Today is the thrilling conclusion of the Summer 2014 Purple Row Prospects (PuRPs) list. Let's take a look at the future stars in Colorado's minor league system. All of these players are either potential MLB regulars (or even more than that, fingers crossed).
In this edition of the PuRPs poll, 20 ballots were cast, with 30 points being granted for a first place vote, 29 for second, etc. Until a player was named on seven ballots, his vote totals were modified on a sliding scale to avoid an individual ballot having too much say over the community forecast -- only one of the players on this edition of the list was listed on fewer than seven ballots.
For each player on the PuRPs list, I've included a link to their stats (via Baseball-Reference), their contract status (via Rockies Roster), their probable MLB ETA (assuming they do make the Show), and a note on their 2014 season. For what it's worth, I'll also include where I put them on my personal ballot. All ages are as of July 1, 2014.
Remember that the statistics pages are not the end-all be-all when evaluating these players. Context is hugely important (such as the player's age relative to the league's average or the league average offensive numbers), as is the fact that injuries to prospects can affect both their tools and their stats.
Without further ado, here are the top five PuRPs:
5. Raimel Tapia (486 points, 20 ballots) -- Winter 2013 Ranking: 16 -- High Ballot 2, Mode Ballot 4
Tapia, a 20 year-old outfielder at Low A Asheville, was a highly regarded international sign for the Rockies back in 2010 (though Joel Payamps and Johendi Jiminian received larger bonuses). After two years in the Dominican Summer League, Tapia made his way stateside last year...and all he did was win the Pioneer League Player of the Year Award.
In 286 plate appearances Tapia was unconscious, hitting .357/.399/.562 with 33 extra base hits against players 1.5 years older than him on average - all the while playing a solid center field. He wasn't a very patient hitter (5% BB rate), but it's hard to quibble with a .399 OBP and all of that swinging didn't lead to a lot of strikeouts (11% K rate). That's just about as good of a stateside first impression that you can make.
This year, Tapia struggled initially in his first exposure to full season ball, hitting just .244/.290/.326 in April. Since then though, his worst month has been his .340/.381/.515 May. In the season's second half he's raking at a .377/.455/.509 clip! In all, against older SAL pitchers Tapia has a .331/.387/.463 line with 32 XBHs and 25 SB in 400 plate appearances.
As a prospect, Tapia's biggest asset is his potentially elite hit tool. Baseball Prospectus recently ran a (free) article in which Ryan Parker scouted Tapia's tools. Here is an excerpt from the 70 hit tool grade Parker gave:
No matter what he is doing his swing is very easy, well timed, and balanced. In games he sprays the ball to all fields. His swing is fluid and the ball is coming off his bat hot. His goal is simple at the plate, get the barrel on the ball. He accomplishes this more often than not thanks to an innate ability to manipulate himself and/or his bat to make sure he's squaring up the baseball.
As a reminder, a 50 tool is major league average and Tapia received two 70 tools in the above evaluation (his speed/baserunning was the other). Indeed, Tapia's weakest tools were the major league average 50. Add all of that up and you get a first division regular or All-Star talent. Now, that's just one man's scouting report, but there's a reason why Tapia has been shooting up prospect lists all summer and it's because several trusted talent evaluators agree with Parker.
The last time around, many (myself included) were caught off guard by Tapia and kept him lower on their ballots, waiting to see if he could replicate his numbers in full season ball. Now that he has, the electorate has moved him into the top five in the system (I placed him 5th myself).
Contract Status: 2010 FA (DR), Not Rule 5 Eligible, 3 options remaining
MLB ETA: Late 2016
4. Trevor Story (487 points, 20 ballots) -- Winter 2013 Ranking: 6 -- High Ballot 2, Mode Ballot 4
Story, a 21 year-old shortstop at AA Tulsa, was ranked as the top prospect in the rookie level Pioneer League by Baseball America after 2011 and he showed us why in Asheville in 2012 (he was the #2 prospect in BA's SAL list last year). As one of the youngest players in the league and playing the toughest defensive position well, Story hit an impressive .277/.367/.505 (138 wRC+), including an impressive 67 XBHs.
In all, it was a good enough performance for Story to be rated the #96 prospect in baseball by Baseball America coming into 2013. Unfortunately, Story did not transfer his success to a higher level. He had a pretty bad year in High A Modesto last season, hitting just .233/.305/.394 (83 wRC+) - though he did steal 23 bases with only one caught stealing.
