Minors : : General
Monday, January 23, 2012

Top Prospects: Colorado Rockies

David Rawnsley        
Photo: Perfect Game

General Manager: Dan O’Dowd
Minor League Director: Paul Egins
Scouting Director: Bill Schmidt

AAA: Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Pacific Coast League) 64-80
AA: Tulsa Drillers (Texas League) 68-72
Hi A: Modesto Nuts (California League) 74-66
Low A: Asheville Tourists (South Atlantic League) 69-70
Rookie Adv.: Tri-City Dust Devils (Northwest League) 44-32
Rookie: Casper Ghosts (Pioneer League) 27-49
Dominican: DSL Rockies (Dominican Summer League) 43-28

System Overview

During the Rockies 19 years in existence the team has reached the playoffs three times, including twice in the last five years, highlighted by their 2007 season in which they swept both the Phillies and the Diamondbacks before losing to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Despite that, they’ve only had seven winning seasons in those 19 years, although three have come within the past five years. The Rockies also have won two more games (over those 19 years) than the two-time World Champions and expansion brethren Florida Marlins.

Their 20
th season, though, looms as one of the most important in the franchise’s history. The Rockies have gone from 92 wins in their last playoff season, 2009, to 83 wins in 2010 to a disappointing 73-89 mark last season.

GM Dan O’Dowd has assembled a veteran cast of position players that should do their part to bring the Rockies back into the NL West race. SS Troy Tulowitzki and OF Carlos Gonzalez remain the faces of the franchise, especially Tulowitzki, but CF Dexter Fowler has reportedly spent the offseason getting stronger and could be primed for a breakout year at age 26. Veterans such as IF Marcus Scutaro, OF Michael Cuddyer, 3B Casey Blake and C Ramon Hernandez have been brought in as short term solutions while top prospects develop at their respective positions, while old reliable 1B Todd Helton keeps on hitting and reaching base.

Just as it has been for much of the past 19 years, the big question mark will be the pitching staff. The Ubaldo Jimenez trade with Cleveland (for LHP Drew Pomerenz and RHPs Alex White and Joe Gardner), the Seth Smith trade with Oakland (for RHP Guillermo Moscoso and LHP Josh Outman) and the Chris Iannetta trade with the Angels (for RHP Tyler Chatwood) have given the Rockies a huge influx of talented young pitching prospects, most of whom already have Major League experience.

However, who will actually be in the Rockies starting rotation will be completely up in the air heading into spring training. 24-year old Jhoulys Chacin, with his 20 wins and 53 big league starts, projects as the Opening Day starter and staff ace. The bullpen has experience for the most part, but the starting rotation could end up being the youngest in the Major Leagues.

The Rockies have perhaps the most stable and low key scouting operation in Major League Baseball. They have had only two scouting directors in their 20 year history, Pat Daugherty and Bill Schmidt, and have six scouts on the free agent staff, including Daugherty, who have been with the club since its inception. In addition, O’Dowd is one of the longest tenured General Managers in the game, having taken over the Rockies job in 1999.

The trades at the Major League level and the prospects that have come into the system through the draft and international signings have arguably put the overall talent level top to bottom in the Rockies system at its highest level ever. Still, the key to continued stability in the organization could lie with reversing the two-year slide at the big league level.

2011 Draft

Although there have been a few exceptions, notably LHP Tyler Matzek in 2009 (see below), the Rockies have earned a well deserved reputation for sticking very closely to the MLB recommended bonus guidelines and they have rarely overpaid players for their slot, even in later rounds. And while they will lean to the college player, the Rockies will also not hesitate to draft high school talent in the first couple of rounds if they feel confident they can sign the player.

The 2011 draft fell right in line with that established philosophy, with an emphasis towards position players and perhaps just a bit more towards high school prospects.

University of Oregon LHP Tyler Anderson, whose stuff and overall package is not dissimilar from 2002 Rockies first round pick Jeff Francis, was the team’s initial pick at No. 20 overall and was signed at the deadline for an in-slot $1.4M signing bonus. Anderson is a polished pitcher with a long track record of success and should start his career in low A ball this spring and could potentially move quickly through the Rockies system.

