SURPRISE, Ariz.—Salt River Rafters third baseman Nolan Arenado was getting the message loud and clear—he needed to get in better shape if he wanted to stay at the hot corner.
The speculation that the Rockies prospect eventually might need to shift to first base was part of many of the scouting reports on him prior to the 2011 season. The 20-year-old Southern California native was even hearing from his parent organization that he had the glove to play the position but that he had to improve his lateral movement.
So Arenado went to work last offseason. He hired a nutritionist and dropped 20 pounds. He also worked hard on his defense during the regular season, taking ground balls every day to work on his footwork and lateral movements.
“I took it to heart,” Arenado said about the recommendations on improving his defense. “I want to play third base in the big leagues and I know I can, it’s just a matter of staying in shape and doing the right things to stay over there.”
Arenado’s extra effort is paying off. Arizona Fall League observers now consider him a potential above-average defender at third base.
“He has played tremendous defense down here, one of the best defensive third basemen I’ve seen in a long time,” said Rafters manager Stu Cole, the Rockies’ Triple-A skipper at Colorado Springs during the regular season and Arenado’s manager in the AFL’s Rising Stars Game on Saturday. “This guy has played above and beyond what everybody thought he was going to play at.”
But Arenado is more than just a guy who prevents runs with his glove—he’s also got a penchant for driving in runs. He drove in 122 during the 2011 season to lead the high Class A California League in that category and is tied for the lead in the AFL with 30 RBIs after the season’s first five weeks. After compiling a .298/.349/.487 line with Modesto, he’s really taken off in the fall by hitting .407/.421/.692 and a league-leading 11 doubles. He’s also tied for the league lead in hits with 37.
Arenado’s high RBI total doesn’t come as a surprise to Cole.
“Some guys have that knack for driving in runs and he has that,” Cole said. “He’s not going to give up any at-bats when he’s got a guy out there that he can score.”
Arenado takes pride in that part of his game.
“I’m not going to say I’m clutch,” Arenado said, “but I believe that when it’s the moment to drive people in I bear down and do what I have to do.”
One of the other raps on Arenado in the past was his lack of walks. He improved in that area in 2011, drawing 47 walks while striking out only 53 times. His approach is all about being aggressive in the zone, according to Arenado, but he believes that he can continue to make strides with his plate discipline without sacrificing the ability to make consistent contact.
“Not striking out much is a positive,” Arenado said, “but it can also be a negative because I’m swinging at pitches that I can get out on that I probably should be laying off, which can lead to walks.”
Cole doesn’t see the lower walk totals as being a big issue at this point.
“As long as he doesn’t have the strikeouts up there it’s fine,” Cole said. “The more times you put the ball in play, the more times you’re going to get a hit . . . that’s the sign of a good hitter.”
Arenado has had several chances to play on a bigger stage this season, and he takes something away from every opportunity. He appeared in the Futures Game at Phoenix’s Chase Field in July, driving in a run with a double in one of his two at-bats. He again played in front of a national TV audience last weekend as a member of the East squad in the AFL’s Rising Stars Game, and will likely get a chance to appear in two more televised games before the end of the Arizona Fall League season.
“It’s cool,” Arenado said just before the Rising Stars game. “You learn how to go with all of the fans and learn how to play in front of certain people . . . everyone’s here and it’s cool. You’ve got media everywhere and it’s crazy . . . it’s just about having fun with these different players, learning what they do.”
• Baseball fans will get another opportunity to watch Arenado and his teammates Friday night, Nov. 11, when the Salt River Rafters and Mesa Solar Sox square off at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale in the United Concordia Dental Military Appreciation Day, televised live on MLB Network. Game time is scheduled for 8:10 pm EST. The final televised game this year will be the annual AFL championship game, scheduled for Nov. 19 at 3:10 pm Eastern.
• Nationals lefthander Matt Purke made his first appearance in eight days on Friday night with a scoreless 1-2-3 inning. The Scorpions hurler had cumulatively given up 10 runs in 1.1 innings pitched in his previous two outings. Purke, the Nationals’ third-round pick in 2011 after two seasons at Texas Christian, was much more efficient this time out, needing just 10 pitches to get three straight groundouts.