In the very first three games ever played at Coors Field, one can pinpoint the origins of the drafting and player development philosophy the Colorado Rockies would follow for decades to come. In the first game played at Coors Field on 4/26/95, the Rockies beat the Mets 11-9. Joe Girardi, Larry Walker, and Dante Bichette went a combined 9-for-20 with five doubles. They only hit one home run. In the second game on 4/27/95, they beat the Mets again 8-7. Walt Weiss, Vinny Castilla, and Mike Kingery went a combined 7-for-14. They did not hit any home runs. Then in the third game, something strange happened. The Rockies beat the Astros 2-1…a pitcher’s duel! The two starting pitchers who turned this trick were Kevin Ritz of the Rockies and Darryl Kile of the Astros. Ritz pitched four scoreless innings giving up only three singles, and induced seven groundouts. Kile pitched six innings giving up two runs on three hits, and generated 11 groundouts. Both pitchers found success by limiting the balls hit into the outfield.
So it became clear right away to the Rockies what would make them successful in their new home. Rather than rely on home runs, they would need to employ line-drive hitters to exploit the enormous gaps offered by the larger than normal outfield and make the Denver sky rain doubles and triples. They would need to employ speed in centerfield to defend those same gaps. They would need premium infield defense to cater to pitchers who could induce a high rate of ground balls to avoid that outfield altogether as much as possible. And they would need to employ pitchers who not only induced ground balls but did so by predominantly throwing a variety of fastballs as opposed to breaking pitches that would not have their usual bite in the thin Denver air.
After only three games, the Rockies had their blueprint for what skills they would have to look for when drafting players and what skills they would have to emphasize player development. Over the years, this philosophy has churned out several successful players. Probably the two best hitters in the history of the franchise were line drive gap hitters. While Larry Walker and Todd Helton certainly hit their fair share of home runs, they were particularly lethal when the game situation called for a screamer to be drilled into an open spot in the outfield to drive in critical runs and keep a rally going. Walker hit 49 home runs in his MVP 1997 season but also hit 46 doubles. The following year he hit 46 doubles again and only half that amount of home runs. Helton hit at least 39 doubles in a season nine times and led the majors in 2000 with 59 doubles.
Centerfield at Coors Field has seen several speedsters who could cover a lot of ground. The first to patrol the area was Kingery, who came to the Rockies with an elite defender’s reputation. Juan Pierre, Preston Wilson, Willy Taveras, Dexter Fowler, and Charlie Blackmon have continued that tradition ever since. The infield defense emphasis has paid off nicely, with multiple Gold Gloves sitting in the trophy cases of Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, and Nolan Arenado.
While they have been few and far between, several Rockies pitchers have found success at Coors Field. Those who have been successful fit the fastball-heavy, ground ball inducer mold perfectly. In 2010, Ubaldo Jimenez went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA. He threw fastballs 61.4% of the time and had a 48.8 ground ball percentage. In 2019, Jon Gray went 11-8 with a 3.84 ERA. He threw fastballs 52.5% of the time and induced ground balls at a rate of 50.4%. Just last year, Antonio Senzatela was 5-3 with a 2.10 ERA at Coors Field instead of a 4.62 ERA on the road. He threw one type of fastball or another 56% of the time and had a 50.8 ground ball percentage.
So who are the prospects currently in the Rockies farm system, which will most likely become regulars in their lineup or pitching staff and thus might be worth drafting and keeping in your fantasy dynasty league? Furthermore, can we predict their success or lack thereof by evaluating whether they fit this Coors Field mold cast way back during those three days in April of 1995?
