SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies second baseman Brendan Rodgers launched an outta-here-quick homer in the first inning against the Cubs on Friday. It came on the compact and powerful swing that he showed much of last season, a swing Colorado is counting on to push its offense forward.
But a play in the bottom of the second -- when Rodgers took a throw from outfielder Connor Joe and made a strong and accurate relay to the plate to beat Willson Contreras -- was an example of what the Rockies want, and what Rodgers needs to become a complete player.
The bat alone could make Rodgers a star. After missing the first 44 games of 2021 with a right hamstring injury, Rodgers hit .284 with 15 home runs. After the All-Star break, he slashed .296/.325/.490.
But can Rodgers also have a defensive impact?
When fans think of the Rockies, offense naturally comes to mind. But when the Rockies think of the Rockies, game-changing infield defense is one of the foremost virtues. Among the teammates Rodgers has, had or at least shared a Spring Training clubhouse with, Nolan Arenado and DJ LeMahieu have won multiple Gold Glove Awards, and Trevor Story and Ryan McMahon were finalists.
Rodgers, 25, wants to be just like them. More importantly, he’s ready to follow them in the Rockies' way, defined as devoted, if not maniacal, repetition. A high school shortstop when picked third overall in the 2015 MLB Draft, Rodgers spent his time in the upper Minor Leagues in a crash course at second base. He reached the Majors and found that school never ends.
“I take pride in my defense, just as much as hitting,” Rodgers said.
For now, though, Rockies manager Bud Black will judge whether Rodgers’ level of hunger to be adept with the glove matches his desire with the bat.
“It’s getting there,” Black said. “That’s our challenge to him, to be the complete player.”
Rodgers has made big plays. But on a few occasions last year, a double play wasn’t turned, or a grounder was not quite anticipated and not quite reached. The Rockies' standard is too high for that, especially on a team that has a tradition for strong infields -- and that can’t afford to miss out on outs, given how offense friendly its home park is.
The culture of extra work among Colorado's infielders seems to fly in the face of keeping a team healthy at high altitude.
Over the years, the Rockies have commissioned studies of the effect of going in and out of altitude. Colorado changed its travel a few years back, opting to leave town the day of its last homestand game -- even if it was off the next day -- to allow rest in the new city. The team has done sleep studies and even instituted a quiet room at Coors Field.
Yet the infielders don’t believe they get better at rest or in bed.
Black has pinpointed keeping a higher arm angle when throwing and learning all the angles that come at second base, as opposed to shortstop, as areas for Rodgers to improve. Most importantly, Black believes Rodgers is just beginning to understand how much he should want to improve.
“His work capacity is increasing,” Black said. “His ability to practice has improved. Think about a high school player coming into professional baseball, the amount of repetition, the ground balls you take and time you're on the field.
“It takes time to build up that stamina, endurance and work ethic to really improve. That’s where [Rodgers] is now. He’s passed some thresholds that will enable him to be better.”
Third-base coach Stu Cole, whose work with the Rockies' infielders extends back to the days of Troy Tulowitzki (another Gold Glove Award winner), sees Rodgers viewing defense as part of how he defines himself.
“He’s a guy that wears his talent on his sleeve,” Cole said. “And he likes to go out there and show it.”
Rodgers got a taste of it in the Minors, when Warren Schaeffer, now manager at Triple-A Albuquerque, helped him learn the nuances of pro ball and taught him the basics of second base when the position change occurred.
“We still talk about it to this day -- he’s in the dugout watching [in Spring Training], and he continues to say good things,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers is trying to work smart as much as work hard. Right shoulder surgery limited his debut in 2019, shoulder and hamstring issues limited him to seven games in '20 and there was the hamstring last year. A new conditioning program should help him stay on the field -- at game time and before, when improvement occurs.
“I changed up some stuff, and it’s feeling really good right now,” Rodgers said. “That’s what I'm going to take into the season.
“I’m just trying to be the player I know I can be.”