How do you approach a first-round pick and promising prospect who's been through DFA limbo and comes back to spring training as a non-roster invitee? Do you bemoan the man who drafted him? Maybe eulogize his career trajectory? Hell, could you even hold out some optimism for redemption?
For the Colorado Rockies and Kyle Parker, maybe the answer—at least heading into spring training—is none of the above.
"It is what it is, I think," Chris Jackson tells me about Parker's non-roster invite to big league camp. "Unfortunately, I think Parker is headed the Tim Wheeler route; thanks for the memories in Triple-A and good luck. But at least he got a few at-bats in the big leagues. I don’t want to say it’s the final nail in Kyle’s coffin, but it’s a sign."
Jackson's one to recognize those signs; as the Examiner's beat writer for the Albuquerque Isotopes, he covered Parker last season in Triple-A, and saw the first baseman/outfielder succeed against Pacific Coast League pitching. In 93 games, Parker slashed .280/.326/.431 with 19 doubles and nine home runs. Those are respectable numbers, albeit down for a power hitting corner outfielder, but when you take into account his cold start (just 15-for-97, .155 through May 11), perhaps they are put into context. Nevertheless, even after hitting safely in 23 of his next 26 games before getting called up to Denver, Parker could never overcome that frigid first month of baseball.
"In the end, his numbers for this ballpark, this league, they weren’t that great," Jackson assesses. "He’s essentially a left fielder/first baseman. What do you want from a guy like that? Home runs, on-base percentage, and he didn’t have either. That’s kind of what sunk him, and then you add organizational depth amongst outfielder types, and the numbers just piled up against him."
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The best of Purple Row
It's a rough assessment, but such is the lay of the land in professional sports; when one wins, another loses, and while someone rides a career year into an eight-figure paycheck, another player just hopes to earn a non-roster invitee to big league camp next spring.
"He couldn’t overwhelm [the Rockies] to the point where they could say, ‘OK let’s bring him up to the big leagues, he might struggle for a little bit, but we’re confident he’ll get to a point where he will turn it around,'" Jackson continues. "The Rockies obviously never felt that way about him."
That's not to say that Parker didn't get a shot. Between 2014 and 2015, he received 138 big league plate appearances over 64 games, slashing just .182/.217/.295 with 51 strikeouts and only six (!) walks. While that's not a meaningful sample size for the purposes of statistical extrapolation, it's more than enough for front office talent evaluators to determine if Parker possesses what they want in an outfielder.
The answer to that question is now readily apparent.
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There was a time when Jackson was optimistic Parker might be earning his way to an extended look with the big league club. In mid-May, Parker started to heat up. Concurrently, Justin Morneau was dealing with concussion-related symptoms, and Wilin Rosario was himself failing to prove his mettle with the big league club.
"Parker played every day for a while there, and he was hitting, and I remember at that time Rosario was up in the big leagues and he wasn’t hitting," Jackson recalls. "And I remember sitting there going, ‘well if you’re that worried about Ben Paulsen against left handers, why is Kyle Parker still here?’"
Parker finally got his call-up on June 8, but it didn't even last a week; he got just one big league at-bat. (He singled.) By June 14, he re-joined the Isotopes for a road game against the Tacoma Rainiers. (He went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.)
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The best of Purple Row
"You never know what it is," Jackson laments of front office decision making, both in Parker's case and more generally. "It’s not all performance. There can be so many other little things too."
"But I thought for a while there, he had a certain amount of confident swagger to him," he adds. "Not cocky, but confident swagger. That’s when I would have liked to see what he could do in the big leagues. His confidence was at an all-time high right then, he wasn’t letting it go to his head, he was playing good ball, and you could use a right-handed hitting first baseman in the big leagues. Why don’t you call him up?"
But they didn't. Or, more accurately, they did for five days, couldn't find a fit, and sent him right back to Albuquerque. That becomes a mental game for even the toughest of players.
"A lot of the guys at this level, no matter how mentally tough they try to be, they begin to ask themselves, ‘why am I still here? I’m doing everything they’ve asked me to do, and I’m still here, and it’s not like a superstar is still in the big leagues blocking my path. So why am I not there?’" Jackson observes.
"I think that’s when it starts to eat at them. The answers get short. They don’t get testy, but they get quiet. You can tell, when baseball players get quiet, that means sometimes they’re thinking. And the most dangerous thing in the world can be when a baseball player starts thinking too much."
Fresh off the mid-June demotion, Parker ripped off four straight two-hit nights, and carried himself well into the All-Star Break in mid-July. But by then, Paulsen more or less asserted himself at Coors Field and the Rockies appeared content to shuttle around Rosario, trying to salvage whatever they thought they could get out of their former prized catcher.
From Jackson's perspective, it's remarkable to see how one point in time—that mid-May to mid-June hot streak—was the window for Parker. Once the window closed, you might as well have shut the book on Parker getting any shot in Denver.
"That was his big chance, that’s when he turned his whole season around," Jackson says. "But so many guys come through here and have that stretch like wow, he can really help the big league club, and then they don’t go anywhere. And it just leaves you scratching your head wondering what does the big league team see? Or what other considerations are in place that are keeping him down here?"
Jackson's covered thousands of Isotopes games, but that doesn't mean he has the answers.
"You just don’t know sometimes."
