By the time the 2016 season starts, the Colorado Rockies may very well have a farm system that is ranked among baseball's top five -- or higher -- by every major publication.
Losing a lot goes a long way toward helping an organization accomplish that feat. After all, dropping an average of 93 games per season over the last five years results in an awful lot of high draft picks. But the Rockies have largely made the most of those selections, and it doesn't hurt that they've turned a corner in terms of developing those players into legitimate prospects.
In the past, the word "pigeonholing" has been used to describe the Rockies' development philosophy, particularly with pitchers. That has changed over the years, director of player development Zach Wilson told Purple Row in a recent conversation.
"Until you actually get your hands on a player and live with him and start to understand who he is, what makes him tick, what motivates him and what inspires him, you never really know what you’re getting," Wilson explained. "So one thing that we’ve done a very good job of is starting to learn -- and understand -- what all those things are in each of our individual players."
A great example of that is right-handed pitcher Antonio Senzatela, who entered 2015 certainly as a name to keep an eye on but finished the season on just about everyone's radar. Senzatela posted a 2.51 ERA (3.56 FIP) in 154 innings as a 20-year-old at High-A Modesto. His success was driven by an increased ability to miss bats while still displaying plus command.
"We introduced a slider to Antonio last year at this time and he was able to take to that very, very quickly," Wilson said. "From the first slider he threw, he had a very good feel for the grip and for how to release and manipulate his hand out front."
Senzatela used the pitch -- one described by Wilson as "deadly" -- to improve his strikeout rate from 5.5 K/9 to 8.4 K/9. All the while, the young starter continued to limit walks.
"Antonio has always been about fastball command," Wilson quipped. "And it improves with every outing."
Noticing the need for Senzatela to add a wipeout secondary pitch is one of many positive results of the Rockies' efforts to look at players more on an individual basis.
"We have had our eye on certain goals, and we’ve paid much more attention to those," Wilson said. "When you pay attention to what you want to get out of something, you get the results you’re looking for."
"There was an increased focus, sensitivity and attention to detail in some of those [development] areas," Wilson added.
It's not just the area of recognizing physical changes that the Rockies' player development folks are experiencing success. Sometimes, focusing on what a player does well -- as opposed to tinkering with what he doesn't -- can have a positive impact.
"When you can start to really grind away at a player's tangibles -- and intangibles -- and really drill down to very specific things and pay attention to detail as coaches and staff members while getting to know a player inside and out, I think you have a much better chance of molding that player into a winning, impactful and sustainable major league player," Wilson said.
Enter Raimel Tapia.
A polarizing figure among scouts and prospect analysts, Tapia used an aggressive approach at the plate to post a .305/.333/.467 line (112 wRC+) in 593 plate appearances in his age 21 season at Modesto. Tapia, widely considered a top 100 prospect in all of baseball, is now honing his craft against advanced competition in the Arizona Fall League.
"I think he will be better than just a good hitter at the major league level," Wilson said with a tinge of excitement. Wilson noted Tapia's brand of high-energy play in the field as a plus characteristic, but it's the things he does at the plate that has the organization -- and the scouts that are high on the young outfielder -- dreaming of big things at the highest level.
"It doesn’t matter who’s on the mound; he’s out there to beat you down, to wear you down and to get a hit off of you," Wilson said. "He has great hand-eye coordination and the ability to manipulate the barrel head, and when you add it all up, that creates a very good chance for a special major league hitter."
Tapia walked in just 4 percent of his plate appearances and some scouts have concerns that his unorthodox two-strike approach won't work at the next level, but the Rockies are all-in on Tapia's ability to simply hit the baseball, and they're allowing him to showcase it.
That sort of patience is also being shown with Ryan McMahon, a 20-year-old third baseman who has the best power of any prospect in the organization. He hit .300/.372/.520 (141 wRC+) with 18 homers at Modesto, cementing his legitimacy as a top prospect and prompting questions about whether the Rockies should consider moving him off of third base due to the presence of Nolan Arenado in the majors.
The Rockies have fallen for that line of thinking before, but under Wilson's watch, it's a thing of the past.
"You really make sure that everything you’re doing for Ryan McMahon is the right thing for Ryan McMahon at the end of the day," Wilson stressed. "You can’t, certainly not this early, start saying 'we’ve got this guy here and this guy here' … no. You take Ryan McMahon for what he is and you make him the absolute best that he can be. That’s what we’ll continue to do with him -- at third base."
Though he made 39 errors at the hot corner in 2015, McMahon's glove is regarded as above average. And speaking of Arenado? Wilson sees some things in common with the two players.
"Ryan right now is a third baseman and will remain a third baseman because his glove is, in many ways, similar to Nolan’s," Wilson said. "Nolan is one of the best of all-time, if not the best of all-time, so I can’t sit here and say that Ryan McMahon is going to be Nolan Arenado at third base, but he is a plus defender, even with the errors he had."
