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The state of the Colorado Rockies farm system

What we’ve learned after rolling out our top 30 prospects

There have been better times to be a Rockies fan. That was my overall conclusion during the process of writing up blurbs on the 71 prospects named by at least one of the 29 member mid-season 2019 Purple Row Prospects list electorate while simultaneously watching the Major League club’s 2019 playoff chances implode despite a record-high payroll.

Having watched the vast majority of the MLB team’s games this season, I have a good understanding of the deficiencies and strengths of the Rockies. It was during the write-up process of PuRPs that I developed a similar understanding of the minor league system. As such, I thought I would provide some thoughts on how I expect the minor league levels to impact the Rockies in the rest of 2019 and over the next couple of years, including a look at the Rule 5 decisions the Rockies will need to make after this season has concluded.

Based on my deep dive into Colorado’s system, I believe it rates in the 25-30 range in MLB, which is perhaps lower than it has been in the entire 2010s. That opinion is borne out by FanGraphs, who rank the Rockies 26th on their farm system value rankings. FanGraphs isn’t the end-all, be-all of prospect evaluation, but they take a principled and organized view of the entire minor leagues and I trust their judgment more than my biases. I outlined a few reasons why this is the case in my pre-season look at the system as well, but here are the updated factors that have caused the system to regress:

  • Prospect graduation like Garrett Hampson and Peter Lambert this year is quite literally, along with turning prospects into veterans to make a post-season push, the point of having a farm system. This year, the Rockies didn’t really make any of those trades, so let’s focus on the graduation impact they’ve seen. In past years, the Rockies have graduated an impressive list of pre-arbitration players who have propelled them into playoff contention the last two years.

Unfortunately, top prospect Brendan Rodgers had poor performance and now shoulder surgery and didn’t join these ranks in 2019. Moreover, Hampson hasn’t been great in his big league looks and Lambert (while surprisingly adept with the bat) has been inconsistent on the bump. Other PuRPs like Josh Fuentes, Yonathan Daza, and Jesus Tinoco have similarly been unimpressive in MLB while retaining their prospect status.

  • Draft strategy has hurt the Rockies, who have recently used high round draft picks on players with limited role utility, whether that be relievers (Robert Tyler, Ben Bowden, and Tommy Doyle come to mind) or first base/corner infielders (Grant Lavigne, Michael Toglia, Tyler Nevin). While I happen to like a lot of those prospects, as a collective their ceiling is more limited given the lack of role flexibility. Meanwhile, Colorado has no PuRPs at all at catcher and in my estimation zero impact everyday outfielders — a result of mostly ignoring those positions in the higher rounds of the draft since David Dahl and (charitably) Tom Murphy in 2012.

That isn’t to say that drafting players highly at needed positions is a guarantee either — I see only one starting pitching prospect I feel great about (Ryan Rolison) in the system despite numerous high round picks getting invested in pitchers that have fallen apart or been consigned to the bullpen. There’s a convincing argument to be made that taking the best player available should always be the plan, especially for a sport with such a long development lead time. I just don’t think the Rockies have successfully executed on that strategy much over the last five years with their reliever and corner infield selections.

  • Talent imbalance — the Rockies currently have 15 relievers on their 40 man roster with another 3 or 4 likely relief arms worth protecting becoming Rule 5 eligible this off-season. The problem is, the Rockies simply can’t extract commensurate Major League value from these roster slots given the contracts they are unwilling to shed and the glut of potential options for those precious few slots. That’s why it’s confusing to see them trade for high minors relief pitching like Joe Harvey and Phillip Diehl or draft a pure reliever rumored to move fast like Jacob Wallace in the 3rd round.

At the corner infield positions, Nolan Arenado holding down third base is a great thing, but that leaves one or two spots on the big league roster that could conceivably filled by PuRPs Colton Welker, Lavigne, Toglia, Nevin, Aaron Schunk, Roberto Ramos, Brian Mundell, and Josh Fuentes. Ryan McMahon is breaking out at second base, but the presence of Rodgers would seem to portend a move back into that first base fray as well. I recognize that these players are on different developmental timelines, but they’ve already begun to pile up in Triple-A, awaiting a big league call that may never come. Meanwhile, there is an aforementioned dearth of talent in the outfield, catcher, and starting pitching.

  • The consequences of forgoing impact talent in areas other than likely-relief arms with high draft picks have been a lack of blue chip prospects in the organization. If Brendan Rodgers hadn’t suffered his injury and therefore retained prospect eligibility, there was a good chance that the Rockies wouldn’t have any top 100 prospects in their system, depending on how national prospect writers feel about Rolison or Welker (who are ranked in that range but are not consensus top 100 guys). That’s a far cry from Colorado routinely seeing several prospects on those top 100 lists over the last decade. Certainly it’s possible for some of the lower level prospects in the system to shine, but they haven’t done so in 2019. I was struck in my write-ups by just how rare it was to see elite seasons by our top prospects — even those like Rolison and Rico Garcia who got a promotion have struggled at their new level.

I sincerely hope Colorado’s front office is seeing the same deficiencies I’m pointing out and working to address them, but little in how they’ve acted over the last six months gives me faith that the Rockies have learned the right lessons from these struggles.

