Rockies Options at 3B: Blake or Bust

There could be unexpected competition at third base where veteran Casey Blake, signed in the offseason to be the primary player at the position, experienced nagging neck soreness that sidelined him after he began the spring going 0-for-9 with four strikeouts. Do the Rockies have enough to get by without him?

Blake was scratched from the lineup March 12 and finally was feeling well enough to take batting practice and perform baseball activities March 15. Manager Jim Tracy said Blake "swung the bat very, very well." He hasn't played since March 11. 

Blake underwent season-ending neck surgery in September 2011, an injury riddled year that saw him play just 63 games with 202 at-bats for the Dodgers. He said "sleeping wrong" resulted in the neck soreness that led to him being scratched from the lineup.

Blake is in camp on a minor league contract, the result of his limited playing time last year. Blake will have a $2 million salary, if he makes the Rockies. There's plenty of time left in spring training for Blake to get back on the field, stay there and find his bearings at the plate.

But in the meanwhile, Blake's situation has led to an unanticipated battle at third base. Confirming that was the case, Tracy said, "We have one; that's what we have. We're doing some different things with different people. If Casey is not a possibility, we're exploring some very interesting options over there right now. There are a number of ways we can go."

The Rockies traded two third baseman over the winter -- Ian Stewart to the Cubs and Ty Wigginton to the Phillies. Blake was signed to be the bridge to third base prospect Nolan Arenado, 20, who is finding the going hard at the plate in his first big league camp, which isn't surprising since he's never played above the High-A level.

Arenado, who is in his first big league camp, had gone hitless in 14 consecutive at-bats through March 15. That skid left Arenado 3-for-21 with no extra base hits, five RBI, one walk and two strikeouts. Arenado, who turns 21 on April 16, is considered the Rockies third baseman of the future. Before camp started, Arenado at least nominally was given a chance to make the huge leap to the big leagues after hitting .298 with 20 homers at high Class A Modesto and leading the minor leagues with 122 RBI last year, which is also a Rockies minor league record for RBI.

After the 2010 season, Arenado began paying a lot more attention to his diet and conditioning and improved dramatically on defense last year. He spent part of the current offseason in Las Vegas, working out with Troy Tulowitzki, Jason Giambi and Dexter Fowler.

"I'm hard on him," Tulowitzki said. "There's a lot of talent there, but he hasn't put it together this spring. He's young. I can speak from that because I've been there. I've made the mistakes that he does. I've pressed. I've tried too hard. So I feel for him, and I've tried to talk to him and he does a good job listening.

"But it's tough. You're talking about a 20-year-old kid that came into camp with a chance to make the team. And he still can put together a good two to three week and establish himself a little bit. But it's been a tough camp for him."

Chris Nelson could be a possible replacement, if Blake doesn't produce the desired results in spring training and the Rockies deem him not ready to open the regular season in Houston on April 6. Drafted as a shortstop in the first round of the 2004 draft, Nelson now just plays second and third base and neither of them particularly well. He does have occasional power, he totaled 36 extra-base hits in 315 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2011, but he struggles to identify balls and strikes at the big league level. He could be a decent bench option if he improved his defense and pitch recognition. 

D.J. LeMahieu is another player in camp and on the 40-man roster who can play third base. LeMahieu can play every infield position beside first base and has the ability to make consistent contact with the bat that Casey Blake and his career strikeout rate of 20% can only dream of. However, there has been virtually zero talk of the Rockies trying LeMahieu regularly at third base if Blake were unable to play, though he is in the mix for an infield bench spot. Scouts believe LeMahieu is too much of a "tweener" to be a starter at the big league level as he wasn't blessed with power or speed or other tools that make scouts drool. 

Additionally, Brandon Wood, a former Angels phenom in camp on a minor league contract, has made some changes in his offensive approach that yielded early results before he went 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts in his five most recent games through March 17. That slide left Wood 7-for-28 overall (.250) and likely ends any chance he had at fooling the organization into giving him a job based on gaudy spring numbers. 

Blake realizes there is a sense of urgency for him to return and produce significant results soon. And he understands that because the soreness he is experiencing is in his neck, it heightens any concern.

"I understand the situation," Blake said. "I don't want to go out there if I can't play, but I need to be in there playing. I got to get healthy first. I need to get my neck better first. I understand what's going on."

Tracy was happy that Blake took batting practice and did well but said, "We have to move forward as he can tolerate. We're not going to push so hard that we run the risk of breaking the guy. That's ludicrous."

Of course, the Rockies intend to take it slow with Blake and give him every chance to still be their Opening Day third basemen and hope he can stay healthy for at least a few months. However, I don't especially like their chances of getting major league average offensive production out of the hot corner this season. 

From 2007-2010, Blake averaged 148 games played, 18 home runs, 54 walks, 124 strikeouts, and a 109 OPS+ (adjusted OPS). In 2011, Blake had neck pain and surgery, played in 63 games, hit only four home runs, and had a 99 OPS+. Now that the neck pain is back, it's hard to see him playing anywhere close to 150 games. At this point, the Rockies would probably be happy if Blake makes the Opening Day roster and stays healthy for at least two months, giving Arenado a taste of Double-A before getting his feet wet in the majors. 

I've said it before and here it is again: third basemen don't grow on trees. The Rockies were in a tough spot with Ian Stewart penciled in as the starter and Arenado a year away, but at least if the club had kept Stewart they could probably count on him at least being healthy enough that they could give Arenado all the time he might need at Double-A, where fellow top prospect 19-year-old Bryce Harper didn't fare so well last season. Instead, the club dealt Stewart, who never really got a fair shake in Colorado, for two healthy young players that the Rockies also aren't comfortable handing starting gigs (LeMahieu and outfielder Tyler Colvin). Now, depending on how and when Blake goes down, the club will find themselves either scrambling to find another stopgap off the trash heap, hopping aboard the in-house replacement level train to nowhere, or rushing the organization's best hitting prospect since Tulowitzki. 

And that, my friends, is how the Rockies got to the end of March 2012 without a single healthy, major league quality third basemen in their entire organization. 

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