Offseason question No. 63: Do the Rockies believe in Eric Young Jr.?

Eric Young the younger got only 174 at-bats in 2012, nowhere near the line of a full-time starter and not even as many as he had the year before, when he was an obvious defensive liability. But during his longest stretch of starting regularly, in the month of August, the Rockies played their best baseball.

That’s not saying much, of course. The Rocks had the worst season in their 20-year history, finishing with a record of 64-98. But during their one month with a winning record, Young took over for a short time in right field because of injuries and gave the Rocks a catalytic leadoff man before he, too, went down with an injury.

In a 2-0 victory at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 6, for example, Young went 3-for-5 from the leadoff spot and scored both runs. The next night, in a 3-1 win over the Dodgers, he went 3-for-4 and scored two of the Rocks’ three runs. Rookie Josh Rutledge, batting second, went 4-for-5 and drove in all three.

In a three-game sweep of the Brewers in the middle of August, Young went 7-for-14, scored five runs and, stunningly, hit two home runs (he finished the season with four, quadruple his previous major league output).

The Rocks went 16-13 in August, and EY Jr. was at least part of the reason. With veterans Michael Cuddyer and Todd Helton out with injuries, Tyler Colvin moved in to play first base and Young got a chance to play every day in right field before straining an intercostal (rib) muscle on Aug. 19, effectively ending his season.

With Troy Tulowitzki also out, Rutledge was called up to play shortstop. In patch-and-fill mode, the Rocks stumbled into a top of the lineup featuring Young, Rutledge, Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez that brought speed, power and a less tangible serial dynamism that made it hard to look away.

The question is whether the switch-hitting Young, now 27, showed enough during this short stretch to be a candidate for the everyday leadoff job in 2013. If so, it would probably make the veteran Cuddyer expendable. With the Rocks perpetually in the market for pitchers whose heads won’t explode at Coors Field, they will need to identify offensive pieces who might have value in the trade market.

“If you give him 400, 500 at-bats, I think he has a track record of six years in the minor leagues to indicate that he will perform,” the older Young, Eric Young Sr., said this week on the Dave Logan Show.

“Remember, it’s hard to find a leadoff guy with speed that can make things happen and cause havoc. You put him in there with the rest of that lineup, that’s a very, very formidable lineup. Not to say that he makes it formidable, because they have some studs in there already, but when you add that speed at the top of the lineup that can create and cause havoc and then you have those big boys coming through the middle of that lineup in CarGo, Tulo and Cuddyer and Helton, you know offensively you have a strong unit right there and now it’s just a matter of putting the pitching with it.”

With the emergence this season of Colvin, acquired a year ago in exchange for Ian Stewart, it’s not clear Helton will be a part of the everyday lineup in 2013, but you get Young’s drift. A lineup of EY Jr., Rutledge, Fowler, CarGo, Tulowitzki, Colvin, Wilin Rosario and Chris Nelson or D.J. LeMahieu would indeed be formidable if the younger members continue the progress they made in 2012.

But the question remains whether Young has overcome the widespread doubts among Rockies executives about his ability to hold his own defensively as an everyday player. He has been a member of the organization now for nine years, ever since being drafted in the 30th round in 2003 in what seemed at least partially a nod to his father, the Rockies’ original second baseman and the author of one of the organization’s iconic moments.

Throughout a long minor league sojourn, Young batted .297 with an OPS of .811 and was successful in 78 percent of 421 stolen base attempts. He has always been an offensive catalyst, but his batting average at the major league level had been pedestrian before this year, when he hit .316 with an OPS of .825.

The problem was always defense. He committed 126 errors during that minor league run from 2004-11, compiling a fielding percentage of .961 at second base, where he played most of the time, .966 in center field and .958 in left field.

His major league numbers aren’t much better — .973 as an outfielder, .962 as a second baseman playing part-time over four seasons. But this year, in 28 starts, all in the outfield, he didn’t make an error. He wasn’t exactly a candidate for a gold glove, but he was at least serviceable when the Rocks called on him to fill in at all three outfield spots during injuries to their starters.

“I think it was a situation where the Rockies didn’t trust him enough at second base and they decided to move him once he got to the big leagues,” his father, now a coach for the Diamondbacks, said. “But I think he could have been further along if they would have made him an outfielder from the start, in the minor leagues. But that didn’t happen and he continued to grind it out trying to get an opportunity just to play.”

Last spring, despairing of Young’s ability to play defense anywhere on the diamond, the Rockies seemed determined to showcase him in hopes of baiting another team into offering something in trade. But Young’s contributions as a pinch-hitter and runner kept him on the big league roster, and injuries ultimately gave him a chance to blossom as a leadoff man.

The question now is whether the club showcased him so successfully that he sold himself to his original employers. The Rocks can certainly imagine a lineup without him. Maybe Helton can hit enough at 39, post-hip surgery, to hold onto the first base job for one more year, allowing Colvin to play right. Maybe Cuddyer sticks around, playing one or the other.

“He’s looking for an opportunity to play every day,” the senior Young said of the junior. “And hopefully it comes for him next year with the Colorado Rockies. I hope he’s done enough in the month he was given the everyday outfield job that he’s proven that he can play at this level each and every day.

“One thing about him, even from a scout’s standpoint, not even from a dad’s standpoint, he’ll probably be one of your hardest-working guys on the team, no matter what, each and every year you put him out there. He will not be outworked. From a scout’s standpoint, that right there is definitely what you want to see in young players because I must say not all of them possess that. Some do and some don’t, but the Rockies definitely have one in Junior.”

Fowler is certainly a serviceable leadoff man, but he does not bring Young’scatalytic tendencies. And the lanky center fielder’s emerging power — his OPS jumped to .863 this season — and improving batting average (.300 in 2012) also make him a candidate to hit in the middle of the order as the 26-year-old grows into his 6-foot-4-inch frame.

Personally, I liked the havoc Young caused as a leadoff man. And while he will never provide the outfield defense of Fowler or Gonzalez, I thought he was good enough to justify his place in the offensive lineup.

Do the Rocks agree? To find out, watch the off-season action around Cuddyer, who will be 34 by the start of next season.

The veteran outfielder is slated to earn $10.5 million next season and another $10.5 million in 2014. If the Rocks don’t trade him, he’s playing, either in right or at first. With Colvin (.290/.858) having earned first dibs on the other, that would leave Young back in his role as either a bench player or trade bait.

But if the Rocks move Cuddyer in their never-ending quest for pitching, that might open a door that allows EY Jr. to compete next spring for his first chance to be an everyday player in the big leagues.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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