Rockies' MiLB teams making playoff push

September 16th, 2021

ATLANTA -- A new comeback has entered Rockies lore. High-A Spokane overcame a 13 1/2-game deficit on Aug. 3 to win its division and will face Eugene in the High-A West championship series.

OK, it’s not 2007, but an organization that believes in Minor League results sees it as a harbinger for the future.

“That's a big development, along with all their individual physical developments that they went through,” interim general manager Bill Schmidt said Thursday.

It’s not just Spokane. Low-A Fresno is also in the playoffs, and diving even deeper, two Dominican Summer League teams lead their divisions, and the organization's Arizona Complex League team took a half-game lead into Thursday.

So how does winning matter?

This winter, the Rockies may need to adjust their philosophy and augment their pitching and lineup with some trades and free-agent pickups to add to the upper levels of the farm system. But it’s doubtful the team will permanently depart from a draft-and-develop philosophy. Schmidt, whom most believe has the inside track to the full-time GM job, has been the vice president of scouting and helped build the system.

Of the Rockies’ Top 30 prospects, 22 are in Spokane, Fresno or the ACL, and the organization is quietly excited about the quality of pitching and power-hitting prospects in the Dominican. So there is talent.

But because dealing prospects to build the big club has never been a major part of the Rockies’ philosophy, winning together in the Minors is important. The Rockies took it to an extreme in 2004, when they sent future Hall of Famer Larry Walker and All-Star Preston Wilson to Tulsa, then a Double-A affiliate, to help clinch the Texas League first-half title. Walker was traded to the Cardinals a week later. They’ve also made similar smaller-scale decisions; in ’14 they promoted David Dahl from Low-A Asheville to High-A Modesto, then dropped him back to give him postseason experience.

This year, they promoted shortstop Ezequiel Tovar (Rockies No. 11 prospect) and first baseman Grant Lavigne (No. 19) from Fresno to Spokane. But outfielder Zac Veen (No. 1) and catcher Drew Romo (No. 8) -- the ninth and 35th overall Draft picks last year, respectively -- were kept at Fresno even though their statistics suggested they could compete at a higher level.

“Tovar, whom we think a lot of, and Grant Lavigne came up after being involved with it in Fresno,” Schmidt said. “And part of the reason for not moving Veen [19 years old] and Romo [20] to Spokane was we felt it gave them the opportunity to provide some leadership. You’re also looking at the mental development, and those guys had the opportunity to do that in Fresno.”

The goal is to mesh the individual and team development of players. By giving team goals a prominent role in each player’s development plan -- which is updated monthly -- the hope is players are prepared for the pressures of being young in the Majors, where there are plenty of opportunities for selfishness. Merely proving one belongs in the Majors, and then dealing with arbitration and eventually free agency, can crowd out many team goals.

“It’s part of the player plan, that they have those qualities of leadership, and we’re going to try to develop them,” Schmidt said. “There’s time spent on learning to be a good teammate. And part of being a leader, too, is how do you help others get better? There are a lot of growth opportunities.”

Lefty pitcher Kyle Freeland, who was drafted in 2014 and placed on the aforementioned Asheville team that won a championship, said that year made a difference. Freeland was a rookie on the 2017 Rockies team that made the National League Wild Card Game, and some of his teammates were part of the ’18 team that played in the NL Division Series. Freeland, starting pitcher Antonio Senzatela, closer Carlos Estévez and third baseman Ryan McMahon also were on the ’14 Asheville team.

“We talk about it on a somewhat frequent basis, how every day we would show up in the clubhouse and the feeling was, ‘We’re going to win tonight,’” Freeland said. “We just had that great team chemistry. Everything fit together, we had great players, there were no separate cliques. Everybody was pulling for each other.

“Honestly, maybe I was spoiled going to the playoffs my first two years in the big leagues. But that’s a good thing, because it’s what I expect -- to go to the playoffs every single year. When we don’t accomplish that, it’s a punch to the gut.”