The Colorado Rockies have never been known for their pitching.
But there is a belief -- albeit not a widely held belief, but a belief of substance -- that we may be on the verge of a wave of young and talented arms attached to young and talented men that maybe, just maybe, could change all that.
The first of this influx of talent is Eddie Butler.
He has still only started 12 games in his MLB career. In a total of 59 innings, most of them against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he has a 4.60 ERA.
The redhead from Radford (46th overall pick in 2012) is still at a beginning -- though not the beginning -- of a career that has its roots in the cold Virginia town of Chesapeake and with branches that stretch to the great coasts of America, deep into the fields of Oklahoma, and across a grand valley in the western desert of Colorado.
"I spent it all on my family"
"I spent it all on my family," says Butler of his draft bonus. Friends and family are a common theme as we reminisce about his journey through the minors; a journey that began in my hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado.
"I knew I would have a great opportunity [with the Rockies] and I came out to Rookie ball in Grand Junction excited. I like the little town. They have a great little downtown area."
I may or may not have a certain mother who will assuredly smile at the remark about downtown GJ. Attractions like the historic downtown district (thanks, mom!) and a newly renovated Sam Suplizio Field (home of JUCO) are what landed the town a Rookie-level team in the valley. Butler's first year of professional baseball in the Rockies organization was also Grand Junction's.
"The ballpark is sick. When you think about rookie ball you don't think about a nice ballpark, so that was great. The town was awesome, I had a great host family, it was just a lot of fun."
And it wasn't just ceremonial smiles, ribbon cuttings, and pomp and circumstance. That team was good.
"I had a good season," remembers Butler. "Guys are anxious hitters there. They're all fresh into it and they are wanting to do big things as well so I was able to take advantage of that."
Butler torched rookie ball. He threw 67 ⅔ innings, posting a 2.13 ERA and striking out 7.32 hitter per nine while walking only 1.73. He started 13 games and won seven of them, losing only one. And he was not alone in his stellar performance.
"David Dahl obviously had a good year," he added, "And lots of other guys had good years. We went to the playoffs -- Scott Oberg was the closer -- there are too many guys to mention, I mean ... the quality of talent. There are guys that we'll see here in the next couple of years probably making their way up to the team as well."
A lurking specter has been emerging from beneath the surface since that fateful 2012 season in Grand Junction -- the rookies are coming, the rookies are coming.
The next year would see Butler jump quickly from Asheville to Modesto, which sent a clear signal that he was beginning to separate himself from the competition.
"I was living with another great host family in Asheville, and they real took good care of me."
Seriously, can this guy stop being grateful for one second? I'm trying to talk about how awesome he was in the minors. Sheesh.
In 54 ⅓ innings for the Tourists, Butler posted a disturbing 1.66 ERA, to go with 8.45 strikeouts per nine innings. The impressiveness of such a feat only grows when you consider half his games were played in the hitter-friendly (and recently re-finished) confines of McCormick Field.
Although Butler remembers the state of the playing surface, "they had just resurfaced it so it was not friendly," he says, it was the magnificent history of the place that most enamored young Eddie.
"It was so cool to think about all the guys who had played there. It's been there for over 100 years. To see that Babe Ruth played there and some of the biggest names in baseball -- the gods of baseball played there -- that was pretty cool."
Also "pretty cool" was a well-earned promotion to Modesto, where Butler continued to impress, putting up a 2.39 ERA in 62 ⅔ innings and even slightly increasing his strikeout rate.
"Modesto's a little different ... it's a crazy park. It was fun, though, getting to play with all the guys. Most of us moved up to Double-A together the next year -- spent a lot of time with them. That's a fun group of guys."
Make no mistake about it; regardless of your level of faith in the crop of young talent the Rockies have coalescing on the farm, they believe in each other.
"I definitely keep up with some of the guys, see where they're at and how they are going. I know Dahl has starting heating up lately, so that's good to see. He's a quality hitter. I watch Zach Jemiola, one of the guys I made a pretty good friendship with, he's been throwing pretty well lately. I love that guy."
(Note: This was all written before the terrible injury sustained by No. 2 PuRP David Dahl. While that is certainly a set-back for the system, I personally expect it to be a small one in the grand scheme. He'll be back.)
After our interview, Butler spoke at length about how much fun it has been for him to play with good people. He knows how corny it can sound and how eye-roll worthy it may be in a business-minded profession where winning results are the bottom line, but he for one is grateful that the Rockies care about character.
It's a thousand times easier to handle the daily grind of a baseball season when your companions make the journey better and not worse.
But in the Rockies' MLB clubhouse, Butler finds himself preaching not the character but the baseball ability of his former and soon-to-be teammates.
"These guys have a lot of talent and it'll be good for the big league club in a couple of years when all these guys really start making a push into the league and really start making an impact."
And there is one area -- one distinctly raised piece of ground on the field -- in which the Rockies desperately need some impact players. The Colorado Rockies have never been known for their pitching, you know.
Butler's first foray into Double-A baseball was our first glimpse into the new future.
"I think it was set up for me to go in there and succeed. I was only going five innings every start, so I would just go in there and challenge myself, see how few pitches I could throw in the five innings. It was set up for me to have success. I'm not going through the lineup three times, I'm not working deep into games."
In 108 innings he posted a 3.58 ERA as a part of a mega-rotation that struck fear into the Texas League.
"Last year was tough on guys. Me, Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, Richard Castillo, Dan Winkler ... it was brutal on guys. We had some of the best pitching there was in that league. Unfortunately we didn't end up with that championship, but we played well."
