Scottsdale, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies have one of the best farm systems in all of baseball. Prospects dot the organization from Triple-A to rookie ball. ...And yet one of the most-read interviews I've done in 2016 was with an undrafted Atlanta Braves cast-off coming to camp with no guaranteed roster spot.
Knowing that many of you find life on that back end of the minor league hierarchy interesting, and reviewing my notes and video clips from the last four weeks in Scottsdale, one man stood out for me to interview as a bit of changeup on the stereotypical minor league story: Christian Talley.
Talley, 24, was signed by the Rockies last June after he wasn't selected in the MLB Draft coming out of college at the University of Southern Mississippi, and the club assigned him to rookie level Grand Junction. There, he got his feet wet in pro ball, appearing in 16 games (4 starts), and finishing 2-4 with a 7.00 ERA. In 36 innings of work, though, there were good signs: Talley walked just 11 hitters while striking out 40.
"The ball flies out pretty easy, pretty quick," Talley says of Grand Junction, shaking his head. "You learn to really get the ball down, because being from south Mississippi, you get a fly ball, it’s not going anywhere. But [Grand Junction] teaches you, and it’s a good league to learn to get the ball down."
Granted, Talley being undrafted is something of a misnomer; the big right-hander was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013 coming out of junior college, and instead decided to sign with Southern Miss. From there, he was 7-9 with a 3.15 ERA across 137 innings for the NCAA Division I Golden Eagles over two years before coming to the Rockies.
College pedigree long in the past, though, as the working groups on the club's spring training backfields come ever closer to assigning players out to their summer teams, Talley knows he's under the gun by virtue of his post-draft entry into the organization.
"I feel like I have a chip on my shoulder, being undrafted, that I have to do a little more than other people," Talley admits. "Being undrafted can be kind of tough. You don’t really know as much, you’re just trying to fill in and trying to find the right spot, but the way I look at it is as long as I come out here and do what I’ve got to do, it will all work out."
Talley—just like Mitchell Osnowitz, for one—is in a precarious position. He might find himself in extended spring training next week, or in Low-A Asheville. He might be destined for a re-do in Grand Junction in June, or an assignment to short-season Boise. Or, he could find himself released, an undrafted 24-year-old let go as the Rockies prepare for another set of amateur selections in two months. The righty shrugs it off, though, preferring to approach it with abandon.
"You don’t have anything to lose, but you also have everything to lose," he muses on how to approach the fight for a roster spot. "You might have a shorter leash, you never really know. But I look at it as I have nothing to lose. I come out here and I feel like I’m good enough to be out here. I like to look at myself as the best free agent pickup there is, so it’s just going out there with that positive attitude."
"Asheville is where I want to be," Talley continues, "but if I’m in extended [spring training], I will be happy to be in extended."
Obviously, Talley will either pitch his way on to a team or, eventually, out of baseball; I watched him pitch four times this spring, and his mechanics and arm action (video, above) don't lend themselves to projectable power stuff. But I'll be damned if he didn't grow on me the more I saw him, with an array of pitch offerings that all sink, and results that included quite a few really bad swings by intrasquad hitters.
Talley does it pretty conventionally with a fastball, changeup, and breaking ball—but it's that fastball/changeup combo that I find particularly interesting, especially as you'll see on some of the swings in the video at the top of this post. What he lacks in plus velocity Talley seems to make up in pitchability, subtracting velocity and getting hitters off balance and rolling over pitches.
"I like to get ground balls, and you always want ground balls because it keeps the pitch count low," he says. "I like to consider myself kind of a ground ball guy."
"But," he adds, smiling, "everybody likes strikeouts, too."
The zone of success is small, though; there are several pitches on this video that Talley left belt high, and hitters didn't miss. When you don't throw 95 mph, the margin for error on a mistake pitch gets smaller and smaller, as we've heard from other minor league pitchers. Talley understands that, too.
"I like to go in on righties, use a little sinking action and try to get ground balls, and I like to go glove side, too," he says, "but it is tough throwing to that glove side, since it can run out over the middle of the plate a lot. Or if you go too far in, you’re going to get them on the hip or something. It’s difficult."
"But that’s what we are here doing," he quickly adds. "We are trying to perfect our game out here."
Even though he comes from a major college baseball program, Talley still had to adjust to his first spring training this month in Scottsdale. As it is for every player coming out of rookie ball, the learning curve was steep. But with it, Talley has been impressed by the Rockies' inclusive attitude, involving everyone from the big leagues down to the lowest levels of the minors in daily activities around camp.
"I really love how they preach the family atmosphere," the tall righty says about finding his place in the organization. "We are all really close. The big league guys are only a couple locker rooms away, and when we eat lunch, we are right there mixing it up with them. That's huge. You get to meet those big name guys and pick their brains sometimes, and I think that’s huge."
Signed off the margins last June, Christian Talley once again finds himself on the margins this spring, and in all likelihood, he'll be there for however long he's playing professional baseball. If he can keep using that chip on his shoulder to positive ends, though, he may get quite a bit of mileage living on that margin.
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