6. Jaden Hill (566 points, 24 ballots)
Rockies fans eagerly awaited the debut of Jaden Hill ever since Colorado took the 6’4”, 234-pound right-handed pitcher in the second round of the 2021 draft. After all, Hill was thought of as a top-five talent entering his draft year but was limited in stuff and results (6.67 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 7.6 K/9 rate) by an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery. That lofty draft projection was despite the fact Hill had only thrown 21 2⁄3 innings collegiately at LSU in his first two years combined due to elbow issues his freshman year as well as the shortened COVID season.
The Rockies were willing to bet on the arm talent and selected Hill 44th overall in the second round and signed him to a slot bonus of $1.69M. About that arm talent: despite the injury history and a lack of game reps over the last few years — both contributing to the risk he’s a reliever — Hill is a true top-of-rotation ceiling pitching prospect.
When healthy, the 23-year-old possesses an upper-90s fastball graded in the 60-65 range, a plus changeup graded in the 60-70 range, a potentially above-average slider, and decent control. If, after returning from surgery, Hill can maintain that stuff deep into games with a starter’s workload, that’s a clear difference-maker in the rotation with an impact late-inning reliever role as a fallback.
The 2022 season held good news for Hill’s health upon his return from surgery. The righty made seven short rehab appearances in the Arizona Complex League from mid-July to mid-August, throwing 10 1⁄3 innings and striking out 11 while allowing four runs on 11 hits and four walks. Then Hill was bumped up to Low-A Fresno in mid-August and was filthy in his debut, striking out seven (the first seven outs he recorded all came via the punchout) in a scoreless three inning start with three hits and a HBP. Eli Walsh of Baseball Prospectus was in attendance and had this to say in his write-up:
Hill is athletic and physical on the mound, and easily sits in the mid-90s with armside run on his fastball, topping out around 98. He showed little hesitation to throw his comfortably plus changeup to righties and lefties alike, and used it to generate more than a few ugly swings. Hill ostensibly throws a slider and curveball as well, but the slider is more of a cutter and the curve doesn’t have great shape. Hill also struggled to finish both of them, often leaving them armside up above the zone.
His biggest demerit—as it was in college—is his below-average control. He generally kept his fastball out of the middle of the zone and threw his changeup for strikes, but more advanced hitters will be able to lay off the cambio when it finishes off the plate. If he can even get to fringe-average control and command and tune up at least one of the breaking balls into a useful glove-side pitch, he’ll become the Rockies’ best pitching prospect in pretty short order. And if not, he at least has a pretty clear pathway to becoming a power reliever.
Hill made two more appearances for Fresno down the stretch, both of which were pretty short in duration. In his three games in Low-A, he allowed two runs on seven hits and two walks while striking out 14 (17.2 K/9 rate), good for a 1.56 FIP.
Here’s some video of Hill in his Low-A debut (this video has more footage from the same outing if you’re curious):
The first seven outs of Jaden Hill's Single-A career all came via the K.— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 18, 2022
The @Rockies' No. 10 prospect worked three scoreless frames for the @FresnoGrizzlies: https://t.co/vTF9LjuTJG pic.twitter.com/sC6GQoeioZ
[Hill] came back this summer to make ten short rehab starts and showed the same mid- to upper-90s velocity with a plus-plus changeup he had before the surgery. He needs to get any consistency on the slider, but more than anything, he has to stay healthy — he threw just 39 innings in his two non-pandemic years at LSU, even though he’s close to 250 pounds and looks like he should be more durable. It’s truly No. 1 starter upside but he has so little track record of health that his probability of getting there is extremely low.
Baseball Prospectus slotted Hill 9th in the system with a 50 OFP designation in November:
The strengths and weaknesses remain the same as they were in college—not a surprise given the lack of pro innings in the interim—a fastball [Hill] can dial up into the high 90s with run, a six-plus change on the positive side of the ledger, poor command, and a lack of a right-on-right glove-side option for the negative. How the breaking balls and strike-throwing progress in 2023 will tell us a lot more about whether Hill is a starter or reliever long-term, but he still may have the most upside of any arm in the Rockies system.
Hill has a realistic plus ceiling as a starter or reliever. He’s also pretty likely to be a reliever. He’s also thrown 69 innings in the last four years. Not nice.
Between the injury and the overall lack of innings, it’s hard to know exactly what kind of pitcher Hill might be. When he’s healthy, he’s shown off high-octane stuff, with a fastball that touched the upper 90s in relief work and the ability to sit comfortably in the mid-90s, touching 99, in a starting role. He’s always had an outstanding changeup, a mid-80s plus offspeed pitch that features a lot of tumble. Before he got hurt, he was making strides in tightening up his mid-80s slider, though he struggled executing it in 2021.
A very good athlete who could have been a college quarterback, Hill has a strong and athletic 6-foot-4 frame. He’s shown the ability to throw strikes in the past, but his command within the zone and proving he can maintain his stuff with a full workload will determine if he can start long-term. The Rockies were very pleased with how his rehab had gone, giving Hill high marks for his makeup and work ethic. They’re hopeful they might have a Walker Buehler-type of Tommy John recovery case on their hands.
That evaluation includes a 65 grade on the fastball, a 60 on the change, and a 55 on the slider with a 50 control grade.
[Hill] showed occasional feel to pitch as a Tiger freshman and looked to be turning the corner in the weekend rotation when he went down with a strained UCL. He didn’t pitch in the fall but was ready to go for his sophomore spring and was up to 97 in the preseason before being up to 99 during the early part of the shortened 2020 campaign. After generating mixed results early in 2021, Hill blew out and needed Tommy John. In addition to his changeup, Hill has two breaking balls (LSU called them a slider and a cutter, but they have more curve/modern slider sensibilities), the best of which is a slider/cutter in the 88-90 mph range. Knowing he’d spend most of his first pro season rehabbing from surgery, the Rockies used their second round pick on him. He looks like a late-inning power bullpen arm to us, but has starter advocates.
The error bars are wide when forecasting Hill’s future impact. If he can maintain the type of stuff he showed in Fresno in 2022 over longer outings and is able to remain a starter, he’s probably Colorado’s best pitching prospect (firmly in the system’s top five players). The word “if” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, though. Hill is a risky pitcher not only for injury, but also for role because it’s not a lock that he stays as a starter either. If he’s a starter, it’s a 3-4 year ramp to the big leagues; as a reliever, it’s probably 2-3 years for Hill.
I always have trouble ranking these types of prospects, but in the end I am more intrigued than I am worried. I slotted Hill eighth on my list with a 45 FV grade. I expect him to spend a good amount of time in High-A this year as part of a loaded Spokane team, though the Rockies could decide to stretch him out back in Fresno to start the year.