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Colorado Rockies prospects: No. 1, Ezequiel Tovar

The shortstop had an unexpected breakout in 2022, and looks poised to be the Rockies’ Opening Day shortstop in 2023

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1. Ezequiel Tovar (711 points, 24 ballots)

Tovar has been convincingly named the top PuRP in the pre-season 2023 list, garnering 16 of 24 first place votes, including mine. When I started ranking Tovar on my ballot in the mid-season 2019 PuRPs list, I was the only one to do so among the electorate, and the same was true in the pre-season 2020 list. However, back then I saw an elite defensive shortstop at an advanced level but who was far away from contributing offensively at even a passable level. I certainly didn’t see the prospect Tovar evolved into in 2022: a potential All-Star shortstop.

The 6-foot, 162-pound Venezuelan shortstop, who will be 21 for over half the 2023 season, signed back in 2017 for $800,000 and advanced stateside to Short Season-A ball at the age of 17 on the strength of his advanced defense — defense that has repeatedly gotten him lauded as the best defensive player in the system. Tovar was stuck in the U.S. during the pandemic, so he remained at the Rockies complex and added much-needed strength with the aim of helping his offensive profile. That added strength paid off big-time in 2021, where he was an above-average offensive player in Low-A Fresno. Despite struggling to a 74 wRC+ after a mid-season promotion to High-A in 2021, the Rockies added him to the 40-man roster and advanced Tovar directly to Double-A Hartford for 2022.

In Hartford, where Tovar was 3.8 years younger than league average, he was dominant as a shortstop who was the youngest player in the league. In 295 plate appearances, Tovar hit .318/.386/.546 (153 wRC+) with 13 homers, three triples, and 15 doubles, along with 17 steals in 20 attempts. Despite the higher level of competition, Tovar raised his walk rate year over year from just 2% in High-A to 8.5% in Double-A, though his strikeout rate increased from 13% to 22%. Tovar in particular feasted against left-handed pitching, accumulating a .976 OPS against them (.868 against righties). He continued to dazzle with the glove at shortstop, committing only six errors there in 64 games with strong range.

Unfortunately, just as Tovar was named to the Futures Game roster and appeared poised for a promotion (perhaps to the big leagues), he suffered a groin injury in late-June that kept him out for over two months. Nevertheless, the Rockies promoted Tovar to Triple-A Albuquerque in mid-September as a sort of rehab assignment, where he was 6.6 years younger than league average. Tovar only played five games with Albuquerque, hitting .333/.391/.476 with a homer in 23 plate appearances (120 wRC+), before getting a call to the Show on September 22nd.

Tovar started his big-league career off pretty well, lining sharp singles on the first two pitches he saw in his debut (aged 21 years, 53 days). He didn’t maintain that pace, but did get his first extra-base hit the next week and finished the season with a homer off Clayton Kershaw on the season’s final day. In all, Tovar was just 7-for-33 en route to a .212/.257/.333 line in 35 plate appearances (51 wRC+, -0.4 rWAR) in his nine-game big-league cameo, but Tovar will get much more of a chance at a MLB rookie season in 2023. He enters spring training this year as the favorite to be Colorado’s Opening Day shortstop.

Here’s some of the 2022 MLB highlights for Tovar:

Tovar rocketed up top 100 lists during and after the 2022 season. Baseball Prospectus led the way in ranking him 21st overall last month (and first in the system in November as a 60 OFP, low variance player):

Whatever Tovar worked on over the winter paid dividends, as he showed all five tools at the six in 2022. He has a smooth stroke with an easy, rhythmic weight transfer. It’s a line-drive swing with enough lift and bat speed to show sneaky present pop, even though he hasn’t really filled out his [21]-year-old frame. His eyes get a little wide on breakers down—something that major-league arms exploited in his brief cameo in Coors—so I’m not fully in on a plus hit tool here yet, but a context-neutral .270 and 15-20 bombs seems reasonable, with more in the tank with some refinement of his swing decisions.

Tovar is a slick shortstop who is just one tier below “competes for gold gloves.” He’s rangy without looking like it, as he just glides along the dirt and gets to more balls than you’d think given his straight-line speed is only average. He checks every other box for a plus shortstop. He’s good on the turn, his hands and actions are elevator jazz smooth, he throws well on the run, and his overall arm strength is solid for the left side. Tovar generally posted below-average or fringe run times for me, but other scouts had a few 4.25s in there. I assume he will settle in around average, but is an aggressive baserunner who will look to steal when he’s on. He missed time over the summer with a groin injury and could use a month or two in Albuquerque to adjust to better-quality offspeed, but Tovar is likely to be the everyday shortstop for Colorado at some point next summer.

Tovar wasn’t exactly ready for the majors during his late September call-up, but he has handled an aggressive development track, and just needs to smooth out some issues on offspeed pitches to be a good regular in short order.

