Equipped with one of the best farm systems in baseball, the Colorado Rockies are hoping that their cadre of prospects will provide what the team needs to get back to being a competitive team.
Some of these prospects -- Jon Gray (PuRP No. 1), Tom Murphy (PuRP No. 10) and Cristhian Adames (PuRP No. 15) -- have already made their MLB debuts and should play a major role for the Rockies in 2016 as well. Several others could reach the highest level at some point this season, hopefully building the foundation for future Rockies' teams.
Chief among the next wave of prospects is Trevor Story (PuRP No. 7), who has caught the attention of just about everyone in baseball this spring. The 23-year-old shortstop has an opportunity to play his way into the Rockies' Opening Day lineup as a result of the uncertainty surrounding incumbent starter Jose Reyes and an injury to Daniel Descalso. Story has taken full advantage, hitting .333/.422/.744 in 15 Cactus League games.
Story's ceiling is that of an All-Star; he has average to above-average tools across the board and could provide surprising pop for a shortstop. However, there's also a very real possibility that he could strike out too much at the MLB level, and his inability to make consistent contact could sap his power potential completely. Story's glove and arm are good enough to play shortstop, but they're not on the Andrelton Simmons level where if he doesn't hit he'll still be a valuable member of the team.
Even if Story does struggle early, all hope shouldn't be lost; he's struggled after almost every promotion in the minors before making key adjustments and eventually pounding the ball before his next promotion. If Story can continue to make those adjustments at the MLB level, that could play a larger part in his future success than any of his physical tools and will bode well for the future of the Rockies.
At this point, the only thing that may keep Story out of the Opening Day lineup is if the Rockies decide they want to gain an extra year of service time by keeping him down for the first couple weeks of April. Colorado general Jeff Bridich has repeatedly denied that will be a factor. Then again, if he acknowledged the service time considerations publicly, he'd have a letter on his desk from the MLBPA within about five minutes of the comment.
Other infielders/catchers to watch: Tony Wolters, Ryan Casteel
This one might surprise people, but there is increasing noise coming out of Rockies camp that may lead one to believe that Wolters might actually break with the team in a super-utility role. Potentially able to play eight different defensive positions, Wolters would make it easier for the team to keep that extra reliever it always seems to need.
Despite his great stats so far this spring, there hasn't been much offensively in Wolters' minor league career to get you excited. However, the Rockies are looking to add outfield to a defensive repertoire that already includes the ability to play catcher and all the infield positions, so Wolters' value to the MLB team will probably be on the defensive side.
Wolters has a great defensive reputation already; he's known for being a good framer behind the plate, which is something the Rockies have historically rarely had. His work ethic also makes him a coach favorite. Because he was a waiver wire pickup, Wolters already has a spot on the 40-man, which will make it a lot easier for the Rockies to make him a part of the active roster.
While it might seem like a long shot, don't be too surprised if Wolters somehow works his way onto the Rockies out of camp with his versatility. If he can somehow manage to provide anything close to his spring training numbers so far, he'll be a great waiver wire pickup for the Rockies and a real coup for the professional scouts.
Casteel (PuRP No. 30), who ascended through the Rockies' system as a catcher, is primarily a first baseman but doesn't necessarily fit at any one position. He can, however, hit a little bit; in parts of six minor league seasons, the 24-year-old Tennessee native owns a .282/.342/.448 line. The problem is, the Rockies don't play in the American League, and they've also had their fill of somewhat-bat, no-glove players over the last few seasons.
This year is an important one for Casteel, who will have to prove that he can hit enough to force his way to Denver. A good year in Albuquerque might get him to 20th and Blake in September, and from there, who knows?
The biggest piece of the trade that sent Troy Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays, Jeff Hoffman (PuRP No. 3), will probably make his debut sometime this summer and may be on a similar development track that Jon Gray was on this past year.
Hoffman was seen as a good possibility to be drafted first overall in the 2014 amateur draft before Tommy John surgery derailed those hopes. Despite the surgery, Toronto drafted Hoffman ninth overall and one pick after the Rockies drafted Kyle Freeland.
Last year, Hoffman made his professional debut, and though the stats might not seem that impressive on the surface, when taken in context of a guy returning from Tommy John surgery as well as making his debut, they look a lot better. More importantly, all of the scouting reports seem to indicate that Hoffman still had the same caliber of stuff that made him look like a future ace.
