I thought it would be interesting to go back through the Rockies minor league teams of the past and take a look at a few of our forgotten prospects. As an initial frame, I'm going to start by selecting the Rockies best minor league rotation from each season (from a future potential standpoint) and then take look at the less familiar names on the list.
Best Rotation: Bend Rockies
Forgotten prospect: Lloyd Peever
It's not like I have much of a choice, Bend and the Rockies' Arizona complex team were the only Rockies affiliates in action in 1992, before the team expanded to four affiliates in 1993 and was more or less fully operational in 1994. That said, the 1992 Bend squad wouldn't be a bad selection in any year, as four of the five most frequent starters would eventually appear in the major leagues. Mark Thompson, Garvin Alston, Roger Bailey and John Burke all eventually got to the show. The fifth on the list of most starts at Bend, Chris Henderson, threw 47.2 innings and gave up 48 walks, he got a bit better when he switched to the pen a year or two later but there's typically no cure for that level of control issues. Number six on the list, however, is more interesting as a forgotten relic of Rockies prospectdom, Lloyd Peever.
Peever went 14-0 as a junior at LSU, working off an advanced change-up to help fuel the Tigers to an SEC championship and the pitcher was honored with Collegiate Baseball magazine's Player of the Year award. The early 1990's LSU teams were stacked. So much so that despite winning their powerhouse conference for the third straight year, that 1992 season looks like a disappointment in retrospect, sandwiched in between two national championships in 1991 and 1993.
With an undefeated Friday starter and the nation's top freshman, infielder and future Rockie Todd Walker, you have to wonder what happened to prevent the Tigers from reaching the College World Series again. What happened was Augie Garrido, Phil Nevin and Cal State Fullerton. See, my theory is that maybe Nevin, who was a god of college baseball that year with the Golden Spikes, the CWS MVP and every other conceivable player of the year award, was preemptively striking back at Peever and Collegiate Baseball magazine for taking the one major award he didn't win, and the Titans rolled through the Baton Rouge regional outscoring their opponents, including the defending national champion Tigers, 35-3 in four games.
It's typically a truism with big time college athletic programs that when the team itself has a relatively down year, the stand-out individual performances on that team will get propped up instead. And so Peever's one magical season with the Tigers still gets fondly recollected in their lore even as the NCAA regional performance gets scrubbed. For the Rockies, his exploits in the minors get forgotten. The Rockies drafted the 5'11" RHP in the fourth round and he joined other inaugural Rockies draftees when they were introduced to fans at the DU Coliseum. The Rockies sent Peever to Bend, where he pitched decently, with a 2.91 ERA and 48/10 K/BB ratio. He progressed well and was on a course for the majors for two more seasons before an elbow problem and Tommy John surgery shut him down after a few starts with the Sky Sox in 1995. TJ surgery can sometimes derail prospects' careers, and Peever's an example, as he wasn't the same after returning in 1997.
Best Rotation: Arizona Rockies
Forgotten Prospect: Neil Garrett
The Rockies Arizona complex staff (this was back in the day before we herded our rookies north to Casper in the Great Prospect Drive of 2001) included 19 year old John Thomson and 18 year old Jamey Wright. Neither were particularly impressive while with the Rockies Arizona team (Thomson had a 36/31 K/BB ratio in 50.2 IP) but at least both would wind up making the majors and last for awhile once they did.
Far more impressive than either Thomson or Wright while at Arizona was 18 year old RHP Neil Garrett, a 40th round selection for the Rockies in the 1992 draft from West Joliet, Illinois. Garrett showed mature command in recording 42 K's to go with just 10 walks and a 2.91 ERA in 55.2 innings, but unfortunately this would be one of the few high points for him. Garrett would go on to have a roller-coaster, injury riddled six years with the Rockies organization, putting up another promising season as a 21 year old at Asheville three years later, but ultimately leaving baseball for good two years after that, having only reached the high A level.
Honorable mention - Central Valley (Visalia) - It's hard to pass up a rotation that had all six members make the majors, but Thomson alone had more career MLB value than the six combined. Add in Wright and it's no contest. The best of the Central Valley Gang, class of 1993, were Juan Acevedo and Bailey.
