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Is it worth picking up Rockies' Arenado?

4/29/2013

Fantasy owners generally can't avoid asking when this prospect and that prospect will finally get the chance to play in the majors, often presuming clear and immediate success for most, and the NL West-leading Colorado Rockies removed one such name from the board this past weekend by promoting third baseman Nolan Arenado to the big leagues. The move offers little risk and makes perfect sense for the Rockies, as incumbent Chris Nelson wasn't hitting (.600 OPS) and is better suited for utility infield duty, at best. Arenado was hitless in three at-bats -- though Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder Gerardo Parra stole a hit with a diving catch -- with a walk while batting seventh in his debut Sunday afternoon.

Arenado figures to play regularly and despite his top prospect status taking a significant hit last season, he really should hit enough to warrant consideration in all leagues. I generally want to rein in expectations for prospects, but Arenado is a polished hitter getting to play half his games in a wonderful hitter's paradise just like he had been at Triple-A. He's a right-hander hitter with modest and still growing power and enough plate discipline to hit for a high batting average, and the Rockies are scheduled to face left-handed starting pitchers in four of the next five games, perfect timing to promote him and get him off to a strong start. That all said, Arenado doesn't crash my top-15 third baseman party quite yet, but he just missed.

Look at the third basemen being mass-dropped in ESPN formats: People are giving up on Mike Moustakas, Kevin Youkilis, David Freese, Trevor Plouffe and Will Middlebrooks, among others, and while I'd practice a bit more patience with a few of them from a general sense, I can certainly see why this is happening. I understand parting with Youkilis, as he is injured yet again -- not a surprise -- and wasn't much of a draft-day investment anyway. Similarly, Plouffe has power but a critical flaw (he doesn't hit for a decent batting average). However, I still like Moustakas, Freese and Middlebrooks to bounce back, but are any of them going to provide considerably more value than the contact-providing Arenado? I really don't think so. Yes, I realize that struggling threesome hit 20, 20 and 15 home runs last season, respectively, but Arenado is certainly capable of doing the same.

Fantasy owners are always vying for that next big prospect, and while Arenado lost that top prospect status last season, I think he's good enough for adding in 10-team leagues. Again, a fantasy owner's situation often does not mirror a real team. If you've been relying on Chris Nelson, obviously you needed an upgrade. The pessimist will note that most Rockies hitting prospects perform well at Triple-A Colorado Springs, and it is indeed true; entering Sunday the Sky Sox as a team were hitting .306 with a .844 OPS, and their pitchers sported a 4.47 ERA. The Sox were 12-8. Arenado was hitting .364 with three home runs, 11 doubles and a 1.059 OPS, but this all needs context. Then again, look at Coors Field, where the Rockies still have 69 scheduled games to play.

Fantasy owners first became infatuated with Arenado after his 2011 season at High-A Modesto, when he hit .298 and knocked in 122 runs, and the Rockies didn't really have much at the big level at third base to block him. Even I, in one NL-only league last year, drafted Arenado and waited. And waited. And he never got promoted because while spending the entire season at Double-A Tulsa he did not hit for the power scouts and analysts expected. Colleague Keith Law ranked Arenado 26th overall in his 2012 top-100 prospects and then left him out of this year's overall list, though he was No. 3 on the Rockies. Talk about a precipitous drop.

As with most prospects, the normal caveats apply: Take the chance on a free agent as long as you're not dumping someone better. Arenado, 22, clearly brings upside, a simple swing and strong contact rates through the minors, and over the next five months I could see him hitting .270 with 15 home runs, perfectly competent for most leagues. I think Moustakas, Freese and Middlebrooks can do this as well, to varying levels, and each accomplished one -- or both -- of these modest statistics last season. Currently they aren't hitting, and since I view third base as being relatively deep this season, I feel like none of those hitters offers so much upside that I can be burned missing it. There's depth here. In colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft's latest position rankings there are several third basemen I'd cut for Arenado today, including Youkilis, Pedro Alvarez (whom I wrote positively about last week), Middlebrooks and Moustakas. I would keep the first 12 names on that list, as well as Manny Machado, Kyle Seager and Matt Carpenter.

Of course, the other big news surrounding the Rockies on Sunday was the face of the franchise hurting his left shoulder on an odd-looking slide at home plate. Knowing that shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is hardly the picture of durability, even the threat of injury and a missed game or two for him can send fantasy owners into a panic. Don't panic. Tulowitzki has a mild left shoulder strain and might miss a game or two, but as the top shortstop on ESPN's Player Rater, I'd take this opportunity to buy him, not sell.