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Three Rockies minor league questions we want answered in 2023: part 2

Colorado Rockies news and links for Monday, January 23, 2023

Last week, we dug into three prominent storylines for Colorado Rockies prospects in the upcoming season. The health and production of Peter Lambert and Ryan Rolison, the durability of Jaden Hill and progression of Brenton Doyle and Benny Montgomery in center field are important narratives this season, but not the only ones. With that in mind, let’s jump into three more questions pertaining to Colorado’s farm system we’re asking this season.

Can Zac Veen reach the majors this season?

Arguably no prospect’s minor league numbers will be followed more closely by the fans and front office than Zac Veen’s. A top-10 overall selection in the 2020 draft, Veen has blown through the A-Ball levels in the past two seasons with a 135 wRC+ for the Low-A Fresno Grizzlies and 126 wRC+ in High-A Spokane.

The natural progression of his development came in the second-half of last season, as he reached Double-A and finished the season with a stint in the Arizona Fall League. These assignments were a reward for performance to this point in his career, but also a proper test to see just how close he is to the major leagues based on how well he performed against more advanced competition.

The results were…mixed.

After a strong 92 games in High-A where he posted an .806 OPS, Veen’s OPS cratered to .496 in 34 games for the Hartford Yard Goats. After the promotion, Veen saw a 7% rise in his strikeout rate while his walks dropped almost 3%. His OBP% dropped over 100 points while his SLG% fell over 200 points.

His fortunes reversed in the Fall League, though, with a .333/.444/.444 slash line in 21 games. He led not only the Salt River Rafters, but all AFL players with 27 hits and 16 SB in 81 at-bats. This performance was notable enough to earn Veen Offensive Player of the Year honors for the AFL season to go with the Northwest League MVP hardware he earned for the first-half of his 2022 season.

These accomplishments have put Veen on the radar for the Rockies’ major league squad, and rightfully so. All of this becomes even more impressive when you consider he has been at least two years younger than his competition at each level so far. But his struggles at Double-A last season shouldn’t be ignored, and that age-gap will still exist as he continues to climb the minor league ladder. Whether he’ll continue to thrive or if there are more hard lessons to be learned will determine if he appears at Coors Field in 2023.

Will Drew Romo reach the doorstep of the big leagues?

Another prominent 2020 draft selection that the organization is pinning their hopes on is catcher Drew Romo. Like Veen, Romo was selected out of high school and posted a strong first full-season in 2021 with the Fresno Grizzlies before graduating to the High-A Spokane Indians in 2022. But unlike Veen, Romo never quite broke out with the Indians in his sophomore season.

He posted fine numbers in an offensively-suppressed Northwest League, hitting to a .697 OPS and 95 wRC+ over 420 plate appearances while maintaining a strikeout-rate below 20%. But that production did not stand-out, and a hand injury in late July relegated him to DH duties for the second half of the season.

There is nothing in Romo’s track record that raises concern to this point. He has hit well enough and still receives high-marks in his defensive skill set. But he is clearly earmarked as the catcher of the future for an organization that has historically and recently under-performed at the position. How he shows in 2023 at Double-A Hartford will be telling on how close he is to joining Ezequiel Tovar and likely Veen in the majors over the next year and a half, or if it is more realistic to expect 2025 as a call-up window.

How quickly can Gabriel Hughes progress?

After three stellar collegiate seasons at Gonzaga University Gabriel Hughes joined the Rockies system via the 2022 amateur draft, immediately becoming arguably the best pitching prospect in the system. That prospect ranking speaks both to Hughes’ talent and the general state of pitching in the Rockies’ system.

After tossing 98 innings for the ‘Zags, Colorado’s front office rightfully took it easy on their new hurler with most of his work coming on the Arizona backfields of the Instructional League. He did briefly appear for the Low-A Fresno Grizzlies, though, throwing three innings in a start in the CAL League playoffs.

This leads to 2023 realistically being Hughes’ debut season. As a more advanced college pitcher, an initial assignment at High-A Spokane feels like an appropriate option for his first season; similar to how the club handled LHP Joe Rock in 2022.

Rock finished that season with Double-A Hartford, which he will likely repeat in 2023. If Hughes shows he can handle the A-Ball ranks, he could find himself in that same Yard Goats rotation in the second-half. For an organization that has largely produced poor numbers in the upper minor league levels in recent seasons, successfully elevating Hughes through the system will go a long way in influencing the outlook of the franchise.

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Saunders: Sizing up the Rockies’ quiet offseason. What has the team done to improve? | The Denver Post ($)

For better or worse, the Rockies are winding down their offseason and seeming content with their current roster. The team’s major transactions over the winter include re-signing RHP José Ureña and inking free agent reliever Pierce Johnson, but GM Bill Schmidt tells Patrick Saunders that the Rockies are in a better position than last season with some internal competition and improved depth being the accomplishments of the off-season.

That depth may make a difference in the Rockies improving but most, including Kris Bryant, still believe the biggest jump forward will come from better performances out of holdovers from last season:

“I thought we had a fantastic start last year,” Bryant said, noting that the Rockies were 10-5 out of the gate. “We were playing teams really tough. But I think, looking back on the long season, a lot of the guys would tell you that they underperformed, myself included.

“But I think guys are going to come out hungrier and wanting to prove that what happened last year is not who we are. We would love to change the record. We have to look at what we have within and make this a really good story — this year.”

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