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The future is bright for Rockies prospect Yency Almonte — and not just because of his fastball

The Rockies' newcomer has made himself one of the organization's best minor league stories. So where does Yency Almonte take it from here?

Yency Almonte is all smiles during a recent Modesto Nuts BP session.
Yency Almonte is all smiles during a recent Modesto Nuts BP session.
Bobby DeMuro

When the Colorado Rockies traded Tommy Kahnle to the Chicago White Sox last November, it wasn't immediately clear what the club got back in minor leaguer Yency Almonte. Fast forward six months, and we had learned at least one thing about him: he can really throw the ball.

Fast forward now two more months, and somewhere along the way, Almonte has become far more than a big kid with a hard fastball. Now, with eight weeks left in his California League season with the Modesto Nuts, the Miami-born righty is matching teammate Ryan Castellani (No. 19 PuRP) outing for outing as the club's most trustworthy rotation member.

Where did it all go so right for Almonte?

"My slider has been my most dominant off speed pitch here, and I’ve been trying to develop my changeup better since it’s more of a feel pitch for me," Almonte told me by phone on Thursday. "But I've realized that when I throw it harder, that’s when I have my best slider."

Oh, that slider. Much like Castellani, Almonte has adjusted his release, the breaking ball now flirting with 90 mph on the radar gun. It's kept its tilt throughout, showing good depth even as he fires it to the plate as hard as he can—and that adjustment has been one for the better for him in the difficult Cal League.

"If I try to slow it down, I end up slowing my whole body down, and that’s when I end up tipping the pitch," he admitted of a change he made to the slider this summer in Modesto. "When I throw it hard, and my slider is 86-90 like it has been this year, that’s my best. I know I can trust myself to throw it whenever and wherever I need to, even early in the count."

Work your fastball consistently in the mid-90s, top out at 97 mph (or, as some have seen, 99 mph), flash a slider in the mid- to upper-80s, and everybody's focus (rightfully) turns to power. Hard fastball, hard slider, strike guys out, miss bats, and blow people away. It sounds so simple, right?

Almonte certainly has the ability to do that, but something interesting has been happening for him of late—he's working deeper and deeper into games, a trait somewhat unexpected for young power pitchers. Improved command has helped (he's walked only six hitters in his last five starts and just 17 across his last ten), but even though the 22-year-old can seemingly get a strikeout whenever he wants, he's focusing on ground balls to preserve pitch counts and better give himself a chance to go seven and eight innings every fifth day.

In other words, the hard thrower is becoming a pitcher.

"If I can get ahead of the hitter with a fastball, I can dictate that at-bat and create weak contact, and if I’m behind in the count, I trust myself to throw a fastball away and hit the spot," he said. "I want weak contact. And yeah, I’ve got a little room for comfort [with the fastball velocity] to hopefully not give up the big hit."

"I'm finally learning to trust my fastball," he continued, noting that his goal is to get through the lineup the first time on his fastball alone. "I throw hard, and I’ve learned the more I can keep that pitch down and hit my spots, I can get through the game quickly. With the pitch count that we get, I take it as, 'how far can I get into the game with the least amount of pitches?'"

★ ★ ★

It's no coincidence I'm running this feature in the same week we've asked you to vote for the best Rockies prospects in our twice-annual PuRPs poll. To put it bluntly, Yency Almonte deserve to be on that list.

At 22, armed with two plus pitches and the flashes of a third that could be serviceable, he's earning his way to Double-A, whether at the end of this summer or as a member of the Hartford Yard Goats' rotation next spring. Through 16 starts so far this year, his body, command, and stuff have held up, and he's whiffed 92 Cal League hitters in 100.1 innings pitched while walking just 26.

Now, he wants more.

"I'm trying to finish this league in a sub-3.00 ERA, give up the least amount of walks I can have, and try to reach at least close to 150 innings," he told me, noting he likely won't pursue winter ball opportunities this offseason simply because of his workload in Modesto. "Our coaches here have all told me that I’ve impressed a lot of guys, and opened a lot of eyes. That’s a big relief. I’m a new guy that came in, and I’m doing my job. I’m showing them that I can pitch, and now, I leave all the rest of it in their hands."

