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The state of the Colorado Rockies farm system

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The system is still bottom-tier, but it’s much-improved from 2020

Whenever I complete the process of writing something about every player who received votes in our biannual Purple Row Prospects list (for this edition it was 59 players across 23 ballots), I try to synthesize that information on system strengths and weaknesses into some digestible nuggets for those who weren’t following along the entire way or who might only be casually aware of who is on the farm. With Colorado’s general penchant for inactivity on the trade and free agent front, the prospects on this list are likely to be a big part of who contributes to the Rockies over the next 5-7 years.

Here are the big picture items I took away from a thorough review of Colorado’s top prospects late in the 2021 season:

This might still be a bottom-tier system, but it’s an improved one

In their pre-season rankings, national experts were clear in their ranking of Colorado’s farm system as one of the thinnest. Baseball Prospectus ranked Colorado 29th, Kiley McDaniel of ESPN.com put the Rockies 27th, Keith Law of the Athletic had them 21st, MLB.com ranked Colorado’s system 27th, and the post-2020 Fangraphs farm rankings put the Rockies 27th. There haven’t been many updates to those rankings, but the current Fangraphs ranking still has the Rockies 27th.

Notably, McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen of Fangrahs use a disciplined approach that assigns a monetary value to each prospect that ranks as a 35+ (interesting organizational player) or above prospect for each system. In summing the value of these players, the Rockies come out with a farm system value at Fangraphs of $127 million, up $10 million from post-2020 rankings. That’s last in the division behind the Diamondbacks (4th, $294 million), Giants (7th, $265 million), Dodgers (15th, $218 million), and Padres (18th, $208 million).

In short, the Rockies are last by a good margin with a farm that has less than half of the value of most of their direct competition for the division title. While McDaniel and Longenhagen of Fangraphs (who uses a similar ranking system) aren’t the end-all, be-all of prospect evaluation, they take a principled and organized view of the entire minor leagues and I trust their judgment more than my biases.

So let’s assume the Rockies system still rates poorly relative to the rest of MLB. I still think it’s in much better shape than it was six months ago. The reasons for that are generally obvious but are worth stating:

  1. As maligned as the Nolan Arenado trade was, it injected into the organization not only a starter on track for roughly 2 WAR this year in Austin Gomber but also the No. 5 PuRP in Elehuris Montero as well as two other prospects worth PuRP consideration in Tony Locey and Mateo Gil.
  2. While the Rockies were mostly quiet at the deadline (too quiet according to basically everyone), they did add a No. 28 PuRP in Noah Davis and a HM PuRP in Case Williams in the Mychal Givens trade. Even a modest sale like that improves the farm’s depth.
  3. Colorado had a strong draft class that placed five new PuRPs into the organization: Benny Montgomery (3), Jaden Hill (9), Joe Rock (16), Hunter Goodman (24), and McCade Brown (26). Beyond that quintet were several other draftees that received PuRPs consideration.
  4. While some players from the preseason list did graduate to MLB playing time, the highest ranked PuRP was a middle reliever (Ben Bowden) with the others (Yonathan Daza, Dom Nuñez) filling reserve roles. The players taking their places frankly have higher ceilings.
  5. Among the nine new PuRPs this time around are four starting pitcher prospects and the new crop pushed prospects who were primarily relievers off this edition of the list entirely. While those relief prospects can and often do provide big league value, generally they possess a pretty low expected future value grade.
  6. A hidden advantage to the minor league restructuring that occurred this year was that it got the Rockies into a couple of more neutral home parks in both Low-A and High-A, plus a new short season Arizona Complex League team that’s more accessible to scouts and prospect writers. That makes stats a little easier to judge and contextualize against players from other organizations.
  7. Some prospects with questions entering 2021 have answered them emphatically, like Ryan Feltner and Montero, while Zac Veen and Drew Romo especially have enjoyed excellent professional debuts.

Several PuRPs could be 2022 contributors

I counted nine PuRPs who will probably spend time in Triple-A or MLB next season (provided they remain in the organization). Included in those nine are:

  • A potential mid-rotation starter in Ryan Rolison (2)
  • Three intriguing corner infield bats in Michael Toglia (4), Montero (5), and Colton Welker (6)
  • Two outfielders — one a bat-first player with big league regular potential in Ryan Vilade (10) and a speedy reserve who can back up all three outfield positions in Jameson Hannah (23)
  • Two back-end starters in Feltner (14) and Davis (28)
  • A back-up catcher in Willie MacIver (22)

I’d expect the five top 10 PuRPs on the above list especially to be serious competitors for starting roles by the end of 2023, representing the next generation of Rockies.

