It is about 40 days into the season, the Rox have played 34 games (owe a few 10 game reports, sorry…work has had me trapped like a fox at the Daisy Hill Beagle Farm, and radio really isn’t as good as television). While I await the beginning of my travels so I can watch the Rox on MLB TV, here are some things I think we have learned…and maybe even know. So here goes….
#1 – Jon Gray may just be what we prayed he would be – Look, he still has to have a dominating Coors Field outing (defined by at least 7 innings, 2ER or less, 5 hits or less, 2 walks or less, and 5+ Ks). But while what he did against the Padres can be chalked up to “the Padres” and “Petco” he flat stopped a very good Giants offense that has a lot of dangerous hitters. While it is true that even very average pitchers can have good days (Chris Russin had the Rox two complete games in 2015 and struck out Giancarlo Stanton 3X in a game last year), what Gray has started to show is that he has 3 and maybe 4 average to plus pitches. While you love a guy with 3-4 plus pitches, if his change and curve can be average (credit him with not putting the curve on the shelf permanently but having worked on it while rehabbing and now using it in big situations), his fastball has a lot more movement on it while still being FAST and that slider…one of the 5 best in the NL according to those who have watched this year. Gray is a big kid, built to be a 200 innings a year pitcher. PurpleRow noted how his growth is even better than Matt Harvey, and that is not a bad comp for us as fans. I still think more Garret Cole (Cole is a true ace and team player, Harvey is a good pitcher and a prima dona). The two best pitchers in Rox history are Ubaldo Jiminez and Jorge De La Rosa (I put DLR at #1). DLR however has never been a 200 innings guy, though he has been solid to very good at Coors (Gray still needs to get there to be an ace) and Ubaldo was a stud but his mechanics were always so herky jerky you just never knew what you might get as to wildness (I think he has the record for most walks in a no-hitter), which is why with the All-Star break breaking up his routine, his 2nd half of 2010 was just “okay” (compared to 1st half) and why save for a good 2nd half with Cleveland his walk year, he really has been at best a #4 since. Gray’s mechanics are simpler now than ever before, he trusts his pitches, and has been mentioned on MLB and KOA, he now pitches with more rythem. Most of us don’t expect 2016 to be a playoff year but if we see more of this in 2016 then the opening day starter for the Rox in 2017 will finally give them someone to match with a Kershaw, Baumgarner, and Greinke (in terms of ace, if not accumulated record).
#2 – Trevor Story is a real big league short-stop – Look, we all knew he wasn’t hitting 40 homers this year. If he hits 30, I think he should win the ROY and we will all say, “Tulo Who?” He has 75-80 bat speed (on the 20-80 scouting grade), and I love to see him swing. We also know he is going to strike out a lot. And he has. But all of a sudden Trevor is showing he can draw the walk. After having just 1 in his first 12 games, he now has 13, and even his strikeout ABs are 5-6 pitch occurrences. You hate the K but those kind of ABs wear out starters and relievers and give CarGo and Arenado more pitches to watch. I figured at the start of the year for a .250 BA, 15 homer, 50 RBI, .280 OBP type of year. I was wrong (yes, I know it is early, but I am talking less about outcomes and more about approach and swings). He will always strikeout way too much to be a .300 hitter, but he can be a .285 BA, 25-30 homer 80-90 RBI, .320 OBP type player (and has been an extra-base machine in general). Those homer numbers might be even bigger if the fences hadn’t been raised, as he has already lost 3 of them to the new fences before May 1st. And give you plus defense (not Gold Glove, but plus). He also has good speed. What you want from a prospect is one of two things. Either a guy who from day 1 is just incredible and just keeps it up (Carlos Correa, Todd Helton, Bryce Harper) or a guy who keeps improving and not just marginally but in chunks. Yes Story had to repeat parts of High A and AA, but Story may just be a Matt Holliday type player who was good in the minors but when he gets to the majors he is ready to maximize his talent. Assuming they can sign Nolan (and on ESPN radio they were already talking how after 2019 he will be a Giant because he said how he likes to play there because of the crowd and an atmosphere…gotta love ESPN, oh wait, no you don’t aside from the excellent Buster Olney, but Bridich had better be working on that deal daily), the left side of that infield is both under 25 and both still getting better.
