The Colorado Rockies officially invited a bunch of non-roster guys to Major League spring training on Thursday, and a few names there should catch your eye. David Dahl, Jeff Hoffman, Ryan McMahon, Kyle Freeland, Jordan Patterson, and even Yohan Flande (woo hoo!) are sure to find media attention in camp.
And while we'll undoubtedly run quite a few posts on those guys and more over the next six weeks, two under-the-radar names stood out to me. Nelson Gonzalez and Brock Huntzinger are going to be fighting for middle relief jobs with the big league club, and based on their respective career histories, it bears monitoring them as camp gets underway. Here's why:
The Rockies thought enough of Gonzalez, 25, to send him to the prestigious Arizona Fall League in 2014, and the right-handed relief pitcher excelled in a small sample there. In ten games, he went 2-0 with a 3.14 ERA, 1.9 BB/9 and 6.9 K/9 for Salt River (pictured above), and he turned that into an even better 2015 split between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Albuquerque.
Across those two levels last summer, Gonzalez threw 69 innings over 42 games, logging 7.8 H/9, 2.6 BB/9 and 8.1 K/9 while going 5-4 with a 4.43 ERA. Originally signed by the Rockies as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in 2007, Gonzalez has been a reliever for virtually his entire career, despite only having seven saves to his name.
Nevertheless, he does what Rockies GM Jeff Bridich has proven to value in relief pitchers: throws strikes (career 2.6 BB/9), with good strikeout numbers (8.0 K/9), and at least from a middle relief perspective—the role he'd likely fill if/when he reaches the big leagues—he's been consistently stretched out in the bullpen, averaging nearly two innings per appearance over his nine-year career.
Throw in some interesting offseason experience this winter in the competitive Dominican and Venezuelan Winter Leagues, and Gonzalez is one of those intriguing bullpen depth options flying just below the radar that deserves a couple of long looks at Salt River Fields. A lot of bad stuff would have to happen for him to make the big league club come Opening Day, but a strong spring combined with more solid work in Triple-A ought to give Gonzalez at least an outside shot at a relief job, however brief, when injury and ineffectiveness inevitably test the Rockies' bullpen this summer.
There are a few similarities between Gonzalez and Huntzinger, 27, who joined the Rockies as a minor league free agent this winter after spending the first nine years of his minor league career with the Red Sox, Orioles, and Athletics. While Huntzinger spent several years at the start of his career as a starter, he quickly learned he didn't have the stuff to compete there, and a move to the bullpen probably saved his time in baseball.
Very strong Triple-A seasons in both 2013 and 2014 nearly earned him a call up to the big leagues with Boston and Baltimore, but neither materialized. In the meantime, in 116 Triple-A games in his career (all in relief), Huntzinger has logged 8.6 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, and just 7.8 H/9. His walk rate is higher than Gonzalez, but just like the Dominican righty, the Indiana native does a good job missing bats and can easily function in a middle relief role in the Major Leagues, even for but his first sojourn.
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These two aren't going to be throwing the seventh and eighth innings at Coors Field this summer, and if they do, well, the Rockies are in some trouble. Combined, it's feasible they throw a grand total of zero Major League innings in 2016, of course. Perhaps most likely, they fall into roles like Simon Castro and Jason Gurka, doing little until late in the year as rosters expand. So guys like this are certainly on the low priority list in terms of impact pitching talent ready for the big leagues in 2016.
But if there's one thing I love more than all else in baseball, it's the quirky things that happen to push completely unknown pitchers to the big leagues, manifesting their personal dreams and legitimizing their long minor league journeys with even just one day in The Show. And if there's one thing I love about a site like this, it's that we collectively care about the depth pieces, the guys down on the farm. It's never too much to write a thousand word screed on Brock Huntzinger, because this is collectively what we all do and where we all spend far too much of our time. That's fine by me.
As spring training begins and we hone in on the major story lines, Nelson Gonzalez and Brock Huntzinger will almost undoubtedly fall into the heap of also-rans just by virtue of their current station in the organization. But their histories in the high minor leagues bear a bit of observation, and a strong March from either one may set the wheels in motion to alter their careers—and their lives—over the next summer. Good luck and good health to all, and to all a good spring.