Prospect Nerd Christmas is nearly here, and that makes your friendly neighborhood Colorado Rockies blogger a happy boy!
The Rockies will make their first pick in the 2014 draft – which is the eighth overall – shortly after 5:00 pm MST today. Whomever that player turns out to be, he’ll immediately become one of the most exciting prospects in the Rockies’ system; such is the nature of Top-10 picks. Or, I should say: such is the nature of Top-10 picks who aren’t relief pitchers ala a certain Rockies Top-10 pick from 2007; more on that disaster in a moment.
In Part 1 of our draft preview, I attempted to put the challenges represented by the draft into context, and outlined the primary factors teams consider when making their picks. Here, in Part 2, we’ll take a look at the group of players from which I believe the Rockies will choose this year, expand a bit more on the Rockies draft history under General Manager Dan O’Dowd’s watch, and then engage in some educated guessing about which direction O’Dowd will go in 2014.
The most hyped players available this year – pitchers Carlos Rodon, Brady Aiken, and Tyler Kolek – will be long gone before the Rockies’ pick comes around. History tells us, however, that Colorado will have a shot at an impact player with the eighth pick. The trick is identifying them.
Here’s the list of the best players O’Dowd may realistically have a shot at, and/or players who have been connected to the Rockies through media reports. A few of these guys will come off the board before the Rockies’ turn, others may slip entirely out of the first round, but I feel confident that that the Rockies first pick will come from this group, which is sorted by the average prospect rankings of ESPN’s Keith Law, Baseball America, and MLB.com.
Alex Jackson – C/OF (HS) Jackson has a chance to develop into an elite bat, and for teams that believe he’ll be able to stick as a catcher, he’s probably the best position player option in the draft. Even if he ends up in the outfield, where the very athletic Jackson would likely be quite good, the bat is strong enough to make him a first-round-quality selection. The positional uncertainty is probably the only factor that would allow him to slip to Colorado.
Nick Gordon – SS (HS) The Rockies were linked to Gordon early in the process, but his stock has risen of late and the Rockies may not have a chance to pick him. There are questions about Gordon’s contact ability, but he hits for more power than his slight frame suggests, and couples that with great speed and even greater defense at shortstop. That’s a rare combination of talents. Gordon also has legitimate potential as a pitcher, which offers a nice fallback option if it turns out he can’t hit enough.
Aaron Nola – RHP (college) Nola is considered to be about as “safe” a pitcher as there is in this draft. He isn’t likely to be a true Ace, but he’s virtually guaranteed to be at least a #3 starter and get to the majors quickly. He’s got a good mix of offerings, throws the ball where he wants to, and understands the art of pitching. The Rockies have been linked to Nola, as well, but like Gordon, conventional wisdom has Nola off the board by Pick #8. If he were to slip, as a college Junior, Nola could theoretically go back to school for his senior year, giving him some leverage in negotiations, but he’s not likely to turn down any Top 10 bonus
Bradley Zimmer – OF (college) Zimmer’s all-round bat and solid approach at the plate make him a fairly safe bet and likely to be drafted in the first half of the first round. He’s also a good defender who projects to be either passable in center or well above average in a corner. Zimmer doesn’t offer as much upside as other players, but he’d likely advance quickly and his bust potential is pretty low. Like Nola, and every other college player in this list, he’s a Junior with some leverage when it comes to signability, but that wouldn’t be a concern if taken this high – he’d probably come at a discount, in fact.
Sean Newcomb – LHP (college) Another pitcher in which the Rockies have shown interest, Newcomb is a big lefty with great velocity backed up by a good slider/change combo. He’s got #2 starter potential. There are two red flags: Newcomb didn’t face the best competition in college, and he issued a fair amount of walks. However, most evaluators believe his stuff is legit; and while he may need a little time to straighten out his mechanics, the control issues aren’t considered to be much of a problem in the long run.
Touki Toussaint – RHP (HS) One of the best names in the draft, Touki also brings one of the best breaking balls in the draft. Supposedly, his poor teenaged catcher friends can’t even hold on to the thing. He’s got an MLB-quality fastball, too, but like a lot of high school pitchers, he doesn’t know where his pitches are going half the time. He’s a classic high risk/reward pick.
