SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies enter 2014 with a question in the center of their outfield. Regardless how the question is answered, manager Walt Weiss counts on the outfield being a strength.
"It's going to be a strength for us all around," Weiss said. "So I feel the same way about our outfield as I do about our infield."
The decision early in Spring Training to keep Carlos Gonzalez in left field, rather than move him to center to replace Dexter Fowler (traded to the Astros), means the Rockies will go into the year with classic run production in the outfield corners.
Gonzalez was leading the National League in home runs and vying for the lead in several categories when he suffered a right middle finger injury that cost him playing time and power. Still, he finished batting .302 with 26 home runs and 70 RBIs. Right fielder Michael Cuddyer won the NL batting crown at .331, plus added 20 home runs, 31 doubles and three triples.
How the Rockies fill the final third of the outfield is one of the big questions of Spring Training.
Drew Stubbs came in a trade with the Indians and could be the right-handed-hitting component of a platoon. Left-handed hitting Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson, who hit during lengthy stints with the club last season after injuries took their toll, are competing for left-handed starts. Brandon Barnes played center for most of last year -- his first full big league season -- for the Astros.
The Rockies' returnees had stronger numbers last year than the newcomers. Blackmon, in two stints with the club covering 82 games, batted .309 with a .336 on-base percentage. Dickerson, in 69 games, hit .263 with a .316 OBP. The on-base performance this spring could be a determining factor in their playing time, since both are viewed as leadoff hitters.
Stubbs, 29, has the most experience -- 632 games in the Majors with the Reds (2009-12) and Indians. Last year, he played out of position in right, and batted .233 with a .305 on-base percentage. He had a 22-homer season in 2010 with the Reds, and the Rockies hope to take advantage of his power as well as his speed (127 steals).
Barnes, 27, made the Astros' squad as a fourth outfielder last year but ended up the regular in center. He batted .240 with a .289 on-base percentage in 136 games while hitting low in the order. He was called upon to handle the bat and had six sacrifice bunts and two sac flies.
The Rockies are asking for greater offensive performance from all of them.
"All those guys are going to be fighting for that spot," Gonzalez said. "I think it's going to be an interesting Spring Training. Hopefully all those guys can get the job done and help us reach our goals."
Weiss is confident that the outfield will be strong defensively, even though that is difficult to quantify. In recent years, the eye test and the way runners reacted on the bases demonstrated that Gonzalez and Fowler were effective in their jobs. Gonzalez is consistently among the top outfielders in assists, and he has won three Rawlings Gold Glove Awards in four years. Yet he and Fowler had up-and-down sabermetric numbers defensively.
"That should tell you all you need to know right there," Weiss said. "A lot of that is where we play. It's tough for anybody to look good, sabermetrically, playing in our outfield because it's so big. Balls drop."
Defensive outfield metrics aren't kind to Cuddyer, but Weiss sees him as a physical and cerebral player.
"Cuddy is a very solid defender," Weiss said. "He throws well, is smart. I have no issues with Cuddy, no matter what the numbers may say.
"And we pay attention to the reports and spray charts and stay a step ahead of it by being well-informed. I don't have any issues with Cuddy out there."
Cuddyer likes the defensive potential and expects the group to mesh.
"It depends on who's out there [in center] -- if the guy covers a lot of ground, it doesn't take long at all," Cuddyer said.
Although center field is expansive at Coors, Cuddyer said the space makes it easier for the fielders to understand the territory.
"In a big, big outfield, it doesn't take very long at all, because the center fielder is going to get most of it," Cuddyer said. "The problems you run into are in small outfields and the right fielder or the left fielder can catch the same all the center fielder can. That's when you run into issues."
Cuddyer is expecting a productive Rockies outfield offensively and solid play defensively, no matter who wins the larger share of playing time in center.
"I know they're all capable," he said. "Stubbs could be a Gold Glover in center field. Blackmon is very good in center field. Corey Dickerson went out there and played really well in center. Barnes over in Houston, they continually praised his defense in center field. That's why it was so early they made a decision to move Carlos strictly to left."