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2008 Organizational Glimpse: Who's Next?

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Kevin Goldstein the other day ranked the team number nine in his MLB Organizational Rankings when it comes to minor league talent. This lower portion of the top ten/dozen seems to be the general consensus of where the Rockies sit right now. Obviously my biased view would put them higher, but in fairness, I see the reasons why more neutral observers would have us here. When people like Goldstein, Keith Law and the folks at Baseball America or Project Prospect make these rankings, they tend to look primarily at three things:

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  1. Impact talent - does the system have future all-star type players? How many?
  2. Depth of talent - Is there potential starting talent at every position? Is there plenty of pitching?
  3. Closeness to the majors of said talent.
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There are other categories that the various evaluators may have, but these three categories form the universal basis for organizational ranking that everybody seems to use. So let's break the Rockies down a little in each:

1. Impact Talent:
Current Players - Franklin Morales, Hector Gomez, Casey Weathers

These would be the three that a plurality of scouts still feel have potential to be All-Star caliber at their positions. Ian Stewart, Dexter Fowler and Chris Nelson still get fairly strong consideration, but most seem to feel their fit is as everyday starters rather than potentially top of the league.

Drops for 2009: Morales, possibly Weathers

Potential Adds for 2009: Within the system, I'd say Nelson has the best shot at rising to a truly elite status with a strong follow-up to his 2007 campaign. Fowler has an excellent opportunity as well if he can show more power potential and shore up a few defensive questions.

As far as other position players, it will be a lot harder for our other guys to make this kind of jump. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, for the most part the position players in our system that have performed well don't fit the profile of players that the pundits will consider elite. The second reason is that the people who make the rankings will almost always heavily discount poor past minor league experience more for position players than they will for pitchers.

Nelson's a very good example of this. He was drafted with elite skills, and had an elite type season at Modesto, but because the start of his pro career was slow, he barely cracks top 100 lists if he's noticed at all. It typically takes a couple of seasons of that type of performance for the observers to take note after a player gets off to a slow start to their professional careers. I think this phenomenon's why Matt Holliday was overlooked by prospect watchers as well.

Perhaps counter intuitively, it's a bit easier for that kind of meteoric rise in the rankings in one season for pitchers. It would take a young player showing abilities he hadn't before, and those abilities would have to be strong enough to get several scouts excited over the new possibilities. An example we all know is Ubaldo Jimenez, who added several mph to his fastball as he was rising through the system. Keeping this in mind, I would again look to our project pitchers to try and find that guy. Aneury Rodriguez, Esmil Rogers and Jhoulys Chacin all could fit the bill. It doesn't have to be strictly confined to our Latin American signees, either. Connor Graham already has the stuff and the build that makes scouts salivate, showing a strong complementary pitch to his fastball and a dominant full season performance would raise his stock tremendously.

Staying with the pitching theme, one other possible source -though less likely- would be players further removed from surgery regaining what was lost when they went under the knife. Shane Lindsay and Josh Sullivan fall into this camp. Both were once thought of in pretty elite terms, but have had their careers derailed by arm issues.

With a late first round pick and no compensation selections it would be foolish to assume we add another impact talent in the draft, although I suppose it remains a possibility.

2. Depth of talent-
Current status: Strong in middle infielders and RHP's, weak in the outfield and LHP's.

Drops for 2009: Morales, Weathers, Stewart, Greg Reynolds, Juan Morillo, Joe Koshansky, Seth Smith, possibly a couple more like Brandon Hynick or Pedro Strop.

This is where Goldstein and others see a further drop for the system next season, as you have a big chunk of players potentially losing their eligibility to fill next season's prospect list. This is a good thing for the Rockies, obviously, as it means these guys are contributing to the major league squad. In order to stave off the drop, not only do less heralded players currently in the top 30 have to step up and fill the slots of these standouts, but relatively unrecognized guys have to also come in and fill their shoes. It would also help if what are considered weaknesses right now show more potential. So let's look:

Potential Adds for 2009:
These are the guys I see possibly rising from fringe level prospects or projected bench roles to legit quality prospects and projected starting roles. I've talked about most of them quite frequently, they all rank in the teens to early twenties on our PuRPs list, so the names will probably be familiar to you. I'm going to include a quick statement of what needs to happen to bring them to that level.

