Fuentes embracing battle for everyday 1B job

February 28th, 2021

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- ’ quest to make sure he is remembered -- after making a name for himself just a few months ago -- started positively Sunday morning. He was in the lineup for the Cactus League opener against the D-backs at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Last year, Fuentes took the Rockies’ first base job, batted .306 and compiled eight Defensive Runs Saved in just 196 1/3 innings -- tops among 36 Major League first basemen with at least 190 innings, per Fangraphs. He became known for more than just being the cousin to superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado.

But Arenado is gone and Fuentes, 28, feared he would be forgotten when the Rockies signed C.J. Cron and Greg Bird to Minor League contracts. Both, but especially Cron, have displayed power in their Major League careers. Fuentes, however, hasn’t had that chance.

While Cron, who has season home run totals of 30 (2018, Rays) and 25 (2019, Twins), was in Sunday’s lineup as the designated hitter, Fuentes has earned a look in 2021, and he made an early impression with two singles during the Rockies’ 5-2 win over the D-backs.

It took a while. After signing as an undrafted free agent out of Missouri Baptist University in 2014 and earning the 2018 Most Valuable Player Award in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, Fuentes has appeared in 54 big league games over the last two seasons.

“It’s a little different than in the past,” Fuentes said. “I’ve always tried to scratch the roster. Not that anything’s guaranteed, but it feels more like I’m battling for an everyday spot, which is awesome.”

Fuentes’ achievements often attract a, “Yeah, but …” response. He can’t talk or read about himself without mention of last season’s 29 strikeouts against two walks in 103 plate appearances, and 49 strikeouts in 159 Major League appearances.

The priority isn’t walks. As Fuentes put it, “To think that I’m not considered a starter because I don’t walk as much is kind of ridiculous.” Walks are merely an indication of the quality of his hitting approach, which will be revealed with more plate appearances.

While Fuentes was a consistent double-figure home run hitter throughout his career in the Minors, manufacturing power is not his game. He finished with two homers and seven doubles in 2020 with an approach based on going with where the ball is pitched. Power at the big league level certainly could show, and may be a must if he is to assure regular starts at a corner position -- but until then opposing pitchers will not fear the long ball, so Fuentes is ready to swing.

“That’s something I’ve got to work on,” Fuentes said. “I’m obviously aggressive and I can get myself into trouble and that comes with it. I think people forget that I’ve only have 150 at-bats in the big leagues. To say that I’m this huge strikeout guy is pretty ridiculous. I just started.”

All that is fine, as long as Fuentes maintains control of the strike zone.

“It coincides with the importance of getting on base,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “If Josh is able to hit his way on, awesome. That's great. But I think Josh also knows that over time, we’ve got to make sure that the pitchers don't exploit that by throwing pitches out of the zone and Josh chases them. So, there comes a point when the pitchers are going to notice that, and maybe start expanding the zone to see how Josh reacts.”

The Rockies love a versatile roster, which means there could be a place for Fuentes even if he doesn't earn the job at first. But Fuentes’ two Minor League options could put his roster spot in question, both now and throughout the season.

The Rockies will likely begin the season needing a spot on the Major League 40-man roster for one of the first basemen and possibly veteran utility man Chris Owings.

While being a utility player in the Majors is fine with Fuentes, his goal is the daily lineup.

“It’s always been when I see someone above me on the depth chart, whether it’s true or not, it pushes me,” he said. “I personally don’t think anyone works as hard as I do at that position. If I continue to do my thing, continue to work hard and not take it for granted, I don’t see why I can’t play first every game.”