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Fuentes impressing in stint at first base

September 19, 2020

DENVER -- The Rockies have spent seven seasons trying all methods to fill the hole at first base since Todd Helton retired to end a 17-season career. The latest -- an act on a family member’s recommendation -- has netted them Josh Fuentes, who is doing just fine in the

DENVER -- The Rockies have spent seven seasons trying all methods to fill the hole at first base since Todd Helton retired to end a 17-season career. The latest -- an act on a family member’s recommendation -- has netted them Josh Fuentes, who is doing just fine in the early days of his opportunity.

Fuentes knocked a three-run homer and two singles in the fading Rockies’ 15-6 loss to the Dodgers at Coors Field on Friday night, and he has hit safely in 12 of his 14 starts since supplanting Daniel Murphy as the primary option at first. His bat would lengthen the Rockies’ lineup if the middle of it were producing.

“When it comes down to it, I’m just being myself,” said Fuentes, who is batting .339 with an .875 OPS since being recalled from the alternate training site on Aug. 20. “I always felt it was in me to do good things and hit the ball hard -- being aggressive, attacking and trusting myself.”

Box score

Stories like the 27-year-old Fuentes’, a rookie who wasn’t drafted after playing at a school (Missouri Baptist University) that had never produced a Major League player, are starting to become the focus since the Rockies’ (22-28) postseason hopes are more mathematical than realistic. So precipitous has been the tumble since their 11-3 start to this 60-game season.

Fuentes, who made the Opening Day roster but was sent down before appearing in a game, returned to the big league club and provided a solid bat, first in the seventh spot and now in the sixth. The homer to left field off lefty Alex Wood in the second, which brought the deficit to one, was his second this season.

Fuentes’ homer allowed the Rockies to stay close until second baseman Ryan McMahon’s risky wild throw to try to start a double play opened the door to a five-run Dodger fifth inning. More indicative of Fuentes’ swing were his two singles, the first to left-center in the fourth off Brusdar Graterol and the second to right off Dylan Floro in the sixth.

The Rockies’ previous methods to find an everyday first baseman -- sign one at the end of a great career, draft one and repeatedly try to make one -- had just fleeting success. The Rockies had no idea they had hit upon another plan when vice president of scouting Bill Schmidt acted on the recommendation of star third baseman Nolan Arenado that they sign Fuentes in 2014.

“He listened and he agreed, and at the end of the day, now it's all Josh,” said Arenado, Fuentes’ cousin.

The best of Helton’s replacements were Justin Morneau, who is best known for his time with the Twins but won a batting title with the Rockies in 2014, and Mark Reynolds, who was the primary guy from 2015-16 and therefore had the longest run as a Helton successor.

Former third-round Draft pick Ben Paulsen, now the player development director at his alma mater, Clemson, held the position in 2015. Reynolds, Ian Desmond (2018) and Murphy, who signed before last season, spent much of their careers at other positions before not quite taking first base and running with it.

Can Fuentes be at least part of stopping the revolving door?

“He's swinging the bat and playing good defense,” said Rockies manager Bud Black. “Josh comes to the park every day with a great winning attitude. It's really great. He's trying to establish himself as a Major League player before our eyes.”

While his mobility and defensive awareness were part of the reason he took over first base from Murphy, whose slumping bat no longer compensates for his defense, Fuentes has multi-positional tools to fit the modern game. He was a college shortstop and Minor League third baseman, who was blocked by a certain someone who shares his lineage.

Black has mentioned second base, and late in Friday’s game, Fuentes moved to left field -- a position he had not played since his junior year at Trabuco Hills High School in Mission Viejo, Calif.

There are first-base options in the pipeline, although no one is able to see them since the pandemic scuttled the Minor League schedule. Last year’s top pick and the Rockies’ No. 3 prospect per MLB Pipeline, Michael Toglia, is a switch-hitting first baseman. No. 7 prospect Colton Welker, a fourth-rounder in the 2016 Draft, is like Fuentes: A third baseman who has had to learn the other corner to escape Arenado’s shadow.

But Fuentes enjoys first base and won’t give it up without a strong competition.

“First base comes natural to me,” he said. “I played on the corner in the Minors, and I’m definitely working hard at it. I would love to be the first baseman, make plays and, shoot, win a Gold Glove or something. That would be awesome. I love it over there.

“Whatever they want to do with me, you know, it doesn't matter. Put me on the field and I'm gonna work hard at it and be good at it. So I’m just thankful to get these starts and at-bats.”

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and like his Facebook page.