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How does player development work in the Rockies minor league system?

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Assistant GM of Player Development Zach Wilson offers some insight into the team’s process for developing young talent

Minor League Baseball was supposed to start on April 9, but unfortunately a minor league season is looking a bit bleak in the current climate. We should be two Pebble Reports into the season with information about how all of your favorite PuRPs are doing at their respective levels. But instead of stats, I spoke with Rockies Assistant General Manager of Player Development Zach Wilson early in Spring Training about the team’s player development process.

In this four-part series, we will explore what the Rockies look for in certain players at certain levels, take a closer look at two of their breakout prospects from 2019 as well as two players who are hopefully poised to bounce back in 2020 (or whenever MiLB starts again), and look towards the future with some exciting up-and-coming prospects to keep on your radar.

It’s a process

As it stands now, the Rockies have eight minor league teams — four full-season teams (Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes, Double-A Hartford Yard Goats, High-A Lancaster JetHawks, and Low-A Asheville Tourists) and four short-season teams (Short-A Boise Hawks, Rookie Grand Junction Rockies, and two Dominican Summer League teams). Many of their pre-draft players are assigned to the full-season leagues whereas their recently drafted players are most often assigned to the short-season leagues. Players making injury returns are also sometimes temporarily assigned to the short-season teams.

In most cases, players take a traditional path from Rookie ball to Triple-A before finally (hopefully) making the major league team. But how does the player development team decide which players make which rosters at what times?

“Every level is different and we look at every level very differently. I can tell you a couple of very general things,” said Wilson. “At the beginning of guys’ careers, I don’t look at their stats at all, and so many of these rankings are done by who’s achieving things on paper. And that’s okay because a lot of times that’s the only thing that people have to go with.

“But for me, it’s a lot less what’s on paper, especially really High-A down,” he continued, “It’s a lot less about what’s on paper and it’s a lot more about ‘what is their process really like’ and ‘is that process going in the direction it needs to go’ and ‘is that process sort of being fulfilled in the ways that it needs to?’ Those are the things that are important to me.

“I tell some of our youngest players all the time, ‘I have no idea what your stats are in Grand Junction.’ And a lot of times I truly don’t know because I don’t care about that stuff,” Wilson continued. “I care about the day-in-day out, week-in-week-out monthly process that is going on with that player and as long as that is being executed in ways that are eventually going to pay dividends 3-4-5-6 years later up here. Sometimes stats show up right away with that process; sometimes they don’t. So it’s really process oriented, particularly at the lower levels.”

A balance of successes and failures

Within that process, just as in any other process in life, there are successes and failures. And Wilson makes sure that his players are learning from their successes and failures at each level so that they can develop what’s working and tweak what isn’t working in order to be the most successful players that they can be.

“I’ve told a lot of different people this, and I believe this: If all you’re doing is succeeding at a certain level, you’re at the wrong level. If all you’re doing is failing at a certain level, you’re at the wrong level,” he said. “I want there to be a mixture of success and adversity. I want people to gain confidence through success. I want players to gain learning and education and figure out adjustments through failure. Failure is not a bad thing in player development. And by the math, it may be looked at sometimes as a bad thing. I don’t encourage it, but I certainly welcome it when it happens because I think there’s a lot that we can gain on the other side of that.”

As an educator, I can relate to this statement. Teaching students to play musical instruments is a skill, just like baseball. Sure the mechanics are different, but the physical “skill” idea is fundamentally similar. For many of my music students, especially at a young age, it is their first time playing an instrument, and they have to learn to use their muscles in ways that they haven’t before. For others, they have been playing music since they were very young — often piano. Learning to play the trumpet is similar to learning to play the piano in many regards, but there are still different skills involved.

Every year students reach a point where their instruments get “hard,” and they start to get frustrated. It happens with beginning students all the way up to professional musicians. Like Zach Wilson, I always made sure that my students had a good balance of easy and challenging music because the best way to learn and grow is to be challenged, but if they are challenged too much, then they feel defeated and don’t want to continue.

Wilson cited Trevor Story as an example of a player who seemed to be at the wrong level in High-A Modesto because he struggled more than many people thought he should have at that point.

Trevor Story is the shining example of a guy who when he was in Modesto he hit .220 in High-A, and now he’s probably the best shortstop in the league. Not probably in my eyes — he is,” Wilson said. “And so you know, it’s easy to go, ‘well this guy’s not doing what he needs to do’ or ‘now this guy’s not going to mean anything’ or ‘this guy’s not a prospect anymore.’ It’s harder to go, ‘remain patient, follow the path, follow the process, and let what needs to happen, happen so that it all comes together some point up here.’ For Trevor it certainly did, and I can name player after player after player that has gone through that type of path to the big leagues and it’s ultimately paid off. So it just depends on the player.

“Ultimately, it depends on the level. There are definitely differences between each level in terms of what we’re trying to get at a level for a particular player,” he continued. “What people love to look at is offensive numbers. Well, ‘Why isn’t this player moving?’ ‘Why isn’t this player over there? They’re doing all this offensively.’ There are so many other factors in play that you have to make sure they’re ready and all these other areas, too, before you move a guy.

“You know, the timing of when you move a guy and whether or not he’s truly ready in all the ways you need to be, not just numbers on a piece of paper, is imperative to a player’s current and future success. And so you have to time those things up as best you can. The timing doesn’t always work perfectly sometimes, particularly as guys come to the big leagues, but the timing of that and the thoroughness of that and the thoughtfulness of that is a really important part of what we do.”

Big league camp

Like any educator, Zach Wilson looks at each individual student as he constructs his lessons. However, he also takes into account the collective needs of the class when constructing unit plans. As a teacher who is in charge of many different levels of classes, with students from all ages and walks of life, he has to balance player assignments even coming in and out of big league camp. So how does the development department know when a guy is ready to make his big league camp debut, like Ryan Rolison (No. 2 PuRP) and Tommy Doyle (No. 16 PuRP) did this year?

“Again, every guy is different. It depends on the individual,” said Wilson. “Some guys you can push harder based on talent; some guys you can push harder based on mentality and maturity; and a lot of times both of those things have to come together to push as hard as you can.

“[Rolison and Doyle] are not [in big league camp] to make the team,” he continued. “They’re not here to make the big league club out of camp. They’re here to gain experience. They’re here to gain knowledge and wisdom from guys that have been here. Part of sending them here is so that they get that because that’s going to help their development process, and they are here to get better on a daily basis.”

So at the end of the day, player assignments are about two things: “what’s best for the organization and what’s best for that player. Sometimes it might look like we move too slow, but at the end of the day, it’s all about what is best for that player,” according to Wilson.

Wilson also mentioned that he tells every player the same thing: “When I send you to the big leagues, I don’t want to see you again. That’s the whole point. When I send you there, I don’t want to see you ever come back.”

The purpose of the minor league process is to train players to ultimately make the major leagues, and for players to make enough of an impact on their team that they don’t have to be sent back to the minors (except perhaps for an injury rehab). That’s what Zach Wilson and his team are working on when they assign players to big league camp and to their respective minor (or major) league levels at the end of the day.

Like Wilson said, “I don’t want [guys] to get [to the majors] quick; I want them to get there forever.”

Up Next

Zach Wilson gives his thoughts on two breakout prospects from 2019: Sam Hilliard and Ryan Rolison. Stay tuned!