Fans of the Colorado Rockies have had a muddled history. Sure, there was the playoffs those couple of times, the World Series run in 2007, and some prolific stars that have played in Mile High and Coors Field. Rockies fans have been treated fairly well in that regard, watching stars like Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, Carlos Gonzalez, and Troy Tulowitzki. Unfortunately, the magic those players have provided hasn’t resulted in much team success over the years. There’s enough excuses to go around the mulberry bush, injuries here and there, struggling players, pitching not doing its job, mismanagement, poor team construction, and so forth. In one way or another, all of these can be applied to the Colorado Rockies in any given season. 2014 has brought that to the forefront, with injuries, poor pitching, mismanagement, seemingly poor team construction, and struggling players all contributing to what has become an outright disaster for a team that had hopes of playoff contention in May. (I’ve said that line many times since; it doesn’t get any less painful as time goes on.)
This season has been an absolute struggle for Rockies fans. First, it was having to suffer through Franklin Morales every fifth day. Then it was a runaway train of injuries that hasn’t slowed. Then it was some players coming back to earth, or those players coming back from injury that couldn’t find a groove. Then it was a public relations crisis as the team owner told fans to stay away, that the team should move, and that, in essence, complacency will be rewarded. Fans are calling for vast change, the face of the franchise may or may not want out, and it almost feels like the general feeling is that those on board are simply waiting for the last lifeboat to leave without them. But fans shouldn’t panic. 2014 isn’t completely lost! There is hope still folks!
Over on the eastern seaboard, in the great state of North Carolina, lies a town they call Asheville. It has a storied history, with periods of struggle and periods of triumph. Perhaps its greatest feature, at least on this day, is the Class A minor league baseball team that calls Asheville home, the Tourists. The current iteration of the Tourists play in the South Atlantic league since 1980, but have bounced around various levels of minor league baseball with slight pauses since 1910. The current iteration, the 2014 Asheville Tourists may be one of the best teams to come through the town, and it should be catching the eye of more than just the casual minor league observer.
You may ask yourself what’s so thrilling about the lower levels of minor league baseball? Why would I stop watching the top athletes at the highest level in order to watch these young, almost kids I may not know anything about hit the ball around the yard a little bit? Well, do you like wins? Do you like teams scoring runs? Maybe sustainable pitching is more your thing. They have that in Asheville too. It’s a solid team, as indicated by the run of success they’re having this season. It also bodes well for the folks in ol’ Modesto, who like many Rockies fans, are down on themselves this season, but hold a glimmer of hope for 2015. Honestly, my work should be done here. You should have cleared your schedule for the rest of the day and started becoming the world’s first and foremost Asheville Tourists fan. I’m sure some have, but for those that need further convincing, let’s get into it.
At present, the number one reason to pay attention to the Tourists is the dynamic talent in center field, Raimel Tapia. I wrote about Tapia in June as one of my first features for Rockies Zingers, which you can read here. At the time, he was coming off a poor April and an incredibly hot May, and really hasn’t slowed down since. In July, the fine folks of Baseball Prospectus graded his hit tool as a 70, featuring him in a discussion on grading the hit tool of baseball prospects, which can be found here (subscription required). Coming off of a 2013 season in which he won the Pioneer League batting title as a member of the Grand Junction Rockies, it isn’t much of a surprise that Tapia would hit in Asheville. McCormick Field, as has been discussed, is a hitter friendly park. That isn’t to say that Tapia is launching bombs left and right and making the place his personal playground, but rather that he has been able to spread the ball around, hit some extra base hits, and exhibit well-rounded baseball through his hit and run tools.
Tapia is joined on the offensive side of the ball by third baseman Ryan McMahon, another top prospect in the organization. My colleague here at Rockies Zingers, Ryan Hammon, wrote about McMahon earlier this season in a report that can be found here. Even though the strikeouts are on the high side, McMahon has flashed power and is playing at two and a half years below the league average age at 19.
This was a trio of top prospects for the first three months of the season, until prized outfielder David Dahl was moved to high A Modesto. Emerson Jimenez is another position prospect to keep an eye on for Asheville. He currently ranks as the organizations number 14 prospect according to MLB.com. Correlle Prime at first, Michael Benjamin at second, and the catching duo of Jose Briceno and Wilfredo Rodriguez have all contributed to a potent Tourist offense in 2014.
The pitching staff has been led by Antonio Senzatela. Despite a pretty shoddy strikeout rate, Senzatela has been able to keep runners off the basepaths and has started talk that he may be a bit of a prospect himself, ranking 20th on MLB.com rankings of the organization. He seems to be the perfect pitcher for the ground ball philosophy adopted by the Rockies, and if he can continue to get batters out without any overpowering stuff may climb those prospect lists. Konner Wade has also turned in a pretty strong 2014 campaign, coming off a decent 2013. There needs to be some improvement in keeping the other team off the base paths, but the end results thus far are somewhat encouraging, while factoring in the home environment. The two of them have recently been joined by 2014 first rounder Kyle Freeland, who has been very impressive through two starts. Troy Neiman has been the best pitcher out of the bullpen this season, holding hitters to a .172 average in 72.2 innings.
For 2014, with the major league team floundering, there is hope in Asheville. There is a star-studded team with strengths in multiple facets of the game with potential to develop into some great players to contribute at the major league level in a few seasons. It’ll be quite a show watching this crew develop over the course of 2014 and moving on to Modesto in 2015. Tapia, McMahon, and Freeland will continue to be headliners, with Freeland likely to move faster than the other two through the system. Tapia and McMahon, both being so young, will likely need time at each level to make proper adjustments and continue their growth as hitters.
For the Rockies fan in 2014, it may be fair to give up on the major league team. If that is the case, the baseball void can be filled by the young guns in Asheville, NC, playing for their shot to one day play a mile high.