The Rockies open the 2023 season in 20 days when they will take on the Padres on March 30 in San Diego. Despite some depressingly devastating injuries to Brendan Rodgers, Lucas Gilbreath, and Sean Bouchard, it’s hard not to be excited about the upcoming season — even if the Rockies aren’t likely to complete in the NL West.
This season needs to be a turning point for the organization in two ways: 1) finding out which pitchers can form a solid rotation to pave a road to contention in the next few years, and 2) figuring out which prospects can form the next generation of stars to provide the offense and defense to bring it all together.
One of the most exciting of those prospects is Ezequiel Tovar. From his Gold Glove potential defense, to his ability to hit for average with a growing power surge, to his skills on the basepaths, he’s got the tools to be the next gem in the amazing Rockies shortstop tree, as Purple Row’s Mario DeGenz wrote about in 2022.
Having produced stars like Troy Tulowitzki and Trevor Story, that tree has spoiled Rockies fans rotten. The talented shortstops who come out of the Rockies farm system are nothing short of awe-inspiring. One of the things that made Tulo and Story Rockies legends was the impact they had right off the bat.
The No. 7 overall draft pick in 2005, Tulowitzki played in 25 games in 2006 at age 21, but then became great in 2007 when he finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. With his amazing glove and 24 homers, Tulo was pivotal in the magical Rocktober run to the Rockies lone World Series appearance.
Story, the No. 45 overall draft pick in the 2011 draft, worked his way through the Rockies farm system, splitting his time between Double-A New Britain Rock Cats and Triple-A Albuquerque in 2015. He smashed his way into the Majors at age 23 when he hit seven homers in his first six games to earn NL Player of the Week honors in his first week as a big leaguer.
In an article from February 2021, MLB.com’s Thomas Harding ranked the five best debuts in Rockies history. Who had the best debut in team history? Story. Who was No. 2? Tulo.
Tulo barely played in the Minors. Instead, he brought intensity and a winning attitude that helped deliver wins and the stats that came with it: 99 RBI and a .291 average. As if that wasn’t enough, on April 29, in the 21st game of his rookie season, he turned an unassisted triple play.
After Rockies fans experienced the heartbreak of seeing Tulo traded after five All-Star seasons with two Gold Gloves, but also a handful of injuries, things looked bleak when Tulo’s replacement, José Reyes, was suspended for domestic violence. Enter the unknown Story on Opening Day on April 4. The result? Two homers off Zack Greinke. And the homers kept coming.
He posted 27 home runs in 97 games before his season ended on July 30 when he tore a ligament in his thumb. Despite the short season, Story still finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. He helped the Rockies be 52-52 through July and without him, the team went 23-35 to finish third in the NL West. Story returned as a key player in the organization’s only back-to-back playoff appearances in 2017 and 2018 and earned two All-Star bids before signing with the Red Sox after the 2021 season.
The Rockies signed Tovar in 2017 when he was 16 years old. He rocked the Dominican Summer League in 2018 and was set to start his path through the Minors in 2019, but COVID-19 delayed that plan in 2020. In 2021, he didn’t miss a beat. Tovar tore through the Minor Leagues, going from Low-A Fresno to Triple-A Albuquerque in two years to make his MLB debut at age 21 on Sept. 23, 2022.
It’s worthwhile to compare his first nine games to the first nine for Tulo and Story to put Tulo and Story’s stardom in perspective.
First 9 Games for Tulo, Story, and Tovar
This year, Tovar is ranked as the No. 4 candidate for NL Rookie of the Year by MLB Pipeline. If he’s in the running for that award, that’s great. But Tovar doesn’t have to be award-winning to be the next great Rockies shortstop.
FanGraph’s projections have Tovar posting the third-highest average of all Colorado players with at least 100 plate appearances at .275 (behind only Bryant’s .289 and Yonathan Daza’s .293). He’s predicted to lead the team in stolen bases at 14, be fourth in runs scored at 69, and fifth in homers with 16. Those numbers would be great, but it’s also ok to temper expectations and give Tovar more time to adjust, especially since he only played five games at Triple-A.
Tulo and Story’s First Full Rookie Seasons and Tovar’s Projections
As Tovar prepares to take over the starting role this Spring Training, he’s performing at his usual high level.
Ezequiel Tovar - Colorado Rockies (1)* pic.twitter.com/VZZwvjjy8p— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) February 28, 2023
He’s also revealing he’s got the maturity and baseball IQ to succeed, as Harding reported on Tuesday with Bud Black saying, “He’s confident. He’s comfortable. He’s got poise. He’s a clear thinker. And that’s a great attribute for a young player.”
Story and Tulo set the Rockies rookie shortstop bar high. Tovar has all the potential to follow in their footsteps, but he also deserves the chance to be his own player. It’s not fair to hold Tovar to the same expectations Rockies fans were treated to with Tulo in 2007 and with Story in 2016. Those teams had the tools to compete. Tulo had Todd Helton and Matt Holliday. Story had Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon in his prime, DJ LaMahieu, and Carlos González.
Tovar just lost his Gold Glove double-play partner in Rodgers. Blackmon is at the end of his career. Kris Bryant is a question mark who could be the $182-million player the Rockies signed, but he has yet to prove his worth with injury issues. The team Tovar has around him is not like Tulo’s or Story’s.
Tovar might be the next phenom. That might happen immediately or it could take time. Without a lot to look forward to, it might feel like Rockies fans have to put all their eggs in Tovar’s basket and expect him to be the next Tulo or Story. It’s important to remember he’s only 21 and he deserves time to come into his own.
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MRIs aren’t delivering good news to Rockies these days. After hurting his arm while swinging in the first inning against the Angels on Wednesday in Spring Training, Sean Bouchard had to leave the game. On Thursday, he found out he has a left biceps tear that will require surgery. After posting a ridiculous .454 on-base percentage in 74 at-bats in his MLB debut in 2022, Bouchard figured to be a key player in the outfield for the Rockies in 2023. The only good news is that the injury isn’t on his throwing arm, but the bad news is that it could be a long time before Bouchard is back in action.
Rockies prospect Zac Veen and his basepath chaos might be the man for this MLB moment | The Athletic ($)
Athletic reporter Zach Buchanan highlights the steller timing of Zac Veen getting closer and closer to making his MLB debut, noting that it’s happening when stealing bases is about to become a bigger thing. Not only will Veen be able to deliver in that area with his basepath savviness and speed, but with his experience with two things that are new to MLB this year: bigger bases and the pitch clock. Since the changes started in MiLB, Veen is already familiar with them. As Buchanan reported, ‘“He’s used to living the pitch clock life,’ says Rockies farm director Chris Forbes. And Veen’s used to thriving under it.”
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