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Rockies prospect rankings: No. 1 Jon Gray still held back by club's restrictions

Gray overcame a slow start in Triple-A by putting together three strong months and ultimately reaching the majors. Now that he's here, will the Rockies finally unleash the beast?

Dustin Satloff

PuRP No. 1: Jon Gray (1,098 points, 37 ballots) | Winter 2014 Ranking: 1 | High Ballot 1 (29), Mode Ballot 1

When Jon Gray made his major league debut on Aug. 4, many Rockies fans wondered what had taken so long ... and many others wondered why the Rockies weren't waiting until next year to bring him up. Since the Rockies took the 23-year-old righty third overall in the 2013 draft, he's been arguably (maybe Franklin Morales?) the highest-touted pitching prospect the system had ever seen. Signed to a $4.8 million bonus, Gray was touted as having a ceiling of a true No. 1 starter, a solid oak of a pitcher with two plus-plus offerings and a possible third in the works.

Gray's professional debut in 2013 was nothing short of explosive: a 1.93 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 12.3 K/9 over 37 innings. That included a couple of starts in which Gray was instructed to work on new pitches. In Modesto, Gray had four starts and 24 innings pitched, during which he posted an 0.75 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, and 13.5 K/9. That's preposterous, and it led to Gray's placement in the top 15 of national prospect lists prior to the 2014 season.

In 2014, the Rockies once again worked with Gray to refine his arsenal, and as such he was slightly less explosive at Double-A Tulsa. Normally, a 3.91 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 8.2 K/9 performance over 124⅓ IP in Double-A against opponents that were on average 2.5 years older would be excellent. Gray was no ordinary prospect though, and there were concerns among both fans and national prospect writers that the Rockies were reining him in unnecessarily and trying to turn him into a pitch-to-contact, groundball pitcher. Still though, national prospect lists kept him in that same top 15 range heading into this year.

This spring, Gray had a very strong showing in big league camp, leading to some calls for him to break camp without throwing a pitch in Triple-A. Some argued against this position for service time reasons, saying the Rockies should wait until late April or May, and some felt that he just wasn't quite ready for the Show yet. The front office agreed with the latter group and sent Gray to Triple-A Albuquerque to start the year.

Gray was dreadful in his first month with the Isotopes. In four starts, he had a 10.70 ERA and 2.26 WHIP, and Pacific Coast League batters hit .400 off of him. After that rough patch though, Gray allowed three or fewer earned runs in his next 10 starts (and 15 of his 17). Before his call to the Show earlier this month, Gray finished with a Triple-A line of 114⅓ innings pitched over 21 games (20 starts), a 4.33 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 1.49 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9. Considering where his numbers were after April, that's borderline miraculous.

Gray's exploits in the majors have been well publicized, from the high of his one-hit performance against the Mets in his second start to the low of his most recent start (also against the Mets), a seven run outing in fewer than two innings. In all, he's thrown 16⅔ frames for the Rockies with a 5.94 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 1.38 WHIP, and 7.6 K/9. Gray's scheduled to throw about 20 more innings before the Rockies shut him down for the year.

Thus far in his professional career, I feel like we haven't seen the fully unleashed Gray. He's almost always had some sort of restrictions placed upon him by the Rockies front office, whether it be on his stuff (forcing him to throw a lot of changeups), location (keeping the ball down), pitch count (such as the 75-pitch limit he's on right now), or innings (about 20 percent more than last year's 124⅓). In my opinion, those restrictions have led to the considerable speculation by fans and prospect writers that Gray's stuff has backed up somewhat from when the Rockies drafted him (no doubt a big reason why he didn't even make this year's BP midseason top 50).

However, I think the beast is still there, though maybe not in the form of a true No. 1 guy. Gray at his best is a firebreathing, unhittable terror with an upper 90s fastball, filthy slider, and a developing changeup. Both the fastball and slider have been ranked by some as being the best versions of those pitches among any prospect in the minor leagues. It's true that Gray's velocity no longer sits in the high 90s regularly now that he's pitching every five days instead of every seven, but he has shown the ability to reach for the velocity when he needs to. I think that next year the Rockies will finally let Gray do his thing, this time at the big league level and with far fewer restrictions than he has now.

