The 2014 minor league season gets underway this week, which makes it a good time to take a look around the Rockies farm and preview the teams as they begin the season. The Rockies have a lot of exciting prospects at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. Colorado Springs features a couple of pitchers who were formerly considered blue-chip prospects and a slugger who was nominated as the best power bat in the system by Baseball America. Meanwhile Tulsa will showcase one of the best starting rotations in the minors and a solid backstop trio to catch for them.
Opening Day: 6:00 p.m MT, April 3 at New Orleans - Christian Friedrich Opening Day starter
League and Ballpark: Previously known as a launching pad, Colorado Springs could become a pitcher's paradise in 2014. Not only did Security Services field install a humidor back in 2012 reducing home runs by 30%, but the team will also be playing against different road opponents this season.
The Padres changed their minor league affiliate to El Paso from Tucson in the off-season, resulting in Colorado Springs and Albuquerque switching divisions in the Pacific Coast League. The Sky Sox will now be playing more road games in pitcher-friendly Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma instead of the notorious hitters parks of Reno, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.
Pitching: The change in venue should help pitchers such as Tyler Matzek, who will be making his Triple-A debut. Matzek worked hard to control his wildness over the past few seasons resulting in his lowest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate in 2013. Overall, the lefthander had a solid season for Double-A Tulsa with a 3.79 ERA and a 4.76 FIP. The California native was once ranked as high as No. 23 overall by Baseball America, wildness and ineffectiveness has cut his ceiling, but he's now one step away from pitching in the major leagues.
Christian Friedrich will be anchoring the Sky Sox rotation and looking for a return to Coors Field after missing most of last season with a back injury. The left-handed pitcher was ranked as high as No. 33 overall by Baseball America back in 2010. Former California League pitcher of the year, Christian Bergman will also join the rotation after a solid season in Tulsa where he posted a 3.37 ERA with 111 strikeouts. Rob Scahill rounds out the list of Sky Sox pitchers on the Rockies 40-man roster and could be receiving a quick call up to pitch for Colorado.
Offensively: The Sky Sox will be lead by outfielder Kyle Parker who also could see time at first base. The former Clemson quarterback is making his Triple-A debut, moving up from Double-A Tulsa where he hit .288/.345/.492 with 23 home runs. The right-handed hitter has exceeded 20+ home runs for three consecutive minor league seasons and a power surge in Colorado Springs could lead to his debut in purple pinstripes.
The Sky Sox infield will feature Josh Rutledge and Ryan Wheeler, current members of the Rockies 40-man roster. Rutledge appeared in 88 games for the Rockies last season, batting .235 with seven home runs. The Alabama native was passed over for the Rockies starting second base position after a heated battle in Spring Training and will be waiting in the wings for another chance to prove he belongs in Coors Field.
Opening Day: 7:00 p.m. MT, April 3 in Tulsa vs Corpus Christi - Eddie Butler Opening Day starter
League and Ballpark: Playing in the pitcher-friendly Texas League the Tulsa Drillers typically showcase a stronger pitching staff where hitters are usually trying to adjust to not only the elements, but the huge jump in talent level by hurlers who throw harder and have a larger repertoire than they've ever faced before. ONEOK Field in Tulsa is biased towards pitchers, but also has an extremely short porch in right field which tends to give up cheap home runs.
Pitching: This is the strongest pitching staff to ever don a Tulsa uniform, featuring a trio of first round draft picks: Eddie Butler, Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson. Butler will be the opening day starter for the Drillers and is repeating Double-A after receiving a late promotion in 2013. The Radford alum posted a 1.80 ERA across three levels with 143 strikeouts. Winkler doesn't carry the profile of the other three pitchers, but won the California league pitcher of the year award in 2013 after finishing High-A with 152 strikeouts. Tyler Anderson is looking to bounce back after an injury-filled season. The lefthander carries a career ERA of 2.61 in 36 minor league games.
Jon Gray has gone from pitching for Oklahoma in the NCAA Regionals tournament to debuting for Double-A Tulsa in just one year. This will be Gray's first full season in the minor leagues and the only other Rockies draft choice to advance this quickly through the minors was Troy Tulowitzki. Reliever Kraig Sitton is the lone pitcher on the 40-man roster for Tulsa. A fastball-curve combination pitcher who sits around 90 mph, The lefthander posted a 2.93 ERA in Modesto last season and could be considered as a potential situational lefty in the Rockies bullpen.
Offensively: The Drillers are loaded at catcher with 2012 third round pick Tom Murphy as the everyday starter. Backed up by Dustin Garneau and Ryan Casteel, Murphy skipped Modesto entirely when he performed well in Low-A Asheville and was promoted to Tulsa last season. The University of Buffalo standout demonstrated a lot of power potential when he combined for .289/.376/.571 with 22 home runs last year.
Dustin Garneau is the returning starter from 2013 and considered one of the best defensive catchers in the Rockies system. Ryan Casteel is coming off a banner year where he hit 22 home runs in High-A Modesto and then nearly won the Triple Crown in the Australian Baseball league this winter. Shortstop Cristhian Adames will be repeating in Double-A, but his presence on the 40-man roster will place him in contention for a quick call up if an infield spot opens in the levels above him.
Players on the 40-man roster: Kraig Sitton, Cristhian Adames.