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Rockies prospect rankings: No. 1 Jon Gray still has ace potential

Gray pitched with training wheels on and wore down a bit as the season went on in 2014, but he's still every bit the potential No. 1 starter he was projected to be a year ago.

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Editor's note: We've made a change with the PuRPs list this year, deciding to unveil each player individually over the course of a few weeks. To keep track of the rankings, keep checking our PuRPs list StoryStream.

PuRP No. 1: Jon Gray (476 points, 16 ballots) | Summer 2014 Ranking: 1 | High Ballot 1 (12), Mode Ballot 1

Gray, a 23-year-old RHP who spent his age 22 season at Double-A Tulsa, was Colorado's first round draft pick in 2013 and probably has the highest ceiling of any pitcher the Rockies have ever drafted: a true number one starter. The third overall pick out of Oklahoma was the top player on my draft board that year, 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 in 2013 was nothing short of explosive: a 1.93 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 12.3 K/9 over 37 innings. That included a couple of starts in which Gray was instructed to work on new pitches. In Modesto, Gray had four starts and 24 innings pitched, during which he posted an 0.75 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, and 13.5 K/9. That's preposterous.

In 2014, the Rockies once again were working with Gray to refine his arsenal, and as such he was slightly less explosive at. Normally, a 3.91 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 8.2 K/9 performance over 124 1/3 IP against opponents that were on average 2.5 years older would be excellent. 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 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. I don't think the Rockies will have such a leash on him when he does make it to the Show, but as fans we just want to see what he can do.

The combination of stuff, results, and prospect pedigree is what have most lists putting Gray among the very top echelon of minor league pitchers. Keith Law ranked him seventh overall in his midseason list, making Gray 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 [the Rockies'] eventual No. 1 starter.

Jason Parks ranked him 11th on the Baseball Prospectus 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.

Gray was also 10th overall on Jon Sickels's list and 8th on Baseball America's (top pitcher there too).

In Baseball Prospectus's 2015 top Rockies prospects list, Nick Faleris had Gray up top with a 70 overall future potential and a realistic 60 (No. 3 starter) floor:

Strengths: Workhorse build with physicality and aggressiveness on the bump; confident pounding the zone with upper-90s heater; triple-digit capable; fastball plays across quadrants; wipeout slider works in and out of zone; elite two-pitch combo with parallel plane and release; developmental focus on change piece, flashing hard fade and deception; frontline offerings so good even average changeup will miss bats and barrels; can flip script with change-of-pace curve.

Weaknesses: Changeup still lags relative fastball/slider; can struggle on both ends, implementing too firm or alternatively slowing arm and tipping; content pitching to contact and limited pitch count leave some question as to how dominant the stuff might be against top-tier bats; some stiffness in landing likely limits command ceiling.

Observing Gray in 2014 was akin to witnessing a bartender utilize a bottle of Lagavulin 16 to pour you a glass of Johnny Black -- the result was perfectly satisfying, but lacked the impact and finish you anticipated upon spying the distinctive glass. The body, control, and quality of weaponry is everything you'd expect in an elite power arm, but Colorado's conservative guidance this past summer left evaluators more reliant on projection than typical when grading out an advanced Double-A arm with loud present stuff.

Even with a focus on developing his third-best offering and pitching to contact, the former Sooner still found success, regularly inducing soft contact from Texas League bats thanks to his ability to generally live around the zone with two double-plus offerings, and it's tough to envision him failing to rack up strikeouts once permitted a slightly longer leash via pitch count and pitch selection. There is little doubt that Gray will be a valuable major-league asset, and anything shy of number three production, even in the challenging Coors environs, would come as a surprise. He should start 2015 in Triple-A, but may not face the requisite resistance to truly refine until he faces major-league lineups capable of handling his electric arsenal.

Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs also had Gray atop his Rockies prospect list, giving him a 60 Future Value grade:

Gray created tons of buzz midway through the 2013 spring coming from out of nowhere to hit 100 mph often, with a plus slider. I was lower on him than most, ranking him behind Mark Appel and Kris Bryant before the draft for a few reasons. It was new velocity we hadn't seen before and we didn't know if his body could handle (it has so far), it showed up on six days rest which would be reduced by 2 days each outing in pro ball, and if his arm speed slowed (as it does over time for every pitcher) so much of his value was tied to arm speed (his command was/is below average) that it would take all of his stuff down a notch and reduce the #1 starter upside people were putting on him.

Since signing, Gray's velocity has been down some, mostly sitting 91-94 and hitting 95 mph but Rockies sources say this is intentional and he's working on some things (they already smoothed out his delivery), which scouts assumed after Gray hit 98 mph in a short All-Star Game appearance. I think he'll settle at 92-94 with more movement and command, the slider is still plus and the changeup has its moments. Scouts are a little concerned that Gray is a below average athlete and the command still isn't quite there yet. Since the stuff is so good, that lesser command would just make him a 3/4 starter rather than a 2/3.

To summarize, the stuff Gray showed this year is reflective of an ace ceiling with a floor of a mid-rotation starter or shutdown 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 start Gray in Triple-A for a little more seasoning, with a midseason call-up hopefully in store if he proves ready. Whatever the timeline, I'm extremely excited for the Jon Gray era, and you should be too.

Quite simply, Gray is one of the top five pitching prospects in the minor leagues and is a top 20 prospect in all of baseball. Please don't screw this up, Rockies.

Contract Status: 2013 first round, not Rule 5 eligible, three options remaining

MLB ETA: 2015