When you look at Zac Veen, you can’t believe he just graduated from high school. He is a very advanced prospect for his age. Many scouts see Cody Bellinger when they look at Veen because of his already elite bat speed and the violent but smooth upper-cut swing he generates from his 6-foot-4 frame. We’re talking about a corner outfielder with massive power potential. But the power potential comes with a bonus. He is also a very patient hitter at the plate with an eye for the plate that belies his young age. As he matures in professional baseball, that will translate to a high contact percentage, which is very unusual for a young power hitter. He most likely will not turn out to be one of those all-or-nothing home run or strikeout hitters in the majors. He does pull the ball quite a bit, but that might turn out to be an advantage at Coors Field. As a left-handed batter, he can pull the ball into that spacious right-center field gap. If they cheat the right-fielder towards the gap, he can pull the ball down the line. He’s also gained the reputation for crushing fastballs. Now, of course, any elite high school hitter can do that. Still, if he continues to do that at every level, it bodes well for a Coors Field hitter because, as mentioned before, pitchers tend to feature their fastballs at Coors in the face of that thin air that diminishes the bite on their breaking balls. So, let’s see…a power hitter who makes consistent contact with a good eye at the plate at Coors Field. If you’re managing a dynasty fantasy team, you should be salivating.
Look at Ryan Rolison’s stats from High-A Lancaster in 2019, and you come away totally unimpressed…a 4.87 ERA, 129 hits allowed in 116.1 innings, and 1.7 home runs allowed per 9 innings. True, “The Hangar” in Lancaster where Rolison pitched is a notorious hitter’s ballpark, but if he would like to pitch for the Rockies someday, he should probably get used to pitching in a hitter’s ballpark. Despite those stats, most scouts are high on Rolison. He’s got a low to mid 90s fastball, a developing slider and changeup, and, what they’re most excited about, a dynamite curveball that serves as his out pitch. He shows good control and command, so he can get ahead of batters often to set up his devastating curve. So, despite those less than stellar stats at High-A, he did still manage to walk only 38 and strike out 118 in his 116.1 innings. Also, in Rolison’s favor is that the Rockies have placed him on the fast track. He only spent three weeks in Low A ball in 2019 before promoting him to Lancaster, where the average player age was 2.2 years older than him. So obviously, the Rockies are high on him.
But should you be? I would certainly keep an eye on him for your dynasty team. He knows how to pitch at a very young age and should get a call from the Rockies either late this year or early next year, considering how fast they’re moving him through their system. I don’t think you need to go out of your way to target him either in a draft or a trade. His out pitch is the curve is problematic because of the above-mentioned Coors Field thin air effect on breaking pitches. His groundball % to flyball % is about even, so he doesn’t fit the successful Coors Field groundball pitcher mold. His Lancaster splits were a 6.06 ERA and .320 opponents batting average at home and a 3.35 ERA and .215 opponents batting average on the road. I’m just afraid he’s going to have similar splits once he hits the major leagues.
Michael Toglia, Grant Lavigne, Colton Welker
I’ve grouped all three of these prospects because they all predominantly play the same position, and probably only one of them will make it to the major leagues with the Rockies.
Michael Toglia is a big (6-5, 225) switch-hitting first baseman whom the Rockies drafted number 23 overall from UCLA in 2019. In his first professional season in Low-A ball, he only hit .248 but with plenty of power (9 home runs in 41 games) and a high OBP (.369). We’ve seen this movie before…a big hulking first baseman with a poor hit tool and a big strike zone, which either hits a home run, walks, or strikes out. The fact that he’s a switch hitter and a superior left-hand throwing defensive first baseman gives him some added value, but these types of hitters are a dime a dozen in baseball these days. Nothing particularly stands out that makes one think he’ll make it big anytime soon in the majors.
Grant Lavigne is another big (6-4, 220) first baseman who hits from the left side. You would think a big first baseman like him would be a home run hitter, but so far, that has not proven to be the case. In two professional seasons, he’s only hit a total of 13 home runs. His slugging percentage at Asheville in A-ball in 2019 was a paltry .327. If you’re a corner infielder and you don’t hit home runs, you better be good at other things. But nothing stands out for Lavigne. In 2018, 74% of his hits were singles. In 2019, 75% of them were singles. A singles-hitting first baseman won’t play in the major leagues. If he were improving his walk-to-strikeout ratio, maybe he could be excused for not hitting for enough power early in his professional career. But from 2018 to 2019, his BB% decreased from 17.4 to 12.9%, and his K% increased from 15.5 to 24.5%. This was probably due to a much more noticeable upper-cut swing in 2019. Perhaps he was trying too hard to be a home run hitter. Keep an eye on Lavigne in 2021, when he should be given a chance to play an entire season in Double-A. If he can show more power, even in the form of more doubles, and he can improve upon his walk to strikeout ratio, don’t completely give up on him.