Grant Holmes – RHP (HS) Holmes is another high profile high school pitcher with terrific upside. He doesn’t quite have Touki’s breaking ball, but it’s close. Also, he’s 18 years old and can throw a 100 mph. So there’s that. Holmes is considered to be fairly advanced by high school pitcher standards, but also with a little less room for additional growth given his already-mature frame.
Kyle Freeland – LHP (college) The Freeland-to-Rockies rumors are getting pretty thick, and not just because Freeland is a Colorado native. He’s a lefty with #2/#3 starter potential – not quite the “sure thing” that Nola is, but already pretty good and with some room still to grow. There is some concern related to his mechanics, but the results have been there and he’s on a good trajectory to the Majors.
Michael Conforto – OF (college)Conforto offers one of the best all-around bats in the draft and, like the aforementioned Zimmer, comes with low bust potential and a fairly clear path to the majors. However, unlike Zimmer, Conforto offers nothing on defense. As a left fielder with no defensive value, his bat will have to be not just OK, but really good, for Conforto to justify a first round pick.
Tyler Beede – RHP (college) Another player with Rockies rumors around him – though not as recently – Beede has about as much potential as any pitcher on this list. He brings three MLB-quality pitches but suffers from inconsistency and some command and control issues. The pure stuff is undeniably great, though, and there’s no wonder why Beede’s been on scouts’ radars as long as he has. Classic “if he ever puts it all together…” guy.
Trea Turner – SS (college) Turner gives you good defense and flat-out elite speed. He’s quite polished and one of the most consistent college performers the last few years, though many worry there isn’t much upside left in his bat. Even if that turns out to be true, being able to play in the middle infield and change games with pure speed are attractive qualities on their own. The Rockies have been linked to Turner, too, and given his maturity as a player, it’s fairly easy to envision Turner turning double-plays with Tulo in the not-so-distant future. A base-stealing version of Johnny Herrera is probably Turner’s worst-case scenario.
Jeff Hoffman – RHP (college) If it weren’t for an injury to his elbow and subsequent Tommy John surgery, Hoffman would be in the mix for the first overall pick. Like most young pitchers, there are command/control issues to address, but he’s got true Ace potential. While the Rockies should be able to sign most of the player on this list with the slot value of their 8th pick, Hoffman may be an exception given his option to go back to college and re-emerge as a #1 pick candidate in 2015. However, the injury represents a lot of risk to Hoffman, of course, and I personally find it doubtful he turns down a bonus in this range. Supposedly, he’s going to let teams know his bottom line price this week.
Max Pentecost – C (college) Pentecost doesn’t offer the offensive upside as Alex Jackson or another potential catching candidate I’ll get to momentarily, but where he separates himself is on defense. There is little doubt that Pentecost sticks behind the plate, and that’s huge. To be clear: the bat isn’t bad by any means. He offers less in the way of power, but he’s average or better at pretty much everything, including base running, which you don’t see all that often in catchers.
Brandon Finnegan – LHP (college) Finnegan is yet another college lefty pitcher whom the Rockies are known to be watching. The primary knock on Finnegan is that he’s smaller than you’d like, and partly because of that, many believe he’ll turn out to be a reliever. That’s far from certain, however, and besides great velocity, Finnegan offers good command and overall polish. He’s quite unlikely to bust and will offer his team some value sooner than most other pitchers in this draft.
Kyle Schwarber – C/1B/OF (college) Schwarber is the other catcher I referenced above. He possesses what some scouts consider to be the best pure power in the draft. He knows how to take a walk, too. There is less consensus on his contact ability, but that seems to be trending the right direction, as well. The problem is that Schwarber may or may not actually be a catcher, and that affects his projection quite a bit. As an outfielder, which he may not be able to play either, and especially as a first baseman, Schwarber would probably have to max out the ceiling on his bat. That’s a lot to ask. Still, there is plenty of upside to drafting Schwarber, who could be a rare offensive talent at catcher. The Rockies are thought to be quite high on him.
