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The state of the Colorado Rockies farm system, April 2022

It’s still not great, but making progress in some key areas

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During the process of writing a blurb about every player who received votes in our biannual Purple Row Prospects list (this edition it was 58 players across 20 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 keeping their own guys, 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 early in the 2022 season:

Colorado’s Latin America program is making a difference

A couple years ago I was maligning the Latin America program, as it didn’t contribute much to the PuRPs lists I had written up back then. That is no longer the case. Eight PuRPs, including all three new names to this list, three more honorable mention PuRPs, and 11 others receiving votes were signed by the Rockies as international free agents out of Latin America. That list might include Colorado’s next long-term starter at shortstop (Ezequiel Tovar) and a couple members of the starting rotation (Helcris Olivarez, Jordy Vargas), not to mention several interesting hitters who are a little farther away (Adael Amador, Warming Bernabel, Yanquiel Fernandez, Dyan Jorge, Eddy Diaz).

Colorado’s Farm System is still ranked in the bottom 10 but I like it more than I did last time

The national prospect watchers I follow all have the Rockies in their bottom ten of farm systems. Baseball Prospectus places them 27th, while Keith Law of the Athletic ranks the system 25th (down from 21st), and MLB.com has the Rockies at 24 (up from 26th).

Kiley McDaniel of ESPN.com was the high ranking at 23, but notably he jumped them up four spots since last time and thought the system added $45 million in value up to $152 million in that time. To come to that figure, McDaniel 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. For context though, the other NL West members clocked in at $276.5 million (fifth place AZ), $259.5 million (eighth place LA), $240 million (11th place SF), and $212 million (15th place SD).

In other words, McDaniel’s process places the Rockies in last place in the division by a good margin. While McDaniel (and Eric 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. The aforementioned Latin America program has seen some notable breakouts like Vargas, Fernandez, and Bernabel (and some players on the outside of the top 30 with big upside), plus it added Jorge as a marquee signing.
  2. There were some prospect breakouts, like Drew Romo, Elehuris Montero, Tovar, and Ryan Feltner, while top PuRP Zac Veen had an excellent debut season and Riley Pint came back. That’s not to say there weren’t disappointing seasons by some PuRPs, but I think the positives outweighed the negatives.
  3. Nobody graduated from the list this time around so there was more competition for each spot. The three new PuRPs (Vargas, Fernandez, and Jorge) all possess higher ceilings than the players they replaced.

In general, my observation is there’s more quality depth in the 11-20 range and more potential PuRPs in the 30-40 range than there were previously.

Several PuRPs could be 2022 contributors

I counted seven PuRPs who could spend time in MLB in 2022 (provided they remain in the organization). Included in those seven are:

  • A potential mid-rotation starter in Ryan Rolison (4)
  • Two intriguing corner infield bats in Montero (5) and Colton Welker (11)
  • An outfielder who is a bat-first player with big league regular potential in Ryan Vilade (8)
  • Two back-end starters in Feltner (15) and Noah Davis (19)
  • A back-up catcher in Willie MacIver (28)

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

There’s a logjam at the corners

The Rockies made some moves at the big league level to strengthen their 2022 team and beyond this past off-season when they signed Kris Bryant, CJ Cron, and Ryan McMahon to multi-year deals and traded for Randal Grichuk. In so doing though, they created a bit of a pileup for some of their close to MLB prospects who play in the outfield or infield corners. Those positions are really system strengths for the Rockies, as four of the top eight PuRPs are corner players and five other PuRPs in the top 25 fit that description as well. These players offer potential impact performance but they might find their positions occupied for a while.

Of the group, Vilade (8) and Welker (11) already have big league time and could be options if an injury opened up a spot in the infield corners (Welker) or outfield (Vilade). Behind them, Montero (5) might force Colorado’s hand by mashing in Triple-A but he plays the same positions as Welker. Michael Toglia (7) is a level behind them and has hit tool concerns, but he also has a first round pedigree and is a switch-hitter with power and Gold Glove fielding potential at first base. At this point, it would take a serious slump or injury to the incumbents to get any of them a regular starting role this season.

