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Rockies Prospects: Projecting where Jonathan Gray will play in the minors

Now that this talented pitcher has fallen into their lap, the Rockies brain trust must decide where to send him. That leaves many Rockies fans wondering when they'll see Jonathan Gray in a Rockies uniform.

by Charlie Drysdale

On Thursday the Rockies selected Jonathan Gray out of Oklahoma, a pitcher considered by some to be the top prospect available, leaving many Rockies fans to wonder when he could debut in a Rockies uniform and where he might start in the minor leagues. On Thursday I wrote an article for Minor League Ball comparing Mark Appel and Gray to previously hyped college pitchers.

I've compiled that list and put together a table of pitchers and used it as a rough sketch to determine when these top tier pitchers debuted with their respective team and what level of minor leagues they played at. The list covers players drafted all the way back through 1970, from Steve Dunning to Stephen Strasburg. I left off last year's class of Cole and Hultzen since it's too early to judge them.

On average, the pitchers debuted 1.36 seasons after they were drafted. For Gray that would put him in a Rockies uniform sometime in 2015. There's a good chance that Gray can debut sooner though as 15 of the 22 pitchers made an appearance in the majors the year following their draft.

For the most part, who debuted within a year will most likely be solid starters as they average a 16.3 bWAR, equivalent to what Ubaldo Jimenez has done in his career. Although that doesn't necessarily mean the pitcher will throw no-hitters. For instance, Luke Hochevar debuted for the Royals the year after he was drafted and is generally considered a bust with a career bWAR of 0.8. Meanwhile guys like Bill Swift and Justin Verlander debuted within a year of being drafted and both posted solid seasons in the majors, with Justin sitting at a 37.1 bWAR and counting.

The longer they're in the minors, the less likely the pitcher will perform at a high rate. Bryan Bullington was drafted first overall by the Pirates in 2002 and he waited three years to debut and posted a career bWAR of -0.2. There's always an exception to the rule and Tim Belcher fits into that category as he labored for four seasons in the minors before getting that first call up and posting a career 26.2 bWAR.

The following list outlines where these pitchers were these hyped college pitchers were placed in the minor leagues and gives us a general idea of the options available to the Rockies when it comes to Gray:

  • Short-season 1 Pitcher (5%) Floyd Banister started at this level after being the first overall pick in 1976, he later debuted for the Astros the following season. The Rockies placed Jeff Francis in Short-season Tri City to start his minor league career after selecting him ninth overall in 2002.
  • Low-A 6 Pitchers (27%) Most of these players took longer to reach the majors as evidenced by Tim Belcher (5-years) and Bryan Bullington (3-years). Greg Swindell and Ben McDonald both started this low however and debuted in the major leagues the same year. Asheville would be a tough home park for Gray, but it's a good level to get a rookie's feet wet and it's where other first round pitchers, including Tyler Anderson and Tyler Matzek, have begun.
  • High-A 6 Pitchers (27%) David Price and Justin Verlander are examples of pitchers who started in the advanced A league and debuted with their major league team a year later. This is where the Rockies placed Greg Reynolds when he was drafted with the second pick back in 2006. The rotation in Modesto is a little crowded at the moment and will be more so when Tyler Anderson returns from his injury.
  • Double-A 7 Pitchers (32%) Stephen Strasburg and Mark Prior both debuted in this level and made their first major league appearance the following season. Most of the pitchers who debut this high had pretty good careers. The Rockies have never debuted a high draft pick at this level or higher, although it's in the home state of Jonathan Gray and it's a league that favors pitchers.
  • Triple-A 1 Pitcher (5%) Oakland's Mark Mulder began at this level and then spent two years before he became part of the big three in the major leagues. The PCL would be a tough place to start a rookie fresh out of college, there's pretty much no chance Gray would start this high.

In summary I'm going out on a limb to say the Rockies will place Gray in either Asheville or Tulsa to start the year. I'm betting on Asheville because it gives him a place to grow without being too close to the major leagues right away and having too much pressure on him to start his career. It's hard to say when he'll make his debut for the Rockies, but judging by past history it could be by the time rosters expand in 2014.