The Rockies suffered a major injury in their infield on Friday night, but it wasn't the one that most people were expecting. Luckily for Colorado, the injury-prone Troy Tulowitzki has been able to shed that label so far this season. But the team will now have to spend the foreseeable future without the services of Nolan Arenado, who was in the midst of a breakout season for one of baseball's most surprising squads.
The sophomore third baseman, who set a franchise record with a 28-game hitting streak earlier in the year and was hitting .305/.333/.489 in a team-high 204 plate appearances, fractured his left middle finger on a headfirst slide into second base during the second inning of Colorado's 3-2 loss to Atlanta. Facing Gavin Floyd in his first at-bat of the day, Arenado laced a ball off the leftfield wall for what looked like a double off the bat. He hesitated rounding first base, however, then had to slide with his left arm splayed out to avoid the tag of Andrelton Simmons. Arenado was ruled safe, but immediately called time and began clutching his left hand. After a visit from the trainer, Arenado stayed in the game and came around to score on an RBI groundout, but was removed from the game after the inning. The team placed him on the disabled list on Saturday morning.
Arenado's injury will likely sideline him four to six weeks, depending on what treatment option he pursues. As of Saturday, the Rockies had reportedly not decided whether Arenado will simply have the finger splinted or undergo surgery to insert a pin. The team will determine which method is best for Arenado after consulting with an orthopedic doctor in Cleveland on May 30 when the Rockies begin a three-game series against the Indians.
With Arenado out, the Rockies will have to get creative in arranging their infield. Current second baseman D.J. LeMahieu will likely slide over to third base, sharing time with Charlie Culberson, who replaced Arenado in Friday night's game. To replace LeMahieu, Colorado called up Josh Rutledge from Triple-A; the 25-year-old second baseman has spent 11 games with the Rockies this season. The team also has 25-year-old third baseman Ryan Wheeler, who is hitting .293/.375/.668 for the Triple-A Sky Sox and spent 28 games in Colorado last season, on the 40-man roster.
None of those options, however, will approach what Arenado has given the Rockies at the plate. After a tough 2013 that saw Arenado post a mere 82 OPS+, the 23-year-old was off to a roaring start in 2014. His 112 OPS+ was the fourth-highest mark on the team behind Tulowitzki, Charlie Blackmon and Justin Morneau, and his 17 doubles are second in baseball for third basemen behind Minnesota's Trevor Plouffe. While some of Arenado's improvement from last season can be tied to some better luck on balls in play — his BABIP jumped from .296 last year to .323 this season — he was also showing better selectivity at the plate, cutting down on his swing percentages (55.6 to 51.8) and swinging-strike percentage (10.0 to 8.7) and maintaining last year's solid contact rates (81.8 in '13, 83.1 this year). Arenado was also showing much improved results against offspeed pitches: Last year, he hit just .253 on sliders and .200 on curveballs, compared to .394 and .292, respectively, this year.
But it's not just Arenado's bat that the Rockies will miss. His injury also robs them of one of the game's best defensive third basemen. Last season, Arenado became just the 10th rookie in MLB history to win a Gold Glove for his brilliant work at third base, and looking at his highlight reel, it's easy to see why.
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Keep in mind, that's just a small sample of Arenado's fielding prowess. Really, this whole post could've just been video after video of Arenado's glovework. Suffice to say the Rockies will miss that kind of defense dearly over the next month.
Beyond the bat and the defense, Arenado's injury comes at a poor time for Colorado, which has dropped eight of its past 12 after going a season-high eight games over. 500 on May 7. In that time, the Rockies have gone from a tie for the NL West lead to four games back of San Francisco. Colorado is also dealing with an injury to Carlos Gonzalez, who has been out since last Wednesday due to inflammation in his left index finger. With Arenado out, Gonzalez ailing, and Blackmon coming back to earth after a red-hot start (his OPS in the month of May is .720 after he posted a 1.034 mark over March and April), the pressure will be on Tulowitzki and Morneau to keep producing and stay healthy, something that has been a struggle for them in recent years. Arenado's injury, meanwhile, is one that has hit players with regularity this season. In April, Josh Hamilton suffered a thumb injury sliding headfirst into first base that has kept him sidelined nearly six weeks. Bryce Harper is out until July on an injury similar to Hamilton's when he went headfirst into third base on a triple; his Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman has been on the DL since early April with a broken thumb sustained on a slide into second base. Earlier this month, the Rays' Ben Zobrst dislocated his thumb going headfirst into second base on a steal attempt. Whether the rash of hand injuries on slides will change the way players go into the bag remains to be seen, but at the very least, it should be giving players and teams pause on going in headfirst.