I've been prepping for a preview of the Drillers team, but I decided that our best pitching prospect probably deserved a look of his own.
First, a little background of what I typically look for in Rockies pitching prospects as they climb the ladder:
Casper: Just surviving helps. I look mostly at K/9 rates, particularly if they're young (18 or 19 years old). If they are from college, I expect a little more dominance relative to the league. Morales registered squarely on the radar with a 11.35 K/9 his first season.
Tri-City: Like Casper, Tri-City's park will skew run stats, but in the opposite direction, so again I look to peripherals like K/9 and BB/9 and groundball or line drive percentages. Morales did so well in Casper, he got to skip Tri-City entirely, but if you're going back to look for some bright lights from last season, look at Josh Sullivan's 55.90% GB rate and 9.90 K/9 as something that jumps out as an ideal combo.
Asheville: We just can't get away from these extreme parks until the next two levels. Asheville's McCormick Field presents a little more of a glimpse into how the pitchers (and hitters for that matter) are advancing in the mental game, however, so besides the aforementioned rate stats, I look for improvement from where the prospect is at the beginning of the season to the end. Morales definitely showed this, his late surge left Baseball America and other South Atlantic League prospect watchers scraping for excuses as to why he wasn't in the top tier. Particularly noteworthy for Morales was his ability to limit homeruns, and despite what John Manuel said in the linked above, his secondary pitches started to display promise.
Modesto: I'm still getting used to how Thurman Field plays and what to look for, as the Rockies have only been here for three seasons. Already I like it for being a better refiner of talent, quickly exposing flaws that might have been missed in Asheville. For hitters, keeping a status quo from their lofty low-A stats is actually a very good sign. For hurlers, I look to see if they can maintain their rates deeper into games, and they also need to start dropping walk rates.
Morales' stamina seemed fine. As for dropping his BB's? Morales didn't do this. His walks went up from 4.48/9IP in Asheville to 5.20/9IP in Modesto. Of his fellow starters in the Nuts' rotation, that figure was second worst only to Sammy the Bull's 5.66. Greg Reynolds' walk rate clocked in at 2.61. Of course, Reynolds doesn't have Morales' stuff, registering just half the K's. So why does Morales get promoted in all likelihood anyway despite persistent control problems? And what can we expect in Tulsa where AA hitters have a more refined understanding of the strike zone? Trouble.
Juan Morillo had similarly high BB/9 rate going into Tulsa this past season, and unfortunately he carried it with him. His one start for the Rockies showed the amount of work that still needs to be done to transform him into an acceptable major league quality pitcher, and it's still going to take a monumental effort to get there. Morillo, by the way, was shut down for precautionary measures in winter play according to an excellent subscriber only article at BA today that asks if having Vinny will help the Rockies attract talent in Mexico.
At any rate, Morales has a couple of things going for him that Morillo didn't however. First is an arsenal that includes more than just the blazing fastball, he has a biting curve and a still developing change-up that should be as good as his other two pitches. Morillo brought only the fastball. Plus, Morales has shown an ability to learn and develop that Morillo never seemed to exhibit. How he handles the transition to AA and whether he continues to learn and grow at the same torrid pace will have a lot of impact on the Rockies' decisions for the offseason preceding 2008. The primary guidepost I'll be looking for is that his walk rate drops back below 4.5, or one every two innings. The lower it drops, the more confidence we can have that he'll be ready for the bigs a year from now.