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Colorado Rockies prospects: No. 5, Colton Welker

The 23-year-old infielder’s development has been eerily similar to Nolan Arenado’s so far

5. Colton Welker (328 points, 13 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 (well, until 2020), 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 in 2011 (Welker’s tour there was after Double-A in 2019) and he was much more successful (winning the MVP), but both prospects exited the Double-A 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 profile that paints his third base defense as more fringy than Gold Glove), is that he finds a glut of players both above and below him playing his preferred position, arresting his progress at his primary professional position. Even with the recent trade of Arenado, the 23-year-old Welker finds himself competing against a plethora of good players at the corner infield positions to make a major league impact. That list includes current MLB players like Brendan Rodgers, Ryan McMahon, and Josh Fuentes as well as prospects like Michael Toglia, Aaron Schunk, and newly acquired Elehuris Montero.

Welker played 2019 in Double-A 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 injury. After a month on the IL, Welker returned and rebounded to a .682 OPS August.

The final Double-A 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.

In 2020, Welker was at the alternate site but didn’t see any MLB action. He did receive a 40-man roster slot after the season, so it’s clear Welker is an option for the Rockies as soon as this year given the big league club’s newfound infield uncertainty.

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 2019:

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.

Baseball Prospectus have Welker 8th in the system in their pre-2021 list. Here’s Jeffrey Paternostro on Welker:

Welker hit his first professional speed bump in 2019. He got off to a hot start in Hartford, but his aggressive, pull-and-lift approach got exposed as the season went on, and he struggled to adjust to Double-A arms who could move their fastball around the zone and break off quality secondaries in hitter’s counts. Welker doesn’t get cheated up there, and anything he squares is a threat to go for extra base hits, but he will need to tone down the aggressiveness and find a balance to his approach for the plus raw to get into games enough to carry a corner infield profile. He’s a better fit at first than third, as the range and arm are a little light for the hot corner at times. He moves well laterally despite a sturdy frame, so maybe they will try him at second too.

FanGraphs dropped Welker to 7th in their pre-2020 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.

Welker currently ranks 7th in the system according to MLB Pipeline in their pre-2020 list:

At his best, Welker still has the ability to consistently hit the ball hard. He knows the strike zone well, can draw a walk and limits his strikeouts. He has extra-base authority to all fields. There is some over-the-fence pop, though it hasn’t shown up consistently and he can occasionally sell out for power too much. If he can maintain his approach, he still has the tools to be an above-average hitter with average power.

A below-average runner, Welker’s arm, hands and footwork all work fine from third and he can make all the routine plays. His lack of speed, not to mention the continued presence of Nolan Arenado, has led to him seeing time at first, both during last regular season and in the Arizona Fall League. That might be his best spot to be a big league regular, though teams typically do like to see a little more run-producing ability from that position.

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 McMahon and Rodgers).

I’m curious to see how the Rockies handle the reps at the corner spots in Triple-A (where I expect Welker to open the year) in 2021 given the presence of Montero (who could repeat in Double-A to start the year). With Arenado (plus Tyler Nevin, Roberto Ramos, and Brian Mundell) out of the organization now, Welker’s path to big league playing time this year is clearer should he perform well in Triple-A and/or an injury opens up a big league opportunity. With that said, Welker serves a similar role to what Fuentes gives the team now. I ranked Welker 5th 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 this year.