Michael McKenry - Make more contact. When he does, really good things happen. There's no question with his defense.
Eric Young - people still think "slap hitter" because of his speed. That hasn't quite been the case, but a smooth advancement to Tulsa would be pretty convincing.
Connor Graham - secondary pitches
Esmil Rogers - command and consistency
Jhoulys Chacin - just continue to make gains. I don't know if people yet realize how fantastic his season was last year.
Aneury Rodriguez - He could stand to add just a little more velocity, and he's got the frame where you would think it possible in his development. Otherwise, he just needs a better feel for pitching.
Brian Rike - I'm expecting a big full season debut for Rike, particularly if he's at Asheville. The problem with that in regards to this article is that a strong performance there won't convince critics of anything.

Prospects who could, in turn, fill their places in 2009:

Xavier Cedeno - Our top left handed starting pitching prospect doesn't get a lot of looks, Goldstein counts the position as a weakness, but X was the youngest regular starting southpaw in the California League (the younger Brett Anderson came in for a few starts late) last season, which by itself should tell you something.
Everth Cabrera - he had a strong but unfortunately too short showing in short season ball. A speedy infielder along the lines of Young or Jonathan Herrera.
Cory Riordan
Darin Holcomb
Bruce Billings - I really don't know what to think about Billings, he's such a late pick, an extreme FB pitcher, which has me concerned about his HR rates and fully expecting him to get brutalized in Asheville, but you can't really argue with the results in Tri-City.
David Christensen - He's too quickly thought of as a disappointment thanks to two less than stellar summers in Casper, but it's good to remind everybody that this is exactly why scouts thought the money he was asking for was too high for a raw high school player that would take time to grow into his tools.

In some ways this goes for much of the Casper roster in 2007. I think it's easy to overlook that the average age in the Pioneer League was 21.1, while the average age of the Casper team was a year younger, with several key players coming in younger still. What's more, the Rockies have been targeting several "long view" prospects in their high school picks over the last several years, raw players that may or may not click at any point as they rise through the system. At the early stages of their pro careers it's not difficult to envision them maturing into higher quality players, but they're playing against much more refined stock in the Pioneer League.

Of course, in this area of organizational depth, I expect the draft and influx of last year's class of foreign free agents to play a major role. Ricardo Ferrer and Angelys Nina are high on my watch list already.

3. Closeness to the majors. Right now we have at least seven fairly high quality guys on the verge of breaking into the MLB. In order not to decline in this aspect, we'll need at least seven in 2009. At the moment it looks like we'll have perhaps five making their debuts then:

Nelson
Hynick
Dexter Fowler
Pedro Strop
Eric Young

This is where there's almost a certainty of the team to drop in organizational rankings. What we would need is a surprisingly comprehensive season in Tulsa from some tools rich player that's fallen out of the scouting community's periphery like a Daniel Carte or Cole Garner, and/or a rapid rise to MLB readiness by a 2007 college draftee like Rike or Graham. It's certainly not out of the realm of the possible, but it's definitely not something I would count on. Our first pick in the 2008 amateur draft also might prove to be a polished, quick rising talent, as that's a been a common thread of our first rounders dating back to the Tulo pick in 2005.

Okay, so that was a long post, but I hope it helps give an idea of why rankings would have us where they do, and what needs to happen within the system to maintain or improve these rankings next year. The bottom line is that without a high draft pick, or as many picks in the first 100 as some clubs have, the Rockies will have to rely on a lot of this improvement coming from within next year. I think we have plenty of guys who could do this, but I think the reality of minor league attrition and performance say that it's easily the safest gamble to say that they don't and that the organization slips some more in the overall rankings. In this way it's sort of a pivotal season for a lot of guys who have been overshadowed by the more high profile prospects that are coming into the major league team. Now's their chance to take the limelight and prove themselves torchbearers for the Next GenR. 2008 should be an exciting year to see who steps up to the challenge.