This season, Story repeated High A ball and the results were much better. In 218 PAs with Modesto, Story hit .332/.436/.582 with 29 XBHs and 20 SB against players that were on average two years older than him while manning the shortstop position predominantly. Story was then promoted to AA Tulsa, where he has struggled against players three years older than him. In a 101 PA sample, Story is hitting just .195/.307/.333. It's a tough ask for Story, but it's a challenge that he's overcome before.
The fact that Story played SS over fellow top prospect Rosell Herrera in Asheville and in AA Tulsa over Taylor Featherston (and for a time, Cristhian Adames) is proof that the Rockies see him as a superior defender at the position. Scouts have indicated that Story's a potential five tool shortstop at the major league level, and Story has certainly shown flashes of that potential. I ranked Story 4th on my list as an elite bat with great defense, but to stay at these lofty heights (or even move up), a prospect has to dazzle wherever he's placed.
Contract Status: 2011 Supplemental 1st Round, Not Rule 5 eligible, 3 options remaining
MLB ETA: 2016
3. Eddie Butler (564 points, 20 ballots) -- Winter 2013 Ranking: 2 -- High Ballot 1 (1), Mode Ballot 2
Butler, a 23 year-old RHP currently at AA Tulsa, was simply untouchable last year. Across three levels (Low A, High A, and AA), Butler went 9-5 with a 1.80 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and a very respectable 8.6 K/9 in 150 innings pitched. The crazy thing was that in his six starts for AA Tulsa, Butler was even more impressive, posting a 0.65 ERA and 0.68 WHIP in 28 IP. He pitched so well early in the year that the Rockies had him on a five inning limit for most of his time in Modesto and Tulsa.
Oh by the way, Butler made his way into Keith Law's preseason top 20 prospect list (among others) and earned a spot in the MLB Futures Game, where he struck out fellow top prospect Xander Bogaerts on the three preposterous pitches that comprise his arsenal (slider, fastball, change). Don't watch those gifs if you can't handle the truth. Everything came up Milhouse for Butler last year, and for the early stages of this year it was the case as well: in 12 starts and 74 IP in Tulsa, he had a 2.92 ERA and 1.26 WHIP - though the Rockies appeared to be limiting his arsenal to focus on developing some pitches, which was contributing factor in reducing his K/9 rate to 5.0.
Controversially around these parts, the Rockies called up Butler (supposedly for good) in June, skipping him over AAA altogether, at home against a very potent Dodgers lineup, where he struggled through 5 1/3 innings. Unfortunately, that's been the end of Butler's major league story this year, as he went on the DL with rotator cuff inflammation in the days after the start. Supposedly, one of the reasons this happened is because the Rockies had never worked with Butler on developing a standardized routine between starts with shorter rest on his way up through the minors. Hmm...
After a couple of rehab starts at Modesto and in Colorado Springs, Butler was activated from the DL and optioned back to Tulsa. Let's hope that he is able to continue to grow as a pitcher and come back to the big league level ready for action. In any case, Butler still profiles as a top of the rotation type pitcher, which is a large reason why I placed Butler second on my PuRPs list this time around.
Contract Status: 2012 Supplemental 1st Round, 40 Man Roster, 3 options remaining (first one will vest soon)
MLB ETA: Late 2014
2. David Dahl (570 points, 20 ballots) -- Winter 2013 Ranking: 3 -- High Ballot 1 (2), Mode Ballot 2
Dahl, a 20 year-old lefty outfielder who very recently was promoted from Low A Asheville to High A Modesto, was Colorado's first round pick (10th overall) in the 2012 draft. To say that Dahl impressed in his professional debut would be an understatement. Playing against pitchers three years older than him on average, all Dahl did was hit .379/.423/.625 (winning the Pioneer League batting title by 41 points), run away with the Pioneer League MVP, and get named the top prospect in the league. In other words, Dahl had just about the best start to a professional career you could hope for from a first round pick.
Unfortunately, his 2013 campaign was a lost year. Dahl began by getting suspended by the team for missing a flight. By nearly all accounts I've read, this was a one-time thing and was not indicative of any other problems - in fact, Dahl has been lauded for his work ethic and makeup before and since. Dahl then tore his hamstring in May shortly after his return. The end result was that Dahl was limited to just ten games in 2013.
This year has been a much better story for Dahl. Despite the lost year, Dahl was still over a year younger than average in the Low A SAL (for reference, he's two months younger than Tapia) but he didn't have too many problems dealing with SAL pitching. In 413 PAs, Dahl hit .305/.345/.501 with 49 XBHs and 18 SB while playing an excellent center field. Hopefully he can continue this success in the tougher environs of High A Modesto.