#3 – Nolan Arenado is in the top 5 position players today – Explain to me how a guy can hit more homers on the road and have his power still called (as one guy did on an ESPN podcast at the beginning of the season) “Coors Field power?” Tell me how a guy who has three Gold Gloves rates outside of the 10 players you pay to see play defense (but a nearing 40 Adrian Beltre and a Josh Donaldson who plays on turf and gets true hops everytime were on that list). Tell me how a guy who was a monster in 2015…is even better this year. I have loved Nolan since the first day here, even if his offense (what was supposed to get him here in 2013 while his defense was…”okay” at best) wasn’t what we expected. A player who improves both sides of his game year-after-year, that is a star folks. I really don’t know if his defense can get that much better, but this year those small mistakes, the cheap errors we have seen the last few years, aren’t happening on the same kind of plays we saw before. And with the team using more and more shifts he has had to play more and more short, and handle more balls at 2nd when looking at double plays. And so far, he looks like Tulo out there. But offensively he has not only continued to develop his power, but his strike outs and walks are showing steady improvement from 2013-now, despite his become a top power hitter. Even his foot speed seems a bit faster (his only legit weak spot, but maybe the best 4-tool player in baseball). If the Rox are playing games that “matter” on September 1, it will be because Nolan is having an MVP season.
#4 – Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood are providing hope – Both players have had bad outings this year, and Chad has yet to have a really nice run like Tyler has had. Bettis just turned 27 and Chatwood does this off-season, so they have not gotten close to their potential. They each have lost at least a season to injuries, with Chad’s shoulder taking him down in 2012 and Tyler’s elbow taking most of 2014 and all of 2015. Last year Bettis turned the corner and had streaks where he looked like a real front-end starter (he would make a great #2 slotted in behind Gray). Chatwood seems to be throwing a more interesting mix this year and his 4-seamer at times has been in the mid-90s. Bettis has been beaten-up by the big inning and Chatwood seems as perplexed by Coors as Gray thus far (the pop fly that became a homer off the bat of Jean Segura seemed to unravel him in Monday’s game against the Dbacks). But both are showing that the rotation this year can be competitive. If Bettis is the team’s #2 and Chatwood its #4, again, this team looks a lot better, not just this year but for their window of competition 2017-2019. At least on the road this team can pitch with anyone so far this year.
#5 – The team is better on the road and worse at home than in any time in recent history – Yes, it is still early, but in the history of the team it has never won 6 or more games on a 10 or more game swing on the West Coast. They just did. And largely thanks to outpitching the opposition. They won 2 of 3 against the Cubs, easily the best team thus far thanks to two shut-out performances from Bettis and Chatwood. On May 10th the Rox have the 5th best road ERA in the National League at 3.38, and that with their opening day starter (DLR) both ineffective and now on the DL, and using a guy released by the Cubs in 2014 as their 5th starter (Russin). And you know what, they are tied for the MLB lead with 4 shutouts on the road so far this year with the Cubs and Phils (who have an excellent if young staff). Folks, if you can throw that kind of pitching out there night-after-night on the road, you are going to play over .500 baseball even with the offensive struggles that come with adjusting from Coors Field. They have been extra aggressive on the base paths on the road, which is to be expected (whatever DJ did in San Diego last week trying to steal 3rd with CarGo on a 2-0 count, only he knows), and they will have to continue to rely on speed, small-ball and some timely power to have enough offense but with a 3.38 ERA on the road they just need to average 3.50 to win 45+ road games (the Rox have lost 4 1-run games already on the road so that tells you how good they could be on the road). But at Coors? The pitching has been awful (DLR’s issues are particularly troubling because he has been a home losing streak stopper in his career and can save the bullpen when they have needed it). Gray has yet to master Coors. Chatwood who has been Jake Arrieta on the road has been Mike Hampton at Coors. Bettis has struggled. It has not been pretty. It started with the Padres and while they won 2 out of 3 with the Giants after that the last home stand, with the Pirates sweeping them, just added to the woes. And the start to this latest home stand, getting doubled-up by the Dbacks, is extra worrying. Too many homers given up. And too many of those home games have been not just losses but bullpen wreckers. This is now 1 and a fifth seasons of bad home baseball. I don’t think we can blame weather along anymore.