Starting pitcher depth is less of a concern but impact performers are thin

Fortunately, the Rockies do have a decent group already at the MLB level. Moving forward, I feel confident about Rolison (2) sticking in the rotation and providing the Rockies league average production at the position and I’m encouraged by Chris McMahon’s (8) debut enough to think he will also get there. Helcris Olivarez (13) could be a star but he’s struggled in an aggressive High-A placement and his minor league option years have already started. Hill (9) has the potential to be better than anyone else in the system but is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and has reliever role risk.

Feltner (14) has taken a big step forward this year but is still thought of as a back-end option by scouts. Sam Weatherly (17) has shown bat-missing stuff in Low-A but needs to replicate that at higher levels. Rock (16) and Brown (26) have the potential but need to prove it all the way up the minor league ladder as they haven’t thrown a professional pitch. Karl Kauffmann (20), Mitchell Kilkenny (21), Davis (28), and Will Ethridge (30) all provide a decent floor but lower ceiling. Upper minors pitchers like former PuRPs Ryan Castellani, Antonio Santos, and Jose Mujica are all still around, but only Castellani seems to be a realistic rotation option. Breiling Eusebio is another former PuRP who still lurks in the lower minors, but his time to prove he can get the big leagues with the Rockies is running short.

In summary, this is an improved look from where we were in the pre-season, but I’d ideally like to turn some more of those question marks into prospects thought of as future big league rotation pieces by this time next year.

Who will end up at first and third?

A clear strength of the Rockies org is at the corner infield spots. Three of the top six in the system probably slot at those spots in MLB, with five more players deeper in the PuRPs list offering potential impact performance at the position.

Of the group, 2019 first rounder Toglia (4) is the most obvious fit as a switch-hitter with power and plus defense at first base. Welker (6) will probably arrive first early next year and fight it out with incumbents like Ryan McMahon, Joshua Fuentes, Rio Ruiz, and Connor Joe (not to mention a veteran signing like CJ Cron) for playing time. So too might Vilade (10), who has spent the year playing in the outfield but came up as an infielder, and Montero (5), who hasn’t yet played in Triple-A but is mashing in Double-A this year.

Beyond that group, Grant Lavigne (15) is a first-base only prospect in High-A but provides excellent plate discipline and a big offensive ceiling. Aaron Schunk (19) might be shifted to second base but can also can provide strong defense and good offense at the hot corner. Below them in Low-A, Julio Carreras (25) and Warming Bernabel (29) have great tools, with Carreras in particular able to fake it at shortstop in a pinch. The point here is the Rockies actually do have some organizational depth at the corners with potential impact players — which is a relief given the current state of those positions at the big league level.

The up the middle players are further away but showing promise

Romo (7) represents a catching prospect with bona fide All-Star upside as a .300-hitting switch-hitter with Gold Glove defense. He’s just in Low-A, but he’s clearly a bright part of the organization’s future. MacIver (22) had a breakout in High-A this year but has struggled after a promotion to Double-A and probably fits best as a back-up if Nunez falters. Goodman (24) has one of the best raw power tools in the organization but has questions around whether he’ll be able to stay behind the dish.

Brendan Rodgers has played well in an early audition to replace impending free agent Trevor Story at shortstop, while Ryan McMahon has shown himself to be a capable defender at second, but beyond them there’s an organizational hole below them at the middle infield positions until you get to the High-A level. There in Spokane you find Ezequiel Tovar (12), a no-doubt shortstop who just turned 20 and is having a breakout year but has struggled offensively in High-A.

In Low-A is Carreras (25), whose best fit is probably at third base, and Eddy Diaz (27), who has blazing speed and good contact abilities but hasn’t hit well at two levels this year. Also in Fresno is Gil, who has big league tools and pedigree but hasn’t hit well in Low-A either. To find Colorado’s highest ceiling shortstop prospect though, you’ll need to look to the Arizona Complex team, where Adael Amador (18) is playing well in his professional debut.

The outfield has star potential in the low minors

A year after adding a high school outfield prospect with All-Star potential in Zac Veen (1), the Rockies did it again with the toolsy Montgomery (3), eighth overall. Rockies fans can hope that Montgomery’s full season debut next year goes nearly as well as Veen’s did this year. They can dream of a future where Veen is a fixture and star in right-field while Montgomery patrols center or left.

