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Expectations, hopes high for ace arms Butler, Gray

Despite limited Minor League experience, both righties may contribute soon

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A Rockies team-building tradition is to have rookies in Major League camp answer questions during morning stretching. Some questions are biographical, some are good-naturedly personal. So goes the ritual to help players get to know guys who may be called upon to win regular-season games.

Many who rate top prospects expect right-handed pitchers Eddie Butler and Jon Gray to be helping the Rockies win this year. So veterans wanted to get to know them before they were unveiled during Cactus League games.

They stood with a microphone telling their stories, and even being stumped.

"They asked me what my WAR was, on my statistics, and I had no idea what it was," Gray said, smiling. "I had to tell them, 'I have no idea what that is.'"

Butler took ribbing that his younger brother, who doesn't play baseball but is a computers and electronics whiz, is 6-foot-4 and 236 pounds while he is a comparatively slight 6-foot-2 and 180.

"You're standing there with a mic, and everybody's hounding you with questions," Butler said. "They understand how you cope with things, by putting you in a bad place and seeing how you react. What are you going to do at that moment in the game? Will they be able to count on you?"

Chances are the answer can wait -- well, maybe a little.

Rockies nearing Majors
List of prospects close to contributing goes beyond Gray, Butler
LHP Tyler Matzek The team's top pick in 2009, Matzek, 23, had control issues as a starter, but struck out 13 in 11 2/3 innings as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League, and may have found his niche.
C Tom Murphy A burly 220 pounder who can take control of a staff but is improving his technical defense, Murphy, who turns 23 on April 3, has hit 22 homers in each of his two Minor League seasons.
OF Kent Matthes A fourth-round pick in 2009, Matthes is older than your average prospect at 27, but he has 66 home runs and 244 RBIs in 386 Minor League games.
SS Rossel Herrera He's 21 and hasn't played beyond low-A, but after hitting .343 with a .419 on-base percentage and 16 home runs at Asheville, he could become an impact leadoff hitter.
1B/OF Kyle Parker The top pick in 2010, Parker, 24, has 67 home runs and 242 RBIs in three seasons, the highest level being Double-A.

The Rockies enter 2014 with four rotation spots set, barring injury, and competition for the fifth spot in incumbent Juan Nicasio, Franklin Morales, Jordan Lyles and Christian Friedrich, all with experience starting in the Majors. But Butler and Gray are here to impress, whether it's now or later.

The Rockies figure they're going to count on more than the five guys who start the season in the rotation. Not many years are like 2010, when five guys made all but 16 starts and the team made it to the playoffs.

In 2007, when the Rockies made their only World Series, only Jeff Francis, Josh Fogg and Aaron Cook started 29 or more games. Ten other pitchers made the other 75 starts, with Jason Hirsh's 19 being the most of that group. By August, three members of the rotation -- Cook, Hirsh and Rodrigo Lopez -- were done for the regular season because of injury. Only Cook, who pitched Game 4 of the World Series as the Red Sox completed their sweep, returned in the postseason.

That year, highly regarded prospects Ubaldo Jimenez and Morales, who is back with the team after a stint with the Red Sox, were starting key games in September.

The difference is Butler, a supplemental first-round pick in 2012, comes into the season having made just 41 appearances, 40 of which were starts (16-6, 1.90 ERA, 198 strikeouts in 217 1/3 innings, topping out at Double-A). Gray, the third overall pick last year, has all of nine starts (4-0, 1.93, 51 strikeouts in 37 1/3 innings at Rookie and high Class A).

But last season, Sonny Gray had made just 53 Minor League starts before leading the Athletics into the playoffs. Michael Wacha needed just 26 appearances -- 17 starts -- to become the National League champion Cardinals' postseason leader. Wacha nearly made the team out of Spring Training, and was up by May. The Pirates made the playoffs on a lift from Gerrit Cole, who had started 38 Minor League games.

Francis, a top Rockies pick in 2002, made the Majors after 59 Minor League starts. So even with the Rockies, quick development has happened before.

"You saw, whether it was St. Louis or Oakland, using unproven guys and what that did for them, giving them a boost late in the year down the stretch," said Bill Geivett, the Rockies' senior vice president of Major League operations.

In some cases, injuries force pitchers to ascend before their time. But teams could always have pulled in a serviceable veteran and developed the youngsters the old-fashioned way -- by not grabbing them the first time they're hot but waiting until they struggle, then rebound. But if Sonny Gray, Wacha and Cole can hit the mound striking, why not Butler or Jon Gray?

"It's probably similar to my situation -- it didn't hurt that there were other first-year managers who had never done it before who came in and did it pretty well," said Weiss, who was coaching high school baseball when the Rockies hired him. "It probably doesn't hurt those guys that it's been done before."

However, it hasn't been done often. Yes, there have been guys like the late Catfish Hunter, a Hall of Famer who made the Majors at 19 and never pitched a game in the Minors. Also, there was Rick Ankiel, who was brought to the Majors although the Cardinals had reservations about his ability to handle adversity. After some dramatic blow-ups, he had to switch to the outfield to revive his career.

For now, the Rockies see talent. Butler can reach the upper 90s with his fastball, and has developed a confounding changeup to go with his breaking pitches. Gray routinely exceeded 100 mph with his fastball at Oklahoma, and found it easier to use his changeup against Minor League hitters who had to use wood bats. Bullpen sessions don't mean much in the grand scheme, but they've taken the opportunity to impress.

"What I see is everything that's talked about them, I see it," Rockies pitching coach Jim Wright said. "They're power pitchers with plus fastballs, plus breaking balls, and good athletes, overall."

Now they must deal with hype.

"We've talked about that in our individual meetings, and our message to them -- it's one of those easier-said-than-done things -- is try to focus on getting ready for the season," Weiss said.

After having expectation follow him through college and into pro ball, Gray appreciates the message from the veterans with their good-natured efforts to put him at the bottom of the Spring Training flow chart.

"The new guys coming in, they want them to be hard workers, want them to be unselfish, what type of person I am," Gray said. "I think I'll be OK, that they'll like my personality."

Butler will be happy when he has a chance to show what he can do with a ball in his hand, rather than a microphone.

"I think the big moment in the game is easier," he said, smiling. "I'm not a big public-speaking guy."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.
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