Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
In a season that was much more sprint than marathon, the Rockies got off to one of the hottest starts in baseball with an 11-3 mark and were in first or second place through mid-August. They faded over the final few weeks, however, finishing fourth in a competitive NL West won by the eventual World Series champion Dodgers, three games out of a playoff spot. A few midseason trades couldn’t get them over the hump, unfortunately, and the Rockies missed the postseason for the second year in a row.
Although the offense took a dip, homegrown mainstays Trevor Story (118 OPS+) and Charlie Blackmon (103 OPS+) led the way for the starting nine, while Raimel Tapia batted a career-best .321.
Along with these core pieces, help -- particularly in the infield -- is on the way at various levels of the farm system. Meanwhile, outfielder Zac Veen, the top Colorado prospect, looks forward to playing his first professional game after being the team's No. 1 pick in the 2020 Draft.
Working remotely with these players before the alternate camp set up shop was a unique challenge, but assistant general manager of player development Zach Wilson said the Rockies were well prepared.
"You had some guys that had full availability to maybe a home gym, and then you had other guys who had to go Rocky Balboa on it," Wilson said. "And we had to sort of work through that with them. Through the communication, the relationships and the culture that we've built here over the time, over many years that really showed its stripes this year as we went through a challenging time in a lot of different ways."
Areas of strength: The Rockies have stood out in their ability to develop position players from within, and they appear to have more coming. Five of Colorado’s top-10 prospects can play the infield, starting with first baseman Michael Toglia.
The 2019 first-round pick out of UCLA made a quick first impression as a midseason All-Star in the Northwest League. Toglia mashed nine homers (tied for second in the NWL) with an .852 OPS for Class A Short Season Boise. The switch-hitter has plenty of power potential, though all but one of his extra-base hits came from the left side of the plate. He’s yet to play a game at the full-season level, but with a combination of advanced hitting and slick fielding, the team's No. 3 prospect is a prime candidate to rise quickly.
Fourth-ranked Ryan Vilade showed a little bit of everything last year with Class A Advanced Lancaster, collecting 50 extra-base hits and 24 stolen bases. The 2019 MiLB.com Organization All-Star spent time at both third base and shortstop in his first two seasons, but he began working out in the outfield this summer at the alternate site.
And there’s Aaron Schunk, taken in the second round of the 2019 Draft, who led Boise with 87 total bases and finished his rookie campaign with a .306/.370/.503 slash line. Both a midseason and postseason All-Star, the sixth-ranked Rockies prospect had a balanced approach in his first stint as a professional. Formerly a closer with Georgia, Schunk came into his own as a full-time position player.
Wilson also pointed out that young arms, particularly those who have shifted to bullpen roles, could be a boon for the organization. While they didn't get into official games like they normally would have, Wilson said the alternate site and recent instructional league games have been helpful. High velocity combined with plus secondary offerings are this group's calling card.
"Gavin Hollowell, Jacob Kostyshock,Shelby Lackey , Juan Mejia , Ever Moya, the list goes on and on -- Lucas Gilbreath," Wilson said. "Guys that are just dominating when they get into games for one- or two-inning stints. ... I can tell you what one of our biggest strengths in our system is, and that's bullpen arms."
Areas for growth: A quick scan of the Rockies’ Top-30 prospect list reveals a lack of catching prospects. But it’s something the team looked to address in this year’s Draft, taking Drew Romo with the No. 35 overall pick.
The club’s No. 5 prospect obviously hasn’t played an official game as a pro, but the switch-hitting backstop is well-regarded as a plus defender and has a 60 grade for both his pure defense and throwing arm. Although high school catchers have been hit and miss in recent Drafts, Romo was a prominent member of the USA Baseball program as he helped the U18 World Cup team earn a silver medal last year.
Wilson pointed to a short, compact swing that could make Romo an impact player in both sides of the batter's box.
"Are there certain intricacies of being a professional catcher that he's learning? Sure," Wilson said. "That's true with any young high school catcher, but [Romo] is extremely advanced defensively for where he's at in his career. I think where people didn't give him the credit quite that he deserved is on the offensive side. This guy can swing the bat. This guy's going to hit. And I think people were so focused on the defense because it was so, so exceptional at a young age where they just completely looked over his offense and what he could become."
Wilson also mentioned that Willie MacIver has positioned himself for a potential Major League backstop role down the road.
What changed in 2020: Brendan Rodgers, one of the top middle infield prospects over the last few years, finally graduated, despite playing in only seven games in the Majors this year. Injuries have kept him from getting a foothold with the big league club over the last couple years, so it will be interesting to see where Rodgers ends up on Opening Day 2021, whether it’s with Colorado or at Triple-A.
