2. Ryan Rolison (634 points, 22 ballots)
If you were thinking to yourself, “hasn’t it been a while since there was a starting pitcher on this PuRPs list?”, you’re not alone. Among Colorado’s top 10 prospects, Ryan Rolison is the only starting pitcher and ranks as perhaps the only impact starter in the system with experience in full season ball. The 6’2” 22-year-old lefty was Colorado’s first round pick in 2018 (22nd overall), signing for a slot bonus of $2.9 million.
Tabbed as a polished pitcher and likely fast riser with a plus curveball when he was picked, Rolison has emerged after his first season of full season ball ready for an assignment to AA to begin 2020. He got to that point by dominating Rookie ball in a small sample the summer of his draft year, then following it up with an encouraging performance across two levels of A ball in 2019. Assigned to Low A Asheville to begin the year, Rolison quickly proved he had mastered the South Atlantic League with 14 2⁄3 innings over three starts in which he allowed only one earned run while striking out 14 and walking two. Only three weeks into the season, the Rockies promoted Rolison to High A Lancaster.
Just as I’ve been tempering enthusiasm of great offensive numbers by Rockies prospects in what is arguably the most friendly offensive environment in the minor leagues, so too must I give credit to a pitcher able to hold his own in Lancaster. In 116 1⁄3 frames across 22 starts for Lancaster, that’s what Rolison did against competition that was on average about 2.2 years older than him. Rolison’s 4.87 ERA and 1.44 WHIP at the level might not look pretty, but the context makes those numbers look respectable.
Rolison’s 4.05 xFIP indicates some ill fortune, while his 9.1 K/9 rate and 2.9 BB/9 are good peripherals. Furthermore, the impact of Rolison’s home park was quite easy to spot. In 13 starts at home, Rolison had a 6.06 ERA and allowed a .320 batting average. On the road (in what still was a net positive offensive environment), Rolison posted a strong 3.35 ERA and .215 batting average against mark over nine starts. It’s a fact of life that Rolison, should he make it to the big leagues with the Rockies, will need to face this type of radical home environment, but the runs minor league park factor for Lancaster is more like 132 compared to a 113 for Coors when compared to their league (much more extreme).
Here’s some video of Rolison’s appearance at the Cal League All-Star game, including some good slow motion looks at his arsenal at the end of the video:
While he didn’t make FanGraphs’ top 100 list, Rolison came in at #111 as the clear 2nd best player in the FanGraphs system ranking with a 50 Future Value grade:
Whether Rolison’s 2019 ascent was the result of real improvement or simply washed away our recency bias is immaterial. As a draft-eligible sophomore, he came out of the chute blazing hot and had top-10 pick buzz for the first month of the season before his year descended into chaos. He became wild and predictable, and yes, you read that right. Rolison couldn’t throw strikes with his fastball and leaned heavily on his curveball, which opposing hitters anticipated and crushed. It led to some bad outings, including one at South Carolina where he allowed 11 runs.
But 2019 was different. Rolison not only threw a greater percentage of strikes (65%) but he located his four-seam fastball where it plays best — at the top of the zone. After holding his college velo early in the year, it dipped late in the season but still competes for swings and misses because of its ride. There’s also more coherent pitch usage and a better pitch mix now; Rolison has a two-seamer, threw more changeups last year, and was just generally more mechanically consistent. He still throws across his body a bit and it can be hard for him to locate his breaking ball to his glove side, but the raw material for a lefty with three above-average pitches and starter control/command is clearly here and coming fast, so this is a back of the 50 FV tier prospect.
Baseball Prospectus also has Rolison 2nd in their org ranking, this time with a 55 OFP designation. Here’s Jeffrey Paternostro on Rolison:
The 22-year-old left-hander utilizes plus-athleticism and a controlled delivery to command his low-90’s fastball, a developing low-80s changeup, and a stellar curveball that can also bump into the low 80s.
Rolison fields his position well, demonstrates good poise, and generally works quickly when on the mound. His game is similar to Barry Zito’s in that he’ll compete with a well-executed arsenal of quality pitches, rather than overpowering stuff. He profiles long term as a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, but his versatility and advanced pitching acumen would allow him to contribute from a bullpen role as soon as 2020.
Adam McInturff of 2080 Baseball reported on Rolison during his brief Asheville stint, giving him a 50 grade. The whole profile is worth reading, but here was the conclusion:
Extremely polished, can move through system quickly, looks ready for next level. Pitchability, control/command, and solid off-speed give upside of reliable mid-rotation starter.
MLB.com had Rolison as their top player that missed the top 100 list and they rank him as the system’s clear number two prospect:
Rolison is the epitome of an advanced college lefty, one who should be able to use his four-pitch mix and outstanding feel for pitching. His best pitch is his plus curveball, a power breaking ball with depth that was one of the best breaking balls in his Draft class. He’s able to manipulate it and turn it into a solid slider as well, and he has a fading changeup that he didn’t use much last year but has shown a solid feel for in the past. All of those offerings support his 91-93 mph fastball that he commands extremely well. There might be a tick or two of velocity coming as he matures.
Not likely to be a huge strikeout guy, though that curve can miss bats, Rolison goes right after hitters, filling up the strike zone. His goal is early contact, changing speeds and quadrants to get weak contact. His savvy plus his stuff could have him progress rapidly through the Rockies system.
Rolison combines a plus curve, an above average low-mid 90s fastball, and one or two additional secondaries that rate above average (depending on the evaluation). He has good command of that arsenal and his left-handedness instantly raises the profile’s ceiling.
Rolison will enter AA in 2020 as a 22-year-old and he has an outside chance to end the year with the Rockies. Either way, he should be a rotation piece by the end of 2021 at his current trajectory. I ranked Rolison 2nd on my PuRPs ballot with a FV 50 grade as easily the best pitching prospect in the system. Here’s hoping there are more behind him in the pipeline or things will look pretty bleak at the big league level in a few years.