As the results came in, so too did the scouting accolades. Dahl was placed in the mid-season top 50 of Baseball Prospectus (24), Keith Law (35), and Jon Sickels (33). In a recent episode of PR's own Purple Dinosaur Podcast (it's excellent, please listen!), prospect guru Jason Parks said that Dahl had the potential to be as good as Andrew McCutcheon, one of the top five players in the game today. That's high praise indeed from a guy who knows a lot about a lot of prospects.
In any case, BP had an eyewitness scouting report on Dahl in which Ryan Parker gave all of Dahl's five tools a 55 grade or higher, including a 70 grade (first division regular/All-Star) overall future potential. Here was Parker's conclusion on Dahl:
It's going to take a bit longer than Rockies fans may like but the payoff should be worth it. At worst Dahl turns into Drew Stubbs. The defense alone will carry him to the big leagues. Dahl seems to be struggling with finding his identity as a player but that should come with time. Sometimes he's a leadoff hitter trying to work the count, other times he's the aggressive two hole hitter hunting fastballs, and in BP he can hang with just about any 3 or 4 hole hitter. Once he settles in things should start to take off.
This young man is an extremely hard worker blessed with elite physical tools. A rare combination who should one day be a mainstay in the Rockies lineup.
In other words, Dahl is a five tool talent when healthy that projects to stick in center field defensively and comfortably projects as a MLB regular with the potential for much more. The electorate agrees (he was third on my list), with two people giving him top billing and all putting him in the top four of balloting.
Contract Status: 2012 1st Round, Not Rule 5 Eligible, 3 options remaining
MLB ETA: Late 2016
1. Jon Gray (595 points, 20 ballots) -- Winter 2013 Ranking: 1 -- High Ballot 1 (17), Mode Ballot 1
Gray, a 22 year-old RHP at AA Tulsa, was Colorado's first round draft pick last year and probably has the highest ceiling of any pitcher the Rockies have ever drafted - a true number one starter. The 3rd overall pick out of Oklahoma was the top player on my draft board coming in, so I was thrilled that he slid to the Rockies - who also managed to sign him for an under-slot (but still record) bonus of $4.8 million.
Gray's professional debut was nothing short of explosive - a 1.93 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 12.3 K/9 over 37 innings. That includes a couple of starts where Gray was instructed to work on new pitches. In Modesto, Gray had four starts and 24 innings pitched - and his rate stats were a 0.75 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, and 13.5 K/9. That's preposterous. This year, Gray has been slightly less explosive at AA Tulsa. Normally, a 3.73 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 8.3 K/9 performance over 99 IP against opponents that are on average 2.5 years older would be excellent.
Jon Gray is no ordinary prospect though, and there are concerns that the Rockies are reining him in unnecessarily and trying to turn him into a pitch-to-contact, groundball pitcher. That's a pitcher that he's just not. Gray at his best is a firebreathing, unhittable terror with an upper 90s fastball, filthy slider, and a developing changeup. Both the fastball and the slider have been ranked by some as being the best versions of those pitches among any prospect in the minor leagues, and it would be a shame if Gray were being steered away from using them at their full potential.
The combination of stuff, results, and prospect pedigree is what have most prospect lists putting Gray among the very top echelon of pitching prospects. Keith Law ranked him 7th overall, which was his top pitching prospect. Here were his comments:
The former Oklahoma starter hits 99 mph regularly as a starter and pitches with a plus fastball and plus slider. ... (Gray) projects as their eventual No. 1 starter.
Jason Parks ranked him 11th on the BP midseason top 50. An excerpt of the comments:
This is a future frontline arm with bat-missing stuff, and once the training wheels come off at the highest level, this ranking will look too conservative
To summarize, the stuff Gray showed this year is reflective of an ace ceiling with a floor of a mid-rotation starter or ace reliever at the MLB level, which is why I (along with most of the electorate) placed Gray as the top PuRP. I hope the Rockies will continue to allow him to refine his pitching at the AA level and maybe send him to AAA for more seasoning, with an early season callup next year. Whatever the timeline, I'm extremely excited for the Jonathan Gray era and you should be too.
Quite simply, Gray is one of the top two or three pitching prospects in the minor leagues and is a top 15 prospect in all of baseball. Please don't screw this up, Rockies.
Contract Status: 2013 1st Round, Not Rule 5 Eligible, 3 options remaining
MLB ETA: Late 2014/2015
To wrap up the Summer 2014 PuRPs list, I'll be posting the full list and a short recap of the voting tomorrow.