If the Rockies are to come anywhere near meeting the expectations of ownership, they’re going to need a lot of things to break right in the near term. More than anything, the club requires a few high-quality supplemental players to emerge (or, in the case of some expensive veterans, re-emerge) to supplement an enviable set of stars.
We reflexively think about concerns with pitching when it comes to the Colorado organization, but the team’s bats have been an even greater problem in recent years. The recent Rox outfield has consisted of Charlie Blackmon and a revolving cast of mostly replacement-level bandmates.
As Blackmon ages gracefully — he’s a continuing threat at the plate but has faded badly in the field and on the bases — there’s a glaring need for new talent. Actually, hold that: there has been some talent. The club paid big for Ian Desmond. It gave more chances to Carlos Gonzalez and even got one final ride with Matt Holliday. Some well-regarded prospects such as Garrett Hampson and Raimel Tapia have filtered up. And of course we’ve seen what David Dahl can do … when healthy. What this team needs is honest-to-goodness, consistent, real-live production from someone other than Blackmon.
The Rockies have allocated all their available payroll. They let Mike Tauchman go to the Yankees (not that it wasn’t plenty understandable at the time). They’re badly in need of an emergence from within.
That’s just what the team got late in 2019 from unheralded newcomer Sam Hilliard. His emergence largely flew under the radar as the Rockies limped to the end of a brutally disappointing campaign. While it’s always worth caution when it comes to a 27-game sample, Hilliard was a legitimately exciting performer down the stretch. Could the Rockies have something here?
Hilliard was known as a two-way player for most of his amateur career. He emerged as an interesting position-player target in advance of the 2015 draft, but the Rockies were able to wait until the 15th round to nab him. Hilliard is big, strong, and swift.
The results have been mixed since Hilliard hit the pro ranks. He put up strong homer and steal tallies on his way up the farm system, but always did a fair bit of swinging and missing. Hilliard hit a bit of a wall in 2018 at Double-A. And though his Triple-A output in the ensuing season looked big on paper — 35 long balls, 22 steals, .262/.335/.558 slash — it translated to a fairly modest 107 wRC+ since it occurred in an exceedingly offensive-friendly environment.
When he took to the majors late in the year, there wasn’t much cause for over-excitement. But the 26-year-old delivered well beyond expectations, sending seven balls over the fence in 87 plate appearances while turning in a .273/.356/.649 output. That, too, took place in an explosive setting for bats, but it worked out to a healthy 138 wRC+ output at the dish.
Here’s the thing about Hilliard: prospect watchers still have tempered expectations, despite the big debut. But there are some reasons to believe he could keep producing at an above-average rate in the majors, all while providing value in the field and on the bases. It seems promising that Hilliard actually reduced his upper-minors strikeout rate upon reaching the majors (to a palatable 26.4%) while walking in over ten percent of his MLB plate appearances (above league average).
The most recent Fangraphs assessment of Hilliard’s outlook notes that “his ability to identify pitches he can drive is impressive in context, but well-executed pitches can get him out.” Indeed, he took Noah Syndergaard deep twice in one game … then launched against high-grade lefties Hyun-Jin Ryu and Josh Hader. Perhaps Hilliard’s demonstrated capacity can be expanded more consistently. Given his former focus on pitching, it’s said he’s still maturing as a hitter.
The Rockies sure could use a pleasant surprise from Hilliard. They could also stand to see Dahl on the field for the entire season. That might give the team an all-lefty group of regulars, along with Blackmon, with Hampson and Desmond supplementing from the right side. There’s at least one other near-term player with potential, too. Yonathan Daza is already on the 40-man and is seen as a prospect of some note. His 2019 debut went in the opposite direction of Hilliard’s, with Daza turning in a .206/.257/.237 slash over 105 plate appearances. But Daza had a big showing at Triple-A and has hit well this spring.
It probably wouldn’t be wise for the Rockies or their fans to expect too much from Hilliard and the rest of the outfield unit in 2020 and beyond. But it seems they can at least hope for something more.