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Rockies prospect rankings: No. 5 Kyle Freeland back on the fast track after long layoff

After early season elbow surgery, Freeland looks like the dominant pitcher we saw in 2014.

PuRP No. 5: Kyle Freeland (920 points, 37 ballots) | Winter 2014 Ranking: 4 | High Ballot 3, Mode Ballot 5

It's been a tough season for Kyle Freeland, Colorado's first round pick in 2014 (eighth overall). Expected to move quickly through the system, the University of Evansville (and Denver's Thomas Jefferson High School) product instead lost time this year, first to shoulder fatigue and then to surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

These setbacks have limited the 22-year-old lefty to just 23 innings this year (starting in late July), though Freeland certainly has maximized those innings. Combined with his minimal workload last year, Freeland has a professional ERA of 1.02 and 0.97 WHIP in 62 innings pitched over three levels.

It shouldn't be too surprising that Freeland has had this kind of success to date. After all, his high first round draft pedigree (and the $2.3 million signing bonus) and college experience leads to certain expectations of dominance. Here's what resident prospect guru David Hood had to say about Freeland when he was drafted:

Despite the lofty strikeout totals this season at Evansville, Freeland's stuff isn't pure power, but above average pitches played up by excellent command. He's going to pitch in the low 90's with a fastball carrying late life, and will back the pitch up with a solid slider that he can locate in the zone. ... Based on his excellent command and solid mix of pitches, Freeland should move quickly with #3 starter potential ... if he can stay healthy. ... The first thing I noticed with Freeland was the lack of shoulder tilt in his delivery and the stress he put on his throwing arm. His delivery is more arm than total body, and can at times appear violent.

...

Overall, this is a solid selection that probably has more injury risk than other picks, but provided he's healthy, Freeland could take a similar short trip to the majors a la Butler. He slots in just behind Gray and Butler on my Rockies pitching totem pole, edging Matzek with superior command despite lesser stuff, and Anderson with superior stuff and even if not better command.

The health has turned out to be a problem, albeit hopefully not a recurring one, but on the whole Freeland has been the polished pitcher with potential for more that we expected at draft time. The strikeout rate is lower than we'd like to see (7.4 K/9 to date), but Freeland is still working his way back to full strength on the mound.

The small sample national prospect writers saw out of Freeland in 2014, combined with the draft pedigree, was enough to put him on some top 100 lists prior to this year (No. 60 at both Baseball America and MLB.com, no. 76 at Baseball Prospectus). Here was a sample view of Freeland at that point, courtesy of Nick Faleris of Baseball Prospectus (who rated Freeland fifth in the system, calling him a likely No. 4 starter at the big league level with 2/3 starter potential):

Strengths: All three foundational pitches show above-average potential and come with multiple looks and deception; fastball sits in low-90s velo band with ability to sink, cut, and run; four-seamer can reach mid-90s; slider comes with late sweep and can tighten to upper-80s cutter; change sits in mid-80s with late tumble; can cut change for different look; plus control; can live on the periphery with comfort; advanced feel for sequencing and ability to vary look and approach.

Weaknesses: Delivery comes with effort and some herk and jerk; low slot limits downhill plane and can hold fastball on swing path; potential to live too fully in the zone; elbow surgery already in the file; yet to show durability required of pro starter; stuff could play down over course of longer season.

The southpaw is distinctive both for his chameleonic arsenal and the adroit manner in which he wields it, with a uniform release and trajectory capable of resulting in seven-plus alternate finishes over a velocity band stretching cleanly from the low 80s to the mid-90s. Provided Freeland can maintain that quality of stuff over a long pro season, the former Purple Ace could force a speedy ascension through the minor-league ranks thanks to his advanced arsenal, plus command, and aggressive approach. Assuming no significant setbacks, the Rockies could see their 2014 first rounder logging major-league innings by 2016.

In their midseason prospect update, MLB.com was leery enough of Freeland's injury that he slipped out of their top 100 entirely, placing eighth overall in the system:

Freeland's fastball might sit in the low 90s, but because of a deceptive delivery, it seems to get on hitters more quickly than that. It also has heavy sink, leading to a lot of groundball outs, and he can reach back for a little more velocity when he needs to. His low-80s slider is an out pitch and he can morph it into a cutter at times. When he doesn't overthrow his changeup, it has good sink and gives him a third at-least-average pitch to use.

Some effort in his delivery and a lower arm angle have some concerned that he won't be able to start long term, but he repeats his delivery and throws plenty of strikes. That, along with those two out pitches, should allow him to stay in rotation, though his path to the big leagues was slowed by surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow and shoulder fatigue, forcing him to miss the first few months of his first full pro season.

Freeland has been slotted by the electorate as Colorado's second best pitching prospect and fifth best overall -- I also ranked him fifth -- and for good reason. The injury setback is concerning of course, but the Rockies still view Freeland as a potential quick riser in the system and a player who could be pitching in Coors Field within the next two years. He'll likely begin next year in Double-A, with the potential to rise as high as the major leagues by the end of the season if all goes well. It's more likely though that Freeland's MLB debut doesn't occur until 2017, which is starting to look like a big prospect year for the Rockies.

Contract Status: 2014 first round, not Rule 5 eligible (2017), three options remaining

MLB ETA: 2017