I do want to highlight some reasons for optimism:

  • Colorado really has developed a lot of high upside relievers, many in the upper minors. There are 9 pre-arbitration relievers on the 40 man roster, which in my opinion is the type of pitcher who almost exclusively should fill out a bullpen for a non-contending team. There’s 3 or 4 more of those arms in contention for immediate 40 man spots (see below), so there’s no need for Jeff Bridich to sign free agent relievers or trade for them.
  • Ditto for first base prospects — Any one of Welker, Nevin, Lavigne, and Toglia would be a high potential impact player at the position. In addition, Ramos, Mundell, and Fuentes represent interesting bench bat options available at Triple-A.
  • Colorado’s Latin America program seems to be back on track. After some fallow years and an organizational shift that took place in the last few years (including an expansion to two DSL clubs), the Rockies are churning out some really interesting prospects from the Dominican academy. These players include PuRPs like Eddy Diaz and Bladimir Restituyo, but also HM PuRPs like Helcris Olivarez and Julio Carreras — and they’re not alone, as several other exciting prospects are only now coming stateside. They’re not close to the majors, but it’s great to see a pipeline that’s been largely barren for a few years start pumping out lots of interesting talent again.

★ ★ ★

There are several intriguing prospects and likely major league contributors in the system outside the top 10, but it’s hard to see many who (outside of the bullpen) will provide significant MLB value in the near future. As a result, absent trades, for the next year or two the Rockies will need to roll with the group they have now at the big club and a few top prospects in the upper minors.

The Near Future: 40 Man Roster After 2019

One of the consequences of having a lot of near major league players as prospects is the need to protect many of them from the Rule 5 draft, as the Rockies have done with many players over the past few years.

Here’s how I would characterize each spot on the 40 man roster as it will exist after the 2019 season, the next time the Rockies will need to make mass additions to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft:

Sure things (current)

These players are on the current 40 man roster or the 60-day IL, have already seen major league action, and will still be on the roster exiting the 2019 season barring trades (which is a condition that of course applies to every category). We might not like this status in the case of Davis and Desmond, but they’re unlikely to be moved.

  1. Nolan Arenado
  2. German Marquez
  3. Jon Gray
  4. Trevor Story
  5. Charlie Blackmon
  6. David Dahl
  7. Scott Oberg
  8. Ryan McMahon
  9. Garrett Hampson
  10. Kyle Freeland
  11. Peter Lambert
  12. Tony Wolters
  13. Brendan Rodgers
  14. Daniel Murphy
  15. Ian Desmond
  16. Wade Davis
Likely (current)

These players have major league experience and will likely be on the post-2019 40 man roster, but under-performance could cause them to lose their spot to a DFA or non-tender. Presented roughly in my order of confidence:

17. Antonio Senzatela

18. Jake McGee

19. Bryan Shaw

Likely (future)

These players haven’t yet seen MLB action but are in good shape to have a 40-man roster spot after 2019, again presented in order of confidence:

20. Tyler Nevin

21. Ben Bowden

22. Ryan Castellani

23. Justin Lawrence

Under contract but at risk

These players are on the 40 man now but are serious candidates for a DFA or non-tender during or after the 2019 season — presented from most safe to least:

24. Jesus Tinoco

25. Yonathan Daza

26. Raimel Tapia

27. Tyler Anderson

28. Carlos Estévez

29. Yency Almonte

30. Jeff Hoffman

31. Jairo Diaz

32. Chad Bettis

33. Josh Fuentes

34. Pat Valaika

35. Sam Hilliard

36. Sam Howard

37. Chi Chi González

38. Joe Harvey

39. Phillip Diehl

40. Noel Cuevas

41. DJ Johnson

42. James Pazos

I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the above players were not in the organization after 2019, but in particular anyone below Estévez should consider their 40 man roster slot vulnerable.

That gets us to 42 players (possible due to 60 day IL spots and adding two prospects) and assumes that Chris Iannetta and Yonder Alonso leave the organization as free agents. A re-signed player or a free agent/trade acquisition would naturally decrease the amount of flex in play with Rule 5 protection — and there needs to be at least one catcher added to the 40 man, whether it be an in-house option (like Dom Nuñez) or a free agent (let’s not kid ourselves, it’s going to be Drew Butera).

Here’s how I would rank other prospects in terms of getting a 40 man slot:

1. Rico Garcia

2. Robert Tyler

3. Reid Humphreys

4. Dom Nuñez (or will be MiLB free agent)

5. Vince Fernandez

6. Breiling Eusebio

7. Roberto Ramos

8. Brian Mundell

9. Antonio Santos

10. Daniel Montano

11. Harrison Musgrave

12. Chris Rusin

13. Rayan González

I would say the top 2 in particular should feel good about getting protected, with the next six beyond that being strong possibilities. I think the bottom 17 or so slots on the 40 man are quite fluid at this point, so we could see a big roster shake-up in response to this uninspiring campaign.

That’s one man’s opinion for what the future will look like. I’d love to read yours in the comments! Thanks for following along with me the past few weeks. It will be great to follow these prospects through the rest of the 2019 season until it becomes time to do this all over again!