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The state of the Colorado Rockies farm system

It’s Brendan Rodgers and everyone else

Each time I write up each player who receives votes in our biannual Purple Row Prospects list (this time it was 60 players across 22 ballots), I get a sneak peek into what the future may hold for the Colorado Rockies. Given Colorado’s well known reticence to engage much in trades or the free agent market, a look down at the farm offers a better glimpse of the future for the Rockies than it does for most MLB teams.

And how does the future look for the Rockies? If you ask most national prospect experts and the Purple Row Prospect electorate, it’s not sunshine and rainbows. Though FanGraphs hasn’t yet released their full MLB system rankings, the Rockies were ranked 26th in MLB in their midseason 2019 update. 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. FanGraphs ranked 31 Rockies back in early December and while the system improved in total value (with each graded player providing a value based on their FV rank) from $115M up to $142M, since that time two players on what was still a thin list are out of the system altogether (Roberto Ramos to Korea, Robert Tyler to retirement).

The tone from Baseball Prospectus was also negative on the system in their top 10 list, with their “state of the system” summary reading:

Well, this de-escalated quickly. There’s some interesting relief arms, and intriguing low minors guys, but the Rockies system is about as thin as the air up there now.

So why do these national prospect writers feel this way? Doing these write-ups affords me an opportunity to view the strengths and weaknesses of the system and how the Rockies will be impacted by their farm system in 2020 and over the next few years. Here were my general system conclusions:

  • It’s Brendan Rodgers and everyone else

After a half decade or so where the Rockies have consistently had several top 100 prospects in the system, Brendan Rodgers is the only player to receive that distinction among the national prospect writers I follow. Rodgers had a tough 2019, but if he’s fully recovered from his labrum injury he should be able to provide another impact bat to Colorado’s lineup with defensive utility that plays all over the diamond.

  • Starting pitcher depth is a concern

Ryan Rolison (No. 2 PuRP) is a fine prospect, a high probability lefty with good secondary offerings and strong command. He’s also in my opinion the only starting pitcher prospect in the system I feel confident about sticking in the rotation and providing the Rockies league average production.

That’s not to say Rolison is the only starting pitcher worth watching. There are some interesting arms in the system who are starting now but who are most likely ticketed for a bullpen role (Ashton Goudeau, Ryan Feltner) or who seem destined to be back of rotation pitchers (Ryan Castellani, Karl Kauffmann). Helcris Olivarez is a name to keep an eye on, but he’s yet to pitch in full season ball, and Riley Pint could be awesome if he figures it out. Ultimately, I don’t love the collection of players who should in theory be forming a nucleus of the Rockies rotation in 3-4 years.

  • There’s a glut of prospects who might only fit at first base

It’s cool to see the Rockies have three of the top ten prospects in the minor leagues at a single position, as the Rockies do according to MLB Pipeline. Of course, the position at which those prospects are least likely to provide big MLB value is first base, and the three prospects the Rockies placed on that list were ranked 8-10 (Michael Toglia, Grant Lavigne, Tyler Nevin).

Even beyond those three, the Rockies are flush with hitters who seem stuck at first or doomed to be shoehorned into a corner outfield/third base role. On this PuRPs list, I counted five players with first base as the primary position and two more that seem destined to end up there (not including the dearly departed Ramos). Considering that only one player can man first at a time (or two in a platoon situation), something has to give for these prospects to provide value to the Rockies.

It’s clear the Rockies are good at drafting/developing these corner infielders (they also have four or five players in the top 30 that I like best at third base in addition to the aforementioned first base prospects). At some point though they need to trade from this area of strength for players at positions of need.

Positions like...

  • So, who exactly is going to push Tony Wolters at catcher?

Dom Nuñez is the lone catcher on this edition of the PuRPs list. While at one point he was touted as one of the best catching prospects in the minors, that was about five full years ago. Nuñez seems ticketed for a back-up role and the Rockies don’t have any high-ranked catchers coming up behind him. The Rockies haven’t devoted a high round pick on a catcher since Tom Murphy in 2012 (oh, what could have been...), so it might be a good idea to go that route early in this year’s draft.

  • The outfield is looking up, but it’s still thin

Sam Hilliard’s excellent September elevated him to the role of a potential impact outfield prospect, something lacking from the system at midseason. Brenton Doyle, the 2019 fourth rounder, is another player whose arrow is pointing way up after a stellar debut season (with scouting reports to match). With that said, it’s only those two and MLB-ready defensive whiz Yonathan Daza who made the PuRPs list from that position this time around.

  • Can we please not spend any more free agent money on the bullpen?