Wilson brought up the minor league careers of Arenado and Derek Jeter, who made 56 errors in the South Atlantic League in 1993, as reasons why he's not concerned with McMahon's error total. At any rate, it's too soon to consider a position change, Wilson said, and that will likely continue to be the case -- even when McMahon is ready for The Show.
"I’m hopeful that Nolan Arenado is going to be the third baseman for the Colorado Rockies for a long, long, long time," Wilson said. "If that happens, Ryan is going to find his way to the big leagues and his bat will play anywhere."
"As the old saying goes, if you can hit, they’re going to find a spot for you," Wilson added.
With all of the Rockies' player development successes in recent years, injuries have still been a problem among the upper-echelon prospects in the system. David Dahl, Kyle Freeland, Forrest Wall and Tyler Anderson all missed significant time with various ailments in 2015.
Dahl's situation was the most critical. Colorado's top position prospect in a May collision suffered a spleen injury that eventually led to Dahl's decision to have the organ removed. The timing was as poor as the injury was serious.
"The most disappointing part about the injury, outside of ‘that’s no fun,’ is that it happened right as he was really starting to get going," Wilson said. When the collision occurred, Dahl was in the midst of a strong May during which he was hitting .307/.320/.436 after a slow start.
Given his situation, that Dahl finished with a .278/.304/.417 line (106 wRC+) was nothing short of impressive -- and telling for his future, according to Wilson.
"I don’t think David Dahl is very far off from putting it all together," Wilson said. "I think that we have to remember that David is very young, especially for his level. Does he have work to do? Absolutely. But does he have the skills and the mentality to be an All-Star? Without a question."
Freeland and Wall both received considerable playing time despite their injuries, and both experienced an up-and-down season. Anderson, however, didn't make a single appearance in 2015 while recovering from an elbow injury. It was an unfortunate situation for Anderson, who has pitched extremely well when healthy -- a status that unfortunately doesn't apply to him often.
Still, the 25-year-old left-hander could factor in the Rockies' plans sooner rather than later.
"His progression is actually going pretty much exactly how we envisioned," Wilson said. "He’s down here in Scottsdale with the rest of the instructional league group. He’s playing catch, throwing flat grounds and he’s very close to getting back on the mound to throw bullpens."
Anderson posted a 1.98 ERA in 118 innings while striking out 8.1 batters per nine innings at Tulsa in 2014. He's a polished pitcher who would likely give the Rockies similar production -- right now -- to what they're getting from back-end types like Chris Rusin.
He just has to prove he's healthy first.
"I have no doubt that [Anderson] is going to make a complete recovery and be fully ready to go for spring training in 2016," Wilson said. "At that point, it’s going to be up to Tyler. It’s been a while since he’s pitched in games so there’s going to be some rust he’ll have to shake off, but the positive is that his health is coming along very, very nicely and he’s going to be ready to pitch very soon."
Even if Anderson does find his way to Denver next season, there's always the question of whether he'll be a good fit for Coors Field. The 2011 first-round draft pick relies on generating weak contact and a fastball-slider combination that must be commanded well to be successful.
Jon Gray, the Rockies' top pitching prospect who made his major league debut in 2015, has a similar arsenal (though with better velocity). Gray's overall numbers were hurt by his performance at 20th and Blake, where he posted an 8.27 ERA in five starts. Much of Gray's results at Coors Field had to do with poor luck, as Eric Garcia McKinley outlined toward the end of the season. The Rockies have their own way of making sure the 2013 No. 3 overall draft pick -- and every other pitcher in the organization -- is aware of that.
"We don’t talk about Coors Field," Wilson said. "Talking about Coors Field is redundant. I don’t care where you pitch; if you don’t have toughness, fearlessness and competitive desire, you’re not going to succeed."
As the Rockies continue to stockpile young pitchers, such as the trio -- Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco -- acquired in the Troy Tulowitzki trade, their player development team will have to continue to stress that. History shows that if the Rockies are going to have on-field success, it's going to have to be on the strength of a consistently good and reasonably deep pitching staff.
The good news is that they're getting there. Wilson and his team have done a good job of upgrading the talent throughout the organization. That's apparent to just about everyone who follows player development.
"It’s an absolute honor and it’s very humbling to be ranked among the top farm systems in all of baseball but I think one of the reasons we’re able to do that is because our staff is not focused on that," Wilson said. "The goal here wasn’t to become a top five farm system. The goal was to take every player and maximize their potential and make them all they could be — as players, as leaders, as winners."
"I think when you’re focused on that, a result like being ranked where we’re at all across baseball kind of just happens," Wilson added. "It’s an honor to be included in those rankings where we are, but our focus remains the same."