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Who will win the backup outfielder position for the Rockies?

For most teams, the question of who will be a backup outfielder on the bench isn’t of much importance. However, for the Colorado Rockies, it’s one of the more prudent questions in Spring Training as the team attempts to retool and rebuild for the coming years.

During the offseason, the Rockies were adamant and clear about one of their top desires to add a veteran outfielder, preferably a left-handed batter, capable of playing all three outfield positions. The need made sense since on the Major League depth chart, they didn’t have someone who could easily plug into center field to replace Gold Glove winner Brenton Doyle when he needs a rest. It was also a desire that the team could give proper development playing time to their young prospects without forcing them to sit on the bench and waste away.

Before Spring Training began, the team signed veteran outfielder Bradley Zimmer to a minor league deal with a clear shot to join the Opening Day roster. The 31-year-old was once a highly regarded prospect for Cleveland after he was drafted 21st overall in 2014. He showed promise in his debut season in 2017, batting .241/.307/.385 with eight home runs and 18 stolen bases in 101 games as well as earning 5 DRS in center field.

Unfortunately for Zimmer that would be the highlight production of his career. From 2018 to 2021, Zimmer batted .215/.312/.323 with 11 home runs in just 162 games with Cleveland. He was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays at the start of the 2022 season and was claimed off waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies in August where he played nine games before being claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays where he finished out the season. In 117 plate appearances over 109 games in 2022, Zimmer slashed .124/.207/.229 with a 25 OPS+.

He failed to play a game in the Majors last season, instead spending the year in Triple-A, splitting time between the Dodgers and the Red Sox. His batting results weren’t great, as he batted .210/.326/.346 in 82 minor league games. A 33.7% strikeout rate has been the main culprit for his career struggles. Additionally, he has struggled to draw walks. with a below-average walk rate of 7.8%.

However, the Rockies didn’t bring him in for his bat, but more so his defense which has remained decent enough to handle any outfield spot. He holds a career DRS of 15 in the outfield, including 13 in center field. He has a 7.8 UZR at the big league level as well as a 14 OAA. While he does not have the experience at Coors Field, Zimmer could be trusted to handle the outfield as needed thanks in large part to his speed.

So far in Spring Training, Zimmer is enjoying some early success. In five games he is 5-for-10 with three doubles. He also has one walk to just two strikeouts, showcasing that he is making plenty of contact in the early goings. The patience is apparent as he is seeing 3.364 pitchers per plate appearance, the most of his career in Spring Training. His .625 BABIP this spring is the highest it has been since he had a .750 BABIP in 2016. Zimmer’s role with the team seemed all but guaranteed, until the Rockies made an unexpected more on Wednesday.

The team announced that they had claimed outfielder Sam Hilliard off waivers from the Baltimore Orioles. For Hilliard, 30, and the Rockies it’s a reunion after the team drafted him in the 15th round in 2015. Hilliard played parts of four seasons with the Rockies from 2019-22 where he appeared in 214 games and batted a combined .212/.294/.423 with 29 homers over 639 plate appearances.

He stormed onto the scene in his 2019 month, but despite the tantalizing power potential, he displayed the same issues Zimmer had. Strikeouts have long been an issue for Hilliard, who touts an impressive .265/.346/.570 slash and 62 homers in just 942 Triple-A plate appearances but has punched out at an unsightly 28.5% clip at that level and featured an unsightly 32.7% rate with the Rockies at the big league level.

The Rockies chose to trade Hilliard after the 2022 season to the Atlanta Braves where he appeared in 40 games and hit .236/.295/.431 through 78 plate appearances, where he was set down on strikes 42.3% of the time. A heel injury ended his season and the Braves tried to pass him through waivers at the end of the season, but the Baltimore Orioles picked him up. His time with the O’s was short-lived as he went hitless in five plate appearances this spring.

Hilliard in his own right is a decent outfielder. Over his big league career, he has 8 DRS with the majority of that number coming in left field. Hilliard isn’t as quick as some others, but his long legs enable him to cover plenty of ground and he is capable of playing center field as needed.

So, who wins the spot?

The Rockies are essentially trying to fill the spot with the same type of player. General manager Bill Schmidt expressed the desire to increase competition in Spring Training and bringing in Hilliard does that. While Zimmer is the better defender and has speed, Hilliard has the power potential that would make him a valuable bench piece.

“We are looking for competition for that fifth outfielder spot,” general manager Bill Schmidt told Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post. “Right now, Sam will be competing with (Bradley) Zimmer for that spot. At least for now. We’ll see how it works out.”

“We were looking for somebody who has some speed and gives us defense,” Schmidt added. “Sammy can fill that role. We’ll see what happens, but we were looking for the best player we can to fill that role. And that has been my point all spring training, that we want to see that competition.”

The need for both players is to prove that they can make contact and put the ball in play. Strikeouts have plagued both and it’s something the Rockies can’t afford to have on their roster long-term. As occasional substitutions in the outfield, either one can be fine on the roster, but the both Rockies and themselves have to understand the role they are playing. Zimmer and Hilliard are buffers and stopgaps to give the Rockies’ prospects more time to play every day in the minors. The battle for the everyday right fielder spot should be out of their sight lines as the Rockies are letting Sean Bouchard, Hunter Goodman, and Michael Toglia figure that spot out.

Hilliard has the advantage of being familiar with the Rockies and currently has a spot on the 40-man roster. He is also still controllable through arbitration and is owed a little over $800,000 this season. He is out of options though, so he would need to pass through waivers and accept a minor league assignment from the Rockies should that occur at the end of Spring Training. Zimmer is off to a strong start in spring, giving him a headstart, but he will need to continue to impress in the regular playing time the Rockies are giving him.

As it stands, it’s still anyone’s game at this point, but the Rockies are hopeful that one or both of these players find a way to deliver on the promise that they showed years ago. The wave of prospects are coming, so time is off the essence for these veterans to contribute and play their part for the time being.



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