Versatility helps Rockies' Baker
Former third baseman learning to play multiple positions
ST. LOUIS -- Learning to play second base could already pay off for the Rockies' Jeff Baker.
Manager Clint Hurdle put Baker in his starting lineup for Thursday afternoon's game against the Cardinals. If the dry window between Midwest rainstorms is long enough, it'll mean Baker is in the lineup far earlier than last year, when he didn't start until the club's fifth game.
Baker was used as a pinch-hitter last season, but he didn't have the catalog of Major League at-bats that successful players in that job -- usually much more experienced -- can use as reference. Hurdle likes to give his bench players periodic starts to keep then fresh, but veterans Steve Finley and John Mabry were getting the spot starts ahead of Baker last season.
After hitting .222, with a .196 pinch-hit average and just 26 total starts in the corner infield and outfield spots, Baker has added second base as another position this year. With rookie Jayson Nix the starter at second, Hurdle is more likely to use Baker than he was in the corners, where the Rockies' most productive starters play.
Baker was a third baseman in the Minors, but he began adding positions last year to enhance his chances to play. Baker works out at each position before games, although he spends more time at second, short and first than in the outfield.
"Even when they moved me to the outfield from playing just third, I said from Day 1 I'm just a baseball player," Baker said. "I don't need to be labeled a second baseman, or third baseman or a utility guy.
"We have a big chunk of our team, guys that play well, in the corners, so getting at-bats in the corners is obviously going to be tough. It's just wherever I can fit in. I'll try to do some damage and help out the team the day that I'm in there."
Baker was a power hitter and run producer in college at Clemson. After dealing with injuries throughout his Minor League career, Baker hit .305 with 20 homers and 108 RBIs at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2006. Many believe he can be productive in the Majors with proper playing time. That's Hurdle's task.
"To get him more at-bats, it's hard, just because of the guys he's playing behind," Hurdle said. "The second base thing might open up some more at-bats. I'm just going to have to try to find some other ones. You don't like really taking at-bats away from [Matt] Holliday, [Brad] Hawpe, [Garrett] Atkins or [Todd] Helton."
Hurdle also put Ryan Spilborghs in center field and Chris Iannetta at catcher Thursday. Hurdle also needs to find starts for outfielder Scott Podsednik and infielder Clint Barmes.
Spilborghs' production last season -- .299, 11 home runs, 51 RBIs in 97 games -- dictates that Hurdle needs to find him playing time. But Podsednik has been a regular throughout his career, and he'll need at-bats to stay sharp.
"There's a bunch of different ways to look at it, whether it's park-related or history- and matchup-related, how our lineup is producing at the time, [and] do they need an infusion," Hurdle said. "I've just got to make sure that I'm watching, make sure I'm using my eyes, make sure I'm using my ears, and making sense of what we're doing with our bench personnel.
"I think we have a very good bench, and the way you keep it a good bench is by giving them opportunities to play."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.