CINCINNATI -- Yonathan Daza never hid his smile or tempered his style, despite having to make the Rockies’ Opening Day roster or else face an uncertain future.
Since arriving at Spring Training and out of Minor League options, Daza has spent the season challenging for a future role with a club whose present is best described as a building stage. Daza, 27, entered Sunday’s series finale against the Reds batting .318, which ranked seventh in the National League.
At the back of the roster to start the season, Daza batted fifth (and singled and doubled) in Saturday’s 10-3 loss, and Sunday was his eighth start in the No. 2 hole.
Daza came up from Triple-A Albuquerque in 2019 and pumped fun into a losing club by introducing a hit celebration -- fingers above the helmet like an antennae, to signify that “la cucarachas” -- as in the Rockies were cockroaches that would not die. Facing career uncertainty this spring, rather than trying to be inconspicuous, he showed up with the textured platinum hair.
“There was pressure -- I’m not going to lie to you,” Daza said. “But I told myself, ‘Don’t be pressured. Have fun and see what happens.’ That’s what I’m doing. I’m taking care of my job and I’m blessed with the opportunity.”
Daza’s year has been a study in understanding one’s strengths. Base hits are not one of the “three true outcomes” (home run, walk, strikeout) that more players than before practically live by. But Daza puts food on the table by collecting hits. Daza batted .306 at Double-A Hartford in 2018 and .364 in 89 games at Albuquerque in '19.
Overall, he hit .206 in 44 Major League games in 2019. Although his final callup was more productive than the first two, the hits were not impactful. Last year, he was optioned during Spring Training, and the pandemic robbed him of chances to earn another Major League opportunity.
Daza reported for camp this year physically stronger, but he made the prudent decision not to seek home runs.
“For three or four years, he’s been a hit collector,” said Rockies coach Tim Doherty, who served as hitting coach at some of Daza’s Minor League stops. “He has to always remember who he is and what he does. That’s hit the ball middle-away, opposite field, get your base hits, get your doubles when they present themselves. And every once in a while, he’s going to clip one for a home run.
“For him, it hasn’t been tough, because he got here that way. He’s got one of the best bat-to-ball skills that we have. Now that you’re in the big leagues, don’t change.”
Colorado's roster is largely populated with players like Daza, trying to prove they’re either full-time players or at least cogs on a club with greater frontline talent. Does the team's needs include left-handed hitting, someone with power and/or someone who profiles better in center field? Sure. But that doesn’t mean there is no place for a righty singles hitter like Daza, whose best attribute (throwing accuracy) fits in a corner spot.
“There are some base hits in Daza, because he does put the ball in play and he’ll get the barrel to the ball, and I like the fact his last hit [Saturday’s double] was driven with some authority to right-center,” manager Bud Black said. “And we do know he’s a good defender.
“He’s doing everything he can to make his mark, to prove that he’s a Major League player. We’ll figure out as time goes what kind of role that he fits, long term. But right now, he’ll get some at-bats because he’s one of our more productive offensive players as far as batting average.”
Daza embraces the role.
“Little things make big things happen,” he said. “That’s my focus.”
Will Gray stay?
Righty Jon Gray, who hasn’t pitched since leaving a June 4 game in the third inning with a right forearm flexor strain, will throw a bullpen session on Monday.
Gray, whose solid work over several seasons could make him a trade candidate, said he has given any thought to the possibility of being dealt before the Deadline on July 31. But as a free agent at season’s end, he has considered staying with the Rockies.
“I haven’t personally been involved, but I think they know that in a perfect world, I would play in Colorado the whole time, stay there forever,” Gray said. “I think it’s because most pitchers don’t want to.
“You may not ever have the numbers you want in Colorado. It’s a challenge. I feel like I’ve already done so much there. I own a lot of it. I own the toughness of pitching there.
“You see people like Kyle Freeland have the year he had in 2018. I’d like to see it glorified more. And it would be cool for someone like [Mets ace] Jacob deGrom say, ‘These numbers are great and everything, but I’d love to see how I’d do at Coors Field.’”