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Player development (usually) comes first at rookie-level Grand Junction

The Grand Junction Rockies are development-minded, but balance is always key when the coaching staff enters the lives of their young roster.

The Grand Junction Rockies ended 2015 with a bang. But it's worth pointing out that the 2015 rookie Rockies had no resonating storyline—at least not yet.

What this summer taught fans who follow the Rockies' minor league system is that the earliest levels exist to establish a foundation that doesn't necessarily show immediate results. As much as we get wowed by how polished some of this young talent is, the point at the rookie ball level is not polish, but growth.

Harrison Musgrave and Jordan Patterson were two breakout stars among the Rockies' MiLB clubs last season, but neither had come from a massive rookie ball season in Grand Junction before they entered the higher levels. Guys like Sam Howard and Carlos Estevez have improved with every promotion as well.

The question is, who will be the next guy to join that cast? Who from the 2015 rookie Rockies will be the next Musgrave, or the next Patterson, or the next Howard—a late bloomer whose later performance belied a pedestrian turn in rookie ball.

One of the obvious candidates for optimistic Rockies fans might well be Mike Nikorak, who suffered through a very difficult season in Grand Junction. Player Development Supervisor Tony Diaz spoke to me about Nikorak's struggles, but his words were no more or less relevant to the young right-hander than to any other member of Diaz's roster.

"How can he deal with adversity? That is something that comes inside the package of playing baseball. He just happened to hit it right away."

"It's the first time under the lights, in front of fans, doing all the travel ... it's impressive how these guys have grown." -Tony Diaz

And hit adversity he did. The teenager allowed 26 hits and 32 walks in just 17⅔ innings this summer, finishing with a disappointing 0-4 record and an 11.72 ERA in eight starts.

Diaz is mindful, though, that for a lot of these players, more than half the battle is getting their bodies used to playing every day or even pitching every five days. In addition, many are away from home for the first time, or even in an entirely new country far from family and without a common language.

"You gotta put yourself in those kids' shoes. It's the first time under the lights, in front of fans, doing all the travel; when you put that all together, it's impressive how these guys have grown."

It stands to reason that a team younger than usual after a decidedly youth-driven draft would hit a few bumps. But Diaz uses the example of third baseman Tyler Nevin to show how numbers can be so deceiving at this level.

"Nevin is a kid out of high school who doesn't strike out," Diaz said. "That contact is sexy. He's got room to add 40 pounds of muscle. I see his qualities in good hitters. So even though the power numbers aren't there and the average stuck around .270, you have to keep an eye on him."

But that isn't to say that nobody in Grand Junction had eye-opening performances in 2015.

"With Daniel Suero I see maybe a Gregor Blanco type," said Diaz. "And Jonathan Piron is intriguing because he can play both short and second with a plus arm, and his speed got better as the season went on. He's left-handed with gap-to-gap and occasional home run power."

Suero hit. .308 on the year, but a lack of slugging dropped his wRC+ to 91. Piron finished with a .312 batting average and a 118 wRC+ with the help of 11 home runs. The pair of foreign born players were matched by a pair of Americans taken deep in the 2015 draft: Collin Ferguson and Sam Hilliard.

"That group has been impressive," Diaz said. "You look at where we picked Hilliard and Ferguson in the draft (15th and 17th rounds, respectively) and those guys aren't only college players. They have tools as well. The raw power and athleticism is there. Those guys are definitely some type of prospects. Same with Suero and Piron."

Hilliard finished the season with a 134 wRC+ and Ferguson finished with an astonishing 171 wRC+.

Suero, Piron, Hilliard, and Ferguson put on a show for the fans each day. But the latter two put on a different kind of show during the final weekend of the season. I won't forget it.

★ ★ ★

I wandered along the edge of the dirt and the infield grass and leaned against the railing of the home team's dugout at Suplizio Field. Batting practice was wrapping up. The infielders took their final ground-balls and left their positions but did not depart the field. They joined Brendan Rodgers behind home plate. The protective cage remained in place.

Teammates needled Rodgers about being on the bench so much—an attack levied against highly paid talent in many such circumstances would have felt biting, or at least awkward, if not for the clear fact that it was a good-natured jest and out of respect for one of the Rockies' best young prospects.

But why was everyone sticking around? I watched 6'5" Sam Hilliard stride to the plate, bat in hand, while fellow 6'3" behemoth Colin Ferguson stood in the on-deck circle, and manager Tony Sanders waited with a bucket of balls behind an "L" screen in front of the pitcher's mound.

Are they going to do what I think they are?

Yes. Yes, they are.

I've never seen a home run derby in real life before, and here I was standing on the field while these two sluggers knocked out 18 home runs a piece in five-minute rounds. Both guys had streaks of five or more in a row.

Hunter Brothers grabbed ahold of the stadium mic and called the whole thing with flair and humor, entertaining everyone in the house—which was mostly just the players, coaches, team personnel, and Hilliard's mom. Ferguson won in overtime, but both young men earned a standing ovation from everyone who was lucky enough to witness it.

They stood for this picture just moments after:


Development is the name of the game, especially in rookie ball—but there's a balance to be struck when you work with teenagers and young adults. Through all the competition, hard work, and determination, it was nice to step back and remember that his is all supposed to be fun. It was a day that reminded me of all that is pleasant in the game of baseball.

★ ★ ★

The next game was the final one of the season. A cool and crisp autumn evening was the perfect setting for the perfect ending to an imperfect season. Something special happened then:

Each man on the roster took the field and welcomed his host family in a line that stretched from home plate to the right field foul pole.

After the game, every player on the team—every single one—took his place seated behind a row of autograph tables that extended from the clubhouse to the concession stand. And the fans lined up to greet them, get autographs, pose for pictures and remember the season that they were all welcomed into the family of professional baseball:


While the Grand Junction Rockies 2015 season ended with a bang, really, it ended with smiles and hugs and stories and that bittersweet sadness that comes when something is over.

Parting is as inevitable as it is sweet sorrow, but it can be a song that vibes in your soul forever if you end on the right note, like home-run champion Colin Ferguson and the rookie Rockies did in 2015: