MLB Draft 2014: Rockies minor league system depth

Caitlin Rice

A review of Colorado's minor league system depth in advance of the 2014 MLB Draft.

Over the past week, Purple Row has been reviewing the state of several positions as they relate to where the Rockies stand in the run up to the Rule 4 MLB Draft coming up in June. Most teams would tell you that their most important consideration when making a draft pick, particularly a draft pick with as long a gestation period as the one baseball propects have, is to pick the best player available. This is true most of the time - Jon Gray was clearly the best player on the board when the Rockies picked him with the 3rd selection last year.

Sometimes though, you get a solution where the presence of a top prospect or MLB star precludes the drafting of a player who otherwise would seem to be the best player available. That was the case in 2006 when Evan Longoria sat atop the board for the Rockies, but the presence of 2003 first round pick Ian Stewart led the team to go in the direction of Greg Reynolds. With all of that in mind, let's take a look at the Rockies minor league system as it stands going into the draft.

Overall System Rankings

The consensus around the prospect industry indicates that Colorado's system is as healthy right now as it's been in quite some time. To wit, the Rockies have been ranked in the top 10 by the following entities (with money quote):

Jon Sickels (Minor League Ball, #8):

I think the Rockies system is somewhat underrated and overlooked, but you have a pair of outstanding right-handers in Eddie Butler and Jon Gray, a top outfield prospect in David Dahl, and a host of solid Grade B/B- types behind them. There are also some high ceiling guys at the lower levels who could break through, particularly outfielder Raimel Tapia. Don't forget sleeper prospect Dan Winkler.

Keith Law (ESPN Insider, #8):

A sneaky-good system, although with Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray throwing 98 mph tablets by hitters I doubt the Rockies can keep their prospect depth on the QT. They've generally been a productive club in Latin America despite avoiding the biggest bonus babies, and I'm in the camp that assumes that 2012 first-rounder David Dahl will return this April without missing a beat.

Jason Parks (Baseball Prospectus, #10):

Farm System Trajectory for 2015: Up. Butler and Bettis will likely graduate, and Gray could force the issue by dominating in the minors. But the rest of the farm should continue to develop and evolve, and if the Low-A roster shines like the scouting reports suggest, the Rockies could be looking at a very, very strong system for the foreseeable future.

Those quotes above give a pretty clear direction on where the Rockies stand- they have a dynamic top two in starters Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, along with some other very interesting prospects.

Top Prospect Positional Breakdown

It's pretty clear that Colorado's top prospects are on the mound, as every source listed above has Gray and Butler atop their system lists. This is true as well for our own Purple Row Prospects (PuRPs) list from the 2013 Winter edition of the PuRPs poll. With the full knowledge that not all of Colorado's minor league depth is encapsulated within this list (players like Christian Friedrich and Ryan Wheeler are not PuRP-eligible), it's a good shorthand for the players with possible near-term MLB futures.

Here's a basic positional breakdown of those 30 prospects and their rank on the list:

Right-Handed Starting Pitchers: Jon Gray (1), Eddie Butler (2), Dan Winkler (12), Sam Moll (17), Alex Balog (20), Christian Bergman (26), Antonio Senzatela (29), Ryan Warner (30)

Left-Handed Starting Pitchers: Tyler Anderson (10), Tyler Matzek (14), Jayson Aquino (15)

Relief Pitchers: Chad Bettis (8)

Catchers: Tom Murphy (9), Ryan Casteel (11), Wilfredo Rodriguez (18), Dom Nunez (19), Will Swanner (24)

Corner Infielders: Ryan McMahon (7)

Middle Infielders: Rosell Herrera (4), Trevor Story (6), Cristhian Adames (13), Pat Valaika (21), Taylor Featherston (22)

Outfielders: David Dahl (3), Kyle Parker (5), Raimel Tapia (16), Jordan Patterson (23), Max White (25), Tim Wheeler (27), Terry McClure (28)

The lack of corner infielders in the above is a little misleading, as both Herrera and Story could be moved to 3B should they make it to the big league level, while Parker and Swanner are among those who could slot into 1B.

As always, it's important to remember that half of the players listed above may never make a MLB impact at all. That's the nature of prospecting - some just don't pan out.

Top Prospect Proximity to the Show

Here's a look at how the organizational talent falls by minor league affiliate:

AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox

PuRPs: Parker (5), Bettis (8), Matzek (14), Bergman (26), Wheeler (27)

Overall take: Parker is the most likely MLB impact player of this group, though it's unclear if he'll make that impact at first base or in the outfield given the major league depth the Rockies have stockpiled of late. I'm rooting for him to make a complicated solution for Colorado even more complicated by forcing the issue at AAA. Tim Wheeler also has a chance to make an impact as a utility outfielder, though he's firmly behind Parker on the list.

As for the pitchers, Bettis has been disappointing thus far in his transition to the bullpen, but the path to a career as a big league reliever is clear. Matzek is an enigma with a lot of talent, but his lack of command could limit him to a Franklin Morales type of career - that would actually be a very nice outcome at this point. Bergman has never been well regarded as a prospect but has just kept pitching well, including several quality starts this year in AAA. I don't think the stuff is Major League quality, but I've been wrong many times before.