But one of the things that we know by this sudden inability to win at Coors anymore…this is not a very good offensive team anymore. They have to find more offense, which means in the next few seasons they had better hope they find some offensive gold in their position player prospects (see #8 below).
# 6 – Their outfield is not quite what they hoped – I had my doubts going into the season with three starters who are left-handed. Thankfully they have had great output from Ryan Rayburn this season (offensively…necessitating his removal late in games). Actually against lefties this year the team is hitting .285 with an .853 OPS thanks to Arenado, Story and Rayburn. But even taking away the three lefties starting arrangement, they just have not gotten the type of performance they had hoped coming into this season. The defense has been solid to very good. But Blackmon started slow and then got hurt. He has been much better since returning but still not providing the type of offensive table-setting they need (or steals). CarGo is hitting for average so far, but not power. Though to be fair, his .800 OPS in April is his lowest of any month (2nd lowest is June just so you know). Parra is a good contact hitter but not a power guy. For the offense to be what they need, they need better production in the outfield, especially at home it seems. What is interesting is that their top three nearest outfield prospects, Tapia, Dahl, and Patterson…are lefties! Don’t righties learn to play the outfield anymore? Is this the single most important area of improvement?
#7 – Catching has not been good so far – A lot of this has to do with Nick Hunley being on the DL again. He is the best hitting catcher the team has right now (Tom Murphey has only played in 2 games so far this year…having also been hurt by a strained oblique). Tony Wolters has guided the pitchers to their best ERA but his bat has been far too silent (and still not sure what happened with him and Russin the other night with all the passed balls). And Dustin Garneau, is…a backup at best. With my criticism stated, is the high performance on the road pitching due to the catching (especially Wolters)? If so, maybe they can wait for Murphey…and their other top catching prospects down in High A, Dom Nunez (slow start to the season for him as well).
# 8 – The future of position players is pretty bright – Okay, let’s begin at the bottom. Brendan Rodgers has arguably gotten off to the hottest start of any hitter in minor league baseball. I know a lot of people were worried last year when he struggled in Grand Junction but there were a lot of reasons for that, not least fatigue, injury, and how long since he had faced live pitching. But this year, in Low A, against players 2 years older on average, the 19 year-old is hitting .363/.429/.637 for an OPS of 1.066. He has 7 homers and 27 RBIs in just 28 games. He has 10 walks and 19Ks in 126 PA, so just 15% K rate. He also has 2 SB. He does have 5 errors so far, a concern but the quality of minor league infields is, um, uneven at best. Dansby Swanson, another SS chosen overall #1 by the Dbacks (now with the Braves) is hitting for a .967 OPS in High A at age 22 may have to keep it up to beat Rodgers to the big leagues (Rodgers has mentioned Correa has a model he wants to follow, while still staying within his game). Hamlet Marte, a catching prospect and Yonathan Daza, two other prospects in Low A have also begun well (.865 and .841 OPS respectively, both at age 22 are about average age).
Modesto has really struggled, with only Wes Rogers a speedy CF prospect who has 13 SB is the only hitter over .271. Forrest Wall and Nunez are highly thought-of prospects there but both are struggling so far. If there is one area of the farm system to be worried about, it is Modesto. But again, it is just 30 games into the season. Wall and Nunez should hit. Nunez came on the 2nd half of last year in Ashville. He is still learning to catch so, the less pressure the better.
