The 2018 first-rounder will likely start in Double-A to start the year, but don’t be surprised if he gets promoted mid-season
1. Ryan Rolison (381 points, 13 ballots)
By a single point, Ryan Rolison is the top player on the Pre-season 2021 Purple Row Prospects list! Rolison is only one of two pitching prospects in the top 10 (Helcris Olivarez is 10th) and is probably the only impact starter in the system with experience in full season ball. The 6’2” 22-year-old lefty was Colorado’s first round pick in 2018 (22nd overall), signing for a slot bonus of $2.9 million.
Tabbed as a polished pitcher and likely fast riser with a plus curveball when he was picked, Rolison emerged after his first season of full season ball in 2019 ready for an assignment to Double-A to begin 2020, let alone 2021. He got to that point by dominating Rookie ball in a small sample the summer of his draft year, then following it up with an encouraging performance across two levels of A ball in 2019.
Assigned to Low-A Asheville to begin the year, Rolison quickly proved he had mastered the South Atlantic League with 14 2⁄3 innings over three starts in which he allowed only one earned run while striking out 14 and walking two. Only three weeks into the season, the Rockies promoted the lefty to High-A Lancaster.
Just as I’ve been tempering enthusiasm of great offensive numbers by Rockies prospects in what was arguably the most friendly offensive environment in the minor leagues, so too must I give credit to a pitcher able to hold his own in Lancaster. In 116 1⁄3 frames across 22 starts for Lancaster, that’s what Rolison did against competition that was on average about 2.2 years older than him. His 4.87 ERA and 1.44 WHIP at the level might not look pretty, but the context makes those numbers look respectable. Rolison’s 4.05 xFIP indicates some ill fortune, while his 9.1 K/9 rate and 2.9 BB/9 are good peripherals.
Furthermore, the impact of Rolison’s home park was quite easy to spot. In 13 starts at home, Rolison had a 6.06 ERA and allowed a .320 batting average. On the road (in what still was a net positive offensive environment), he posted a strong 3.35 ERA and .215 batting average against mark over nine starts. It’s a fact of life that Rolison, should he make it to the big leagues with the Rockies, will need to face this type of radical home environment, but the runs minor league park factor for Lancaster is more like 132 compared to a 113 for Coors when compared to their league (much more extreme).
As I mentioned above, Rolison was ready for a Double-A start in 2020 with the off-chance of a MLB assignment if things went well. Though he didn’t get any Double-A action in 2020, Rolison did spend time at the alternate site and fall instructs. Rockies AGM Zach Wilson had this to say about Rolison in November:
“What he’s continued to work on is his arm-side fastball command and then really being ultra-consistent with his curveball, Wilson said. “He’s got tremendous command of it. And then continuing to work in a change, which has really turned into a solid third pitch for him. I don’t even know if I could call it a third pitch anymore. It’s a pitch that really is working well for him right now. He’s able to play it off his fastball very well, particularly when he stays aggressive with it.
“So he took steps in the right direction toward a Major League career here at some point over the next year-ish. When that happens, I don’t know, but he’s got himself closer to that over the last year.”
I think the plan will be to have Rolison begin 2021 in Double-A but move him up a level mid-season, with a chance of a late season big league call-up since he is a lock for a 40-man roster spot after the season.
Here’s some video of Rolison’s appearance at the Cal League All-Star game, including some good slow motion looks at his arsenal at the end of the video:
Given the Rockies’ early competitiveness in the truncated season, there were whispers of bringing up Rolison for the stretch run. They were operating without a left-handed reliever in the bullpen for the majority of the year, not that James Pazos or Phillip Diehl inspired much confidence in the first place. Colorado ultimately didn’t make the call, but it wasn’t for a lack of success and stuff as Rolison showed an improved fastball and a sharper slider than before. The two-pitch mix ran through his teammates at the alternate site while Rolison showed improved strike-throwing ability.
The Rockies are committed to developing Rolison as a starter, hence why they did not want him to work out of a bullpen without a clear spot for a starting pitcher. He will start 2021 on Double-A team “TBD” and most likely spend the whole season there. The Rockies hardly put guys on the fast track, even the advanced college picks who are supposed to move quickly.
Rolison’s year was bookended by a very good start and a fairly strong finish, with a bit of a lull in the middle, showing durability by amassing over 130 innings. He can spot his low-90s fastball well and improved particularly with his arm side command in 2019. His curve is a plus out pitch more often than not, though he lost feel for his breaking stuff for a spell during that lull, getting slurvy at times, but he tightened it back up by the end of the season. He’ll show a distinct slider, with the ability to manipulate his breaking stuff to be firmer or softer with different shape and depth. He can mix in his fading changeup effectively as well.
The southpaw rarely hurts himself with walks and does an excellent job of keeping hitters off-balance and missing a fair amount of bats. The Rockies are very pleased by how he fought through his period of scuffling to finish strong and didn’t let Lancaster change who he was as a pitcher, which is an advanced lefty who shouldn’t take too long to be ready to reach the middle of a big league rotation.
A 60 curveball is the headliner, accompanied by a 55 fastball, 55 changeup, and 55 control — clear markers of a pitcher with the arsenal to make it in a big league rotation.
While he didn’t make FanGraphs’ top 100 list, Rolison came in at #111 as the clear 2nd best player in the FanGraphs pre-2020 system ranking with a 50 Future Value grade:
As a draft-eligible sophomore [in 2018], [Rolison] came out of the chute blazing hot and had top-10 pick buzz for the first month of the season before his year descended into chaos. He became wild and predictable, and yes, you read that right. Rolison couldn’t throw strikes with his fastball and leaned heavily on his curveball, which opposing hitters anticipated and crushed.
But 2019 was different. Rolison not only threw a greater percentage of strikes (65%) but he located his four-seam fastball where it plays best — at the top of the zone. After holding his college velo early in the year, it dipped late in the season but still competes for swings and misses because of its ride. There’s also more coherent pitch usage and a better pitch mix now; Rolison has a two-seamer, threw more changeups last year, and was just generally more mechanically consistent. He still throws across his body a bit and it can be hard for him to locate his breaking ball to his glove side, but the raw material for a lefty with three above-average pitches and starter control/command is clearly here and coming fast, so this is a back of the 50 FV tier prospect.
Adam McInturff of 2080 Baseball reported on Rolison during his brief Asheville stint, giving him a 50 grade. The whole profile is worth reading, but here was the conclusion:
Extremely polished, can move through system quickly, looks ready for next level. Pitchability, control/command, and solid off-speed give upside of reliable mid-rotation starter.
Rolison combines a plus curve, an above average low-mid 90s fastball, and one or two additional secondaries that rate above average (depending on the evaluation). The 23-year-old has good command of that arsenal and his left-handedness instantly raises the profile’s ceiling.
Maybe that’s not an exciting number one PuRP after seven straight lists headlined by Brendan Rodgers, but it’s a useful profile the Rockies are glad to have entering the upper minors this year. I ranked Rolison 2nd on my PuRPs ballot with a 50 FV grade as easily the best pitching prospect in the system and the prospect most likely to be an above average contributor in the next two years.