Eric Feede – RHP Similar to Hoffman, Feede was a fairly sure bet to be taken amongst the first few picks until he busted an elbow ligament. The Rockies strong initial interest has since waned. Given the success rate of Tommy John surgery these days, some team will still take a chance on him in the first round, because Feede has that top-of-rotation potential everybody wants, and once he recovers, his path the majors should be short. Some scouts believe Feede is destined to be a reliever due to the lack of a third pitch, although this appears to be a minority view.
The Rockies Under O’Dowd
O’Dowd has been the Rockies shot-caller since the fall of 1999, which gives us 14 years’ worth of drafting to parse. While O’Dowd has no doubt learned some things and modified his baseball world view over the years, and while every draft is different, that’s a lot of picks to analyze and perhaps identify some patterns. In my attempt to do so, I’m going to do my best to avoid making comments along the lines of “what a bonehead!” Every single team in the league totally blow picks in every single draft, all of which becomes clear only in hindsight. For purposes of this piece, I’d like to try to put the decisions that led to the picks into the context of the time, and that’s it.
I’m also going to limit my analysis to the first 10 rounds. At a certain point in every team’s draft, the focus shifts from finding the best players to more practical – and even purely human – concerns. I mentioned in Part 1 of the draft preview that I believe strongly teams very rarely draft for “need,” even “organizational need.” The fact is, however, that the Rockies must fill be able to field functional teams at each minor league level. They can’t draft 40 pitchers and no outfielders, somebody needs to play catcher in Grand Junction, and so forth.
Also, teams make picks in the middle and latter rounds for reasons only partly related to the players themselves. They might choose a particular player as a way to throw a bone to a loyal scout who hadn’t had one of “his guys” picked yet. O’Dowd picked former Manger Jim Tracy’s kid… twice. And, actually, I’m totally ok with all this. The draft disintegrates into an even more randomness as it proceeds past the top rounds, and Jim Tracy’s kid has as much a chance to become Mike Piazza as anyone else. In any event, attempting to do any meaningful analysis of those mid-to-late picks is a fool’s errand.
I looked at the quantifiable data for the first 10 rounds of since 2000 at a macro level to get at any differences from the norm in the Rockies’ general preferences for pitchers vs hitters, and for high schoolers vs collegians. I found none. For both the Rockies and the league in general, pitchers and hitters each make up about half of all first round picks, and also about half of all picks in the first 10 rounds. As for high schoolers vs collegians, the Rockies are again with a few percentage points of the norm, which is about a 2-to-1 split in favor of collegians in the first round, and a 4-1 split in favor of collegians in the first 10 rounds.
There doesn’t appear to be any objective “truth” to extract from the raw data, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from a closer study of the year-by-year draft history. I won’t cover every pick from every round, only the years and picks I consider to be most useful in our quest to understand the Rockies approach to this mess that his the draft. It all started for O’Dowd in…
… when he came out of the gate with guns blazing, taking high school pitcher Matt Harrington in what became one of the saddest baseball stories ever that didn’t involve someone actually getting physically hurt. Negotiations over the bonus to be paid got incredibly ugly, Harrington never signed (and never got his big payday at all, as it turned out), and everyone came away looking really bad. m sure he feels differently today.
The pick displayed a willingness to accept huge risk with a shot a huge reward – Harrington was the headline prospect of that draft – and the Rockies appeared to hedge their bets a bit with their subsequent picks through Round 10, which featured mostly additional pitchers and exclusively collegians (such as eventual third baseman Garrett Atkins).
The Rockies didn’t make a pick until #44 overall that year and, frankly, there isn’t much interesting to say about it.
The Rockies next chance to pick high in the draft came in 2002, and they again targeted pitching. There were lots of interesting players in this draft, including some high school pitchers that the Rockies passed on who went on to become great (Matt Cain and Cole Hammels), and many more who did nothing at all, including the first overall pick. O’Dowd went the more conservative route and took Jeff Francis out of college, perhaps a reasonable move given the Harrington hangover.
