SCOTTSDALE – Last Tuesday, the Rockies confirmed the signing of Nolan Arenado to an eight-year contract that guarantees him $260 million – if he does not opt out of the deal after three years. It is the richest annual average value ever for a position player.
It wasn’t much of a surprise.
There had been indications of what was to come throughout the off-season, and Arenado had never made any noise about wanting to play somewhere else, having found himself in a productive and comfortable spot with the Rockies, who originally signed him as a second-round draft choice in 2009.
Change, however, is most likely coming for Arenado.
He started for the fifth time this spring on Sunday, taking his regular position at third base, but hitting second in all five games. And it’s not by accident.
The Rockies are looking at juggling the lineup, which will have Arenado moving into the No. 2 spot, behind Charlie Blackmon, instead of what has been his regular No. 3 slot. It’s part of a plan to get Arenado more at-bats and provide a more prevalent left-right alternating pattern in the lineup, which will cause problems for opposing teams in this current era of situational pitchers.
“I grew up seeing the No. 2 guy moving runners over,” said Arenado. “Really DJ LeMahieu is the only one I played with. I don’t see (me) doing that. The game is changing. It’s not about that. It’s about getting more at-bats. They want me to be the same guy.”
The same guy – and then some.
Do remember, the Rockies failed to have a .300 hitter for the first time in franchise history last year and had the lowest team batting average (.256) in the franchise’s 26-year existence. So, the decision was made to reassess the approach, and the idea of having Arenado hitting second has its appeal.
He has been the National League’s most productive hitter the last four years, leading the NL in home runs in three of the last four seasons, with a total of 158, and driving in 503 runs in that stretch, including leading the NL 2015 and 2016.
"Whatever helps the team win," Arenado said. "We’ve talked about it -- trying to get used to it in Spring Training. That’s why I’m hitting there right now.
"It’s taking a little time. I’m still not used to it, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. A lot of good players hit second, and [manager Bud Black] wants me to get better pitches. They think that’s what’s going to happen, and I guess they have the homework to prove that."
He has, after all, been primary a middle-of-the-lineup bat in the big leagues, rarley hitting second.
By hitting him second the Rockies see him getting another at-bat on occasion. They see pitchers in the game having to be more aggressive with him because he figures to come up with less than two outs more often, and hitting in front of him is Blackmon, who has done rarely seen damage as a leadoff hitter. They also see Arenado picking up an extra bat in late innings with a game on the line.
They also see a lineup that will have left-right balance with the potential of:
That’s a left-right mix that can play with opposing teams that have become so reliant on in-game pitching turmoil designed to maximize matchups. That won’t be as easy with a left-right pattern from first to eighth (and the option of a pinch-hitter in the ninth spot in game situations).
“Why not?” said manager Bud Black. “The game is changing.”
In the last five years, LeMahieu had the most at-bats of any player at second base, but he was tied with Mike Trout for most games hitting second (1,548), just ahead of Josh Donaldson (1,504). Kris Bryant of the Cubs ranked ninth, and Manny Machado, who just signed his mega deal with the Padres, ranked 12th.
"There have been a lot of good players hit second," said Arenado.
Arenado celebrated the public confirmation of the hope he can assume the No. 2 spot in the batting lineup in Sunday’s 9-3 victory against the Giants by unloading his second home run of the spring.
“I like that from the No. 2 hitter,” manager Bud Black said with a smile. “It was good to see him get the ball over the fences. He works so dang hard.”
For Blackmon it will be a change. Since assuming the full-time leadoff spot with the Rockies, he rarely has had anyone hit behind him other than LeMahieu, who was a free-agent departure in the off-season, signing with the Yankees.
“I may have to take more pitchers,” said Blackmon. “I certainly don’t want to take first-pitch strikes.”
That isn’t likely to happen. The Rockies envision Blackmon/Arenado as a dynamic 1-2 punch not only at the start of the game, but also late in the game. They are looking to energize the offense, not shut parts of it down.
There have been run-producing, power hitters who enjoyed success in the second slot. Eleven times a No. 2 hitter has drive in 100 or more runs, and led by Giancarlo Stanton with 47 home runs for the Marlins in 2017, there have been 10 No. 3 hitters deliver 33 or more home runs.
Truth, having Arenado on deck, could create a situation where opposing pitchers are more aggressive throwing strikes to Blackmon, wanting to make sure they don’t walk a him to put a man on base for Arenado. That could mean better pitches for Blackmon, which could lead to even better production.
“Nolan’s an aggressive hitter,” said Blackmon. “He does damage. … There will be more at-bats for him that way.”
It’s not going to be an old-time lineup, where Blackmon slaps the ball to get on base and scores with his legs -- he has 95 homers compared to 43 stolen bases over the past three seasons. And, to put it mildly, Arenado will not devote his at-bats to simply putting the ball in play as Blackmon takes off for second.
"I hope I’m not hitting-and-running; I hope I’m just hitting," Arenado said.
That’s what the Rockies are looking for. And it’s not like they are blazing a new trail.