Hoffman may begin 2016 in Triple-A and will be on track to make his debut this season though it may be with similar inning restrictions that Gray faced last year and maybe even stricter. However, his starts should bring excitement similar what Gray brought last year, even in a season that was already lost. If the Rockies manage to find themselves in a competitive spot this summer, Hoffman would be able to provide some high-end depth in case of injury as well.
Other starting pitchers to watch: Kyle Freeland, Tyler Anderson
Freeland (PuRP No. 8), a Colorado native and 2014 first-round selection, was expected by some to continue his rapid ascent through the Rockies minor league system and make his debut last year. Unfortunately, injuries derailed those plans and resulted in a disappointing 2015 campaign. However, he took advantage of an opportunity to represent the Rockies in the Arizona Fall League and after a rough first start, turned in a dominating run of outings that restored a lot of confidence in his future.
Now fully healthy, Freeland is poised to finish his development and make an impact on the Rockies by August or so if the club needs starting depth. Equipped with a well-rounded arsenal of four pitches and good command, Freeland could be a good mid-rotation pitcher. That might not seem like much, but for the Rockies, it would be a huge development.
Anderson (PuRP No. 17), like Freeland, has dealt with injuries during what has otherwise been a terrific professional career. The 2011 first-round pick last pitched in 2014, when he posted a 1.98 ERA in 118 innings for Double-A Tulsa. In parts of three minor league seasons, the polished left-hander owns a 2.39 ERA in 328 innings with 7.2 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9.
Unfortunately, Anderson suffered yet another injury this spring, tweaking his oblique prior to a game he was supposed to start on March 12. But he's close to throwing again and could be ready for the start of the regular season, which for him will be at Triple-A Albuquerque. If he pitches well there (and, perhaps more importantly, stays healthy), Anderson could see the big leagues by August.
It's been a while since the Rockies have had position-player prospects that garner as much national attention as the duo of David Dahl and Raimel Tapia. Both players are polarizing to a degree; Dahl possesses just about every baseball tool imaginable, but he's yet to be able to put it all together, largely because of injuries.
Tapia, meanwhile, has done nothing but hit throughout his professional career. But his unorthodox and extremely aggressive approach at the plate has caused plenty of scouts to doubt whether his minor league performance will translate to the majors.
All of this points to 2016 being an important year for both players. For Dahl, who could start the season at Triple-A, a strong performance in mostly hitters' environments would solidify his standing as a potential Top 20 overall prospect and perhaps get him to Denver for a cup of coffee in September. Tapia, who is a bit further away despite having more minor league experience overall, is on the 40-man roster. With another solid year (albeit in the toughest environment he's going to face as a pro, the Eastern League) he could also debut with the Rockies late in the season.
The most important thing is that both players continue progressing, whether that means time spent in the majors in 2016 or a delay until next season.
After a dominant 2015 season in which he struck out 68 batters and walked just 14 in 55⅔ innings across two levels on the back of an upper-90s fastball and solid secondary stuff, Carlos Estevez was placed on the Rockies' 40-man roster and was a darkhorse contender for a bullpen spot entering the season.
Unfortunately, Estevez's velocity was down this spring (perhaps because of a career-high 67 innings, including Arizona Fall League play, last season), and it resulted in the 23-year-old right-hander getting hit hard in five Cactus League appearances. The good news is that Estevez's strikeout ability remained intact despite the missing velocity. He'll have a chance to right the ship -- likely at Triple-A Albuquerque -- and could find himself in the big league bullpen sometime around June if all goes well for him (and doesn't go well for the Rockies' relievers).
Other relief pitchers to watch: Sam Moll, Nelson Gonzalez
Moll and Gonzalez were sent to the Arizona Fall League in 2015 and 2014, respectively, which is a sign that the organization likely has them in its future plans. Moll, the Rockies' third-round pick in 2013, seems to be on the fast track to the majors now after being bumped off course by injuries early in his pro career. The 24-year-old left-hander has a slight build but makes up for it with great stuff, which is evident in his continually increasing strikeout numbers.
Gonzalez, 26, took a few tries to get out of the Dominican, but ever since making his stateside debut as a 20-year-old in Casper, the 6'1 righty has performed well at just about every stop, flying under the radar of scouts and prospect analysts alike.
Based on history, the Rockies' bullpen may not hold up through the entire season. If that happens again this year, Moll and Gonzalez could wind up in purple pinstripes by August. Otherwise, a September trip to the majors is a possibility for the pair of unheralded relief prospects.
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Tomorrow, in Part 4 of our Rockies season preview series, we'll take a look at the big storylines that will carry us through 2016.