In the lower minors, Veen (1) will likely force Colorado’s hand when he’s ready, but others might not be able to do so. Grant Lavigne (15) is a first-base-only prospect in High-A that provides excellent plate discipline and a big offensive ceiling, but hasn’t shown much power. Aaron Schunk (14) might be shifted to second base and can also can provide strong defense and good offense at the hot corner, but he had an abysmal 2021. Bernabel (18) has mashed so far at the hot corner but he’s Rule 5 eligible after this year and he’s only in Low-A, as is Fernandez (25), whose power is his carrying tool but has yet to face advanced pitching.

The point here is the Rockies actually do have some organizational depth at the corners with potential impact players, but they have questions to answer and not much of a place to play in the big leagues over the next couple of years.

No sure things but lots of potential among starter prospects

The Rockies have also worked to extend some key members of their starting rotation this year. I think that’s a good thing given the difficulty in finding effective pitchers at altitude, but there are some interesting options down on the farm.

Rolison (4) can be a rotation mainstay if he gets healthy, while Chris McMahon (9) could get there if his stuff returns to his draft year levels. Jaden Hill (12) might be the best pitching prospect in the system at this time next year if his stuff returns from Tommy John surgery and proves he can hold up with a starter’s workload. Olivarez (13) has the arm talent to be an impact lefty starter but has struggled with command and is in his second option year already. Vargas (21) has similar stuff to Olivarez from the right side but hasn’t made his stateside debut yet.

Sam Weatherly (14) has the bat-missing arsenal and athleticism to be a big league contributor but he (like Hill) carries relief risk and command concerns. Feltner (15) is a phone call away in Triple-A and had a strong 2021. He could be a 2022 contributor in case of injury and might show better than his 2021 cameo in the big leagues. Davis (19) profiles similarly to Feltner and has a 40-man roster spot too, though he’s a step behind him on the org ladder in Double-A. Joe Rock (16) and McCade Brown (29) have strong prospect pedigrees but haven’t thrown to many professional pitches. Karl Kauffmann (20) and Mitchell Kilkenny (23) don’t have exciting ceilings but stand out as interesting depth options.

Former PuRP Peter Lambert also looms as a potential starting option once he returns from the IL, while Breiling Eusebio is another former PuRP once thought of very highly by scouts in the lower minors. Case Williams and Tony Locey both received serious PuRPs consideration, while further down young Latin pitchers like Brayan Castillo, Bryan Perez, and Angel Chivilli are a break-out away from placement on the mid-season list. The highest ceiling of all belongs to Pint, though he’s probably a full-time reliever now.

In summary, there is plenty of intrigue here, but not a lot of certainty around the roles most of these prospects will have in the big leagues in the next year or so.

The up-the-middle players show promise but are further away

I’m very excited about the potential of Colorado’s up-the-middle prospects. In Benny Montgomery (2) and Brent Doyle (10) the Rockies have two potential five-tool center fielders, both of which have concerns about their hit tool but both of whom could be 20/20 players in MLB. The toolsy Jorge (26) was signed as and will be developed as a shortstop for now but scouts think his best fit could be in center.

Behind the dish, Romo (3) is probably the most exciting catching prospect the Rockies have had since Ben Petrick, providing what could be Gold Glove-caliber defense along with a switch-hitting high batting average offensive profile. Hunter Goodman (27) has shown plus offensive upside, particularly his power. His defense needs work, but he’s made some technique changes there already that should bear fruit. MacIver (28) had a fantastic first half of 2021 but a dreadful second half after his promotion to Double-A. Back there in 2022, MacIver will need to prove he can supplant Dom Nuñez as the back-up or get thrown into the Rule 5 pool.

At shortstop, Tovar has been a revelation, making it to Double-A and the 40-man roster a few months before his 21st birthday. He’s a no-doubt shortstop defensively and he also has plus bat control and developing power. With any luck Tovar will be pushing to be the starter as soon as next year. Below Tovar is Amador (17), who is a few years away but showed promise in his 2021 stateside debut and is sizzling offensively so far in his full season debut at age 19. Jorge also might figure into the mix if he shows well at the position in his professional debut. Beyond those players, Diaz (30), Juan Brito, Julio Carreras, and others are on the utility infielder track with potential big league contributions in their futures.

