One seemingly little-known fact about the Colorado Rockies is that they are the only team in Major League Baseball that does not house a Rookie-ball team at its spring training facility.
All 29 other teams have one of these instructional teams. There are 14 of them in the Arizona League and 16 in the Gulf Coast League (the New York Yankees have two such teams). It's hard to know what the actual positives and negatives, if any, are to these instructional-type squads, but one thing is apparent: perhaps the Rockies could use a change of pace, considering player development -- particularly with pitchers -- hasn't been a strength.
Colorado hasn't fielded an Arizona League team since 2000. The club relocated its Rookie-level operations to Casper, Wyo., the following season before eventually moving to Grand Junction -- a team owned by Rockies CEO and chairman Dick Monfort -- in 2012. There are currently no plans for the team to rejoin the AZL, neither to serve as a replacement for Grand Junction nor as an additional Rookie-level club.
"There are benefits and advantages to having that, but there are also benefits and advantages to not having it," Rockies director of player development Zach Wilson said in a recent conversation with Purple Row. One of the definite advantages to not fielding a complex league team, according to Wilson, is a better competitive environment elsewhere.
"When you have certain guys at Grand Junction whose results and stat lines aren’t what some people — not me — are hoping for, I think it’s easy to say, 'Well, that player might work out better in their first year if there was a complex league team,'" Wilson explained. "I’m not sure that’s necessarily true because there’s so much growth that can be done through adversity, struggle and having to grow up fairly quickly."
Just this season, having high school players debut in Grand Junction brought mixed results for the Rockies. On one end of the spectrum was No. 28 overall draft pick Mike Nikorak, who struggled to the tune of an 11.72 ERA with an astounding 32 walks in 17⅔ innings. But Tyler Nevin, a fellow first-round pick in 2015, thrived in his first professional season despite honing his craft in a higher-pressure environment than what he might have seen in the Arizona League.
"For a high school player, he has an advanced approach," Wilson said of Nevin, who finished as a league-average hitter in the Pioneer circuit but posted an impressive 13 percent walk rate. "He’s going to get bigger and stronger as he continues to grow, mature and train the Rockies way, and he's got natural hand-eye coordination and natural ability to hit."
"Four or five years from now, he’ll have a chance to be a really good major league player," Wilson added.
In either case, Wilson doesn't really care about the stat lines posted by Nikorak, Nevin or No. 3 overall pick Brendan Rodgers, whose debut -- .273/.340/.420, 95 wRC+ -- was solid but not spectacular. But the real question is, would those players and others do better in the earlier stages of their development in a complex league as opposed to with Grand Junction, where they're tasked with the additional responsibilities and distractions?
Wilson doesn't believe so.
"There’s really no fans [at the complexes] outside of family members," Wilson said. "So, you’re trying to compete and better yourself and get the juices flowing without a whole lot of fanfare or attention, or the best competitive atmosphere being there for you."
That doesn't mean the Rockies might not one day consider joining the rest of the league.
"We’re always evaluating how we can get better in every way," Wilson quipped. "We’ve looked at both scenarios, and for right now, I think we’re in a pretty good place. Could that change over the course of time? Absolutely."
"As I said, things evolve as times change and as the years progress and as more ideas and creativity and flexibility come into play," he added. "Are we forever going to be without a complex league team? I don’t know. We try to weigh that every year and come to the best conclusion for the organization and its players."