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Just as it went for Christian Friedrich, it wasn't supposed to be like this for Kyle Parker. A former standout football player at Clemson University who chose baseball, Parker had the high school and college pedigree to do damage in the pro ranks. And for a while, he did. Across his entire minor league career, in fact, he'd been remarkably consistent and really, fairly productive. But like so many before him, though, the big leagues tripped him up.
Now, having been revealed in parts of two Major League seasons, the book on Parker is more apparent. His approach at the plate mirrors too many of the recent Rockies' problems not being able to take a walk. His general lack of power relative to what's expected of a man his size, with his tools, at his position leave Parker—at least thus far—something of a AAAA player.
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The best of Purple Row
There are dozens, maybe hundreds of those men floating around the game today. Many, like Parker, are former first-round draft picks. Many are great athletes that picked baseball ahead of other sports, sacrificing who knows what for a shot at the big leagues.
Many will hang on in Triple-A for another year, or two, or five. Others will head off to Japan, or Korea, or Mexico, for a nice, guaranteed paycheck but the trade-off of being out of sight, out of mind.
Parker's baseball age is young, though, and there's reason for some level of optimism with him, even if it's eventually a change of scenery.
"I know they are very different players but Kyle Parker and Dee Gordon have a similar type of background," Jackson volunteers, referencing the Miami Marlins' second baseman whom he covered while Gordon played for the Dodgers' former Triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque.
"Gordon was a basketball player until he got to high school, and then he started playing baseball. Most guys in the big leagues, they play baseball from the moment they can walk. So I always subtracted from Gordon’s age, and gave him a much younger baseball age. And that’s Parker."
Two years as the starting quarterback for Clemson University in 2009 and 2010 meant two years where Parker split his time between two very in-demand sports at a major powerhouse. Commit fully to two different things, though, and perhaps you've committed fully to nothing.
That's not to criticize Parker, of course. How could you fault him for wanting to develop his talents in two sports, and in an incredible athletic environment? On top of that, how can you criticize him spending two years as Clemson's starting quarterback only to turn around and become the Rockies' first round draft pick? And then, for however brief, a Major Leaguer? In the strictest sense, it all worked out, right?
Parker's not a worst-case scenario for high-level two sport athletes; in some ways, he might be the best-case scenario. But time away for football did undoubtedly affect his development in college when his relatively young baseball age, to use Jackson's Dee Gordon reference, eventually caught up in Denver.
"I see it a lot with these two sport guys," Jackson admits. "Parker split so much of his career between football and baseball, I don’t think he ever got overly good at one over the other, and he always struck me as more raw than most guys his age."
But now, it's baseball or bust for the big bat; it has been that way for a while, in fact.
"He can’t go back to college and play football again," Jackson notes. "He doesn’t have that thing where he can take the route that some ex players have taken, where they went pro and then baseball didn’t work and they can go give football another shot. This is it."
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What does the future hold, then, for a man now firmly out of the Rockies' most rudimentary plans? It must be like purgatory, having been outrighted off the 40-man roster only to return to the same organization now a station lower—perhaps further, mentally—knowing you must beat the world to have a shot at getting your contract purchased. But even beating the world might not do much for Parker this summer; such is the lay of the land when you're not on the 40-man roster.
"You know, if Paulsen and Mark Reynolds are both on the DL, and Carlos Gonzalez can’t field a lick at first base, and on top of that Will Swanner is hurt, and Jordan Patterson’s hurt, and they can’t trade for anybody, that’s about what it would have to be, I think, for Kyle Parker to get another shot," Jackson laments. "That's a little unfortunate. He’s a good kid."
Good kid. College quarterback. Handsome outfielder, even. Baseball cares not, unless you can adjust to the game at the highest level. But that's not to say there aren't options in Parker's future.
Though we break up our discussion on Parker with pleasant chats about college baseball programs and Pac-12 football, Jackson's a beat writer at heart. No-nonsense in the most respectful way, he's polite but terse when evaluating players, no doubt a skill he's picked up over the years to avoid getting too emotionally invested when, well, things like this happen. It serves him well in player assessment.
"Let’s face it, if you want to be in the big leagues and be successful, you’ve gotta get there at your arbitration," Jackson tells me of Parker's future. "That’s when the money comes. And at some point as a player, you realize you’re the guy that’s potentially going to get designated when somebody else is acquired. So when you’re hanging on by your fingernails, I think Asia sounds like a much more palatable option. You probably don’t want to think it, but that’s probably Parker’s best route going forward."
It's not a bad route; just like picking baseball over football, it's a route that's all about trade-offs. Do you take the guaranteed money—often seven figures—halfway around the world, never quite knowing what it is you're heading towards? Or do you stay in the Pacific Coast League, stick with the brutal travel schedule, and grind it out every day, hoping maybe tomorrow the call comes from Denver?
"I think it’s really up to Parker," Jackson admits. "Can he work hard enough to get another Major League team interested, or perhaps even an Asian team interested? Guys can go over there and make it work, and that’s a hell of a lot better than making $100,000 to get up at 5 a.m. every morning and fly Southwest all around the PCL."
Maybe Jackson will be covering Parker again in Albuquerque this summer. Maybe the Rockies release the former college QB before Opening Day. Maybe he finds a better opportunity elsewhere. Maybe the wackiest of things happen, and Parker catches on again, even for only a moment, in the Major Leagues. There are more questions than answers right now and, well, it is what it is.
"So much of baseball is right place, right time," Jackson says. "Timing is everything in this sport, beyond what you even realize."
It would seem Kyle Parker realizes that now, too.