Any mention of “Rockies” and “first-round pitcher” should come with a caveat, however. Since drafting former Rookie of the Year RHP Jason Jennings in 1999, the Rockies have picked 10 pitchers in the first and first round/compensation picks. Only Francis and 2011 rookie left handed reliever Rex Brothers have enjoyed any success at the big league level.

First round comp pick SS Trevor Story and second round OF Carl Thomore, along with fourth round OF Dillon Thomas, all represent high school athletes who have broad tool packages and above average athleticism. Story has already opened eyes in the Rockies organization with his unexpected power display (six home runs) after signing early, as he was seen as a high level defensive shortstop whose fielding was ahead of his hitting as an 18-year old.

Third round pick C Peter O’Brien was one who got away for the Rockies. O’Brien, a college catcher with big power and arm strength, was considered a potential coup at that point in the draft, but the Rockies were unable to sign him. It since has come out that the situation was much more complicated than first known, as O’Brien was recently granted a special waiver from the NCAA to transfer from Bethune Cookman to Miami for his senior year for family health reasons.

For an organization with a very strong and acknowledged preference for taking athletes who have football quarterback background (Todd Helton, Seth Smith, Matt Holiday, Greg Reynolds, Kyle Parker, Russell Wilson, etc.), the Rockies didn’t select a single player with an obvious connection to the gridiron in 2011.

Top 10 Prospects

1. 3B Nolan Arenado
- Baseball-Reference player profile

Much like Miami Marlins top prospect OF Christian Yelich, Arenado was an occasionally overlooked member of the powerhouse ABD Bulldog teams of 2006-2008, taking second billing to All-American teammates such as 3B Matt Davidson, SS Jio Mier, IF David Nick and 1B/RHP Brooks Pounders just from the 2008 team. That has definitely changed since the Rockies made Arenado their second round pick in the 2009 draft.

The right handed hitter led all minor league players in RBI in 2011, hitting .298-20-122/.836 OPS as a 20-year old in the Hi A California League. He then stepped it up another notch, hitting .388-6-33/1.059 OPS in the Arizona Fall League, finishing third, third and second in batting average, home runs and RBI, respectively.

Arenado is an extremely mature young hitter who has an advanced ability to recognize pitches and make swing adjustments. He rarely strikes out (only 103 Ks in over 1200 professional plate appearances) and consistently squares the ball up hard to all fields. There is no reason that he shouldn’t continue to add both double and home run power to his game as he gets older, especially in the context of playing in Coors Field.

Despite below average straight-line running speed, Arenado is also a plus defensive player at third base, with a very quick first step, soft hands and an above average throwing arm. Some scouts thought that his best future position while in high school was behind the plate, where his soft hands and raw arm strength, along with his baseball IQ and makeup, would have really stood out. That was before Arenado’s bat truly blossomed; imagine what his overall prospect status would be if he was a 20-year old power hitting catcher?

2. LHP Drew Pomeranz - Baseball-Reference player profile

Pomeranz was a classic projection lefty in high school. Going into his senior year, he was 6-5/190 with a upper-80s fastball that he threw at a sharp downward angle, a hard mid-70s slurve type curveball and a decent change up. He starting adding some velocity leading up to the draft and received some late draft interest but his strong commitment to Ole Miss prevailed despite being picked in the 12
th round by the Rangers.

That development curve sped up over the next three years and Pomeranz was one of the most dominant pitchers in the college game and was named the SEC Pitcher of the Year in 2010 before being picked fifth overall by the Cleveland Indians and signing for a $2.65M bonus. The Indians traded him to the Rockies (he was actually a player to be named later due to his 2010 signing date) as part of the blockbuster Ubaldo Jimenez trade.

