3. Colton Welker (870 points, 32 ballots)
While Colton Welker was Colorado’s fourth round pick in the 2016 draft, his $855k signing bonus eclipsed that of fellow top-five PuRP and third round pick Garrett Hampson, hinting at his importance to the organization. The now 21-year-old third baseman, who was converted from shortstop in pro ball, has rewarded the Rockies with excellent play at all three minor league stops so far. In fact, if not for an abdominal strain that kept him out of play for two months in 2017, Welker would have been a strong contender for the South Atlantic League MVP as he led the league in average, on-base percentage, and OPS as a 19-year-old.
Assigned to High A Lancaster in 2018, the 6’2” Welker continued to provide plenty of evidence to any remaining doubters that he is a legitimate prospect. Against pitchers who were on average 2.3 years older in the California League, Welker hit a blistering .333/.383/.489 in 509 plate appearances, which is a 134 wRC+. That includes 13 homers and 32 doubles for Lancaster while striking out in 20% of PA and walking in 8%. Welker heated up in the season’s second half, hitting .373 after the All-Star Break and posting a 1.021 OPS in 80 August ABs. Defensively, Welker spent the majority of his time at third base and acquitted himself well, committing only 6 errors in 92 games at the position.
As is the case for anyone playing in a hitter’s haven like Lancaster, layering in context is important. Welker’s numbers were buoyed by a .395 BABIP, and he hit much better at home (.376/.419/.572) than on the road (.289/.345/.404). He crushed against both lefties (.356/.391/.519) and right-handers (.326/.381/.480). Factoring all that in, Welker has been darn impressive this year especially considering his age vs. the level of pitching.
In fact, 31.2% of Welker’s line drives and fly balls went for hits, the best of any player in the entire minor leagues according to MLB.com (the linked article includes a spray chart that shows Welker was hitting line drives to all fields in 2018). That’s an indicator that Welker was consistently driving the ball with authority, park boost or no.
Here’s some video of Welker in Lancaster from April 2018 courtesy of Baseball Census:
Welker continues to show an innate ability to make consistent hard contact, recognizing pitches extremely well and not getting fooled often. While his strikeout rate has gone up, so has his ability to draw walks, and he started tapping into his power more in 2018, with the ability to drive the ball to all fields from the right side of the plate. While speed isn’t a part of his game, he’s far from a clogger, with good instincts on the basepaths.
Welker has more than enough arm to profile well at third and his hands should allow him to stay there. His lack of speed might eventually be an impediment. Nolan Arenado will be a free agent after the 2019 season; his future in Colorado could determine if Welker takes over in ‘20 or slides over to first, a spot he saw limited time at in ‘18.
The above evaluation shows that outside of a 35 run tool, Welker presents a well-rounded and potent prospect package, highlighted by his 60 hit and arm tool grades.
Welker just keeps hitting, although there’s always the skepticism about the hitter’s parks in which Rockies prospects play. Welker has gone through Grand Junction, Asheville and Lancaster -- probably the best hitter’s parks in their respective leagues -- so far as a pro. His bat-to-ball skill is real despite a lot of quirks in the swing that should impede him -- from how he’s hard to his front side to the lack of any sort of hand trigger to how uphill his path through the ball can get. He’s a 45 defender at third with great hands but limited range. He’ll move up to the Eastern League this year, playing for Hartford, the least hitter-friendly park in Colorado’s system, against better pitching, and I think if he hits yet again as he has for three years running, much of the skepticism about his bat will melt away.
Baseball Prospectus ranked Welker 5th in their recent Rockies system ranking with a 55 OFP and 50 Likely role tag:
Welker’s hitting-count rips are a sight to behold, with a long, majestic bat path and the bat speed for the barrel to traverse it with impressive haste. It’s all a bit of an illusion at present, however, as the approach into the zone is steeper and he leverages his attack angle less often than most young power hitters. High-end hand-eye and an intelligent, all-fields approach underlie an impressive hit tool that may push plus when all’s said and done—minor-league statistical salt grains and all, but he’s sitting on a .337 professional average in more than 900 at-bats now. Above-average game power will come with maturity, but for now he’s a drill-it-on-a-line kinda guy, and that’s a-ok.
Welker’s thick frame and heavy legs aren’t masking any hidden speed above his present 30 grade, but he’s got the quickness and short-range agility to play a better third base than you’d expect. He gets down well on balls in reach, and a powerful crossover extends the range just enough. Above-average arm strength ties off a workable, solid-average defensive profile at the hot corner.
John Eshleman from 2080 Baseball provided his take in a spotlight on Welker from back in April 2018:
He has filled out a 6’2” frame and is showing increased raw power that now projects to a future-plus grade. I like his chances to get to it in games because of a swing-path geared for lift, ability to use the other field and avoid the shift, and the strike zone awareness he shows flashes of at times. Presently, Welker is occasionally more aggressive than he needs to be given his feel for the barrel and zone, and he had bouts of swing-and-miss across my look. Despite some length to his swing, his hitting instincts are ahead of the curve for his age/pro experience, and I see a future above-average hitter and hitter for power that has enough bat to stick in the lineup at third base.
I came away bullish on his defensive skills and projection at the hot corner. Despite some present stiffness, Welker’s footwork is enough for the position–he moves average laterally and charges the ball well with the ability to throw on the run and control his body. His arm is above-average across the infield, and he reads hops well and sets his feet before making the play, allowing for a quick release. Though he carries a large and muscular frame, he’s agile and athletic for his size and I expect him to continue to add polish defensively such that he can remain at third base at higher levels. With his offense and ability to play more than just first base or left field, the ceiling is an above-average third baseman with 55-grade hit and power tools.
Taken together, the scouting reports paint a picture of a dangerous hitter and an improving fielder, but one who will remain a corner infielder. He’s also getting consistent Nolan Arenado comparisons, but that’s a very nice dream at this point. After weighing the excellent production and the scouting reports, I ranked Welker 4th in the system with a 50+ Future Value grade as an above average corner infielder.
Welker will get his biggest challenge yet in 2019 as he moves up to the more neutral Eastern League against advanced Double-A pitching. Welker’s future major league utility will probably rely heavily on his bat due to the corner infield defensive profile, so it’s been encouraging to see him get off to this kind of start offensively in his professional career and even more so to hear that he’s showing strides defensively at the hot corner. He’s still probably over a year away, but Welker makes what was already a loaded corner infield position even more potent for the organization even with Arenado’s status up in the air.