It’s not looking great for the immediate future, but perhaps in a few years things will look up a bit
Whenever I complete the process of writing something about every player who received votes in our biannual Purple Row Prospects list (for this edition it was 51 players across 13 ballots), I try to synthesize that information on system strengths and weaknesses into some digestible nuggets for those who weren’t following along the entire way or who might only be casually aware of who is on the farm. With Colorado’s general penchant for inactivity on the trade and free agent front, the prospects on this list (which didn’t include the players received in the Nolan Arenado trade due to the timing of the vote) are likely to be a big part of who contributes to the Rockies over the next 5-7 years.
Here are the big picture items I took away from a thorough review of Colorado’s top prospects as we enter the 2021 season:
National prospect experts think this is a bottom-tier system
Baseball Prospectus provides a one-sentence system summary for each team’s top ten prospect list. Here is 2021’s:
I’ve rewritten this four or five times now because I thought it was too mean. It’s not a good system.
In their ordinal ranking of farm systems that was posted yesterday, BP ranked Colorado 29th, saying the following:
Strengths: Zac Veen; better depth than the rest of the bottom five systems
Weaknesses: There’s not much pitching here at all
ESPN.com’s Kiley McDaniel’s farm system ranking placed the Rockies 27th overall in MLB last week:
The Rockies continue to be the worst-run team in baseball at the top, but actually have pretty solid domestic and international amateur departments. The nonsensical trades down the stretch for Kevin Pillar and Mychal Givens are mostly balanced out by an even more nonsensical trade of Nolan Arenado and the incoming international class.
Notably, McDaniel uses a disciplined approach that assigns a monetary value to each prospect that ranks as a 35+ (interesting org player) or above prospect for each system. In summing the value of these players, the Rockies come out with a farm system value of $107 million, down $10 million from this time last year. That’s last in the division behind the Padres (7th, $271 million), Diamondbacks (10th, $244 million), Giants (12th, $221 million), and Dodgers (16th, $193 million). In other words, the Rockies are last by a good margin with a farm that has less than half of the value of most of their competition.
While McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs (who uses a similar ranking system) aren’t the end-all, be-all of prospect evaluation, but they take a principled and organized view of the entire minor leagues and I trust their judgment more than my biases. Fangraphs hasn’t updated their system ranks for 2021 yet, but the most recent ranking from the end of 2020 has Colorado 27th in MLB as well with $117M in value (pre-Arenado trade).
There’s not a lot of elite-level talent right now, but keep an eye on the lower levels of the system for young guys who could take a big step forward and move this organization up this list.
The Athletic’s Keith Law (who ranked Zac Veen 43rd and Ryan Rolison 82nd overall) was the most optimistic of the national reviewers when he ranked the Rockies system 21st overall last week. In that article is an interesting insight as to why Colorado’s farm may be undervalued:
A hypothesis: The Rockies’ system is chronically underrated, including by folks like me, for two structural reasons. One is that, at least under the previous system, most of their teams played in extreme hitters’ environments that skewed reports and stats for pitchers and created skepticism around position players. The other is that they present fewer opportunities for scouts to see their players. They were, at least until now, the only team in baseball without a short-season team at their complex, and they have generally been reticent to share information with scouts during minor-league spring training games or instructional league.
The move to the new minor league structure should help. Low-A Fresno is still a hitter’s park, but it’s by no means the hitter’s paradise (and pitcher’s torment) that Asheville or (especially) Lancaster were, while High-A Spokane presents an environment that is actually friendly to pitchers. The Rockies’ new complex-level team will provide scouts more looks at the interesting group of low level players coming up from the international program and the most recent couple of drafts.
There’s a dearth of impact prospects in upper levels of the system
With the graduation of Brendan Rodgers last year and the signing of Zac Veen, the Rockies still only have one player who consistently makes top 100 prospect lists. Since Veen hasn’t played a professional game yet and Colton Welker is the only PuRP in the top 12 who even has experience at the Double-A level entering 2021, it can be easy for Rockies fans to look on the farm system in search of the next star like Trevor Story and despair.
I see nine PuRPs as potential 2021 contributors: four of them are likely relievers or spot starters (Ben Bowden, Tommy Doyle, Antonio Santos, Jose Mujica) and three are likely reserves at the MLB level (Yonathan Daza, Dom Nunez, Bret Boswell). The most likely 2021 starter is Welker, who could factor into the first or third base picture this year if he outshines incumbents Ryan McMahon and Josh Fuentes or newcomers C.J. Cron and Greg Bird. Finally, top PuRP Ryan Rolison presents a high floor MLB starter profile, with an open question around whether he’ll slot in the back or the middle of a rotation. He hasn’t pitched in Double-A yet, but he very well could factor into the rotation picture in 2021.
