Last season, the Rockies’ defense was messy. Warren Schaeffer’s job is to help clean it up.
“I like the mix we have going on with some veterans and some young talent,” Schaeffer said during a phone interview from spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz. “And these guys are putting in the sweat, working hard.”
Schaeffer, 38, was named Colorado’s third-base and infield coach in November after managing Triple-A Albuquerque for the past two seasons. He’s inherited quite a project, especially with reigning Gold Glove second baseman Brendan Rodgers likely out for the season after undergoing left shoulder surgery.
Although Colorado’s overall defense improved significantly in the second half of 2022, its .983 fielding percentage still ranked 12th in the National League. Third baseman Ryan McMahon’s 17 errors were the most by a National League third baseman. And catcher Elias Diaz’s 11 errors were the most in the majors.
If the Rockies are to improve on their 68-94 record, a spic-and-span infield is essential, especially at Coors Field. Rockies pitchers rely on groundball outs to escape trouble.
Following is an around-the-horn analysis of the Rockies’ infield:
First base: Veteran C.J. Cron is not a smooth gloveman but he’s solid. While his seven errors were the ninth-most among first baseman last season, his five defensive runs save were tied for the fourth-most in the majors.
Cron will be relied on to be a steady voice for a relatively young infield.
“He’s a good communicator out there, he’s locked in, he’s a veteran and he takes his defense seriously,” Schaeffer said. “He’s got good hands and picks the ball well.”
Colorado’s first baseman in waiting is rookie Michael Toglia, who’s fighting for a spot on the 26-man roster as he works on his hitting.
“He can be a Gold Glove defender over there, someday,” Schaeffer said. “He’s got all of the skills. He can pick it, he’s got good footwork and he’s smart and savvy.”
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Toglia will likely start the season at Triple-A to ensure he gets enough at-bats.
Second base: McMahon moves over from third base to second, filling the hole left by Rodger’s injury. At 6-foot-2, the rangy McMahon can cover a lot of ground and is able to get to some balls that Rodgers could not. In 2021, McMahon was a Gold Glove finalist at third, but per FanGraphs, he tallied nine defensive runs saved (DRS) in 368 1/3 innings at second. No NL player with 300 or more innings at second base topped McMahon’s DRS.
“To me, ‘RyMac’, is always one of the top two or three athletes on the field,” Schaffer said. “He’s a good leader out there and always wants to position himself correctly. He does it all. He can win a Gold Glove there, I have no doubt.”
Shortstop: Big things are projected for rookie Ezequiel Tovar. Wait, make that expected.
Tovar, who made his debut last September, has range, a strong arm, confidence, and maturity beyond his 21 years. He’ll definitely be a defensive upgrade from Jose Urena, Colorado’s primary shortstop last season.
“He’s a guy that’s committed to his craft,” Schaeffer said. “He’s constantly working, and he’s working with (McMahon) to get us better up the middle. And I see a guy with high expectations, who’s young and has a lot of room to grow. I think he knows that. He’s working on being consistent every single day. He’s smooth and he’s calm out there.”
Third base: The hot corner remains the big unknown. Rookie Elehuris Montero, who made his big-league debut last season and hit .233 with six home runs in 53 games and 185 plate appearances, has the power the Rockies want from their third baseman. But can the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder become a reliable fielder?
Montero, part of the Nolan Arenado trade with St. Louis in 2021, is getting a lot of Cactus League playing time, but the jury is still out. That’s why the Rockies signed Mike Moustakas to a minor-league deal two weeks ago.
“You should see this kid sweat in the morning and how much work he’s putting in. It’s incredible,” Schaeffer said of Montero. “And the more he works, the better his footwork is getting. For me, it’s just a matter of him defending at the next level, because I saw him play third at Triple-A and he got it done there…He’s a big man and he has to be in the right spot because his range is not going to be incredible. But he can make the plays there.”
Manager Bud Black has expressed concerns about some of Montero’s throws.
“It’s all about (Montero’s) footwork,” Schaffer said. “Because every now and then he doesn’t finish the play.”
Moustakas, 34, is the backup plan.
“He’s locked in and he wants it,” Schaffer said. “He looks smooth and confident out there. His feet were an issue but he says they feel great and he’s moving well.”
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