Rox happy with productive, under-the-radar farm

March 12th, 2019

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The competition for second base in big league camp this spring is a microcosm of how the Rockies do things in terms of developing position players. Being a jack of all trades isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged.

For years, the Rockies have broadened players’ defensive horizons as they make their way up the organizational ladder. All-Star shortstop Trevor Story saw considerable time at second and third before getting the opportunity to play his natural position following the Troy Tulowitzki trade. This spring, none of the candidates to replace DJ LeMahieu call second their natural position. Ryan McMahon was a corner infielder before seeing time at second in 2017 in the Minors. Both Brendan Rodgers and Garrett Hampson are natural shortstops who have learned all about positional flexibility as prospects in this system.

“We try not to pigeon hole guys,” Rockies farm director Zach Wilson said. “The great thing about all three of those guys, and anybody we try to add positions to, they’re great athletes. We try to have an open mind to everybody. We try to see a wide spectrum of potential for all our players. The more we can add value, not just to their game, but allow [manager] Bud Black to have options, especially when guys can really hit, the more of a chance he has to be creative and find different ways to win baseball games.”

Thanks to a very productive farm system, the Rockies have been winning a lot of baseball games of late, making the postseason the previous two seasons. MLB Pipeline only ranks the top 10 farm systems in baseball, and the Rockies haven’t been on that list since the 2017 preseason. But while the system probably would be rated middle of the pack, this is a bit of a sneaky good system, one that has done a very good job of getting players to the big leagues to help the team compete in the NL West.

“That’s the most important thing, that there’s a continual churning out of Major League players,” Wilson said. “And not just Major League players, it’s easy to say you got guys to the big leagues, I think it’s a lot more difficult to say these guys are impacting and helping you win every day. That’s the job. The rankings are great for fans, they’re good for the game. For us as development people, they’re kind of just there. Our job is to get as many people there who will help us win games and to have that year after year. That’s what we strive for. I think it’s how we like it, being sort of under the radar.”

Injured arms returning

One thing that could catapult the Rockies back onto that top 10 list would be the development of some frontline-caliber pitchers. The organization has done a tremendous job of figuring out what works in Coors Field, and the big league rotation will once again be almost entirely homegrown. There are arms close to helping out, like Ryan Castellani and Rico Garcia, but the return to health of dynamic pitchers like Riley Pint and Mike Nikorak could provide a huge boost.

It’s been so far, so good for the two former first-round picks this spring. Nikorak, taken at the end of the first round in 2015, is coming back from 2017 Tommy John surgery, having logged 8 1/3 innings in the Northwest League last summer. Pint, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 Draft, missed nearly all of the 2018 season with forearm stiffness and a strained oblique.

Pint was up to 102 mph with a nasty curve in a recent live batting practice session, and the Rockies were thrilled with how the ball was coming out of his hands. Nikorak has also looked strong, and he threw well on Monday.

“Both of those guys, the first step is to make sure they’re healthy this year. But they’re both still so young,” Wilson said, pointing out that Nikorak is 22 and Pint is only 21 years old.

“If Riley had gone to college, we would’ve just been getting him now. Patience is one of the greatest tools we have in development and we’ll continue to be patient with both of those guys. I think their confidence level plus their health right now is going to allow them to have a really good year.

“There’s definitely a little bit of a gap there (pitching). We had all these guys who are in the big leagues now. Because of the injuries to both Riley and Mike, they should really be in Lancaster right now, or looking to Double-A, but the circumstances just didn’t allow it. There’s still a steady streak coming, but to have Riley and Mike step up this year could really fill that perceived gap right now.”

Camp standout

There’s more pitching coming beyond the two big arms coming back from injury. Despite an up-and-down career at Ohio State, the Rockies took Ryan Feltner in the fourth round of last year’s Draft. He threw well during his brief pro debut in the Pioneer League, and he’s carried that over to his first Spring Training, where he has gotten rave reviews.

“I just watched him throw a live BP, where he was 94-98 mph with his fastball and flashed a 65 slider,” said Wilson, referring to the 20-to-80 scouting scale. “He put a lot of work in this offseason, particularly on his slider. It’s no surprise he came in here already better than he was as he finished the year last year. He’s an amazing worker who is dedicated to his craft and has looked unbelievable so far.”