Over the past few seasons, the Colorado Rockies have deployed Brad Hawpe as their everyday right fielder, and he's been one of their most consistent offensive threats since establishing himself in 2004. With a career wOBA of .372 and a wRC+ of 120, he's consistently been one of the better hitters in the game, with a good approach at the plate, plus power, and consistently high BABIPs.
Unfortunately, Hawpe has also done a lot of work defensively to offset his impressive offensive production, as he's consistently been one of the worst outfielders in the game. For his career, UZR has Hawpe at -21.5 per 150 games, Baseball Prospectus had him at 30 runs below average from 2006 to 2008, and the only everyday right fielders below Hawpe on the 2009 Fan's Scouting Report were Nick Swisher, Magglio Ordonez, Jeremy Hermida and Jose Guillen, not exactly the best of company when it comes to defense. To put it simply, Hawpe has proved to be a major liability on the field.
Before 2009, the Rockies weren't exactly loaded with alternatives to Hawpe in right field. They failed to produce quality outfield prospects and did little to address an outfield that was seemingly fine with Matt Holliday and Hawpe on the corners, and a procession of slap hitters, such as Cory Sullivan and Willy Taveras, manning center field. Rather, the team chose to focus on their holes in the middle infield, acquiring top amateur shortstop prospects Troy Tulowitzki, Christopher Nelson and Hector Gomez during the middle part of the decade.
But during last season, three young outfielders, Carlos Gonzalez, Seth Smith and Dexter Fowler, emerged in Colorado, suddenly giving the Rockies quite the conundrum: What to do with Hawpe?
Certainly, it's not terribly easy to justify benching a hitter who has posted a OBP above .380, wOBA over .375, and wRC+ over 120 in each of the past four seasons. Then again, at the same time, he's only averaged a WAR of 1.2 over that period, because his defense is so poorly regarded by UZR and he's often been pulled late in games for a defensive replacement.
Given the emergence of legitimately high quality alternatives, as well as the increased awareness of the value of defense, it seems that now is the perfect time for the Rockies to finish off their transition away from the Holliday/Hawpe/Atkins era. Between Gonzalez, Smith and Fowler, the Rockies have three relatively solid defensive outfielders with some serious offensive upside.
Which leads to my suggestion: It's time to trade Hawpe. He's still likely to retain some solid trade value because of his gaudy raw hitting statistics, left-handedness and the team acquiring him would have him on a one-year, $7.5M deal as well as his final year of arbitration, as the contract extension he signed in 2008 allows him to void the 2011 club option for $10M ($500K buyout) if he's traded. Now would be a good time to attempt to extract some value from Hawpe, as the Rockies have superior alternatives on the roster and his salary continues to escalate.
An outfield of Gonzalez in center field, Smith in right field and Fowler in left field would give the Rockies a much improved outfield defense, and each of those outfielders has shown the ability to excel at the ML level. Gonzalez posted a .378 wOBA in 317 PA with Colorado last year after mashing in AAA, Smith has a career wOBA of .379 in 518 PA, and Fowler posted a .345 wOBA in 518 PA in 2009, so each of these hitters has shown the ability to be above average, at the very least, offensively.
Even if you factor in some regression offensively for each of those hitters, the improvement defensively from Hawpe to Smith in right and Fowler to Gonzalez in center would more than make up for whatever the offense loses. Our own Jeff Zimmerman projects Hawpe to post a -21 UZR/150 next season, compared to positive marks for Gonzalez and Smith and a below-average mark for Fowler in center field, but that number would presumably improve with a move to a corner spot. When you factor in that none of those guys is even arbitration eligible and Colorado could potentially have an everyday outfield that costs a third of what Hawpe makes alone, it seems like a no-brainer to me to at least entertain trade offers for Hawpe.
And I haven't even mentioned Ryan Spilborghs yet, who might be the best fifth outfielder in the game right now, assuming that the Rockies keep Hawpe around. There really haven't been any indications out of Colorado that they're looking to deal Hawpe, or that they're even interested in trading arguably their best hitter of the past half-decade, but realistically, it appears that the Rockies would be a better team all-around with Gonzalez, Fowler and Smith playing everyday rather than Hawpe.
I wouldn't be remotely surprised if the Rockies relegate Smith to fourth outfielder status and use Hawpe as the primary right fielder and part-time first baseman, backing up the aging Todd Helton. But considering how many runs Hawpe projects to cost the team with his defense, I really don't believe that continuing to use him in the same manner that they have been is the best course for the team. Obviously, he's capable of making a serious impact offensively so they shouldn't give him away in the same way that Florida did with Hermida, but teams in need of a middle of the order hitter with a hole in left field or at designated hitter would presumably make for nice fits.
Then again, when looking at the entire big picture, having too many good outfielders is probably a good problem to have.