Starting pitcher depth remains a concern
Put simply, Rolison is the only starting pitcher prospect in the system I feel confident about sticking in the rotation and providing the Rockies league average production. Helcris Olivarez (No. 10 PuRP) has a high ceiling and is clearly well thought of by the Rockies — as he was added to the 40-man roster this off-season — but he has yet to pitch in full-season ball. 2020 second rounder Chris McMahon (No. 7 PuRP) looks like a potential impact starter but hasn’t yet thrown a professional pitch. Upper minors pitchers like Santos, Mujica, and recent 40-man roster add Lucas Gilbreath could make the jump, but a bullpen role seems likeliest for them.
In the lower minors, hurlers like Karl Kauffmann (No. 11 PuRP), Will Ethridge (No. 23 PuRP), and Mitchell Kilkenny (No. 27 PuRP) provide a decent floor but low ceiling. Sam Weatherly (No. 17 PuRP) and Ryan Feltner (No. 25 PuRP) are also in the low minors but trade a higher ceiling for greater risk of them ending up in the bullpen — a place in which recent acquisition Tony Locey also finds himself. And then there’s former fourth overall pick Riley Pint (No. 30 PuRP), whose ceiling is as high as it is unlikely he’ll reach it.
For a team that relies on homegrown pitching as much as the Rockies do, that’s not a strong pipeline. Fortunately, the Rockies do have by their standards a decent group already at the MLB level.
Who will end up at first and third?
A clear strength of the Rockies org is at the corner infield spots. Four of the top nine in the system probably slot at those spots in MLB, with another (Ryan Vilade) a fit there or in the corner outfield — not to mention Elehuris Montero, the top prospect in the Arenado trade, who also plays the infield corners. This is after a year in which four PuRPs fitting that description were not eligible this time around.
Of the group, 2019 first rounder Michael Toglia (No. 4 PuRP) is the most obvious fit as a switch-hitter with power and plus defense at first base. Though Welker and Vilade will probably arrive first and look like strong offensive contributors, I actually think 2019 second rounder Aaron Schunk (No. 6 PuRP) will be the player to serve as the long-term solution at the hot corner. Beyond that, lurking in the lower minors are young players with big ceilings like Grant Lavigne (No. 9 PuRP) and Julio Carreras (No. 16 PuRP). The point here is the Rockies actually do have some organizational depth with potential impact players — which is a relief given the current state of those positions at the big league level.
Where are the up the middle impact players?
Drafting Drew Romo (No. 8 PuRP) in 2020’s Competitive Balance Round A was a great start, injecting an honest to goodness potential catching star into the system — albeit one with the riskiest profile in baseball as a switch-hitting high school catcher. Beyond him though, there’s nobody pushing the envelope at catcher — only lower ceiling backstops like Nuñez and Willie MacIver.
As Story enters his final year under contract with the Rockies, there’s a big hole in the minors below him at shortstop until you get to the Low-A levels where recent acquisition Mateo Gil and defensive whiz (but light hitting) Ezequiel Tovar (No. 28 PuRP) will ply their trade. For a true shortstop successor though, you might need to look even deeper at the Dominican Summer League’s Adael Amador (No. 15 PuRP), who has yet to make his professional debut after signing in 2019.
Perhaps Rodgers will fill the shortstop vacancy in 2022, but if he does, who will be there to play second base? Eddy Diaz (No. 14 PuRP) is a prospect below A ball with blazing speed and good contact abilities but a lack of power. Bladimir Restituyo (No. 26 PuRP) is in a similar spot — trading contact for power — but his future could well be in the outfield instead.
The outfield is looking up
Beyond the addition of Veen to the system, the Rockies also are keen to develop positional flexibility with some other interesting bats. That group includes Vilade, Boswell, Restituyo, and even Toglia. Beyond the multi-position crew, new acquisition Jameson Hannah (No. 19 PuRP) joins Daza (No. 18 PuRP) as strong defensive center fielders in the system’s upper levels.
Most exciting of all is the potential displayed so far by Brenton Doyle (No. 12 PuRP), who quickly emerged as a steal out of a Division II school as a fourth round pick in 2019. Doyle not only clobbered the ball in his first professional season (185 wRC+), he also displayed five tools and a much more advanced hitting approach than expected. If he can replicate that success in full season ball, I expect Doyle to be a top five PuRP as soon as the next time we do this list.
Can we please not spend significant free agent money on the bullpen?