I'm no professional scout though, so I'll let the pros give their most recent opinion of Gray. ESPN's Keith Law put Gray 42nd in his midseason top 50, fourth in the system (after placing him seventh overall as his top pitching prospect in minor league baseball the year before):

It hasn't been smooth for Gray since he began pro ball, as some delivery changes intended to improve his command have made it easier for hitters to see the ball and reduced the power on his fastball and slider. Gray reached 100 mph in college (pitching every seventh day), and is more 93-96 now with an inconsistent slider that flashes plus and a below-average changeup. He has had strong results pitching in Albuquerque, one of the best hitters' parks in organized baseball, this season, but he might be better suited to a relief role when he first reaches the majors, probably later this summer.

MLB.com placed Gray 32nd overall in their midseason list (and second in the Rockies system):

Gray's velocity had dropped at times during the 2014 season, not uncommon for college starters going from throwing once a week to once every five days. He bounced back and was up to up to 97 mph at times over the course of the year, with excellent sink and tail. His power slider has good tilt and bite when he threw it right, and his sinking changeup gives him a third future above-average pitch. While he is generally around the strike zone, Gray's overall command isn't consistently sharp.

Gray began to learn to slow things down when needed, and despite not making it to Colorado when some expected, he's still on track to pitch in a big league rotation in the future.

In addition, Gray was placed 35th for Baseball America and 36th for Minor League Ball in midseason updates.

In Baseball Prospectus's preseason 2015 top Rockies prospects list, Nick Faleris had Gray up top with a 70 overall future potential and a realistic 60 (No. 3 starter) floor:

Strengths: Workhorse build with physicality and aggressiveness on the bump; confident pounding the zone with upper-90s heater; triple-digit capable; fastball plays across quadrants; wipeout slider works in and out of zone; elite two-pitch combo with parallel plane and release; developmental focus on change piece, flashing hard fade and deception; frontline offerings so good even average changeup will miss bats and barrels; can flip script with change-of-pace curve.

Weaknesses: Changeup still lags relative fastball/slider; can struggle on both ends, implementing too firm or alternatively slowing arm and tipping; content pitching to contact and limited pitch count leave some question as to how dominant the stuff might be against top-tier bats; some stiffness in landing likely limits command ceiling.

Observing Gray in 2014 was akin to witnessing a bartender utilize a bottle of Lagavulin 16 to pour you a glass of Johnny Black -- the result was perfectly satisfying, but lacked the impact and finish you anticipated upon spying the distinctive glass. The body, control, and quality of weaponry is everything you'd expect in an elite power arm, but Colorado's conservative guidance this past summer left evaluators more reliant on projection than typical when grading out an advanced Double-A arm with loud present stuff.

Even with a focus on developing his third-best offering and pitching to contact, the former Sooner still found success, regularly inducing soft contact from Texas League bats thanks to his ability to generally live around the zone with two double-plus offerings, and it's tough to envision him failing to rack up strikeouts once permitted a slightly longer leash via pitch count and pitch selection. There is little doubt that Gray will be a valuable major-league asset, and anything shy of number three production, even in the challenging Coors environs, would come as a surprise. He should start 2015 in Triple-A, but may not face the requisite resistance to truly refine until he faces major-league lineups capable of handling his electric arsenal.

Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs also had Gray atop his Rockies prospect list before the year, giving him a 60 Future Value grade:

Gray created tons of buzz midway through the 2013 spring coming from out of nowhere to hit 100 mph often, with a plus slider. I was lower on him than most, ranking him behind Mark Appel and Kris Bryant before the draft for a few reasons. It was new velocity we hadn't seen before and we didn't know if his body could handle (it has so far), it showed up on six days rest which would be reduced by 2 days each outing in pro ball, and if his arm speed slowed (as it does over time for every pitcher) so much of his value was tied to arm speed (his command was/is below average) that it would take all of his stuff down a notch and reduce the #1 starter upside people were putting on him.

Since signing, Gray's velocity has been down some, mostly sitting 91-94 and hitting 95 mph but Rockies sources say this is intentional and he's working on some things (they already smoothed out his delivery), which scouts assumed after Gray hit 98 mph in a short All-Star Game appearance. I think he'll settle at 92-94 with more movement and command, the slider is still plus and the changeup has its moments. Scouts are a little concerned that Gray is a below average athlete and the command still isn't quite there yet. Since the stuff is so good, that lesser command would just make him a 3/4 starter rather than a 2/3.

I'm a big believer in Brendan Rodgers, else I would have placed Gray atop my ballot (he was second) as the vast majority of PuRPs voters did this time around. He's got a realistic mid-rotation starter profile with the potential to be one of the best pitchers the Rockies have ever employed. I'm extremely excited for the Jon Gray era, and you should be too.

Please don't screw this up, Rockies.

Contract Status: 2013 first round, 40-man roster, three options remaining

MLB ETA: Now