When Pomeranz is at his best he’s sitting in the low-90s, touching 94-95 mph, and owns the bottom of the strike zone with a fastball that combines big downhill angle and excellent late movement. He has allowed only three home runs in 119 professional innings, something that gives him extra value in the Rockies Coors Field environment. His 12-to-6 downer knuckle curveball is a second plus pitch and is Pomeranz’s primary strikeout pitch. The one steady worry about Pomeranz dating back to his days at Ole Miss is that his delivery, which features a short, hard front side, tends to be inconsistent, leading to wide swings in velocity and command. He has proven to be a first-class workhorse, however, and has never had a serious injury problem.

Colorado will be very tempted to start Pomeranz in their rotation at the beginning of the year, especially since he threw well in four big league starts last September.

3. RHP Chad Bettis - Baseball-Reference player profile

Bettis was more of a shortstop in high school and looked the part with a 6-0/165 build. When he did take the mound, though, the results were spectacular, as they were at the 2006 WWBA World Championships when he came in from shortstop and started pumping 93 mph fastballs with a sharp 80 mph slider.

Bettis worked as a starter, long reliever and closer, all sometimes within the same week, while at Texas Tech for three years and there were plenty of opinions on what his best role would be as a professional when the Rockies took him in the second round in 2010. The Rockies immediately made him a starter and the decision looks like a wise one. Now 6-1/190, Bettis was the California League Pitcher of the Year in 2011, going 12-5, 3.34 with 184 strikeouts in 169 innings. The durability that Bettis showed while pitching in a variety of rolls in college has shown through in pro ball, as he’s able to hold his mid-90s velocity late into games. Bettis’ second pitch continues to be his slider, which is thrown in the mid-80s and has uncommon size for a pitch with that power. The key to Bettis' eventual ceiling will be his ability to fully develop a third pitch, whether it is a softer breaking ball or an improved change up, to complement his two power pitches.

4. OF Tim Wheeler - Baseball-Reference player profile

Wheeler was the final pick (32
nd overall) in the first round of the 2009 draft out of Sacramento State and part of the haul that saw the Rockies pick up LHP Tyler Matzek, Wheeler, big league LHP Rex Brothers and top prospect 3B Nolan Arenado in the first 59 picks of the draft.

After a relatively slow start to his pro career (.715 and .723 OPS his first two years), Wheeler exploded in AA in 2011, hitting .287-33-86, 22 steals/.900 OPS and finished second in minor league baseball in home runs. The home run production surprised even his biggest admirers within the organization.

The 6-4/205 left handed hitter has a very well rounded overall tool package, with enough speed to tease scouts about his ability to play centerfield and enough arm strength to play right field. He has always been prone to strikeouts and is still working on hitting left handed pitching better, but those aren’t areas that will keep him from playing as long as the power production stays at a high level. Wheeler gets high marks across the board for his make up and overall instincts for the game.

5. SS Josh Rutledge - Baseball-Reference player profile

A third round pick out of Alabama in 2010, Rutledge was hampered by a wrist injury after signing that lingered through the early parts of the 2011 season, but exploded over the second half of the season to become of the best hitting middle infielders in minor league baseball. He finished the season with a .348-9-71/.931 mark, very impressive even for the offensively inclined California League.

With All-Star SS Troy Tulowitzki signed through 2020 and looking at having a Jeter-esque career with the Rockies, shortstop prospects such as Rutledge and Trevor Story (below) are realistically looking at diversifying their defensive skills as they move up the minor league ladder. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Rutledge start gaining experience at second base in 2012, with a Mark Ellis type career path a distinct possibility.

6. C Wilin Rosario
- Baseball-Reference player profile

The Dominican born Rosario would possibly be the Rockies starting catcher already if it weren't for a torn ACL in August, 2010, that slowed him down at the start of the 2011 season. He is a classic power/power player behind the plate, with a powerful throwing arm that effectively cuts off opponent’s running games and big home run power in his right handed bat. He showed those tools by hitting three home runs in 54 at bats during his September call up and throwing out five out of eight base runners stealing.

The big challenge for Rosario to overcome before he can establish himself as a full-time big league catcher is learning to control the strike zone better. While his strikeout totals are manageable, he hardly ever walks (21 in 456 at bats in 2011, 204 over 6 years of professional baseball), and that is a quick recipe at the big-league level for a low .200s batting average given Rosario’s track record, something the Rockies might not be able to accept for too long.