2003 and 2004
The Rockies also picked high in both of these drafts, and each time took high school position players: Ian Stewart and Chris Nelson. I know, I know… These picks marked an interesting shift for O’Dowd, though, and it would be a long time before he used a high pick on a high school position player again.
We also saw an interesting trend developing at his point: O’Dowd hedging his bets by following up whatever sort of pick he makes high in the first with a disproportionally high number players of the same position category (pitcher/hitter) but with different origin (high school/college). In both years, O’Dowd didn’t make a single additional high school selection in the next nine rounds after the first, and both years he took position players all but three times through Round 6 over both years(so, only 3 out of 12 total) – including some hits Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta in 2004. This patterned seemed to play out to some extent often to this point, but less so since then.
Troy Tulowitzki. A massive win with the 7th pick, obviously, but it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t a universally praised decision at the time. Tulo was by no means a risk, but some believed his upside was too limited to go this high. High schoolers Cory Maybin and Andrew McCutchen were trendy alternative preference at the time.
What I find interesting here is O’Dowd’s willingness to take Tulo only a year after taking Chris Nelson, still considered an up-and-coming true shortstop at the time. It showed the team’s willingness to ignore apparent redundancies for a player it really liked.
If only that willingness had endured just one more year. 2006 is the nightmare draft for Rockies fans. Some point to Colorado passing on Clayton Kershaw, but that’s sort of a myth – Kershaw had telegraphed his unwillingness to ever sign here. Others point to Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer – highly touted college pitchers of the same perceived caliber of the college pitcher the Rockies did take – but again, every team in the league has missed on evaluations like this one at some point.
No, what hurts most about this draft is what we came to find out later to be not just a dreamy “what if?” but an actual honest-to-goodness alternative reality that almost was: the Rockies baseball people wanted to take Evan Longoria, but were over-ruled by ownership and took Greg Reynolds instead. (Please, allow me a moment to compose myself…) This isn’t your traditional draft miss story. Evan Longoria was the pick, but ownership didn’t like the idea of taking a third baseman when we already had Atkins playing well and Stewart getting closer. The club ignored this the year before – Nelson followed by Tulo – but couldn’t bring themselves to do it again, I guess. One can understand the sentiment, especially since it’s all going on the left side of the infield in particular, but again LONGORIA WAS THE PICK!
Let’s just hope this thought everyone involved learned the key lesson once and for all: drafting for need is a no-no in baseball. And actually, I’m fairly confident that this lesson has, in fact, been learned. Silver linings are important to my psyche.
The second avoidable disaster in a row. Again, this isn’t your traditional draft miss story. It wasn’t a case of the Rockies missing on an evaluation; it was a case of the Rockies going into the draft with a faulty decision making process: drafting a pitcher with no chance of being anything other than a reliever with a Top 10 pick. The pitcher, Casey Weathers, no doubt had some projectable ability, including a 100 mph fastball, but the reason no team intentionally drafts relievers this high is because many teams end up drafting relievers this high unintentionally (via starters that don’t pan out). Actually choosing to sell yourself short in this way was considered odd at the time and even odder in retrospect.
O’Dowd hadn’t done this before and hasn’t since; it’s probably an aberration and let’s up it stays that way. The one lesson we might take from this O’Dowd’s bent towards the conservative when it comes to drafting pitchers. While I’m not sure need was a factor, nobody would blame the Rockies for targeting pitching after the position player-heavy drafts immediately preceding this one, but the best pitchers though to go in this range of the draft were all high schoolers. Some hit (Madison Bumgarner) and – as high school pitching prospects are want to do – many more failed. The point is: O’Dowd seemed to go way out of his way to draft a safer college pitcher in this spot.
2008 and 2009
That extreme conservatism continued through the 2008 draft with college pitching (Christian Friedrich) and hitting (Charlie Blackmon) making up the Rockies first two picks, but it came to a screeching halt in 2009 with the selection of high school pitcher Tyler Matzek. Apparently, it takes about a decade to get over Matt Harrington. It may be O’Dowd only felt comfortable taking this risk because he had a three picks in the top 34 that year, which he used conservatively in taking collegians thought to be relatively safe and quick-to-the-majors in outfielder Tim Wheeler and pitcher Rex Brothers. Though he then followed up by taking another high schooler high, Nolan Arenado. It was bold draft overall, and refreshing at the time.
