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Grand Junction Rockies creating something special in player development

Tony Diaz, Ryan Kibler, and the rest of the on-field staff with the Grand Junction Rockies spent 2015 preparing what might be a very special group of prospects.

Something special brews in Grand Junction, Colorado, where the rookie Rockies roam. Fine microbreweries and world-famous vineyards line the valley walls and riverbanks. The area grows peaches and apricots, and houses the renowned Enstrom's Candy. (Their toffee is to die for, by the way.)

And going on four years now, the community has grown professional baseball players, as well.

Since their move prior to the 2012 season from Wyoming, the Grand Junction Rockies have seen no shortage of headlines, from inspiring professional debuts of first-round draft picks like David Dahl, Jon Gray, and Kyle Freeland, to exhilarating breakout performances from players like Raimel Tapia and Kevin Padlo.

The 2015 season saw both types of debuts, including Brendan Rodgers, and several other noteworthy performances, but it was still... different.

Rodgers played very little, partially due to fatigue, partially to nagging-but-not-serious injuries, and the club wisely decided to be patient with his progress. The Rockies' other highly touted pick, Mike Nikorak, had a very difficult debut in professional baseball. The team, which had quickly become accustomed to playoff berths, missed the Pioneer League postseason by a wide margin, ending their season prematurely.

But even through the unique struggles of 2015, which were distinct from any other year I've covered this club — in both individual performances and team play — a palpable feeling hangs in the air that something special is brewing in Grand Junction, Colorado.

In the winter before the 2015 season, there was some ... shifting ... in the organization, but the Grand Junction staff remained intact. My guess is that it has something to do with the fantastic job they've done.

So while a new set of players rightfully will again be our focus at the rookie level next summer, the road to what is quickly becoming a consensus top-five farm system across baseball continues to start with Tony Diaz, Anthony Sanders, Ryan Kibler, Lee Stevens, and the rest of the crew on the Western Slope.

★★★

The Rockies' highest of two first-round picks in 2015, Brendan Rodgers drew attention in Grand Junction from his first day off the plane this summer. And yet, according to Stevens, the GJ Rockies' hitting coach, that never phased the top prospect.

"He has a very polished approach for a high school kid," Stevens said. "He's a strong kid, it's going to be exciting to see where he is a few years down the line."

And "down the line" is where Rogers' baseball acumen speaks for itself. His sample size was simply far too small to be worthy of much discussion. As was reported earlier this year, though, there is another notable aspect to Rogers' inaugural season: he is learning to speak Spanish.

Tony Diaz, who often serves as ambassador and translator in addition to being the Developmental Supervisor for the rookie team, spoke about what it means that Rogers is taking such mature steps so early in his career.

"One of the things that has really impressed us with him is the relatability with everybody on the team. He gets along with everyone. He hangs out with the Latin players. He's picked up a lot of Spanish already. It's definitely a tribute to the kind of teammate he is," said Diaz.

"On the field, he's definitely got the bat speed and the approach to do a lot of damage. Action-wise he can stay at short, we will see how his body holds up and develops."

Rodgers' strong relationship with his teammates has been an indelible part of his story ever since the day he was drafted last June, when he famously waited around to see who the Rockies took later in the first round. When Nikorak's name was called, the pair became the only teammates to share the stage on draft day. Shaking hands in their brand new Colorado Rockies jerseys, Rodgers and Nikorak began their journey together.

"We got the chance to meet each other, hang out a bit, walk around Denver, help ourselves get acclimated a bit," said Nikorak.

As the Rockies expected, though, neither one saw much playing time in Grand Junction, easing into professional baseball after grueling high school seasons the previous spring. Instead, each gave way to a trio of pitchers and a fearsome foursome of position players who stole the show right up to the final moment of the season.

★★★

Peter Lambert — who looks every bit of a fresh-faced kid born in 1997 and not a day older — may as well be re-named "Mr. Polished." I've never heard that word describe the same person so many different times in my life without it being prompted.

"Lambert is the most polished," Diaz volunteered, unsolicited. (I told you!)

"He's the guy who has been exposed the most. He pitched on team USA and he's a California kid too, he has pitched in big games. The stuff and the pitch-ability that he displayed this year is pretty impressive."

Ryan Kibler, Grand Junction's pitching coach, was quick to echo both the sentiment and that exact word.

"He's the most polished 18-year old I have seen in a long time," Kibler told me.

"He obviously got some really good coaching and he has a good idea on how to pitch. He knows what he wants to do and he goes out there and executes it. The pitchability and stuff combination that this guy has is far, far, beyond his years. It's fun to watch him pitch. He's a competitor, he wants it bad, you can see it in his body language, you can see it in his face, you can see it in his intent. Very, very advanced for an 18-year old."

Lambert posted 7.41 K/9 in 31.1 IP in 2015, with a 3.45 ERA. He walked only 11 batters.

While those numbers are solid, they somehow pale in comparison to what his teammate — and lone college-aged pitcher of the group — Parker French accomplished in his pro debut.

In 48.1 IP, French walked only two (yes, two) batters while striking out 36. His BB/9 ratio was 0.37. Both walks came in the same outing, ironically, meaning that French threw 43.1 innings over the course of nine games without walking a soul. It'd be difficult to do that in a video game, let alone professional baseball.

"French... this guy can pitch. His stuff is not just marginal either," Diaz said.

"The movement on his sinker, the change-up is developing, and the competitiveness is there. When you put all that together with his intangibles and he's a strike throwing machine, there is a lot to like."

Speaking of a lot to like, 19-year old Mexican-born pitcher Javier Medina may not have ended up with the ERA he would have liked (6.82), but that was in large part due to an August 7th outing where he gave up ten runs while recording just seven outs. Even in spite of disappointing final numbers, Medina still managed to impress teammates and coaches alike, especially with his off-speed stuff.

"He's got [breaking stuff] and since he's been here he has changed speeds very well," said Kibler who admitted that if Medina stuck to that, his numbers might look better.

"He's not shying away from his fastball. He's another kid that listens very well. He understands the importance of throwing the fastball to make your other stuff better. He is focusing on throwing it low on the inside of the plate and the outside of the plate. He changes speeds with the best of them. His recognition of the result and the kinds of swings he is getting from the hitters is well beyond his 18 years."

Diaz agreed.

"Medina is another guy who is getting used to pro ball," he said. "He sat out for a long time, so his arm is in the process of getting used to the rigors. We didn't see the best of Medina."

Above all, and playoff disappointment aside, the name of the game in Grand Junction is player development — and that development comes at a very formative point in these young players' careers.

Kibler, for one, is encouraged by what he saw happen in 2015.

"I'm very happy," said Kibler, beaming with pride when discussing his pitching staff.

"This is a lot of fun. It's really exciting to go out and watch these guys pitch every night. I had [Zach] Jemiola as an 18-year old, but to have four of them here is a different experience. Watching them feed off of each other, watching the internal competition that hopefully they can keep up for several years — and they've already started — has been special."

Give Rodgers and these young arms another few years of development to allow that internal competition to bloom, and it may not just be wine and apricots the Western Slope is best known for producing. For Kibler, Diaz, and the staff in Grand Junction, producing a polished set of professional baseball players would be the best legacy to leave upon the city and the Rockies' organization.

Editor's note: Drew will have more from Grand Junction's 2015 season in the second portion of this interview, coming soon.