AA Hartford is stacked to say the least. Keith Law says they are the most talented team in minor league baseball and have shown it so far while they have played even their home games away from Hartford. And after rough starts to the year both Ryan McMahon and Raimel Tapia hitting .391/.533/.565 and .303/.361/.576 respectively since May 1 (and McMahon has 5 SB this month and Tapia just 2!) but are still only at .688 and .743 OPS respectively for the season. Dillon Thomas, another strong prospect there playing the outfield (the 23-year old is another lefty outfielder), hitting .280/.317/.453 with 5 SB. But the clear star so far this year at Hartford is David Dahl. Dahl got a lot of time in big league camp this Spring and there was a lot of thought with his pretty good second half last year after his spleen went the way of the dodo that he would start in AAA, but back in AA he is showing the whole package, and against competition 3-years older, is not only playing a high quality center, but is stroking .288/.383/.631 with 9 homers and 19 total extra-base hits. He does have a 26.3% K rate, but also a 12.5% BB rate and is 11 of 13 in SB attempts. Basically, he is killing it. If he keeps this up to early June does he see the Land of Enchantment?
At AAA the mixed bag of older players and prospects is actually shaking out on the side you want so far this year, at least as pertains the future. The top two prospects there (other than Murphy who has been hurt) are Mike Trauchman, a speedy (speed-only) left-fielder (of course, another lefty) is hitting .336/.397/.407 with 9 SB (but 5 CS). He was a 10th round pick in 2013 and has hit well at every level, and has just 11Ks to his 12BB. An interesting future 4th outfielder type. But probably the biggest guy to keep an eye on is Jordan Patterson. Patterson could be the future everyday 1B since has the bigger power profile you expect there, though he is athletic enough to play in the outfield (think Brad Hawpe). A high character, team-first guy picked in the 4th round in 2013 is hitting .330/.466/.473 against competition 3+ years older with only 1 homer thus far (he hit 17 in 2015 so that is a bit strange) but 8 doubles and 1 triple he has 22BB and only 20Ks, he just turned 24 right before Valentines Day. Once the homers start to fly again it will be interesting to see if the team finds a place for a guy who has been simply a great hitter at every level. The only weaknesses in the farm system right now is really at first, and if Patterson’s power comes back, he could be the natural “future first-baseman.”
#9 – But as great as the position players look, the arms are even better – Look, this is the Rockies. We know they are never going to lead the league in ERA. But the fact is that this team has struggled to develop pitching, both starters and relievers. Even just as recent ago as early 2013 a pitcher like Harrison Musgrave would have been the guy we threw all our future hopes on. And a lot of us (including me) would wonder why he isn’t getting more love from the prospect gurus. Of course historically our best hopes end up being at best Chris Russin types (Chacin and Nicasio being the clear exceptions). Well, Musgrave isn’t on many people’s lists, at least as the season started, but all he has done so far in AA in 5 games is 5-0, 1.30 ERA, 34.2 IP/14H/6BB/24K/1HR. The 8th rounder in 2013 (24 as of March) has been great since the start of 2015. Last year he struck-out 136 in 143.1 IP (8.4/9, 4.08K/BB). This year the Ks are down (which will keep his prospect status down since Ks are what people prospect writers love but even with that, his name is beginning to appear in more print), but his WHIP is just .577 this year. The lefty is showing that he can flat pitch, and the drop in strikeouts this year may be indicative of the coaching effort (as we saw with Gray) on working on how to “pitch” at this level knowing he can always get back to strikeouts in the future. Musgrave has been the star in the Hartford staff. But he has hardly been alone. German Marquez(age 21), acquired in the Dickerson deal, nearly threw a no-hitter last time out, and has gone 6 starts 35.0 IP 3-1, 1.03 ERA 22H/9R/4ER/2HR 28K/9BB with a WHIP of .89. Zach Jemiola (age 22), the 9th rounder in 2012 out of HS, 6 starts 34.2 IP, 3-0, 2.34 ERA 33H/11R/9ER/2HR `12K/8BB WHIP 1.183, and reliever Matt Carasti, 12 Games, 9 Saves, 12.1 IP, 13H/6R/3ER/2HR/ 14K/1BB 2.19 ERA, 1.14 WHIP. And these aren’t even the team’s top two arms at AA. One of them, Antonio Senzatela, has only thrown 8 innings over 2 starts (the second abbreviated) due to shoulder tightness, but threw a 25 pitch side-session today. He has been compared to Jhoulys Chacin, who in 2015 went 9-9 in Modest but with a 2.51 ERA over 154 innings, 143K/33BB and a WHIP of 1.065, jumping up his Ks substantially over the prior year while improving his K/BB rate from 2.47 to 4.33. Getting him back and going will be big for both his development and the depth of quality starting pitching in the organization. And of course the biggest horse in AA, Kyle Freeland, who lost tonight but in 7 starts has gone 4-2, 2.20 ERA (5 ER tonight jumped it up from 1.66), covering 45.0 IP 35H/12R/11ER/2HR (one tonight) 28K/9BB WHIP .98. Even tonight it didn’t appear he threw badly. But he gave up a homer and three doubles and both walks scored. A good learning outing it might be said.