I was vocally against the bullpen free agent spree of the 2018 offseason not because I didn’t like the players per se but because, in my opinion, relievers are so fungible and easy to replace that a team should almost never be paying even arbitration prices for them.

To that end, the Rockies again are flush with high potential relief arms in their system who could provide MLB value as soon as 2020 if the need arises. I count eight PuRPs on this list whose likely MLB contributions will come out of the pen, with all of them on a development path to be on the Rockies by 2022. They won’t all hit of course, but they don’t need to. After all, the Rockies already have several pre-arb/early arb high-octane arms that have graduated from rookie status beyond the relievers on the farm.

  • Colorado’s Latin America program seems to be back on track.

I noted this at midseason, but it’s worth repeating. After an organizational shift that took place in the last few years (including an expansion to two Dominican Summer League clubs), the Latin America program is producing some high potential players who are rising up scouting lists quickly. They include PuRPs like Olivarez, Eddy Diaz, Julio Carreras, and Adael Amador—plus honorable mention PuRPs like Bladimir Restituyo and Breiling Eusebio. They’re a long way away, but in a system that lacks impact players, they’re the players to watch for.

★ ★ ★

Due to the nature of the talent in the system and where it is concentrated, outside of the bullpen, I don’t see the farm providing significant value at the MLB level over the next couple years. With that said, the Rockies will have several prospects fighting this year for a coveted 40-man roster spot after the 2020 season.

The Near Future: 40-Man Roster After 2020

Here’s how I would characterize each spot on the 40-man roster as it will exist after the 2020 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, have already seen major league action, and will still be on the roster after the 2020 season barring trades (which is a condition that of course applies to every category). We might not like this status in the case of Ian Desmond, but they’re unlikely to be moved.

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

These players have major league experience and will likely be on the post-2020 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:

16. Carlos Estévez

17. Jairo Díaz

Likely (future)

These players haven’t yet seen MLB action but are in good shape to have a 40-man roster spot after 2020, again presented in order of confidence:

18. Colton Welker

19. Ben Bowden

20. Ryan Castellani

21. Tyler Nevin

22. Antonio Santos

23. Tommy Doyle

The vesting option crew

If any of the three relievers below have their option vest, they’ll likely be with the Rockies in 2021, though they would be in danger of a DFA. The cost if all vest would be at least $33 million to the 2021 budget. Presented in order of vesting likelihood:

24. Bryan Shaw

25. Wade Davis

26. Jake McGee

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:

27. Ashton Goudeau

28. Jose Mujica

29. Jesus Tinoco

30. Yonathan Daza

31. Raimel Tapia

32. Chi Chi Gonzalez

33. Antonio Senzatela

34. Yency Almonte

35. James Pazos

36. Dom Nunez

37. Phillip Diehl

38. Jeff Hoffman

39. Josh Fuentes

40. Tyler Kinley

41. Justin Lawrence

I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the above players were not in the organization after 2020, but in particular anyone below Daza should consider their 40-man roster slot vulnerable.

That gets us to 41 players (possible due to Lawrence’s suspension and adding two prospects) and it assumes that Daniel Murphy leaves the organization as a free agent (and his mutual option doesn’t get picked up). I think Shaw’s option will vest, while I’m on the fence on Davis and I think McGee’s is least likely. Let’s assume one of them hits free agency after 2020.

A re-signed player or a free agent/trade acquisition would naturally decrease the amount of flex in play with Rule 5 protection. Most likely the Rockies will consider adding a veteran non-roster invitee like Chris Owings, Elias Diaz, Drew Butera, Tim Collins, or even Ubaldo Jimenez to their 26-man roster to start the 2020 season and fill their currently vacant 40-man slot. They could also use that slot on a 2019 Rockies pitcher like Harrison Musgrave, Tim Melville, Joe Harvey, or Wes Parsons.

Here’s how I would rank other prospects in terms of getting a 40-man spot after 2020:

  1. Helcris Olivarez
  2. Riley Pint (if he’s great this year, he jumps into the likely future bucket)
  3. Reid Humphreys
  4. Vince Fernandez
  5. Bret Boswell
  6. Alan Trejo
  7. Breiling Eusebio
  8. Brian Mundell (or will be MiLB free agent)
  9. Julian Fernandez
  10. Casey Golden
  11. Daniel Montano
  12. Sean Bouchard

I would say Olivarez in particular should feel good about getting protected, with the next three beyond that being strong possibilities. I listed 13 players here last time around and Goudeau wasn’t one of them, so somebody from off this list could make a surprise appearance. I think the bottom 15 or so slots on the 40-man are quite fluid at this point, so we could see a big roster shake-up if 2020 looks more like 2019 for the Rockies.

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 over the last couple months.