When Rodgers graduated, Veen took over the top spot in the system, and for good reason.
The outfielder came into the Draft with one of the best swings of any prospect, and his 60-grade hit tool is just the tip of the iceberg. At 18 years old, Veen is going to require some time before he's Major League-ready. But as the Rockies’ lone representative on MLB Pipelines' Top 100 list at No. 49, he has star qualities that could make him a middle-of-the-order regular within the next few years.
"He's an athlete, and he shows plus everything [at the plate] -- plus bat speed, plus ability to hit, to barrel up balls, bat manipulation skills," Wilson said. "A lot of his early development time is going to be spent on his defense, understanding reads and routes and just really understanding outfield in the professional level."
The club also added starting pitchers Chris McMahon, Sam Weatherly and Case Williams in the Draft.
In acquiring Mychal Givens from the Orioles, the Rockies dealt prospects Tyler Nevin and Terrin Vavra to Baltimore. With quality position player prospects abounding, the system did not take a major hit losing those pieces, but both were ranked among the team’s top-15 at the time of the trade. Colorado also parted ways with right-hander Jacob Wallace as the player to be named in the Kevin Pillar trade.
Alternate site standouts: Wilson pointed to the development of Vilade and Schunk among position players who had strong summers.
Both continued to progress offensively, but they also started learning new positions. Vilade, a shortstop and third baseman, spent the bulk of the summer in left field; Schunk shifted from third to second at the alternate site. Wilson noted that they showed leadership qualities along with their steady play through fall instructs.
"By the time we got done with the alternate site and they're both [at instructs] as well, they are looking not only comfortable," Wilson said, "but they are looking like they fit the bill at those positions."
From the pitching group, Helcris Olivarez stood out to the folks in the front office. Although he's logged just north of 45 innings stateside, the southpaw's three-pitch arsenal -- including a 60-grade heater -- along with his poise could help him rocket up the rankings.
"It wouldn't surprise me if within the next year or so, he's in the top 50 prospects in all of baseball," Wilson said of the native of the Dominican Republic. "He's that type of arm and that type of talent. [He throws] 95 to 97 with a plus change and a plus curveball at 20 years old."
Impact rookies: Josh Fuentes went from undrafted free agent in 2014 to one of the most productive rookies six years later.
After a stint with the Rockies last year, he got another look this season and stood out with a .306/.320/.439 slash line while producing a 1.0 WAR in 30 games. He also gave the Rockies extra depth defensively by playing both corner outfield spots along with third and first base.
Ryan Castellani had a big league debut to remember, tossing four hitless innings on Aug. 8 against the Mariners. Over his first 8 2/3 frames, the right-hander yielded just one run and two hits while striking out 10. Although he finished with a 5.82 ERA across 43 1/3 innings, Castellani was in the 65th percentile with his fastball spin rate and had 2.2 inches of horizontal movement better than average with the four seamer, according to Baseball Savant.
Ashton Goudeau went from bouncing around a few different systems before a breakout 2019 with Double-A Hartford. He made his big league debut this year as a reliever and closed out his season by allowing one run over 3 2/3 innings out of the bullpen in the 2020 finale. No. 17 prospect Tommy Doyle hadn't pitched above Class A Advanced in the Minors but made three relief appearances in late September.
Wilson said the group of Castellani, Goudeau and Doyle -- the latter of whom the farm director likened to a younger Scott Oberg -- should be valuable pitchers the Rockies can count on in the coming years.
"Castellani came up and got off to a great start. I think he got a little fatigued at the end but got off to a great start," Wilson said. "I think he showed everybody what he could do at the Major League level. And now really for him, it's just about finding some consistency there as he gets more innings underneath them, which I know I will do. There's different paths for all of them and I think different futures for all of them. But they're all going to play some type of significant role for us moving forward."
Next big thing: On the pitching side, No. 2 Rockies prospect Ryan Rolison is inching closer to the big leagues. In 2019 with Lancaster, notoriously unfriendly for pitchers, the southpaw finished with a 4.87 ERA but was 14th at the Class A Advanced level with 118 strikeouts. His road splits were more in line with his stuff, as he compiled a 3.35 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 51 innings away from The Hangar.
With a four-pitch mix that includes a plus curveball, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Ole Miss product in the Majors in short order. Had this year played out in normal fashion, Rolison almost would be a sure bet to make a 2021 debut with the Rockies. He might need some more seasoning at the upper levels, but he should be donning black and purple soon enough. Ben Bowden, a 2019 Futures Game representative, is likely ready for his big league bow next year in the bullpen.
Wilson said Rolison will end up logging around 60 innings between the summer and fall, where he worked on the development and command of his repertoire.
"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."