The team’s biggest horse though is at AAA. Jeff Hoffman, now a full year back from his Tommy John surgery, is dominating the PCL. In 6 starts he has thrown 36.2 IP with 27H/12R/8ER/4HR and 30K/11BB, allowing hitters in the offensive PCL just a .208 BA on the way to his 2-1, 1.96 ERA 1.04 WHIP. He still is not striking out as many batters as would be expected with his stuff (7.4/9) though again that appears to be part of the Rockies strategy, teaching them in the minors to pitch so they can pitch longer in games while retaining the ability to get the K when needed. The only real issue with Hoffman thus far is the 2.73K/BB ratio. For a pitcher as good as he is, the Rox want to see that closer to 3.50 or 4.00. But with Chris Russin struggling each time he goes through a line-up a third time (which is why he really is a great long-man), it might not be much longer before Hoffman makes his debut. Also at AAA is a very exciting relieving prospect, Sam Moll. The 24-year old 3rd round pick in 2013 began relieving in 2014 and has moved fast. The lefty this year has thrown 12 times for 19 innings, 16H/5R/3ER/1HR 13K/3BB for a 1.42 ERA and a WHIP of 1.00. This 4.33 K/BB ratio is exactly what the Rox want to see out of their relievers and his ability to throw more than one inning is another big plus. He along with Carlos Estevez really impressed last year in the Arizona Fall League. My guess is he is the next-up reliever when needed.
Further down on the farm system the pitching is more mixed. Jesus Tinoco who took a huge step forward in Ashville last year after the Tulo trade has struggled in Modesto and was sent back to extended Spring Training to work out some kinks in his delivery. He should be back in Modesto shortly. Sam Howard (age 23) has done well for a struggling Modesto team, going 3.64 ERA in 6 starts covering 29.2 innings with a 1.38 WHIP. Ryan Castellini (age 20), the team’s 2nd round pick in 2014, is 1-1 with a 3.38 over his first 5 starts (29.1 IP/26H/11R/11ER/ 36K/10BB, 3.60 K/BB 1.227 WHIP), and is another impressive young arm. Joe Maddon of the Cubs said that for a small market team to compete (and it is true of all teams if you don’t want to have to constantly be signing FA, and losing draft picks) you need one significant position payer (300+ AB at league average), 1 starting pitcher (20+ starts) and 1 reliever (30+appearances) each year. That is why the guys at High A are so important. Howard, Tinoco and Castellini are the next wave after the bonanza at AA hit the majors. Parker French (age 23) who was just elevated to High A from Low A (2 starts, 12.1 innings, 1 ER, 12K/5BB), Yency Almonte (almost 22), and his 4.85 ERA but 32:7 K/BB in 26 innings over 5 starts and even a guy like 24th rounder in 2014 Jerry Vasto, whose 17:2 K/BB ration over 12.2 innings represents talent the team might find fits that bill of a future reliever who can fill out a major league roster. Tyler Anderson is also starting his rehab from an oblique strain in High A as well. The Modesto team’s poor record thus far is really disappointing after the great 2nd half Ashville had last year. This far into the season I am hesitant to point to too much at Low A in terms of pitching, though they do have real talent 3-4 years away there in 2015 2nd rounder Peter Lambert (just turned 19) who does have a 26:2 K/BB ratio over his first 6 starts and 26.2 innings and 2015 6th rounder, Jack Wynkoop (age 22), whose 29:3 K/BB ratio over his first 6 starts cover 37.2 innings is at least what you want to see.
