17. Ben Bowden (334 points, 29 ballots)
Ben Bowden’s destiny was to be the first player from the 2016 draft to hit the big leagues. Supporting that assumption was that the lefty pitcher, selected in the second round of the 2016 draft and given an above slot $1.6 million signing bonus, was assigned directly to Low-A Asheville after the draft. There he threw out of the bullpen exclusively, another marker of a fast mover through the system. Unfortunately, a bulging disc in Bowden’s back got in the way of destiny and kept him from throwing a professional pitch in 2017, allowing 2016 third rounder (and fellow PuRP) Garrett Hampson to grab the honor of first MLB debut from the draft class.
When he was drafted, there was an open question of whether Bowden would be a starter or reliever (he served in both roles for Vanderbilt). After the back injury, Bowden’s 2018 usage pointed definitively to reliever as the chosen role by the Rockies. Assigned back to Asheville to begin the year, Bowden quickly proved he could miss bats, striking out 25 (14.7/9) while walking 5 in 15 1⁄3 innings in the South Atlantic League. Bowden posted a 3.52 ERA, but his 2.26 xFIP and .429 BABIP indicate he was unlucky to even allow that much damage.
The Rockies saw enough to promote Bowden in mid-May to the hitter’s haven of Lancaster where the 6’4” pitcher faced age-appropriate competition. In 34 appearances with Lancaster, Bowden was again a high strikeout pitcher, punching out 53 in 36 2⁄3 innings (13 K/9) while walking 15 and posting a 4.17 ERA (3.40 xFIP). Between the two levels, Bowden struck out 78 in 52 innings for an outstanding 13.5 K/9 rate against a 3.5 BB/9 rate. It is worth noting that Bowden’s less stellar ERA numbers were inflated by an elevated 16% HR/FB rate, which is most likely tied to the homer-friendly parks he pitched in but is something to watch with Bowden going forward.
Here’s some video on Bowden from Spring 2017 courtesy of FanGraphs:
Bowden operates with a 92-95 mph fastball that peaks at 97 and features late life and steep downhill plane. He has full trust in his changeup, which tumbles and shows flashes of becoming a plus pitch. His breaking ball is a slurvy hybrid but does have some power and could become a solid slider.
With three pitches, control and a durable frame, Bowden is equipped to start and got a brief look in the rotation from the Commodores before they decided he was more valuable in the bullpen. The Rockies also value him more as a reliever who still could rush to the Majors despite losing what would have been his first full pro season. There’s a good chance that he’ll become a setup man, with closer a possibility if he refines his slider and command.
Baseball Prospectus recently ranked Bowden 13th in the system (comments are in concert with PuRP 23 Robert Tyler, who ranked 14th on their list):
Both have fast-track potential if they show well [in AA]. Tyler was gassed at the end of the season, while Bowden held up better and flashed a slightly higher-end ceiling. Tyler throws a bit harder and Bowden offers a quality pitch mix from the left side. Neither looks like a budding relief ace but they could both wind up as valuable bullpen contributors.
Bowden’s major league-caliber tool is his low- to mid-90s fastball (60 grade) from the left-hand side. Importantly, Bowden is not a one-trick pony, boasting two average or better secondary pitches (including a 55 changeup) to go with 50 control. It’s an advanced mix that has Bowden on the fast track to the big leagues, where he could become a high leverage reliever.
As a 2016 draftee, Bowden is yet another prospect who the Rockies will need to add to the 40 man roster to offer Rule 5 draft protection at the end of 2019, and he’s a highly likely selection if left unprotected. I think it’s likely the 24-year old will begin the year in Double-A with an outside chance to factor into the September big league bullpen, though that would require an opportunity and a strong performance by Bowden. More likely, Bowden is fighting it out with Reid Humphreys, Justin Lawrence, Jesus Tinoco, Robert Tyler, Tommy Doyle, and the incumbents for a spot in the 2020 bullpen. For the record, among the prospects listed above I’d rank only Tinoco ahead of Bowden.
I value Bowden’s ability to miss bats, get batters out from both the left and the right side as a southpaw, and handle more than an inning if necessary. The combination of pedigree, production, and scouting reports led me to rank him 14th on my personal ballot with a 40 Future Value designation as a likely middle reliever or better.