I've mentioned this before, but I don't like top 100 prospect lists. They are simply not specific enough about a team's strength to tell you much. If your team has six top 100 players, it might sound great in theory, but if four can only play first base or DH and two are pitchers, your system might not be as strong as the quantity of prospects would lead you to believe.
Similarly, if three of your top 100 players are 24 years old, and three are 18, another issue arises in that the peaks of these players won't match, the 24 year olds will either be long gone, too expensive to keep any longer, or already in decline when the 18 year old prospects start contributing. For this reason, I like it when publications break it down a little further by position as Baseball America has done in this week's issue. Subscribers to BA can find that article online here. If you are a subscriber, and I strongly encourage it if you love following prospects as much as I do, also be sure to check out Ben Badler's piece on how the Rockies wait it out approach to international signings has paid off in a big way. And in a bit of a pleasant surprise, read Jack Etkin's article about the return to the organization of 2005 draftee Kyle Hancock.
The simple formula to figuring out whether your team is on the right track with its farm system is to consider each position separately and look for top 15 caliber players in the same age range, or top six/seven caliber players in your team's league. So if you show to me that you have top 15 prospects at several positions between 22 and 24 years old (with quality big leaguers or lots of money filling in the gaps) and at least three top 45 pitchers, I will buy your team's near contention status a lot quicker than if you just say, "Look at how many prospectz we haz, loozer."
Because BA was so kind in breaking out top lists by position like this, we can take a closer look at how the Rockies are stacking up relative to the rest of the National League. This week I'm going to start with that most important 22-24 year old age range. Because these players are closer to contributing in a big way, it's easier to project success or failure three to five seasons down the road. I'm going to look at each position and try to make a determination if the Rockies are on the right track, or if they should be looking for better prospects/players to fill the gaps.
Since in the end not having prospects doesn't matter if you have young Major Leaguers already at the position, I will consider all of the players in the Rockies organization in that age range for this exercise and even extend the view one year either direction to get a real sense of what the team will be looking at. Most of the players that are still prospects should be with the Tulsa Drillers or Colorado Springs Sky Sox by the end of 2009 if things are going particularly well, but reality will have a few held back in Modesto.
C - Michael McKenry (BA rank #25) - Catcher is a particularly deep minor league position right now, so while McKenry looks on the outside of that top 15 barrier at first glance, closer inspection shows he might be a lot closer to being a contender worthy player. Eight of the catchers ahead of him are 20 years old or less (including Wilin Rosario) which immediately should put them in a separate category.
Few of the catchers left in his age group could match his defensive abilities and a handful may have to switch positions in the near future. Another issue is that the catchers are concentrated among a few teams who have multiple players on the list. Many are in the AL (thank you LA for trading Carlos Santana away) so that once you strip down the list to the players that McKenry currently projects to be in competition with, it certainly appears he's capable of being a top NL receiver. If you narrow the list to only NL catchers 21-24 years old, McKenry would be eighth, which is close enough to passing considering a couple of the players ahead of him are likely to drop or switch positions and the Brewers can't have both their catchers play at once.
A solid season in 2009 for McKenry should keep Rockies fans secure that their backstop will remain a solid piece of the puzzle until Rosario arrives.
1B- None. The Rockies really aren't in a good position at first, the team needs an impact corner bat in the system.
2B- None. This isn't nearly as bad as the first base issue since we have Chris Nelson. The unimpressive list of top NL second base prospects 21-24 is limited to Chris Coghlan, Ivan Dejesus Jr., Shelby Ford and Eric Sogard. Nelson could and should be better than all four if he plays up to his potential. Eric Young Jr. could be right in the lower part of this range as well. Regardless of who it is, the Rockies need one or both to show they are ready for that next step in AAA this year.
3B - None. As with second base, I look at the top of the list in Mat Gamel and Todd Frazier, and suspect that Ian Stewart (24) should be just fine as an NL contender worthy starter even though he no longer qualifies for these lists.
SS-None. Even though I'm going to technically disqualify him from the bold print. With my comments, I'm considering 21 year olds like Hector Gomez (#11) in this age category as well, as they're capable of sliding into either the older or younger group of prospects depending on when they peak. Still as with third base, the Rockies already have a solid player in this age range even if Gomez doesn't qualify. No worries at short stop for the moment.
Corner outfield - None. This is why looking more closely at the context is important sometimes. The NL corner outfielders listed in BA's top 20 between those 21-24 ages are Dominic Brown, Michael Saunders, Daryl Jones, Michael Taylor, Kellen Kulbacki and Cedric Taylor. How would Carlos Gonzalez fit with these players? If he's able to get an acceptable rate of contact, just fine, but that's a particularly big if. If Charlie Blackmon skips Asheville and lands in Modesto to start the year, he could also be in range of these players, right now I'm cautiously optimistic about our corner OF's in this age range, but added offensive depth certainly wouldn't hurt. One of my future farm reports, btw, is going to look in detail at how while we complain about a lack of power in our outfield prospects, Brad Hawpe's horrific defense should be telling us that the team is in fact, going about this the right way at the lower levels in looking closely at outfield defense as a bigger part of the puzzle.
Center Field- Dexter Fowler #3. No explanation or justification necessary here. Fowler should be great.
Righthanded Starters-None. Ubaldo Jimenez falls outside the 22-24 age range on the top end, Jhoulys Chacin (#10) falls outside it at the bottom end, but their proximity to it leaves us okay here, especially when you consider that Connor Graham and Shane Lindsay have the stuff to make the top 45, if not the polish just yet.
Lefthanded Starters-None. Christian Friedrich (#10) suffers from my same arbitrary age cut-off that Chacin does, but our LHP's otherwise just don't quite add up when you consider only prospects. Add in ineligibles Franklin Morales and the just too old Greg Smith, however, and overall, our list of young starters age 21-25 could compete with anybody in the NL.
Relievers- None. Clearly concern over how Casey Weathers comes back from surgery kept him from getting notice, but not even an "X-factor" mention? Come on. At any rate, if he does come back well, he could be as good or better than anybody currently on BA's list. I will mention once again that Xavier Cedeno will surprise a lot of people when he's converted to a fulltime reliever, and Will Harris and others leave the Rockies in decent shape, especially once we get David Patton back from the Cubs.
Conclusion: So if you look at a 3-6 year peak window for players in the 22-24 age range, the Rockies seem to be building a very solid 2011-2014 team at the moment, with few visible holes. I would like to see more depth at the corners and a big bat or two added to the group, and as the saying goes, you can never have enough pitching. Second base will remain an issue until one of the Nelson/Young/Gomez group steps up and clearly shows that they are ready for the MLB challenge, but the fact is that middle infield's a weakness everywhere and the Rockies are in much better shape here than most teams. If the current Rox can hold their own in a weak division for 2009, 2010 should really start to show some early fruit. Next week I'll look at the team's younger generation, which doesn't look quite so promising right now, but there's a lot of time to fix that over the next five years or so.