Regardless, for the first time in Rockies history they have real major league prospects pitching at every level, performing at every level. While we will probably see Hoffman, Freeland, Moll, and maybe even Musgrave and Carsiti this year, it won’t empty the tank on the pitching machine the Rox have developed (the hiring of pitching coordinator Mark Wiley, hired after the 2012 season, along with great drafting (give credit to O’Dowd, his last few drafts, granted accompanied by Bridich, really have been pretty good), and solid coaching at the higher levels actually gives this pitching starved fan hope. At least on May 10th.
One more note, how about this 2013 Draft by the Rockies:
- Jon Gray (1st Round, #3 overall)
- Ryan McMahon (2nd Round)
- Sam Moll (3rd Round)
- Jordan Patterson (4th Round)
- Dom Nunez (6th round)
- Mike Trauchman (10th round)
You have there six players who are either highly thought of prospects by national experts or guys who could play a major league role this year. And that already in just 3 years.
Look at 2014 and there is more good news
- Kyle Freeland (1st Round, #8 overall)
- Forrest Wall (Supp #1 pick, #35 overall)
- Ryan Castellin (2nd Round)
- Sam Howard (3rd Round)
- Wes Rogers (4th Round)
- Kevin Padlo (5th Round, traded for German Marquez as part of Corey Dickerson for Jake McGee deal)
- Harrison Musgrave (8th Round)
Again, all of those draft picks are already ranked in prospect lists are prospering so much at higher levels of the minors that they look like they will be adding to the major league roster by at least 2017. Most draft picks, even when counting #1 picks, never make it to the show. While you want ever 3rd rounder to be an All-Star, that just isn’t usually the case. So if the 13 players shown here (counting Marquez for Padlo) make it to play one inning for the Rockies…that is quite the great drafting and development. And I am betting that we have more than a few regulars, 200-300 AB postion players, or starts in that group. They had better be that way if this team isn’t going to keep losing.
#10) They need to redeem some of their failures – The final thing that is clear on May 10th is that, even though the NL West is weak this year, the Rox probably aren’t going to finish higher than third. I am not one of those “keep tanking until you are ready to win” kind of guys. First, I find what is going on in Atlanta and Cincinnati to be bad for baseball (as it was when Houston did it). But also, it is rare teams go from worst to first. It does happen, but usually teams have to learn to win first, so young players realize what they must do to make the big pitch, play, or hit, see that succeed, so when they absolutely must do so – to win that 90th game or get the 27th out to stop a losing skid when you are challenging for first place, they have done it before. As part of that, most successful teams find a way to reclaim players that have failed before. The Rox have, sadly, a lot of players in that category. Two are particularly important to add depth and quality to the Rockies going forward. Tyler Matzek and Eddie Butler are both former #1 picks (Butler a supp pick but still). Matzek in 2014 had a 4.00 ERA in his 19 starts that year, and if you throw out two stinkers, was more in the 3.60 range. Butler going into 2014 was looked at as a potential #2 in a rotation (maybe even a #1) or a closer. Both by the end of 2015 weren’t even able to get a September call-up. Butler is showing flashes of what made him a top 25 prospect in 2014 and even for some in 2015. Tyler, if he can control his anxiety, still has a lot of talent in that arm. Finding a way to redeem some WAR from both pitchers, not just in 2016 but going forward could mean the difference between say an 84 win team that finishes 2nd in the West to being a 90 win team that is in the playoffs. Tyler Anderson could be another guy like that. And another that seems to have gone off the rails, Jordan Lyles, is now fighting his way back in AAA and has had two good outings out of the three he has thrown there, including tonight when he only walked 2, struck out 4 over 6 innings, with 58 of his 95 pitches being strikes. On the position player side, seeing a Cristhan Adames become the type of utility hitter who can give you if not league average performance at least within 95% of that is not unimportant. On May 10th, those are the things that are becoming clearer and clearer. The Rox need to see those four pitchers and that positional prospect find a way to grow and give life to a future playoff team, be it in 2016, 2017 or 2018.