There's little question this summer has been a breakout season for Almonte, but as confident and pleased as he is with the position in which he's put himself, this ought not be a coronation. Though prospect lists and potential future promotions are of far less concern to him relative to actual on-field performance, they're there—hovering as a distraction, an easy way to think too far ahead. In fact, that's been a challenge for him, trying to stay in the moment and focus start-to-start instead of daydreaming about his bright future on the Rockies' radar.

"I’ve thought about that stuff, but I try not to at the same time, I try not to get into my own head or think that I’m better than anyone or anything," Almonte admitted when I asked him about whether he's considered where he might be a year from now. "I try to use it as a building point, even in getting the feedback from the media. I read stuff and I say, ‘ok, maybe I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. Now let's see if I can do even better than that.'"

To do even better—really, even to continue the path he's been on—means Almonte has a good chance at winding up in the Rockies' big league clubhouse next February for the start of spring training. If it happens, he'll have earned his spot alongside other top prospects like Ryan McMahon, Raimel Tapia, Dom Nunez, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Matt Carasiti, and more, even if it's just for those first few weeks as a non-roster invitee before he's reassigned to minor league camp.

"That is something I want to do, just to get that experience," Almonte conceded about whether he's hoping for a non-roster spot come spring training. "I was talking to Dom about it, and he said it’s a great experience to see all the big guys there, Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado and all those guys, seeing their work ethic and how they go about their business. I can’t control that, that’s up to the Rockies. But if I do my part pitching-wise, hey, who knows, come February I may be in there."

Control is a funny thing in professional baseball. In the moment, in the pitcher-hitter battle, it's critical. Almonte controls more at-bats than he doesn't, and that's why he's successful. But it's those variables outside his control that can be so vexing—the organizational depth, the front office's future plans, whether or not a big leaguer gets traded for prospects this month, directives coming down from Denver that impact minor league affiliates, the decision of whether or not to invite a promising young player to big league camp, and a thousand other things that can alter a player's career that are outside his purview.

It's 'Showtime' for Yency Almonte

Like most guys at this level, Almonte has the right perspective on it; control what he can control, and as he says, hey, come February he may where he wants to be.

But he's also refreshingly honest and aware about what's happening around him, and he's smart enough to understand his path forward.

After all, you start flirting with triple digits and show a hard put-away slider, and people are liable to think one thing: closer. The young hurler knows that, too—just don't expect him to give in to that projection quite yet.

"I’ve always been a starter and I love starting, I love getting the ball every fifth day and trying to give my team a chance to win," he said when I asked about whether he's thought of the possibility the Rockies might make him a reliever down the road. "I’ve heard that a lot, I’ve even heard that from my parents, 'you throw hard, don’t be surprised if they make you a reliever.' And you know, the day they make me a reliever is the day they make me a reliever, but I’m a starter right now, and I’m going to show I can be a starter."

He has work to do to continue to start at higher levels. As good as his fastball is, big leaguers will hit it; he'll need to show more variations to his off speed as he rises through the upper minor leagues to the ultimate goal. Developing his changeup to the point that it's as strong as his slider isn't just a goal, it's virtually a requirement to keep him in the starting rotation going forward. That's a challenge easier said than done, of course, but it's one Almonte recognizes as his next big developmental goal.

"Once I get my changeup down, that’s when I’ll be completely set," he said. "Once that's there, I don’t have to show my slider. I can show the change early in the count, or early in the game, and get people off balance before I use my slider as a put-away pitch."

Could he end up a reliever? Sure, and he'd likely be very good in that role. But in the last four months, I've watched a guy who could rear back and blow a fastball by most High-A hitters steadily evolve into a command-focused pitcher with feel for both sides of the plate and a desire to get ground balls to keep his pitch count down. The upper-90s fastball is there, a nice wrinkle to pull out when he needs it, but Yency Almonte is no longer a thrower. He's a pitcher—and a prospect.

"If I can get through this league, and hopefully next year be in Double-A, that’s when I really have to show what I can do," he said. "At that point, I might be a phone call away."

★ ★ ★

To vote for Yency Almonte and/or any other Rockies prospects in this month's PuRP poll, click here and give us your top 30 minor leaguers in the system. Voting closes on July 18.