Best Rotation: Colorado Springs
Forgotten prospect: Ryan Hawblitzel
It would be easy to stick to a Thomson/Wright team and pick Asheville, but the 1994 Sky Sox had a combined 39 starts from Curt Leskanic, Kevin Ritz, Darren Holmes and Lance Painter, and the following season those four helped lead the Rockies to the NL wild card.
The pitcher who made the most starts for the Sky Sox that season, Ryan Hawblitzel, would appear in eight games for the Rockies in 1996, and even get selected as the best Rockies rookie that year by Westword. In the expansion draft of November 1992, Hawblitzel was selected with the Rockies 19th pick, one before the team's selection of Vinny Castilla. Heading into the 1992 season he was #73 on Baseball America's top 100 prospect list after going 16-4 with a 2.58 ERA across two levels as a 20 year old. His prospect status gradually faded after that as he could never quite transition to the PCL. After his cup of coffee in 1996, he became somewhat of a minor league journeyman, and never again got a whiff of the majors. That makes the June 19th, 1996 victory over the Expos by the Rockies particularly bittersweet.
With the Rockies trailing Pedro Martinez and the Expos, 5-3, Hawblitzel was called in to pitch the seventh inning to preserve the arms of the Rockies higher quality relievers. He did his job, getting Moises Alou to pop out, striking out a very dangerous Henry Rodriguez (he was in the middle of a career year and had already doubled and homered earlier in the contest) and getting some help from catcher Jody Reed to catch Shane Andrews attempting to steal second after a walk.
Then, in the bottom half of the inning, something unexpected happened (okay, it was mid-90's Coors Field, but hey, it was also Pedro Frickin Martinez.) Jason Bates led off the inning by roping a double on a 1-0 count, and after a walk to Ellis Burks, a fatigued Pedro was pulled for Mike Dyer. This unleashed Dante Bichette, who had been held hitless up to that point, and back to back doubles from him and Andres Gallaraga put Hawblitzel in line for the victory with the Rockies ahead 6-5.
Hawblitzel came back and pitched a 1-2-3 top of the eighth, striking out Cliff Floyd on three pitches to finish the inning and his afternoon, as he was due up second in the bottom half of the inning. It looked promising that the Rockies would be able to score again in the bottom half of the inning, getting a lead-off single from Walt Weiss, and a double from pinch-hitter Quentin McCracken to put runners on second and third with nobody out and the top of the order, coming to the plate. Bates worked the count full but struck out. Burks hit a weak grounder to short that held the runners. Bichette popped out to first in foul territory. Threat over, inning over.
The game, and Hawblitzel's chance at a winning decision was in the hands of Bruce Ruffin now. It didn't take long for the Rockies closer and defense to blow it. Ruffin allowed a single up the middle to Mark Grudzielanek on the second pitch, then advanced him 90 feet on a wild pitch with his third pitch of the inning. On the fourth, Mike Lansing laid down a beautiful bunt into the no man's land between first and second that Bates couldn't handle and Grudzielanek was able to score from second on a bunt single/E4.
The Expos wouldn't score anymore, and they would allow the winning run in the bottom of the tenth in a similar fashion to the way they scored the tying run in the ninth, Walt Weiss walked, advanced to second on a passed ball, and scored on a walk-off infield single/E5 from McCracken. In the record books, it goes down as a BS and W for Ruffin, but this should have been Hawblitzel's win. His short MLB career had him turn into a gas can from there, as he'd give up 10 runs in the nine innings of his last four appearances, mostly with the Rockies already trailing when he came in. Alou had him figured out by the next time the teams met, launching a three run homer off Hawblitzel at Olympic Stadium.
His final appearance he gave up four runs (two earned) to the Marlins, including his second and last HR allowed to Gary Sheffield in a game that the Rockies would go on to lose, 16-9. Hawblitzel had finished his eight game Rockies and MLB career with a 0-1 record, and a 6.00 ERA.
Next time on Forgotten PuRPs: True tales of Canadian Olympians