Colton Welker started as a shortstop in high school but now plays first and third in professional ball. He’s another prospect the Rockies have put on the fast track. In 2018 in High-A ball, he had a monster season with 13 HR, 82 RBI, and a .333 batting average. He did not have as good a season in 2019 with Double-A Hartford, hitting only .252 and an OPS 150 points lower than 2018. But consider that he was 3.1 years younger than the average age of a player in Double-A. He’s also more of a line-drive hitter than an upper-cutting free swinger, as he hit 32 doubles in 2018, 23 doubles in 2019, and had a respectable 17.3% strikeout percentage in Double-A in 2019.
Ben Bowden has been groomed to be a closer his entire collegiate and professional baseball career. The big 6-4, 250 pound left-hander from Vanderbilt has pitched in 123 games in the pros, all in relief. His development has been slowed by a shoulder injury and two herniated disc injuries since becoming pro in 2016. But now it’s full steam ahead for the 26-year old Bowden. In 2018, he struck out 78 in 52 innings at Asheville and Lancaster in A-ball. He then served as Hartford’s closer in 2019 and converted all 20 of his save chances there, striking out 42 in 25.2 innings and compiling a sparkling 1.05 ERA. When he came into the ninth inning for Hartford, everyone in the park knew the game was over. His stuff completely overpowered AA hitters. When he unleashed his 97 mph fastball, it just made a different sound when it hit the catcher’s mitt. If you were anywhere near the bullpen at Dunkin Donuts Park and you heard that sound, you said to yourself, “yup, Ben’s warming up.” He combines his elite fastball with a low 80s changeup which serves as his out pitch. Anytime you see a pitcher with such a significant difference in speed between his fastball and changeup, you should stand up and take notice. That’s something that will translate to the major leagues. The Colorado bullpen hierarchy is wide open this year, with the uninspiring likes of Daniel Bard, Scott Oberg, and Mychal Givens occupying the back end. Bowden should make the Opening Day roster for the Rockies since he’s the only left-hander ready to contribute at the major league level. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get hold and save opportunities later in the season.
You won’t see Mylz Jones on any top prospects list in baseball. You won’t even find him on the Top-50 prospect list for the Rockies. I bet you’ve never heard of him. So why do I include him in an article about the Rockies’ farm system? Jones began his professional career with a couple of solid seasons. In 2016 in A-ball, he hit .270 with 35 extra-base hits and 28 steals. In 2017 in High-A ball, he hit .297 with 36 extra-base hits and 34 steals. The future looked bright for Mylz when he was promoted to Double-A in 2018 and served as Hartford’s starting center fielder. But he saw a decline in his numbers that year, hitting .250 with 32 extra-base hits and only ten steals. In 2019, still with Hartford, he declined even further, hitting just .239 with 26 extra-base hits. The Rockies tried to further his development by promoting him to Triple-A during the season in 2019, but it backfired as he went 2-for-25 and was returned to Double-A. He will start this season again in Hartford. Thus his disappearance from the Rockies’ top prospect list.
There are a few reasons why Jones should not yet be counted out as a future major leaguer. When you watch him run from first to third on a single or from first to home on a double or run down a ball in the outfield gap, you see athletic ability and hustle. When you see him work with the younger Double-A players and always make everyone aware of how many outs there are and which base to throw to, you see leadership. When you see the Rockies move him from the outfield to third base in 2019 and pencil him in at third for this season, you see evidence that the Rockies have not given up on him. They want to increase his versatility and possibly groom him to be a candidate to help replace Arenado at third or, more likely, serve as a super-utility player like so many other teams have employed. The key for Mylz will be to develop a more consistent hit tool. He’s proven the ability to drive the ball into the gap for doubles and triples in the minor leagues, as we have seen, a capability the Rockies value. He hasn’t been able to do so consistently due mainly to his poor BB to K ratio. Suppose he can lift his batting average to where it was in his first two professional seasons and improve his plate discipline. In that case, I see a possible Marwin Gonzalez or Chris Taylor type of player who makes it to the big leagues late and can play all over the field. Multi-position players can be precious in fantasy.
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