13. Ben Bowden (207 points, 12 ballots)
Though Ben Bowden was mostly a reliever at Vanderbilt, when the Rockies drafted him in the second round of the 2016 draft there was some hope that they’d develop him as a lefty starter with mid-rotation potential (similar to 2020 draftee Sam Weatherly). Unfortunately, Bowden’s been neither a mid-rotation starter prospect nor a fast-moving relief prospect due in part to a bulging disc in his back that stopped him from throwing a professional pitch in 2017 — sticking him firmly on the relief path.
After splitting his 2018 in a mostly successful season between Low-A Asheville and High-A Lancaster, Bowden was assigned to Double-A Hartford for the 2019 season. There, the 6’4” lefty quickly showed that he had mastered the Eastern League. In 25 2⁄3 innings across 26 appearances with Hartford, Bowden saved 20 games with a 1.05 ERA and 14.7 K/9 rate with a 2.5 BB/9 rate and 0.58 WHIP. That was enough to earn him a promotion to Triple-A in late June and a selection to the prestigious Futures Game which, uh, didn’t go well.
Albuquerque wasn’t easy either, as Bowden posted a 5.88 ERA and 1.76 WHIP in 26 innings across 22 appearances. During that time he had a strong 12.8 K/9 rate but struggled with command with a 5.9 BB/9 rate. The Pacific Coast League was crazy in 2019 and we don’t have a clear idea as to how to interpret its statistics for pitchers, but it still would have been nice if Bowden were more effective at the level. Even so, the combination of pedigree and results was enough to get Bowden added to the 40-man roster after the season.
Unfortunately, a back injury reoccurred in Spring Training of 2020 and was aggravated when Bowden was at the alternate site, again keeping him from pitching in 2020. The 26-year-old lefty enters 2021 firmly in Colorado’s bullpen picture, but he’ll need to prove his health and effectiveness relative to the other high minors/quad-A relievers the Rockies have accumulated to earn a spot in The Show.
Here’s video of Bowden from a 2019 outing in Hartford, where you can really see the late arm side run on his fastball that is his trademark:
The southpaw has all the makings of a future short reliever in the back end of a big league bullpen. He relies heavily on his fastball, which he throws downhill well from his 6-foot-4 frame with good late life, topping out at 97 mph. His changeup continues to be his best secondary offering, thrown with excellent arm speed and good tumble to it. The only thing he could use to be a true impact reliever in the big leagues is refining his slider so it can give him another out pitch.
Bowden struggled when he first got to Triple-A, but he made adjustments and finished the 2019 season well. He doesn’t need to have pinpoint command to be a successful reliever and is willing to challenge anyone in the strike zone with his fastball. He’s just about ready to contribute, and it would surprise no one, given his stuff and mentality, if he ended up getting the ball in the ninth inning in the future.
Baseball America ranked Bowden 12th in their pre-2020 list:
Bowden’s fastball, which he uses primarily up and away from hitters, sits 92-94 mph and reaches 97 from the left side. He backs up his heater with a plus, low 80s changeup which generates a high number of swings and misses from both lefties and righties. Bowden had largely lived on that two-pitch mix in the past but in 2019 significantly tightened his three-quarter breaking slurve and began generating a higher number of in-zone swings and misses with the pitch, primarily from lefthanders. Bowden struggles with his quality and intent in and out of the zone and needs to be more pitch-efficient, but the Rockies feel he took positive steps forward in 2019. Bowden is an excellent competitor with the stuff and mentality to be a late-inning reliever.
Less optimistic was Baseball Prospectus, who dropped him down to 16th in their pre-2020 system rankings. Here’s Jeffrey Paternostro on Bowden:
[Bowden] gets to his 95 mph heat a bit easier, from a slingy delivery that’s tough on lefties. He dominated Double-A hitters with the fastball and a potential plus tumbling changeup, although he struggled to have consistent feel for the pitch. There’s a slurvy slider as well. Bowden’s stuff is more low-end setup than high-end, with potential LOOGy risk, but he’s also close to ready for the Rockies pen, and continued to miss bats despite getting knocked around in the PCL.
FanGraphs was even lower on Bowden, dropping him all the way to 26th in their system ranking with a 40 FV grade:
Bowden has rare lefty velo and we’ve seen a plus changeup from him in the past, but reports on the cambio weren’t as strong this year. He still projects in middle relief.
After a 2020 where many of Colorado’s relief arms didn’t get the job done, Bowden stands out as a likely MLB contributor for 2021 given his 40-man spot and left-handedness. His struggles against right-handed hitters in 2019 (.343 BAA compared to .139 BAA for lefties) make him best suited at this point for a LOOGY role, but given the three batter minimum (or inning end) rule change enacted in 2020, Bowden’s initial utility is decreased.
I value Bowden’s ability to miss bats with his plus fastball and multiple decent secondaries. He can handle more than an inning if necessary and is of course left-handed. Still, I’m not sure his impact on a bullpen will ever be as a late-inning guy at the big league level and the recurrent back injuries are worrisome, which is why I ranked him 27th in the system with a 35+ Future Value tag. That’s the highest ranking I have for a pure reliever in the system — it’s just hard to provide much value in that role.