SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Outfielder Sam Hilliard is a large, fast man trying to blast his way into the Rockies’ lineup regularly.
Hilliard, who turned 27 on Sunday, lit it up during his 27-game debut in 2019 with seven homers in 87 plate appearances. During last year's weird season, he hit six homers in 114 plate appearances, but high strikeouts (42) and a low batting average (.210) led to gaps in sporadic playing time.
Hilliard has an experience gap behind projected center fielder Garrett Hampson and left fielder Raimel Tapia, with Charlie Blackmon the mainstay in right. Still, Hilliard’s power, eye-catching speed and ability to play all three spots could make him hard to deny, if he proves able to make consistent contact.
“I could certainly provide this team with a spark with the power bat, and also I pride myself a lot in being an athlete and being able to run well -- one of those guys kind of like Trevor [Story, the Rockies’ three-time All-Star shortstop,] that can do it all,” Hilliard said. “Guys like that can spark lineups, create rallies and get things going.
“If I can do what I’m capable of doing, there's no doubt in my mind I can really help this team.”
The Rockies have ways to feed the lefty-swinging Hilliard opportunities, even if he isn’t a daily starter. The right-handed-hitting Hampson could move to the infield, which means more opportunity for Hilliard to stay in the game when entering as a pinch-hitter. Also, he could spell an outfielder at any spot.
Hilliard’s at-bats could be dependent on how much he learned last season.
A strong Summer Camp earned Hilliard an Opening Day start in left field at Texas, with Tapia sliding to designated hitter (which is not expected back in the National League this year). Hilliard fanned in all four at-bats that day. Starts were plentiful early, but the playing time became so sporadic that the Rockies sent Hilliard to the alternate training site at one point for two days just to give him more at-bats.
Still, Hilliard was inexperienced, and with the shortened 60-game schedule and no Minor League season for regular playing time, it meant he couldn’t go to Triple-A to find his bearings.
As starting him on Opening Day showed, the Rockies will play Hilliard when he is swinging effectively.
“You know how we feel about him as a potential everyday player -- I think it’s in there with Sam,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “He’s cutting his teeth right now. There are some things he’s learning at this level that you can only learn at this level.
“We’re going to have to see more consistency from at-bat to at-bat, bat-to-ball. That's probably as simple as I can put it. I do think he has a good eye. There’s a walk in there that helps the on-base percentage. But the strikeout rate needs to come down a bit, and just putting the ball in play will help Sam as far as batting average.”
Usually at 245 pounds this time of year and 220 by the end, the 6-foot-5 Hilliard reported at 230 pounds and counts on finishing at 220 -- meaning he will be more stable. He doesn’t think being lighter will affect his power. The speed is intact -- last year, Hilliard’s 29.3 feet per second on his “bolts” had him tied for 15th-fastest in the sport.
But the key for him is not necessarily his body but his swing efficiency. He wants the start to be “shorter, more cleaned up.”
Minor League assignments
Warren Schaeffer’s promotion is coming a year late. After five seasons as manager at Double-A Hartford, and three years at Class A Asheville before that, the Rockies promoted Schaeffer to manage Triple-A Albuquerque last year. But there was no season last year.
Here is more on the Rockies’ Minor League staff.
A look at Montero
The logical decision is to move Ryan McMahon from second base to third, his natural position, but a whole host of others will take repetitions there to turn over every stone. Also, manager Bud Black also said he wants to look at No. 7 Rockies prospect (per MLB Pipeline) Elehuris Montero, 22, who was acquired in the Nolan Arenado trade with the Cardinals -- to get some Cactus League playing time.
After slugging .504 at two Class A levels in 2018, he struggled to a .188 average with high strikeouts in 59 games in Double-A in 2019. But Montero missed time with injuries, including a broken hamate in his left wrist, and he was young for that level.