7. OF Kyle Parker - Baseball-Reference player profile

Parker essentially gave up $800,000 to play his final season at quarterback at Clemson after the Rockies offered him a $2.2M signing bonus to give up football altogether as the team’s first round pick in 2010. Parker instead choose to sign for $1.4M and play one more year of football.

Many don’t remember that Parker left his Jacksonville, Fla. high school a semester early to enroll at Clemson, ostensibly to go through spring football practice and be better prepared to play as a freshman in the fall. He unexpectedly not only cracked the starting lineup in baseball, in what would have been his senior high school season, but ended up leading Clemson in both home runs (14) RBI (50). He will play all of 2012 as a “young” 22-year old in terms of baseball experience.

Originally a catcher, Parker has tried third base in the past but settled in as a corner outfielder below average speed but above average arm strength. His ticket to the big leagues is obviously his power, and he hit .285-21-95/.850 OPS in his first season of pro ball. He could easily surpass those numbers in 2012 now that he has had his first whole year with only baseball as a priority.

8. LHP Tyler Anderson - Baseball-Reference player profile

Anderson was an unheralded 50
th round draft pick out of a Las Vegas high school when he joined the new University of Oregon baseball program in 2008. He went 2-9, 6.26 as the team’s Friday starter as a freshman but improved in stuff and performance as much as any pitcher in the country between then and the 2011 draft.

Anderson doesn’t have a true plus-pitch, but has five very solid offerings if you include his two-seam and four-seam pitches as separate pitches, which they essentially are. He has outstanding command of each pitch and a deceptive delivery that enables him to seem faster to the hitters than to the radar gun. Anderson already has a feel for pitching “pro style” as he works off his two fastballs and can throw his change up for strikes confidently at any point in the count.

9. SS Trevor Story - Baseball-Reference player profile

Story was one of the fastest risers in the 2011 high school class leading up to the June draft and many thought he had a chance to break into the first round. The Rockies were able to nab him with the 45
th overall pick and sign him for a very reasonable $915K bonus.

Story’s credentials as a defensive shortstop and athlete are outstanding. He's slender and graceful at 6-2/175 lbs and could play anywhere on the baseball field if given the opportunity. Story is a 6.7 runner in the 60 and his arm strength stands out as his best raw tool. He’s thrown in the mid-90s off the mound before and that arm strength translates well to shortstop.

The cause for the big jump in Story’s prospect status over the last year was an improved ability to shorten his swing and hit through contact with some power and bat speed instead of hitting like the prototypical shortstop. He hit .268-6-28/.799 in his pro debut in the Pioneer League, a performance that scouts would have given him no chance at achieving a year earlier.

Like fellow shortstop prospect Josh Rutledge, Story has the reality of Troy Tulowitzki in front of him. The Rockies have no reason to rush Story up the ladder, but it’s worth noting that he did play 15 games at third base during his initial minor league season.

10. LHP Tyler Matzek - Baseball-Reference player profile

Based on pure talent, Matzek belongs much higher on this list. The Rockies first-round pick in 2009 (11
th overall) and recipient of a franchise record $3.9M signing bonus, Matzek has a power arm that can generate steady mid-90s fastballs to go with a powerful curveball and deceptive change up.

Matzek also went through a well publicized mechanical meltdown last year that saw him walk 96 hitters in 97 innings and take a controversial two-week hiatus during the middle of the season to go home and work with his high school pitching coach on getting old mechanics working again. The fact that the Rockies worked with Matzek in such an unconventional way was noteworthy in a positive way.

How the talented young southpaw starts the 2012 season will be something that prospect watchers everywhere, in addition to the entire Rockies organization, should be watching carefully.

Others in the Conversation: OF Charlie Blackmon, LHP Edwar Cabrera, OF Rosell Herrera , IF D.J. LeMahieu, OF Kent Matthes, UT Jordan Pacheco, RHP Zach Putnam, RHP Peter Tago

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