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Colorado Rockies prospects: No. 3, Colton Welker

Welker doesn’t have the easiest path to the majors with Nolan Arenado holding down the reins at third base

3. Colton Welker (580 points, 22 ballots)

Colton Welker has largely followed the Nolan Arenado prospect development path to date. Both players were high school shortstops that were converted immediately to third base after getting drafted (Arenado in the 2nd round, Welker in the 4th). Both players moved up the minor league ladder a year at a time, posting excellent lines in Asheville and more pedestrian numbers elsewhere (but still above average as one of the youngest in each league they played in).

Arenado played in the Arizona Fall League after High A (Welker’s tour there this year was after AA) and was much more successful (winning the MVP), but both prospects exited the AA level with question marks about whether their skill sets would transfer to success at the big league level. The challenge for Welker though (beyond a defensive profile that hasn’t developed as nicely as Nolan’s) is that he finds Arenado ahead of him on the organizational depth chart, arresting his progress at his primary professional position. As a result, the 22-year-old Welker now finds himself needing to play first base in a system with a plethora of similar corner infielders in order to make a Major League impact.

As was mentioned above, Welker played 2019 in AA as one of the youngest players in the Eastern League at 3.1 years younger than average. The 6’2” slugger came out of the gate on fire with a .356/.400/.552 line in April, but that was by far his most productive month. Welker’s OPS declined from .952 to .738 in May to .583 in June to .450 in July, which was cut short by an injury.

After a month on the IL, Welker returned and rebounded to a .682 OPS August. The final AA line of .252/.313/.408 with 34 extra base hits (10 HR) in 394 plate appearances was slightly above average (109 wRC+) considering Welker’s youth and the league offensive context, but the trajectory of the season was not ideal. More encouraging was that Welker cut down on his K% year over year, dropping from 20.2% to 17.3%. Defensively, Welker mostly played at third base (63 games, 4 errors) but he also was worked into the first base rotation (27 games, 0 errors).

Welker was placed in the AFL after the regular season, where against other fellow top prospects he didn’t impress, albeit in a small sample. In 20 games (12 at 3B, 8 at 1B) and 97 PAs, Welker produced a .229/.340/.253 line with only two extra base hits (both doubles). Furthermore, in those 20 games he made six errors on defense.

Here’s a look at Welker at the Eastern League All-Star Game in July 2019 courtesy of 2080 Baseball:

Accompanying the above video was Adam McInturff’s report at 2080 Baseball on Welker in July:

His best tools are at the plate, with a loose, strong swing that has above-average bat control for its longer and lashing path. That allows Welker to square up different pitch types, able to adjust the barrel to numerous parts of the zone. He doesn’t have the look of a high-strikeout hitter, with reason to project on more power given his large frame and plus batspeed. Defensively, Welker splits time between infield corners and likely projects to do so in the early parts of his career. He has the arm for 3B, but a thickening lower half holds up his lateral range and could make it tough to stay at the hot corner past his physical prime.

Welker’s offensive upside has moved him near the top of Colorado’s farm system. The tools to be an above-average hit/power producer are here, though his iffy defensive value might bump him to the FV 50 tier. He could be a solid big league contributor for a long time.

FanGraphs dropped Welker to 7th in their org rankings with a 45 Future Value grade:

From a hands and actions standpoint, Welker is actually fine at third base. It’s his lateral quickness that’s an issue, and why he’s generally considered a first base prospect. But same as we’ve seen Travis Shaw and Max Muncy play elsewhere, it stands to reason someone out there thinks Welker can stay at third, or handle duties around the second base bag in certain situations. Those are the teams most likely to think Welker can play something resembling an everyday role, because while he has excellent feel to hit, he lacks the raw power typical of first base.

Baseball Prospectus slid Welker down to 8th in the system with a 50 OFP designation. Here’s Jeffrey Paternostro on Welker:

Welker’s first season in Double-A was uneven. The raw power is obvious. It’s easy—well, not easy—plus from a violent uppercut hack. There’s commensurate plus bat speed, but he can get long and tends to be overly aggressive. Welker only really had one mode against Eastern League arms and he could be exploited by more advanced arms even if they didn’t have huge stuff. He struggled to adjust to off-speed and tended to pull off breaking stuff. He’d expand with two strikes and couldn’t really cut down. When he made contact, the ball went far, but I wonder how much of the raw pop will get into games. You are basically betting on him making adjustments here, and while there’s a good pro track record before this year, it’s a tough swing to bet on.

I’d feel better about the overall profile if I were more certain he’d stick at third. The frame is rectangular-ish and he struggled coming in on balls, although he has a decent first step and fine lateral range, the arm is just okay at third base, and overall Welker looked more comfortable across the diamond at first. That would make him a right/right first baseman with a fringe hit tool. That’s a tough fit.

Welker currently ranks 3rd in the system according to MLB Pipeline (report comes from before the 2019 season):

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.

The scouting reports above are mixed, with some praising his power while questioning his approach against advanced pitching or vice versa. In today’s shift-happy baseball, it’s become more possible to hide a low-range, good hands defender like Welker at positions like second base, but it’s more likely that other players ahead of Welker on the org ladder take on that role (like Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rodgers).

I’m curious to see how the Rockies handle the reps at the corner spots in AAA this year given the glut of potential contributors at those spots. If Welker’s contribution is to be at first base, it might be as a weak side to a platoon with McMahon unless he hits too well to keep the bat out of the lineup. More likely though (or at least it would be more likely in a normal organization), the Arenado situation will force either Welker or Arenado out of the organization to find contributors at a position that is an organizational weakness (particularly catcher and starting pitcher).

I ranked Welker 4th on my ballot with a 45+ FV because I believe the bat is Major League caliber and I think he’ll be ready as soon as late 2020, though I just don’t see how he fits into Colorado’s future plans.