicates that Colorado will go ahead with (at least) one of their young players at the hot corner.  It just won't be the young player that fans have their eye on, however; top prospect Nolan Arenado will begin the season in the minors. Arenado had a difficult Spring Training and doesn't turn 21 until mid-April, so the Rockies are content to give him more minor league seasoning while they make do at third until he's ready.  That time could be sooner rather than later if Colorado is in a pennant race and Arenado is hitting well at mid-season.

But, we're getting ahead of ourselves.  Arenado getting called up in August won't help your fantasy team right now, so let's explore the Rockies' options at third base.

The Favorites

* Chris Nelson.  Taken ninth overall in 2004, Nelson didn't reach the big leagues until his seventh pro season, and he has a mediocre .254/.284/.376 line in 216 career plate appearances. He was originally drafted as a shortstop but, since Troy Tulowitzki is blocking the way in the majors, Nelson has played second and third base over the last two seasons. 

Despite this underwhelming resume, Nelson could prove to be more than just a seat-warmer for Arenado.  Nelson is just 26 and, though it's easy for stats to be inflated in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, he has an .889 OPS over the last two seasons at Triple-A Colorado Springs. If Nelson can hit, however, the job should be his more or less for the rest of the season. 

* Jordan Pacheco. The 26-year-old began his minor league career playing all around the infield but has spent the last four years primarily as a catcher. Pacheco played five games at third base last year in Triple-A and has been further learning the position this spring. While his defense is still a work in progress, Pacheco's bat has been on fire this spring, posting a 1.060 OPS in (small sample size alert!) 50 plate appearances.

Pacheco's versatility will probably give him a roster spot but his only chance at consistent playing time is at third.  It's hard to see him getting that time, though, since Nelson is the better defender and has a better minor league track record at the plate. It seems like Pacheco will only get a crack at a starting gig if someone else falters, be it Nelson or...

* Brandon Wood.  It wasn't long ago that Wood was considered to be one of baseball's up-and-coming young stars.  Ranked as the third-best prospect in the game by Baseball America before the 2006 season (and ranked eighth and 16th, respectively, over the next two years, as well), Wood was supposed to be a fixture at third or short for the Angels by this time in his career, but he simply hasn't hit at the Major League level. In 751 plate appearances, Wood has the batting stats of a pitcher --- a .186/.225/.289 slash line and a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly 7:1.  The Angels gave up on Wood last season, and after being claimed off waivers by the Pirates, they outrighted him off their 40-man roster in October.

Is it too late for Wood?  Colorado doesn't quite think so.  The team gave him a bit of extra attention than usual for a minor league signing, setting Wood up to work with hitting coach Carney Lansford and overhauling his swing.  The results haven't manifested themselves during Spring Training, but there is hope that Wood can still break out at age 27.  You can't blame the Rockies for taking a chance on a player with Wood's pedigree, just in case he's an Alex Gordon-type late bloomer.

The Fallbacks

* Jonathan Herrera: The Rockies have Herrera slated for a utility role this season after he was part of their revolving door at second base over the last couple of seasons.  Herrera showed a solid glove playing second and has 25 appearances at third over his short career, but "late-inning defensive replacement" may be his ceiling given his lack of a bat.

* Michael Cuddyer: This would obviously be the last-ditch plan should none of Colorado's other third base options pan out.  Cuddyer hasn't played third since 2010 and was a below-average fielder (a -9.0 career UZR/150 rating) when he did man the hot corner in Minnesota. If Cuddyer has to be moved to third, that would also create a hole in right field for the Rockies. It would take some seriously dire straits for Cuddyer to play third in 2012, and if faced with the situation, the Rockies would probably just call up Arenado rather than shift Cuddyer and potentially weaken themselves at two positions.  On the off-chance that Cuddyer does play a bit of third, then it bumps his fantasy value up a tick since he'd qualify at another position.

Fantasy Outlook: It's really anyone's guess as to how Colorado's third base situation will play out.  Nelson, Pacheco and Wood are all right-handed hitters so there's no obvious platoon to be found (Herrera is a switch-hitter but he hasn't hit well from either side). Manager Jim Tracy may have to go with his gut when filling out the eighth spot in his lineup every day; I guess the one bonus to drafting a Rockies third baseman is that they'll get a few extra walks batting in front of the pitcher.

Of these options, I'd say Nelson is the only one that could provide some fantasy value.  First of all, he's out of options, so he has a better chance of simply making the roster than Pacheco or Wood.  Secondly, Nelson is considered to be a solid defensive player, so even if he can't hit, his glove might keep him in the lineup since Colorado might well not have any other options with any more pop.  I certainly don't expect Nelson to match his Triple-A numbers but I think the Rockies would be satisfied with a solid glove and an OPS in the .730-740 range.

Nelson and Wood are somewhat in the same boat as ex-first rounders still looking to break out as they reach their primes.  While neither player has had an extended chance at the Major League level, Wood's futility in 751 PAs paints a more dire picture than Nelson's futility in 216 PAs.  With Nelson, I think there could still be room to grow --- for Wood, it's hard to escape that "Quadruple-A" label.

The fact that I've used the word "dire" twice in this post is a sign that you should probably avoid drafting a Rockie to fill your third base spot. If you're desperate, however, it's very likely that the winner of the job will be available on your waiver wire for a rock-bottom price. If Nelson is announced as the starter before Opening Day, there's some potential there for you to throw caution to the wind and pick him up for your bench.

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