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Rockies prospect rankings: No. 3 Jeff Hoffman, further removed from Tommy John surgery, needs a big year

Hoffman could be on the fast track to the majors if he proves he is close to regaining the form that made him widely considered a top overall pick type of talent.

As the centerpiece of the Troy Tulowitzki trade's return, Jeff Hoffman is a prospect even casual Rockies fans will be following closely over the next few years. The 23-year-old right-hander was considered one of the top players available in the 2014 draft and a candidate for the first overall pick thanks to an elite arsenal of pitches. However, the East Carolina product underwent Tommy John surgery, which truncated his junior year and forced him to slip to the Blue Jays with the ninth overall pick (one selection after the Rockies selected fellow top 10 PuRP Kyle Freeland).

After Hoffman spent the rest of 2014 recovering from the operation, the 6'4 pitcher was directly assigned to High-A Dunedin by the Blue Jays once he was deemed healthy in mid-May of 2015. In his first professional exposure, Hoffman wasn't eased back into game action as much as a Rockies fan would be used to (three to four innings at a time for several starts, then a gradual ramp up). For Dunedin, Hoffman averaged more than five innings per start, posting a 3.21 ERA with a 3.70 FIP, 1.32 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9.

That was enough for the Blue Jays to declare Hoffman ready for Double-A New Hampshire. Hoffman had two good outings there (two runs on nine hits in 11⅔ innings with eight strikeouts and two walks) before switching Eastern League teams after the Tulo trade. For New Britain and under Colorado's oversight, Hoffman threw 36⅓ innings in seven starts. With the Rock Cats, Hoffman pitched similarly to his High-A numbers, this time against hitters who were on average 2.6 years older. He posted a 3.22 ERA (3.74 FIP) with a great 1.02 WHIP and an average-ish 7.2 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9.

On the whole, Hoffman carried 104 innings with a 3.03 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, and 2.3 BB/9. Those are decent numbers, but the lack of dominance in the form of high strikeout numbers is curious thus far given the elite stuff in his arsenal. To give you a better idea of that arsenal, let me get out of the way and let the professionals step in:

Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs (before the 2015 season):

Hoffman was a known power arm for the 2014 draft at East Carolina, then he broke out in the summer before the draft on the Cape, flashing an 80 fastball and 65 or 70 curveball from an athletic delivery, projectable frame and shockingly good feel to pitch given the power stuff.

He didn't look the same in the spring and just as he was making adjustments to his delivery to regain prior form, his elbow popped and he got Tommy John surgery. Even with the surgery taking Hoffman out of #1 overall pick contention, the Jays thought he wouldn't get out of the top 5, so they were pleased to land him with the 9th overall pick.

Also from FanGraphs, Chris King had a detailed report on Hoffman's professional debut that praised his heavy mid- to upper-90s fastball and power curve. With that said, there was some concern from Quinn Barry of Minor League Ball about the Blue Jays restricting Hoffman's stuff to maintain more control and reduce injury risk.

MLB.com (who ranked Hoffman 52nd in the minors on their preseason top 100):

[Hoffman] hit 99 mph with his fastball when he made his pro debut in May 2015, then went to the Rockies two months later as the key prospect in the Troy Tulowitzki trade. Hoffman regained his stuff and his control quickly after having his elbow reconstructed. He sits in the mid-90s with good sink on his fastball and his big-breaking curveball gives him a second well above-average pitch. His changeup shows signs of becoming a plus third offering and he throws a lot of strikes.

Hoffman doesn't miss as many bats as his stuff indicates he should, in part because his command isn't as sharp as his control. In order to help him finish and locate his pitches better, Colorado has worked with him on being more direct to the plate.

Bernie Pleskoff of MLB.com had a more detailed scouting report of Hoffman, compiled just after the trade, in which he praises the prospect's mechanics and athleticism.

Baseball Prospectus (who ranked him 24th in the minors on their preseason top 101 list):

Hoffman made his professional debut last year after recovering from the Tommy John surgery that knocked him down draft boards in 2014. The reports on his stuff continue to wow, even if the results weren't as dominant as you might expect from the kind words. He can touch 99 with his fastball and shows a potentially plus change and curve as well. Dealt from the Blue Jays to the Rockies at the deadline as part of the Troy Tulowitzki deal, Hoffman sits near the top of a suddenly thriving Colorado system. He will be two years removed from surgery in 2016, and no one would be shocked if he moves into the top tier of prospect arms on our 2017 list.

The composite picture presented by those scouting reports is of a prospect who briefly flirted with true ace potential before the draft but who has yet to find that kind of form professionally. I'm looking forward to seeing the scouting reports for Hoffman in 2016, two years removed from surgery. At that point, we'll have a much better idea if Hoffman can recapture the level of explosiveness and power that had him in top pick consideration. Even if he ends up settling into a mid-rotation role, never regaining that 1-1 helium, there's considerable value in having a prospect with a profile like that in the system and eventually on the big league club.

I ranked Hoffman fourth on my personal list, but that's a function of the top-level depth in the system right now. To wit, I'm higher on Hoffman than I ever was on Christian Friedrich, Drew Pomeranz, Eddie Butler, Juan Nicasio, or Tyler Matzek, all former top 2 PuRP pitchers. The Rockies may start Hoffman again at Double-A on Hartford's massive road trip, or they may advance him to a hitter's paradise at Triple-A Albuquerque with a chance of a late 2016 call-up to the Show. Either way, Hoffman will face a large professional challenge in 2016, and the linchpin of the Tulo trade return will do so with thousands of Rockies fans looking at him under a microscope.