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Colorado Rockies prospects: No. 26, Justin Lawrence

Just as it was beginning to look like Justin Lawrence could be the Rockies’ future closer, he struggled immensely in 2019

26. Justin Lawrence (131 points, 14 ballots)

Justin Lawrence was a two-way player in college who wasn’t really successful at either “way” initially. A lack of game action gave the righty plenty of time to monkey with his motion, including a lowering of his arm slot that improved his fastball’s velocity and life. This success was enough to get Lawrence noticed by the Rockies as a 12th round pick out of a Florida community college in 2015 and earn him a $100K signing bonus.

Though Lawrence did not find immediate success as a pro, his stuff gave him more chances than a normal player with his pedigree, and finally something clicked in his second year as a pro. Lawrence spent the next two years dominating in A-ball (though his 2017 was abbreviated by a torn lat muscle) and the 2018 AFL, garnering him a 40-man roster slot entering 2019.

In a nutshell, Lawrence can throw in the upper 90s from an awkward, almost sidearm angle with a strong slider. He pairs strikeout stuff with the ability to keep the ball on the ground when it is put in play (his lowest GB% entering 2019 was 63%). When polling scouts about who would be the Rockies closer among the plethora of relief prospects in the system, the most common answer entering 2019 was the 25-year-old righty. That’s why it was so difficult to watch Lawrence struggle in 2019.

One reason Lawrence might have struggled, of course, is that the Rockies jumped him over Double-A entirely into the viper’s nest that was the Pacific Coast League in 2019. In 10 1⁄3 innings with Albuquerque, Lawrence allowed 10 runs on 12 hits and 9 walks, striking out 6. After going on the IL in late April, Lawrence was assigned to Double-A in early June. With Hartford, his results unfortunately weren’t much better. In 30 games, Lawrence threw 26 23 innings at the level and posted an abysmal 8.78 ERA with a 2.06 WHIP and a 6.8 BB/9 rate while seeing his ground ball % drop to 48%. However, he did whiff 8.8/9 and his 4.88 xFIP indicates quite a bit of bad fortune, but those other rate stats are unplayable.

For whatever reason (injury, fatigue, aggressive placement?), it just didn’t work out for Lawrence this year. Maybe that should teach us to be cautious when we see the kind of rise Lawrence enjoyed with a strong 2018 when that was really his only full season with strong results to pair with the filthy stuff.

In the below video of Lawrence from the 2018 AFL, you can see why it might be very difficult to hit against him: ranks Lawrence 18th in the system, though the write-up is from before the 2019 season:

Lawrence continues to throw harder as he progresses through the Rockies system, thanks to his throwing program and tweaks he’s made to his delivery. He’s now 97-100 mph with his fastball, routinely hitting triple digits during his AFL stint, coming from a very low three-quarters to sidearm slot. At times, there’s some serious sink that elicits a ton of groundball outs. He’s already a very uncomfortable at-bat for any right-handed hitter and he’s working on tightening up his slider to be a better all-around reliever.

With his delivery and arm slot, it’s tough for Lawrence to remain consistent in his mechanics, leading to some issues with command. He focused on that during his AFL stint and the Rockies think it will continue to improve with more reps, with the chance for Lawrence to be a back-end bullpen guy in the big leagues.

The profile of Lawrence above, as is the case with most relief prospects, is headlined by a plus fastball. In Lawrence’s evaluation, the fastball receives a 70 grade but the slider (50), changeup (45) and control (40) grades leave Lawrence looking a bit one dimensional.

Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus wrote up Lawrence in June 2019 after seeing him in Hartford:

[Lawrence] ramped up in this outing from the low-90s to 96, but didn’t have the high-90s velocity he showed last year in the Cal League. It’s still an incredibly tough angle for right-handed batters, and he generated some ugly swings. Not as ugly as the ones on his slider, mind you. That flashed plus, coming in around 80 with more depth than you’d expect, given the low slot. A 95-and-a-slider guy with that slot is a credible major league reliever, assuming he finds his consistent command again—it was perfectly acceptable for a late-inning reliever in my look—but he won’t project as a late-inning arm without a bit of a velo bump. Hopefully better health brings triple digits to my radar gun in the second half of the year.

FanGraphs listed him as a Prospect of Note last month, saying that “Lawrence is an upper-90s sidearmer with very poor pitch execution.”

The stuff is too good for the Rockies to give up on Lawrence during what has been a trying year for the right-hander, but it doesn’t look like he’s ready for the Show. I’d expect him to repeat in AA to start the year but he could see the Major League pen in 2020. Maybe in spring camp something will just fall into place—with an arm like his, one small correction might be all it takes to unlock the bullpen beast within.

Lawrence has plenty of competition for a MLB bullpen slot with a number of other high octane arms in Colorado’s system and those who have already eclipsed their prospect status. Even with the congestion though, Lawrence is too nasty not to consider a future building block for Colorado’s bullpen. He just fell off my list this time around but I’d give him a FV 35+ grade despite his struggles this year.