Much within the Rockies farm system changed last fall, and tucked beneath the headlines of new Triple-A and Double-A affiliations was the franchise's eastward movement of its Short-Season-A club. The Rockies' Northwest League presence shifts to the Boise Hawks in 2015 after a 14-year stint with the Tri-City Dust Devils. The move marks a departure from the far-flung pastures of Pasco, Wash., to the land of direct-from-Denver flights and the semi-urban civilization of Idaho's capital city.
The Hawks may have a modest existence in the area (something something blue turf), but their fans are no strangers to top-level talent. Highly touted Chicago Cubs prospects Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber have been through town in the previous two seasons respectively, and the local buzz was definitely felt with the Rockies No. 3 overall pick in last week's draft.
In addition to the affiliate change, a new ownership group has helped usher in some much needed improvements to the facilities in Boise. While Memorial Stadium may still be a relic of late-80s budget Minor League Baseball, at least the paint is fresh.
Leading the club is first-year manager Frank Gonzales. Gonzales comes over with the organization from Tri-City, where he served as pitching coach last season. Gonzales previously had a lengthy minor league career after being drafted out of Colorado State in 1989. His son, Marco Gonzales, is currently the No. 2 prospect in the Cardinals organization. Gonzales is joined by pitching coach and five-time MLB All-Star, Doug Jones, and hitting coach Andy Gonzalez.
Though season outcome and team performance at this level is negligible in the grand scheme of things, Gonzales has gone on the record touting an exciting, fast-paced team with plans to intimidate on the basepaths. He also noted that there will be baserunning mistakes early on, because, well ... it's short-A ball. Overall, Gonzales appears to be really excited about his first season at the helm, and naturally that excitement should spill over onto the field.
While there was some local chatter around No. 3 overall pick Brendan Rodgers starting his pro career in Boise, all indications say he'll be getting his first cuts in Grand Junction. This allows for shortstop Max George, who batted .301 with a .433 OBP last season in GJ, to continue his progression, likely sharing starting time with new addition Carlos Herrera.
Herrera, an 18-year-old from Caracas, Venezuela, started this season hot in the Dominican Summer League, batting .340 in 12 games. Herrera was considered the No. 11 international prospect at the time of his signing in 2013. The word "smooth" gets tossed around a lot with Herrera and he appears to fit the bill as a naturally talented, speedy middle infielder.
Kevin Padlo will resume competitive play after a worse-than-expected start to the season in Asheville. Padlo turned heads last year in Grand Junction, batting .300 with 8 HR as a previously untouted 17-year-old. Padlo hit .145 in 27 games in Low-A before being dispatched to extended spring training last month.
Hamlet Marte makes the jump from Grand Junction to Boise after emerging as one of the top catching prospects in his age group. In his first year stateside, Marte hit .329/.404/.509, showing surprising growth from his previous numbers in the DSL.
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline going into opening night is that of Tyler Matzek. Matzek's well documented control struggles have landed him in Boise for a fresh start. Matzek, who has reportedly embraced some mechanical and mental adjustments, is expected to stay with the club for the first few weeks of the season.
Rehab assignments were undoubtedly a contributing factor in the Rockies' decision to sign on with Boise. The Hawks are the furthest east outpost in the Northwest League by nearly 300 miles and there are a number of daily direct flights from Denver. Having three affiliated teams within a two-hour plane ride is a welcome advantage in both rehabilitation and player development.
Those hoping to listen to Hawks baseball this season will have to work a little harder than in seasons past. It was announced in January that the team had terminated the contract of long-time play-by-play announcer Mike Safford. Following this news, word came down that the Hawks would cease radio broadcast operations in lieu of affording further stadium improvements and staff—a contentious topic locally. This means, as of now, the only way to catch Hawks baseball outside of the stadium is via the opposing team's live stream.
The Hawks kick off the 2015 season on Thursday at home against Tri-City, now affiliated with the San Diego Padres. Gonzales has yet to name a starter.