Another outfielder with All-Star potential (but less draft pedigree) is Brent Doyle (11), who might be the best athlete in the system after coming out of a D2 school in the fourth round in 2019. He has quite a bit of swing and miss in his game, but the potential is tantalizing. Beyond those three, Vilade (10) is likely ticketed for left field, a corner infield spot, or the DH but has above average offensive upside and is knocking on the door to contribute as soon as next year. Rounding out the PuRPs is Hannah (23), a strong defensive player with speed who also will be in the upper minors as an option for a 2022 debut.

Can we please not spend significant free agent money on the bullpen?

To be clear, that’s my default position. Relievers are so fungible and easy to replace that a team should almost never be paying even arbitration prices for them. Though this version of the PuRPs list didn’t rank any relievers in the top 30, there are still plenty of potential impact arms in the system at the Triple-A and MLB levels.

The Rockies have 12 pure relievers already on their 40-man roster, plus another 2-3 starters who will probably end up in the pen and two more on the 60-day IL. Beyond the 40-man roster group is another wave of hard throwing bullpen or potential bullpen arms. They won’t all hit of course, but they don’t need to.

★ ★ ★

It’s going to be a big 40-man roster crunch after the season given the pandemic-caused lost developmental year in 2020. Let’s talk about it.

The Near Future: 40-Man Roster After 2021

Here’s how I would characterize each spot on the 40-man roster as it will exist after the 2021 season (assuming all free agents leave the organization), 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 2021 season barring trades (which is a condition that applies to every category):

  1. Charlie Blackmon
  2. German Márquez
  3. Kyle Freeland
  4. Brendan Rodgers
  5. Ryan McMahon
  6. Austin Gomber
  7. Antonio Senzatela

Likely (current)

These players have major league experience, are currently on the 40-man, and will likely be on the post-2021 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:

8. Garrett Hampson

9. Yonathan Daza

10. Raimel Tapia

11. Sam Hilliard

12. Daniel Bard

13. Carlos Estévez

14. Ben Bowden

15. Elias Díaz

Likely (future)

These players haven’t yet seen MLB action but are in good shape to have a 40-man roster spot after 2021 (four of them already do), again presented in order of confidence:

16. Ryan Rolison

17. Ryan Vilade

18. Colton Welker

19. Elehuris Montero

20. Helcris Olivarez

Added back from 60-day IL

These players are currently on the 60-day IL but (pending retirement for one of them) are in good shape to regain their 40-man roster slot:

21. Peter Lambert

22. Scott Oberg

23. Jordan Sheffield

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:

24. Conner Joe

25. Lucas Gilbreath

26. Dom Nuñez

27. Justin Lawrence

28. Robert Stephenson

29. Tommy Doyle

30. Yency Almonte

31. Tyler Kinley

32. Antonio Santos

33. Joshua Fuentes

34. Chi Chi Gonzalez

35. José Mujica

36. Alan Trejo

37. Rio Ruiz

38. Ashton Goudeau

39. Yoan Aybar

40. Taylor Motter

41. Bernardo Flores Jr.

I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the above players were not in the organization after 2021, but in particular anyone below Lawrence should consider their 40-man roster slot vulnerable. That gets us to 41 players (including two prospects and three 60-day IL add-backs) assuming that Ian Desmond’s club option doesn’t get picked up.

There are more prospects to add beyond the two locks, at the expense of some of the lower denizens of the 40-man. Lest we forget, there are also several former MLB players in the organization beyond prospects who want those slots too, plus a re-signed player or a free agent/trade acquisition would take more slots. And oh by the way, the Rule 5 draft is going to be loaded with potential talent as organizations throughout MLB go through the same crunch. There’s going to be some hard decisions for the front office this fall.

Here’s how I would rank other players in terms of getting a 40-man spot after 2021:

  1. Ezequiel Tovar
  2. Ryan Feltner
  3. Jameson Hannah
  4. Ryan Castellani
  5. Noah Davis
  6. Willie MacIver
  7. Jake Bird
  8. Mitchell Kilkenny
  9. Niko Decolati
  10. Eddy Diaz
  11. Julian Fernandez (already Rule 5 selected but returned)
  12. Bret Boswell
  13. Daniel Montano
  14. Breiling Eusebio
  15. Sean Bouchard
  16. Nick Bush
  17. PJ Poulin
  18. Bladimir Restituyo
  19. Taylor Snyder
  20. Coco Montes
  21. Fadriel Cruz
  22. Shelby Lackey
  23. David Hill
  24. Chris Rabago
  25. Jack Wynkoop
  26. Casey Golden

I would say the top three in particular should feel good about getting protected, with the next four beyond that being strong possibilities. I listed 26 players here and still 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 after the 2021 season

That’s one man’s opinion for what the future will look like. I’d love to read yours in the comments!