About six or seven years ago, back when the Colorado Rockies' system was flooded with talent, it was pretty normal to see players jump a level or two during a season, and it was also pretty usual for college draftees to begin their professional careers at age-appropriate levels.
Much has changed in recent years, as the Rockies have been slow to develop their talent. Just how talented some of those players were/are might still be up for debate, but one thing is for sure: the big-league club has suffered because of the lack of impact players rising through the minor league system.
In 2006, the Rockies saw the major-league debuts of Troy Tulowitzki, Chris Iannetta, Ubaldo Jimenez, Manny Corpas and a host of others late in the season. Tulowitzki and Iannetta climbed through the system rather quickly, and in the following season, brought up highly-touted prospects Ian Stewart and Franklin Morales to contribute to the stretch run. The big-league cameos of the former guys and the early success of the latter two helped the Rockies reach the playoffs twice in three seasons. Even if some of the moves were made in a panic by a general manager who appeared to be on his last leg with the organization, the moves obviously worked.
It seemed like Colorado had a good plan: draft good players, develop them quickly and reap the benefits. So, as the team stumbles down the stretch for the fourth consecutive season, I ask the question: What happened?
There is a finer line than you might think between rushing players to the big leagues and allowing them to stall out/suffer an injury in the minors. Greg Reynolds, who was the first in a long line of poor first-round draft picks by the Rockies, was promoted to the majors a little more than two years after he was drafted. It may seem like he was rushed, but the Rockies selected him at No. 2 overall in 2006 because of his polish and proximity to the big leagues. As we all know, Reynolds flamed out in his stint with the Rockies, but not before suffering an arm injury while in Tulsa that cost him most of the 2007 season.
Casey Weathers was next, selected early in the first round in 2007. The reliever from Vanderbilt, who was also selected because of his proximity to the big-leagues, was dominant early in his minor league career, and there were even rumblings that he'd be able to contribute to the Rockies down the stretch that season, if not early the next year. That never materialized, and Weathers was traded to the Cubs a few years later after a series of arm troubles.
Christian Friedrich, another college hurler, was the Rockies' first-rounder in 2008. Heralded as a very good pick at the time, Friedrich was considered a polished lefty with a much higher ceiling than Reynolds. Friedrich was easily the most dominant of the three early in his minor league career, but the Rockies kept him in High-A or lower for his first two pro seasons. Keeping up with the theme, Friedrich was also hit by the injury bug and lost a chunk of his effectiveness before finally having a fairly successful big-league debut last season.
It can be argued that the Rockies are being a little slow with Tyler Anderson, the club's first-rounder in 2011, although they've probably taken the correct approach with other recent top picks Tyler Matzek, Kyle Parker and David Dahl. However, most of these guys -- and a host of others -- ran into injury troubles during times when they arguably should have been contributing at the highest level.
That has killed the Rockies over the years, but it seems the ship is starting to right itself.
In 2013, the Rockies have shown aggressiveness with Chad Bettis, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Gray and now Tom Murphy, perhaps realizing that (a) these guys might have a shelf life and it shouldn't be wasted toiling away in the minors, and (b) the last time the team was aggressive with promoting players, it paid off.
Tulowitzki nearly won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2007 after something clicked in early-June, just two years after being drafted. Meanwhile, Iannetta improved down the stretch in his first full season after a minor league career that saw no time wasted in short-season ball, followed it up with a huge year and was a large piece in the team's playoff run in 2009. Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales were arguably the two biggest reasons why the Rockies made it to the postseason in '07, and both were highly instrumental two years later. Stewart, Seth Smith and other prospects were key as well.
Fast forward to 2013, the Rockies moved Bettis directly from Double-A to the big leagues, brought Butler from Low-A to Double-A during one season, had Gray skip Short-Season- and Low-A ball, and accelerated Murphy's ascent by mimicking Butler's move, but without the detour to High-A.
I'm not saying the Rockies will sniff a pennant this year or even next, or that this new group of players will be anything like that last group (which can be a good or bad thing), but it looks like some urgency has been restored in the area of player development. We'll see how it all plays out, but right now, if nothing else, it's fun to see some of the organization's most promising players move closer and closer to the big leagues, rather than working their craft in the low-minors for what seems like years and years.