2010 and 2011
Both years featured late first round picks that again leaned towards the conservative – college outfielder Kyle Parker in 2010, and college pitcher Tyler Anderson in 2011 – but followed up by relatively high risk/reward players in the rounds immediately following. 2011 turned out to be the most high school-heavy top-of-the-draft in O’Dowd’s tenure, with three of the four picks following Anderson being of the teenage variety, and all of them position players.
Even more high schoolers were drafted in 2012: five of the Rockies first 10 picks, a rate far higher than league average, and including the 1st round pick, David Dahl. Also, a couple high school pitchers were sprinkled in this time.
he way last year’s draft unfolded at the top, the Rockies really had no choice but to draft Jon Gray. There was real debate about what the Rockies would and should do should the choice have come down to Kris Bryant, an advanced college hitter, and somebody like Kohl Stewart, the ultimate sky’s-the-limit high school pitcher.
We’ll never know what the Rockies would have done at the top, but the rest of last year’s draft provides some insight into their thinking. Again, it was heavier-than-average with high schoolers in the first 10 rounds, including the first pick after Gray, third baseman Ryan McMahon, but no teen pitchers this time. The other interesting thing about last year’s draft was the Rockies’ ability to get Gray to sign for less than the bonus attached to that pick. This is what allowed them to draft – and overpay – those high schoolers (Dom Nunez and Terry McClure in particular).
Adding it all Up
Drawing conclusions from the entirety of the Rockies draft history is tricky. Even with a history as long as O’Dowd’s, it’s not easy to distinguish between choices emerging from a consistent philosophy, and choices made simply because an individual player is just that danged coveted that nothing else matters. Still, I think there are some general trends to see here:
- The Rockies seem more hesitant than other teams to draft high school pitchers. All teams consider these players represent the single most risky commodity available in the draft, but the Rockies under O’Dowd appear to be particularly sensitive to this. Since Matt Harrington in Year One, Tyler Matzek stands alone. Besides risk-aversion, signability may come into play here, as well. The very best high school pitchers have the sort of leverage the Rockies may not what to battle against.
- The Rockies have gone through fairly long alternating periods of conservatism and risk-taking. O’Dowd went for the long-play homerun pick right off the bat in 2000, and other than the selection of Francis, this orientation continued for a five-year period. Then, starting with the Tulo pick in 2005, began a seven year period of a heavy lean towards the safe with the club’s top pick. Again, Matzek stands out as the exception, but I suspect that happened only because of the Rockies multiple first-round picks that year, the second two being used on relatively safe players. 2012 appeared to mark the beginning of a new shift – having drafted a high school position player, something the Rockies hadn’t done with their first pick in almost a decade, with many additional raw teenagers drafted in his wake – but it may also be too early to tell.
- As a corollary to the above, the Rockies seem to draft with an eye towards their perceived contention window. The early O’Dowd years were clearly a time of rebuilding. The shift towards safe, ready-to-contribute-soon picks happened right around the time the club may have noticed something brewing with Generation R, which they then attempted to immediately augment . That period might have lasted – or is currently lasting – longer than it should given the club’s desperation to make something happen in the Tulo/Cargo prime years.
- The Rockies seem to focus heavily on hedging bets and balancing the very top of their drafts. This is another thing that most teams do to some extent, but I noticed a stronger pattern in the Rockies draft history than other teams in this regard.
- The Rockies do not seem to draft for “need.” Other than the one case of ownership interfering, which again, will never happen again! Right? Right?! Looking at the state of the organization on a year-to-year basis when each of the Rockies’ high picks were made, I don’t see any strong correlation between the pick and that year’s relative positional weakness. With regards to pitching, that could be considered a genuine “need” for every team in every draft, but in a particularly acute sense for the Rockies specifically. Still, they’ve shown now more likelihood to draft a pitcher high than any other team.