In fact, Butler would see the playoffs in every year of his minor league career, always narrowly missing winning it all by a year in one direction or the other.
"So close," he laughs, "But that's good for the guys that are winning championships and that's good for the organization. It shows that we do have a strong farm system and these guys when they make it up with us could be special."
Eddie Butler has seen the future. And he has a scouting report on it that he doesn't mind sharing with his MLB teammates who haven't seen it first hand.
His report concur's with the consensus set by Baseball America (8th), Baseball Prospectus (9th), ESPN's Keith Law (8th), Minor League Ball (9th), The Sporting News (4th), Bleacher Report (9th) and the general attitude here at Purple Row: the Rockies have a Top 10 system that is as deep as it has ever been.
For a great visual, check out this graph done by Doug Gray at RedsMinorLeagues.com, which uses Fangraph's rankings of the Top 200 prospects in baseball:
Oh, and in the upcoming June draft, the Rockies have four of the first 44 picks. It's a fun time to be on the farm.
"We're going to be a different club"
Eddie Butler's major league debut came against (who else?) the Dodgers at Coors Field on June 6th, 2014. That first start contained all the primary elements the season for Butler: some bad luck, some poor execution, and he sustained an injury that came to define his year.
"It was ... it was a little shaky," he laughed about the season in general.
After the shoulder injury, his shakiness followed him back down into the minors and then right back up to the majors. It seemed he was never himself after those first five innings in June all the way until spring training, 2015.
"Yeah, that's about right," he says. "It's frustrating. I did a lot of work trying to get back, trying to get strong and healthy, so I just pretty much fatigued myself. I put so much work in, in trying to get strong, that when the end of the season came and I was finally able to take some time and rest, that's what my body really needed at that point."
Baseball is a marathon sport, which can be agonizing when you are working every day just to get back. Patience is a virtue that does not come easily to the highly-competitive.
But the wait is over, and it feels good to be back, setting out on a real rookie campaign.
"I had a pretty good spring training and I feel like I'm throwing it fairly well up here, I just gotta limit a few things here and there and we'll turn it into a good season."
His struggles in the early going have been well and loudly articulated in various mediums and his shortcomings thus far are well known. The first step to solving a problem is identifying it, and I think Butler's self-proclaimed number one goal for development this season is a spot-on assessment of what needs fixed and how he needs to grow.
"My goal is still attacking guys. That's where I've struggled this year: getting behind in counts, walking guys, putting myself in trouble -- that's a big concern that we've been working on in the bullpens and I'm trying to challenge myself again like I was in Double-A. Let's throw as few pitches as possible, let's attack guys, let's make them get themselves out early. That's the big goal right now is for me to get back into the strike zone and force these guys to swing it."
Another thing that might help: facing a different lineup every once in a while. I ask if he knows that half his starts (at the time of our conversation) have been against the Dodgers:
"I do, I do ... yeah ... it's gonna be nice to see something other than stupid Dodger blue."
Such is the life of a young pitcher in a long season. More than any other position on the diamond, you are judged by results in small sample sizes, though it may just be that the team itself was the victim of such thinking near the end of an 11-game losing streak earlier this season.
"Our first ten games we really played well, we were clicking. Obviously we went on a lull [after that] so we just need to avoid the roller-coaster and start playing consistently. We played well in LA, all the games were close, no blowouts, we were fighting, we were right there, and that's what we want. It was a tough little stretch to have that losing streak against you divisional opponents ... "
At this point I reminded him that there are still plenty of games on the docket against the NL West.
"And next time, we're going to be a different club."
With how young the pitchers on this team are, especially if you include Anderson, Freeland, and Gray -- and for how vital quality pitching is toward winning -- it is easy to see how this team could experience a quick turn-around, and near impossible to tell when it will come.
Matt Gross recently detailed this possibility in specific reference to eight young pitchers in the organization in an article on Purple Row. He highlighted Butler, Tyler Matzek, Gray, Jordan Lyles, Tyler Chatwood, Anderson, Freeland, and Chad Bettis. And although he is a bit older, you could also include David Hale.
There's no way to tell where this group of eight guys [nine with Hale] is going to be in their development a year from now. So far the results have been disappointing from this group (Matzek's loss of the strike zone chief among them), but it's way, way too early to draw any major conclusions here. With young pitchers, things can change for better or worse, really, really quick, and as long as the story of these eight are still being written, I'll continue to leave open the possibility of things turning around pretty fast at one point. Young pitching is extremely volatile, but if the Rockies can even hit on three of these guys, their fortunes should turn sharply in the next 18 months. If they all bust, yeah, then we would have a big problem.
"I think we're finally starting to figure it out," says Butler. "KK (Kyle Kendrick) had two really good outings in a row (now three) De La -- I mean that game he threw in LA was phenomenal, so I mean for me to not go two and two thirds would be great!"
Butler recognizes his role in all this, not just down the line but in this moment, today.
"That's what our team needs right now, our bullpen has been stretched a little bit, plus with all the rain-outs they've been picking up a lot of innings. So we just need our starters to start going deep. We start having quality outings, this team is going to be really, really good."
He may be onto something there. When the Rockies get quality starts from their rotation, they are 9-4. The good news: That's an excellent and encouraging record, especially considering the limited offensive output the team has gotten from it's stars and the likelihood that this will change. The bad news: That's far too few (13) quality starts for a team that has played 46 games.
The more quality starts Butler can log -- and he is still hunting his first -- the better it will be for both him and the Rockies. And the further we go down that road, the more a promising future he has seen with his own eyes will come into view for the rest of us.
The rookies are coming. The Rockies are coming.