★ ★ ★

There wasn’t a Rule 5 Draft after the lockout, meaning that the Rockies (and other MLB teams) will have another year to look at some of their borderline candidates that weren’t protected after the 2021 season. The lost development year in 2020 has contributed to a significant amount of 40-man deadlines approaching with less observation opportunities than usual. 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 2022 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 2022 season barring trades (which is a condition that applies to every category):

  1. Kris Bryant
  2. Ryan McMahon
  3. Kyle Freeland
  4. Antonio Senzatela
  5. Germán Márquez
  6. Brendan Rodgers
  7. Austin Gomber
  8. C.J. Cron
  9. Elias Diaz
  10. Connor Joe

Likely (current)

These players have major league experience, are currently on the 40-man, and will likely be on the post-2022 40-man roster — but under-performance could cause them to lose their spot to a DFA or non-tender or have a likely to be picked up player or club option (just Blackmon). Presented roughly in my order of confidence:

11. Charlie Blackmon

12. Randal Grichuk

13. Sam Hilliard

14. Garrett Hampson

15. Lucas Gilbreath

16. Robert Stephenson

Likely (future)

These players haven’t yet seen MLB action but are in good shape to have a 40-man roster spot after 2022 (three of them already do), again presented in order of confidence:

17. Ezequiel Tovar

18. Elehuris Montero

19. Helcris Olivarez

20. Michael Toglia

Added back from 60-day IL

These players are currently on the 60-day IL but (pending retirement or club option pick-up for Oberg) are in good shape to regain their 40-man roster slot:

21. Ryan Rolison

22. Scott Oberg

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 2022 season—presented from most safe to least:

23. Peter Lambert

24. Colton Welker

25. Dom Nuñez

26. Tyler Kinley

27. Justin Lawrence

28. Ryan Vilade

29. Jordan Sheffield

30. Ashton Goudeau

31. Ben Bowden

32. Ryan Feltner

33. Yonathan Daza

34. Ty Blach

35. Noah Davis

36. Alan Trejo

37. Julian Fernández

I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the above players were not in the organization after 2022, but in particular anyone below Lawrence should consider their 40-man roster slot vulnerable. That gets us to 37 players (including one new prospect and two 60-day IL add-backs) assuming that Blackmon’s player option and Oberg’s club option get picked up.

In other words, there’s currently some room for adding prospects, but the Rockies might also look to add veterans in a trade between now and then or re-sign some of the six pending free agents they will have, which will take up spots (perhaps at the expense of some of the more vulnerable players above). They also might want to pick a player or two in what will be an absolutely loaded Rule 5 draft after the season. 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 2022:

  1. Brent Doyle
  2. Warming Bernabel
  3. Karl Kauffmann
  4. Grant Lavigne
  5. Riley Pint
  6. Tony Locey
  7. Juan Brito
  8. Brayan Castillo
  9. Willie MacIver
  10. Jake Bird
  11. Mitchell Kilkenny
  12. Will Ethridge
  13. Aaron Schunk
  14. Tommy Doyle
  15. Blair Calvo
  16. Gavin Hollowell
  17. Nick Kennedy
  18. Bladimir Restituyo
  19. Juan Guerrero
  20. Jameson Hannah
  21. Ronaiker Palma
  22. Eddy Diaz
  23. Angel Chivilli
  24. Julio Carreras
  25. Juan Mejia
  26. Mateo Gil
  27. Niko Decolati
  28. Nick Bush
  29. Breiling Eusebio

I would say the top three in particular should feel good about getting protected, with the next three beyond that being strong possibilities. I listed 29 players here and still somebody from off this list could make a surprise appearance. I think the bottom 20 or so slots on the 40-man are quite fluid at this point, so we could see a big roster shake-up during and after the 2022 season

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