Jeffrey Paternostro of BP had an excellent report on Tovar in early July, worth reading in its entirety. Here’s the conclusion of the 60 OFP write-up:

Tovar is one of the youngest players in the Eastern League and while the lack of game experience shows through at the plate from time to time, he’s a true two-way shortstop with offensive upside past the grades above. I wouldn’t be shocked if he grows into more power than this, and even if the hit tool falls a little short, the defensive nous should make him a regular for a number of years. ranked Tovar 25th overall, eighth among shortstops, and first in the system as a 55 FV player last month:

As Tovar has added strength to his six-foot frame, he’s become more of an offensive threat. He’s still very much an aggressive swinger from the right side of the plate and doesn’t walk a ton, but he also limits his strikeouts. He’s shown the ability to hit for average and with burgeoning power, slugging .540 in 2022, mostly in Double-A Hartford. While he’s not a burner in terms of pure speed, he’s an excellent baserunner who knows how to steal a base.

Tovar had every chance to make it to the big leagues based on his defense alone. He’s long been the best glove in the system, with easy plus actions at shortstop that point to a very long career at the premium spot. He makes all the plays with excellent footwork and a plus arm, and he has every chance to show off his Gold Glove potential as a big league regular in 2023.

As you would expect by reading that description, Tovar’s profile is headlined by plus grades on his arm (60) and fielding ability (70) — the latter of which is tied for the best fielding tool in the minor leagues. The offensive profile (55 hit, 45 power, 50 run), in concert with the defense, bodes well for his future MLB-regular potential.

Kiley McDaniel of ranked Tovar 35th overall in his pre-season top 100 earlier this month, tops in the system as a 55 FV player:

Type: Big league-ready hit-over-power shortstop

Tovar has good feel for the bat head, is a plus defender at a key position, and had a breakout 2022 at the plate. As a 20-year-old, he went from Double-A to the big leagues, hitting 15 homers and stealing 17 bases. There are some question marks in his profile though: Tovar swings a bit too often, and that hasn’t kept him from succeeding in the minors, but could in the big leagues. If he doesn’t improve there, Tovar will be slightly below league average at the plate, but helped by Coors and his standout glove, so probably just a low-end regular.

Fangraphs ranked Tovar 41st overall and first in the system last week as a 50 FV player:

A fantastic defensive shortstop, Tovar’s poor plate discipline somewhat undermines his excellent bat-to-ball skill.

A skilled but impatient hitter who can really pick it, Tovar is poised to be the Rockies’ everyday shortstop and probably will be for a while. He has incredible defensive range, especially to his right, and his footwork around the bag is balletic. At times he’s too bold and rushes throws that he should just holster, but Tovar is only the age of a college draft prospect, so details like this will likely tighten up as he matures. The area where it’s most imperative for Tovar to show improvement is his plate discipline. His fantastic bat-to-ball skill has enabled him to rake in the minors, but he has a tendency to offer at pitches that are way, way off the plate, pitches most hitters instantly know aren’t competitive. He chased at a 37% rate in 2022, which isn’t terrible in a big league context, but is pretty bad when viewed through the minor league lens, where fewer pitchers have chase-inducing stuff. While his ball/strike recognition isn’t good, Tovar is otherwise an advanced hitter. He tends to work contact to center and right field, especially against fastballs, and he has a clear two-strike approach where he ditches his leg kick and takes a more conservative swing. It will be interesting to see how Tovar’s speed helps inflate his extra-base output in Coors Field; he might end up turning a lot of doubles into triples there. If not for the risk created by Tovar’s plate discipline, he’d be in the 55 FV tier, as he’s otherwise about to produce like a complete up-the-middle player.

The evaluation includes plus (60) future grades on Tovar’s Hit and Field tools.

Finally, Keith Law of the Athletic ranked Tovar 69th overall and second in the system earlier this month:

[Tovar is] a very likely shortstop even after filling out during the pandemic, when he had to stay in Scottsdale rather than return to his native Venezuela, although if he loses any speed he might end up moving to third or second. He has a simple swing where he starts in a slight crouch and straightens out as he swings, with a very consistent path to the ball and solid line-drive contact, hitting for above-average power in Double A even though he doesn’t show elite exit velocities. He has good bat speed and hasn’t had trouble with plus velocity, but as the season went on, he expanded the zone and began chasing offspeed stuff more than he had in the early going, leaving him vulnerable to fastballs at the top of the zone and sliders down and away. Tovar missed over two months with a bone bruise in his hip, so he still has just 318 career plate appearances above A-ball, meaning a return to Triple A might be the best move for his development. He’ll need to continue to get stronger, and to cut down on those areas of chase, but has everyday upside as a shortstop who hits for a high average with at least a whole ton of doubles.

As I stated in the opening, I was the high voter on Tovar for a while, but this prospect development caught me by surprise. Tovar has made himself into an almost-certain big-league regular that offers maximum defensive utility, and he’s done it well before he turns 22. The defense gives Tovar the highest floor in the system, while his showing in Double-A all the way up to MLB really raised my view of his offensive ceiling. I see Tovar as a 60 FV player (atop my list) who I fully expect to be the starting shortstop of the Rockies in 2023 and for several years thereafter.

★ ★ ★

Thanks to everyone who has read along with me through this PuRPs series! Check back soon for a complete list with full voting results for the Pre-Season 2023 Purple Row Prospect list as well as my view on the state of the system to conclude the series.