With Asheville's season set to get underway in a few minutes, here's a preview of what to look for this year. The strengths of the team are in the rotation and outfield, the infield and catching are a considerable weakness, particularly until Kiel Roling returns.
Christian Friedrich - I have to admit I've got a queasiness about Friedrich that may not be justified, but there are aspects of his development to date that have thrown me off. His slow starts at both Tri-City and Asheville last season, for instance, stand in contrast to the quick work Jhoulys Chacin was able to make of the South Atlantic and California leagues. The fact that Friedrich is starting 2009 with the Tourists while presumably inferior LHP's Kenneth Durst and Brandon Durden begin the season in Modesto has raised another warning flag that Friedrich may be on a slower development plane than originally anticipated.
As it stands, what once seemed like a possible 2010 debut for Friedrich, following the fast track that Jeff Francis took, has been pushed back into later 2011. Right now I anticipate he'll split this season between the Tourists and Modesto, and then spend most of 2010 in Tulsa with perhaps some AAA exposure. A rough start in either Asheville or Modesto this season could impede that timeline even more.
Robinson Fabian - While Friedrich's development is slowing down, it's a bullet train compared to that of Fabian. Robinson is entering his fifth season with the Rockies mainland affiliates after spending some time with their Dominican program before that. Entering his second season with the low-A Tourists, Fabian will be asked to help anchor the rotation and provide some innings, which could be a stiff challenge given that he has yet to throw more than 78 in any minor league season. He's got solid stuff, so I don't want to sound too harsh about him, but the candle's almost out, here.
Ethan Hollingsworth - I think Hollingsworth may be one of the Rockies more underrated prospects, and I include myself in that underrating process. Neutralizing his stats for luck at minorleaguesplits.com indicates that we would normally expect a pitcher who put up his kind of GB, HR, K and BB rates to have an ERA of 4.10, not the 6.10 that his actual line in Casper wound up showing. A 61% groundball rate in particular is very impressive.
Given that Hollingsworth will be playing with a better, more mature defense behind him this season, I think he might wind up surprising a lot of people with how effective he is. So why don't I have him ranked higher? I don't know, part of it's probably a depth issue, the Rockies have a lot of talent and it's hard to fit everybody in, but part of it's probably also a nagging fear that it's not just bad luck that made his Casper numbers so uninspiring.
Dan Houston - Houston's line at Casper showed the opposite effects of Hollingsworth, he may have been more lucky than his 4.17 ERA led on. Still, he's a quality pitcher and capable of making some advances in the system and I know others like him a lot more than I do. Right now I have him pretty deep on my depth chart of RHP's, I don't see him passing the two comparable pitchers (Cory Riordan and Bruce Billings) at Modesto for instance, but a solid season at Asheville could put him in better company.
Parker Frazier - Frazier, on the other hand, should be considered one of the Rockies top twenty prospects and if he shines with the Tourists could conceivably climb into the top ten. He's a wormkiller and isn't likely to impress with high K totals. If for some reason we start to see development in the strikeout area, look out.
Aaron Weatherford and Kurt Yacko are probably the two most important names to watch in the Tourists bullpen, but Adam Jorgenson had a fantastic stint at Casper and might also be good to keep an eye on. The rest all have some nice aspects and pitching skills, but maybe not quite the same results thus far. The Rockies have shown to have a pretty keen eye when it comes to picking out bullpen talent, don't underestimate them. Alan DeRatt should be a hometown favorite. Isaiah Froneberger remains an overdraft until he proves otherwise by getting command of his pitches.
Catcher: Jordan Pacheco continues a transition to catching that started last season. Unfortunately for him, in that time he's been passed by Wilin Rosario on the depth chart at the position and a lackluster showing in Tri-City makes projecting a high level professional career for him very difficult.
1st Base: Jimmy Cesario will be a temporary place holder for Kiel Roling it seems. Cesario seems out of place at the corner, as he lacks power and his K rate at Casper was too high for a contact hitter. It will take a significant turnaround this season to make him a prospect in my mind. Roling's a different beast altogether, and he may be the system's best current hope for an internal Todd Helton replacement until Tyler Massey starts showing some of his power potential (more on that in just a bit). He's the Rockies first college player to show significant signs of a power bat after signing since Joe Koshansky, and like Koshansky he could be in for a monster season at McCormick Field.
2nd Base: Patrick Rose had a pretty solid short season in Tri-City, but a high K rate for a middle infielder that doesn't project to have much power leaves me a bit dubious that he'll be able to continue this performance at higher levels. If he expands on that season with more development at Asheville, he could enter our prospect radar pretty quickly, but the same things can be said for fellow infielders Eric Wetzel and Thomas Field. It could be a tough competition to see who gets the bump to higher levels for 2010. It seems that the Rockies might be leaning Wetzel right now if I'm reading things right.
3rd Base: While Cesario isn't likely to hang onto control of first base for the Tourists when Roling returns, he shouldn't have too much difficulty wresting third base from Ryan Peisel at that point. I really expected Peisel to perform better than he did at Tri-City last season, he'll have to show better this season at Asheville if he expects to stay in the organization for much longer.
Shortstop: Carlos Martinez still hasn't emerged as the player he was cracked out to be, but last season did see him make gains in his performance across the board from the futility he showed in his first year at Casper. Another solid step forward in 2009 should have him back on our prospect radar.
Right Field: Russ doesn't like David Christensen as a prospect very much, and he doesn't like me making predictions, so I'm going to double up on annoying him by saying that I think Christensen's going to knock our socks off in 2009 and make us completely reconsider him. There are a few players in the system that have the tools to quickly become top ten or top five types. Christensen's one of those, but a long mechanically flawed swing and poor pitch recognition hold him back. Russ does like making fun of me when I'm wrong, so he'll have this to hold over me four months from now should Christensen not correct these flaws.
Center Field: James Sims is just another place holder until Delta Cleary comes up. Then we'll be talking, especially if I'm right about Christensen.
Left Field: If I am right about Christensen and once Cleary does return, you're talking about an outfield so talented that it forces one of my favorite sleeper prospects in the system, Scott Robinson, to the bench. The main person who does that is one Tyler Massey, who was a bit disappointing in Casper but who is filled with potential and whose presence on this roster speaks volumes about what the Rockies think of him.
Often high school picks like Massey will repeat the level at Casper (like Christensen and EY2 did) or move only to Tri-City. That Tyler's here says that the Rockies put him in a class of players like Ian Stewart or Chris Nelson. In other words, they see him as a key component to their next wave of talent. He'll be relatively close to his Tennessee home in Asheville, let's hope the proximity brings out the best in him.