Is this Rockies prospect ahead of schedule?

February 7th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Thomas Harding’s Rockies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

DENVER -- In just his third year out of Douglas County High School, right-handed pitcher Case Williams will find himself in Major League camp with his hometown team -- a sign that he’s already on the Rockies' big league radar.

The attitude that has taken him this far this fast showed up during an offseason visit from his grandparents. Williams had not begun preparing for 2023 and was feeling antsy.

"I was sitting there like, 'What’s wrong? I feel out of whack. What do I need?'" Williams said. "Then we were playing a card game, Chinese poker, and I got pissed off when I wasn’t winning. And I was like, 'This is what drives me -- competing.'"

Williams turns 21 on Feb. 16 -- one day after the Rockies' first workout for pitchers and catchers in Scottsdale, Ariz. He will be the youngest pitcher and second-youngest player in camp, behind infielder Warming Bernabel, who turns 21 on June 6.

The Rockies selected Williams in the fourth round of the 2020 MLB Draft, but they traded him to the Reds in November of that year -- before Williams had appeared in a professional game in the Rockies’ system -- in a deal that former Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich orchestrated.

During the 2021 season, Bill Schmidt, who not only had replaced Bridich as GM, but was the scouting vice president who oversaw the drafting of Williams in '20, reacquired his former selection -- who had grown up playing in the Rockies’ Scout Team program. That trade, which sent veteran reliever Mychal Givens to the Reds, also netted right-hander Noah Davis, who finished the season on the Rockies’ roster and is part of the starter depth pool heading into this year.

Change has meant growth for Williams. He went 3-8 with a 5.73 ERA in 19 combined Single-A games (17 starts) with the Reds and Rockies in 2021. Last season, he went 11-5 with a 4.64 ERA and struck out 135 in 128 innings at three levels with the Rockies. From '21 to '22, he trimmed his walk numbers from 5.6 per nine innings to 3.2.

The organization gave Williams his final start at Double-A Hartford on Sept. 16 against Binghamton. He gave up three runs in the first inning and one in the third, but he lasted six innings -- with 12 strikeouts.

The first Major League camp for a pitcher such as Williams, with just 203 1/3 professional innings, is a chance to become acquainted with manager Bud Black and receive a small amount of Cactus League action, in hopes that the lessons learned will quicken his development. But a season can bring rapid change. Right-hander Ryan Feltner (granted, he came out of college) had just 229 innings -- and had not even been to Major League camp -- when the Rockies called him up in 2021.

The Rockies are pinning their 2023 Major League hopes on established players rebounding from down years or -- especially in the cases of pitchers Kyle Freeland and Germán Márquez -- eliminating the peaks and valleys of 2022. But even at the highest levels of the organization, enthusiasm centers on prospects, with international gem Ezequiel Tovar emerging as the frontrunner for the regular shortstop position and hitting prospects, led by outfielder Zac Veen, receiving their first taste of Major League camp.

The better-regarded pitchers are lower in the farm system, but Williams has earned a chance to take a step ahead of his class.

"He’s come leaps and bounds since we drafted him as a high-school kid out of Colorado," Rockies pitching coordinator Doug Linton said. "He was green to the whole professional thing. Now, he has maturity and also has gotten stronger. He’s got a four-pitch mix that he’s not afraid to use at any time. A pitcher coming out of high school usually doesn’t have a changeup. He’s got a good one."

Williams happily reported that his grandparents were not upset by his competitive nature.

"My family knows that I’m a competitor," he said with a laugh.

But one scout didn’t know how to take Williams’ visible competitive fire. After a pre-Draft visit with said scout, Alex Hinz, Williams’ agent, passed on an evaluation.

"Alex comes back and says, 'This is what he thinks -- he thinks you’re a fake worker,'" Williams said. "I was like, 'What does that even mean? It’s just all perspective.' But that lit a fire under myself at the time, to not let outside perspectives harm me. It’s paying off. I continue to work hard.

"I’ve got it written on a sticky note on my door. So I’m reminded of it every day."