AA Tulsa Drillers

PuRPs: Gray (1), Butler (2), Murphy (9), Anderson (10), Casteel (11), Winkler (12), Adames (13), Featherston (22)

Overall take: That's a darn good minor league rotation in Gray, Butler, Anderson, and Winkler. Both Gray and Butler seem destined for major league impact, while Winkler and Anderson have been very impressive thus far - particularly Winkler. All four pitchers could see Coors Field within the next year and play a pivotal role in the next Rockies playoff team.

Murphy and Casteel, the highest ranked catching prospects for Colorado, came into 2014 with high expectations but neither has gotten off to a strong start thus far. Both players have an OPS below .720 this season and Murphy is hitting below the Mendoza line. Still, Murphy seems like the best in-system alternative to Jordan Pacheco as back-up catcher (maybe starter eventually) and Casteel is an intriguing player as well.

Adames can be a utility player in the big leagues for quite a few years with his defensive prowess if the bat will play, while Featherston has been a solid hitter and a solid defender at every rung up the ladder. Both have a utility ceiling but both could make the Show.

High A Modesto Nuts

PuRPs: Herrera (4), Story (6), Aquino (15), Swanner (24)

Overall take: Modesto's been kind of a disaster so far this year, but Trevor Story has taken full advantage of his repeat year in the California League. The 21 year-old looks like the masher he was in Asheville two years ago and once again his path to the major leagues looks bright, though he'll have to cut down on his strikeout rate. A year ago, Rosell Herrera's star was ascendant in Low A Asheville, but he's had a tough start to 2014 and is currently on the DL. Herrera, a top 100 caliber talent, will need to put it together consistently to get to the Show.

After a fantastic start to his minor league career, Aquino has struggled in full season ball. The 21 year-old is already on the 40 man roster for the Rockies but is currently on the DL and has not shown that the control and command that got him through the lower levels of the minor league system will be enough to get major league hitters out. Swanner was passed over by Murphy and Casteel on the catching depth chart in the last year, but the 22 year old has enough pop to move up the system if he can find his stroke this year.

Low A Asheville Tourists

PuRPs: Dahl (3), McMahon (7), Tapia (16), Rodriguez (18), Balog (20), Valaika (21), Patterson (23), White (25), Senzatela (29)

Overall take: The outfield was the hyped unit coming into 2014, with four PuRPs patrolling the grass. While Dahl has been decent though not dominant in his mulligan for 2013 at Asheville, he's pretty clearly the best hope the Rockies have for an impact player on this team - the 2012 first rounder has tools galore and the results to back them up.

Meanwhile, Tapia has not been able to replicate the magic of last year's Pioneer League MVP season, but he's heated up lately and is just 20 years old in full season ball (he's actually two months older than Dahl). The hit tool is the differentiator with Tapia, but it's a harder road to the Show for him than Dahl because Dahl's other skills are more advanced. Patterson and White have really struggled this year, which might be more worrisome for Patterson given that he's 22 to White's 20 and because White is reportedly the best defensive outfielder in the system.

Ryan McMahon's great start to 2014 has been the story for Asheville thus far this season. The third baseman has whacked 10 homers in 33 games and has slugged .600 so far. Unfortunately, he's already matched last season's total errors (12) in that time span. McMahon is clearly a player the Rockies like a lot and he's performed very well with the bat so far, but he's got a tough road ahead of him, including a major roadblock in Nolan Arenado in the Show a few years down the road.

Wilfredo Rodriguez has also been red hot to start the year, as has Pat Valaika. Rodriguez is young (20) and a catcher, so his .981 OPS thus far is a pretty good sign for his prospect status, while Valaika has shortstop polish and has shown the plate discipline needed to succeed at higher levels. Both are players to watch as they move up the ladder, but neither is close enough to draw too many conclusions.

Balog has rebounded from a terrible 2013 debut with a solid start to 2014. The 2013 second rounder has the measurables you look for in a starting pitching prospect, but to this point the results haven't followed. If the results do follow this year (including a raising of the K rate), Balog is a piece the Rockies will be looking very closely at as a part of their future. Senzatela hasn't been as successful in full season ball this year as he had been in the past couple of seasons, but he's just 19 years old and a little far away from me to rate much more than that.

Others: Moll (17), Nunez (19), McClure (28), Warner (30)

These players have yet to play in 2014, so I'll defer further commentary on them to the Summer PuRPs list.

Conclusion

As we'll break down in the coming weeks, the strength of this draft class really appears to be starting pitching, which is the position the Rockies will never pass on in the draft regardless of current system quality or depth. Because of the presence of Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado, the Rockies might be tempted to lay off of a middle or corner infield prospect, but the drafting of McMahon in the second round last year shows how well it can turn out when you draft a best player available at a "filled" position.

We'll check in again after the draft on this to see how the Rockies may have improved their system.

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