I mean, that’s my default position. Relievers are so fungible and easy to replace that a team should almost never be paying even arbitration prices for them. The large amount of potential impact arms the Rockies have in their system and at the Triple-A/MLB levels means it’s even more true with this team.
The Rockies have 13 pure relievers already on their 40-man roster, plus another 2-3 starters who will probably end up in the pen. Beyond the 40-man roster group is another wave of hard throwing bullpen or potential bullpen arms. They won’t all hit of course, but they don’t need to.
Colorado’s Latin America program seems to be back on track
After an organizational shift that took place in the last few years (including an expansion to two Dominican Summer League clubs), the Latin America program is producing some high potential players who are rising up scouting lists quickly. Most notable are PuRPs like Olivarez, Diaz, Amador, Carreras, Restituyo, and Tovar. None of them have played in full season ball yet, but among that group a 2021 breakout from at least a couple seems likely. They’re a long way away, but in a system that lacks impact players they are on my watch list.
★ ★ ★
Due to the nature of the talent in the system and where it is concentrated, outside of the bullpen, I don’t see the farm providing significant value at the MLB level until at least 2022. With that said, given the pandemic-caused lost developmental year in 2020, there will be 40-man roster crunch after the season across MLB.
The Near Future: 40-Man Roster After 2021
Here’s how I would characterize each spot on the 40-man roster as it will exist after the 2021 season, the next time the Rockies will need to make mass additions to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft:
Sure things (current)
These players are on the current 40-man roster, have already seen major league action, and will still be on the roster after the 2021 season barring trades (which is a condition that of course applies to every category).
These players have major league experience, are currently on the 40-man, and will likely be on the post-2021 40-man roster — but under-performance could cause them to lose their spot to a DFA or non-tender. Presented roughly in my order of confidence:
7. Ryan McMahon
8. Austin Gomber
9. Sam Hilliard
10. Garrett Hampson
11. Daniel Bard
12. Peter Lambert
13. Ryan Castellani
14. Robert Stephenson
15. Raimel Tapia
These players haven’t yet seen MLB action but are in good shape to have a 40-man roster spot after 2021 (four of them already do), again presented in order of confidence:
16. Ryan Rolison
17. Ryan Vilade
18. Colton Welker
19. Elehuris Montero
20. Helcris Olivarez
21. Ben Bowden
Under contract but at risk
These players are on the 40-man now but are serious candidates for a DFA or non-tender during or after the 2019 season—presented from most safe to least:
22. Josh Fuentes
23. Tommy Doyle
24. Elias Díaz
25. Antonio Santos
26. Dom Nuñez
27. Bret Boswell
28. Jose Mujica
29. Yency Almonte
30. Tyler Kinley
31. Carlos Estévez
32. Jairo Díaz
33. Yonathan Daza
34. Yoan Aybar
35. Lucas Gilbreath
36. Phillip Diehl
37. Justin Lawrence
38. Jordan Sheffield
I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the above players were not in the organization after 2021, but in particular anyone below Santos should consider their 40-man roster slot vulnerable. That gets us to 38 players (including two prospects and Colorado’s 2020 Rule 5 pick) and it assumes that Ian Desmond’s mutual option doesn’t get picked up.
A re-signed player or a free agent/trade acquisition would naturally decrease the amount of flex in play with Rule 5 protection. Most likely the Rockies will consider adding a veteran non-roster invitee like C.J. Cron, Dereck Rodriguez, and Greg Bird to their 26-man roster to start the 2021 season once Peter Lambert goes back on the 60 day IL. Lest we forget, there are several 2020 Rockies players that are also NRI like Chris Owings, Chi Chi González, Joe Harvey, and Jesus Tinoco that will also vie for a spot.
Here’s how I would rank other prospects in terms of getting a 40-man spot after 2021:
- Jameson Hannah
- Ryan Feltner
- Ezequiel Tovar
- Eddy Diaz
- Riley Pint (eligible again, if he’s great this year, he jumps into the likely future bucket)
- Willie MacIver
- Alan Trejo
- Niko Decolati
- Mitchell Kilkenny
- Breiling Eusebio
- Nick Bush
- Daniel Montano
- Julian Fernandez (already Rule 5 selected but returned)
- Casey Golden
I would say Hannah and Feltner in particular should feel good about getting protected, with the next two beyond that being strong possibilities. I listed 12 players here last time around and Gilbreath wasn’t one of them, so somebody from off this list could make a surprise appearance. I think the bottom 15 or so slots on the 40-man are quite fluid at this point, so we could see a big roster shake-up if 2021 is another year out of contention for the Rockies.
That’s one man’s opinion for what the future will look like. I’d love to read yours in the comments! Thanks for following along with me over the last few weeks.