- The Rockies seem as interested as any team in the league to play games with the bonus pool, picking guys they can underpay early in order to overpay others late. This one is more of a pure hunch than the others – we just don’t have enough history with the new rules yet – but it’s something we’ve already seen them do once, and would consistent with O’Dowd’s general proclivity to hedge his bets and cast wide prospect nets.
So, what does all this mean for the top of the Rockies draft in 2014? Who the heck knows?! But why don’t I set myself up for embarrassment anyway.
I’m inclined to start by crossing the high school pitchers off the list for Round 1. Toussaint and Holmes are both worthy players in the Rockies’ range, but it’s just too far out of character for this franchise.
Next, I’m going to rule out players who are less likely to be able to help the Rockies in the near term. This is an assumption in two parts: 1) That the Rockies care about their contention window when drafting, and 2) That they think we’re entering one right now. I think the first part of the assumption is pretty safe, actually.
As for the second, my hunch is that O’Dowd – along with ownership, which would absolutely have to weigh in on something like this – were about ready to throw in the towel around this time a couple years ago and look to retool for the future, which would probably coincide with them choosing from amongst the many rumored Tulo and/or Cargo trade options from the time. More recently, and most directly because of the budding stardom of Nolan Arenado, Eddie Bulter, and Jon Gray, the Rockies have decided to make a push. Unless things totally fall apart, for better or for worse, I think they’ve committed to going all-in the next 3-4 years and winning with a “Tulo Team,” and will draft with the idea of somebody getting here within that window and contributing that dreamed-for success. I think all that rules out the other high schoolers, the injured pitchers, along with the college players who have a bit more developmental work left than their peers. Bye-bye Alex Jackson and Nick Gordon. So long Tyler Beede, Jeff Hoffman, and Erick Feede.
Finally, I’m going to eliminate the players to whom the Rockies have no known connection. While not totally unprecedented, few high picks in baseball drafts come with no forewarning. There’s a lot of interaction between players and clubs this time of year, and enough media types around to report on those interactions. That rules out Bradley Zimmer and Michael Conforto.
We’re down to seven names. Here’s that list, in what I’d venture to guess to be the Rockies order of preference (not counting those three pitchers I’ve left out of the discussion entirely due to the near certainty they get picked at the very top):
- Kyle Freeland – LHP
- Sean Newcomb – LHP
- Aaron Nola – RHP
- Kyle Schwarber – C/1B/OF
- Brandon Finnegan – LHP
- Trea Turner – SS
- Max Pentecost – C
There’s a lot buzz on Freeland to the Rockies. Part of that may be driven by the fact that he’s a local, but make no mistake, that’s not why the Rockies may have him at the top of their list. If Freeland is the Rockies first choice, I could definitely see Newcomb being their 1a. He comes with slightly more risk, but also slightly more upside. Aaron Nola, who may be the very first guy to reach the majors in this draft, may actually be at the top of the Rockies’ board, and for that very reason.
After those three pitchers – who I feel confident are the top Rockies targets, but who could all very well be gone by #8 – things get a little cloudier for me. In a scenario where they’ve all been taken in the Top 7, it’s probably Nick Gordon who’s fallen into the Rockies the lap, and the pure talent differential at that point may compel the Rockies to take him no matter what.
But I’m going to stick with what I have here. The thing about the next four guys on this list is that all of them would almost certainly come with some healthy bonus pool savings; indeed, that would be a major motivation for the Rockies to take one of the four this high. Keep that firmly in mind if you hear any of these names called at #8, because essentially the Rockies will be taking not only that #8 pick himself, but an upgraded version of a future pick, as well.
Of the group, the most buzz is around Schwarber. Personally, if they’re going to go the below-slot-guy route, I’d prefer any of the other four, but this is my best guess of what is, not my opinion of what should be. The order of final three spots is pure guesswork, the order based purely only perceived proximity to the majors, a factor I’ve assumed to be important to the Rockies this year.
Whether my list ends up being wrong or right (spoiler alert: it will be wrong), I hope you’ve enjoyed our journey together through Dan O’Dowd’s skull. And I hope you enjoy tonight’s draft and subsequent baseball prospect dreams too!