Rockies Prospects: Minor league pitching awards -- Jon Gray or Eddie Butler?

USA TODAY Sports

A rundown of the top pitching performances in the Rockies minor leagues this season. It was a tough choice between Eddie Butler and Jon Gray for the top spot. Plus, the Pioneer League's Top 20 Prospects according to Baseball America.

This may have been one of the easiest awards to choose from this year because of the strength of the position and yet also the most difficult due to a healthy competition at the top. On the one hand there was a player drafted third overall, who clearly showed he was one of the best minor league pitchers in the country. On the other, there was a pitcher with a lower pedigree, who blazed through three levels - dominating at each one - and revealed his tools on a national stage. Third place was a little more difficult, as two players made a strong case for the position; one leading the minor leagues in strikeouts, the other overcoming an injury to reestablish himself as a solid prospect.

Gold Star - Eddie Butler

Right handed, Ash-Mod-Tul (1.80 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.54 K/9)

Earned first place in my eyes due to his domination at three levels in the Rockies system this year. Butler showed he can reach back and touch 99 mph when he wants to and demonstrated the fact that he carries a complete pitch selection in his toolbox. Butler was drafted out of Radford by the Rockies as supplemental first-rounder in the 2012 draft. The right-hander was a Pioneer League All-Star last season and began in Low-A Asheville before earning a promotion to High-A Modesto and finishing in Double-A Tulsa this season.

Eddie completed the year with a 1.80 ERA over 149.2 innings pitched in 28 starts. He induced ground balls 54.6% of the time and struck out batters at a clip of 8.54 K/9. Most pitchers dominate less as they move up through the system and face tougher competition. However that didn't slow down Butler, who finished his final six games in Tulsa with a 0.65 ERA while striking out 25 batters in 27.2 innings.

It's rare to find a player with top-shelf velocity, who can work ground balls, while striking out a batter per inning the way Eddie can. It allows him to mix up his pitches and induce a double play when he gets into trouble. Eddie's slider and changeup are good enough to strike out plenty of batters, but he hasn't needed them at the lower levels because his sinker is so good.

The Radford alum received national attention this year after his appearance in the All-Star Futures Game, an exhibition which highlights the best prospects in the country. Xander Bogaerts was the first batter Butler faced, striking him out on three pitches. The Red Sox shortstop ranked No. 8 among all prospects by Baseball America and was a perfect 2-for-2 prior to facing Butler. The pitch against Xander was a 90 mph changeup which broke in on the right-handed hitter's hands and was captured beautifully in this gif by Mike Rosenbaum of Golden Sombrero, he has all three pitches in Boegart's at-bat on his site.

Eddiebutler_changeup_zpsd575b980_medium

VIDEO LINK

Silver Star - Jon Gray

Right handed, GJ-Mod (1.93 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 12.29 K/9)

There's no doubt that Gray has the highest ceiling in the Rockies farm system. The man possesses Aroldis Chapman-type velocity with a slider that can fool anyone. Gray was ranked by Baseball America as the number one prospect going into the 2013 draft and somehow fell past two teams into the Rockies grateful hands at the No. 3 spot. I have no doubt that Gray can someday become one of the best pitchers in Colorado's history.

The reason he finished second in this list, was due to his changeup. While pitching in Grand Junction, the Oklahoma grad was coached into relying on his changeup as a secondary pitch instead of his vaunted slider. Gray struggled while relying on this off-speed pitch, giving up too many hits. However, as soon as he was promoted to Modesto, Gray abandoned the development of his changeup and went almost exclusively to the slider. His slider is devastating, but as Juan Nicasio and Chad Bettis are learning, a top-shelf starter has a third pitch to rely on. If Gray is going to reach his full potential, he will need to develop the change into a big league pitch.

Gray finished the season with a 1.93 ERA, striking out 51 batters in 37.1 innings pitched -- good enough for a 12.29 K/9. Gray's splits between Grand Junction and Modesto were telling as he posted a 4.05 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in GJ with a 0.75 ERA and 0.67 WHIP in High-A.

Dan Winkler

Right handed, Mod-Tul (2.98 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 9.97 K/9)

Drafted in the 20th round of the 2011 draft out of Central Florida, Dan Winkler led the minor leagues in strikeouts with 174 in 157 innings pitched. Winkler's strikeout totals placed him as the leader in the Rockies organization in that category and would have led almost every other major league franchise who didn't have Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez pitching for them.

This season the Illinois native became the third consecutive Rockie to earn the selection as the California League Pitcher of the Year. Dan's season in Modesto was highlighted by a combined no-hitter which he and the Nuts bullpen threw on June 24th of this year. The no-hitter was sandwiched amidst Dan's best pitching performances of the year, where he allowed just three hits and two earned runs in a three-game span of 21.1 innings pitched.

Earlier this year I interviewed Dan Winkler and asked him what contributed to his success this year and this is what he said:

"Actually, this is pretty much the most comfortable I've felt with a change-up grip in my life. I've been throwing it slower, for a strike when I need to, and out of the zone when I want. Now I feel as if I can throw it on any count to righties or lefties."

Honorable Mention

Tyler Anderson

Left handed, Mod-Tri (3.01 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 7.63 K/9)

An up-and-down year for Tyler cost him a chance at finishing in the top three of this list. Coming into Spring Training he was expected to compete in a spot for Double-A Tulsa's starting rotation and was drafted with the No. 20 pick in the 2011 draft with the anticipation that he could move quickly through the organization. Meanwhile, fast-forward two years and he has been surpassed by pitchers from the two subsequent drafts while struggling through a shoulder injury which cost him two months of the season. When he was healthy, Tyler did a good job of limiting damage and avoiding the barrel of opponents bats.

Pioneer League Top 20

When Baseball America announced it's Pioneer League Top 20 list this week, there were four Grand Junction Rockies headlining the list. Pretty good numbers considering only two Rockies prospects made the list five years ago: Wilin Rosario and Delta Cleary Jr. Here's a rundown of the list along with a snippet of comments included in the article about each player:

3. Raimel Tapia, cf

Age: 19. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 160. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2010.

A potential five-tool player, Tapia has a nice, easy swing that begins with an open stance that is a little unorthodox, but it works for him. He has a good idea at the plate and barrels up the ball, and he also has the ability to lay down bunts. Tapia shows surprising pop considering his slender frame, but he's more of a gap-to-gap hitter now.

4. Ryan McMahon, 3b

Age: 18. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 185. Drafted: HS-Santa Ana, Calif., 2013 (2).

McMahon was a formidable middle-of-the-order hitter for a Grand Junction team that advanced to the league playoffs, and he projects to have both plus power and the ability to hit for a high average. He's a solid defender at the hot corner with a strong, accurate arm.

5. Emerson Jimenez, ss

Age: 18. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 160. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2011.

Jimenez already stands out for his defense, with excellent range, good instincts and a plus arm. He played exclusively at shortstop but also could handle second base. His weakest tool is power, but he projects as a quality top-of-the-order hitter with plus speed.

10. Jose Briceno, c

Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 185. Signed: Venezuela, 2009.

Briceno projects to hit for power, though he's more of a pull hitter at this stage who struggles with balls away, so he may not hit for a high average. Behind the plate, Briceno has a plus arm that he used to throw out 27 percent of basestealers with Grand Junction and 39 percent with Asheville. He needs to improve his pitch blocking and game calling, but evaluators regard him as a hard worker who will put in the time to get better.

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Note: Tyler Massey and Ryan Casteel will be joining David Kandilas to play winter ball in Australia's ABL this offseason.

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