DENVER -- Rockies fans have clamored during this rough season to see shortstop prospect Ezequiel Tovar, and they will. Called up from Triple-A Albuquerque, Tovar arrived Thursday morning to don No. 14 for the afternoon game against the Giants at Coors Field.
But for a guy who creates so much excitement as a 21-year-old who is poised to become the youngest position player in club history, Tovar was anonymous in the fans’ midst just a few weeks ago.
After whetting appetites by hitting .318 with 13 home runs and turning heads defensively in 66 games at Double-A Hartford through June 29, Tovar sustained an injury in the groin/abdominal area. So the Rockies brought him to Denver for rehab under the care of team physicians before sending him to Scottsdale, Ariz., for baseball activity. He even took in games at Coors.
“I sat behind home,” Tovar said in Spanish through Aaron Muñoz, the team’s bullpen coach and interpreter. “And no one recognized me.”
The important question, though, has little to do with whether fans can place Tovar’s face while in street clothes with his MLB Pipeline ranking, which is No. 27 in the Top 100 and No. 2 in the Rockies’ organization. It’s whether Tovar becomes the type of shortstop that you can’t, and never want to, miss. But Tovar didn’t play Thursday as Colorado -- which started five rookies and has 12 on its roster -- lost to San Francisco, 3-0, to fully absorb a four-game sweep.
“We wanted to make sure he is healthy, and the idea all along is to get him up this month so going into next year, he knew what it was like up here,” general manager Bill Schmidt said. “How do you walk into the ballpark? How do you get on the airplane? The little things that go into being a Major Leaguer for the first time, knowing that next year he’s going to be up at some point and we have checked those boxes.”
The Rockies know what a shortstop looks like.
Troy Tulowitzki was a two-time Gold Glover who commanded the middle of the infield as a rookie during the 2007 run to the World Series. Trevor Story was twice an All-Star and twice a postseason participant with the Rockies. The team produced three other significant shortstops. Craig Counsell was displaced by Walt Weiss (a fair shortstop, himself) and won a World Series ring with the Marlins. Neifi Perez won a Gold Glove. And Clint Barmes was displaced by Tulowitzki but judged of high enough quality to sign a significant free-agent deal with the Pirates.
In the franchise’s beginning, the Rockies acquired two other darn good shortstops from elsewhere -- Vinny Castilla and Weiss, with Castilla moving to third base to make room for Weiss.
Is Tovar next?
The Rockies signed Tovar, a Venezuelan, out of an academy in the Dominican Republic at age 16 for $800,000. Schmidt, Minor League officials and coaches waited as they noticed Tovar’s elite defense. They then monitored the situation as he dropped switch-hitting to bat right-handed, adjusted to higher-level pitching in last year’s Arizona Fall League and took new steps at Hartford and, after the injury, for five games at Albuquerque (7-for-21, one homer).
Now Tovar is turned over to manager Bud Black, who doesn’t assume anyone has the “it” factor until he sees “it.”
Annually, players transform from names on a prospect list to players who make it or don’t. Just in his time as a coach with the 2002 World Series-champion Angels, Black saw reliever Francisco Rodriguez come from nowhere to bullpen stalwart and shortstop David Eckstein -- whom some scouts would not have signed because of his well-below-6-foot stature -- demonstrate how far one can go by simply making all the plays a Major League shortstop should make.
Black watched Tovar improve his pitch selection after issues last fall, then hit .550 in 10 Spring Training games while putting in proper defensive work to earn the Abby Greer Award as the camp MVP. Black monitored the Minor League progress closely. While Black’s “we’ll see” is not gruff, it’s nonetheless a requirement to see more, and see it in the Majors.
“I saw a young player who looked confident, who looked excited, ready to be in big league camp,” Black said. “I saw an everyday readiness when he practiced, albeit short because of the lockout. He looked very determined and comfortable. When games started, he looked very comfortable and confident and talented.
“We’re just erring on the side of caution here.”
In his pregame press conference in the dugout, Tovar, whose command of English grew this year even though he prefers Spanish interviews, smiled easily and spoke with confidence. He talked of being shocked when informed of the callup while he and his wife of eight months and love of seven years, Laura, were shopping for his nephews.
He grinned and said, “More experience,” when asked how he is better than during Spring Training.
“Wow, this field’s big,” he offered as his first impression of Coors Field.
Tovar will have to simply show that his game translates to the big stage. But he can take time to enjoy this step of the journey.
“It’s my first day,” Tovar said. “But once I’m on the field, it’s going to be the same game. But I’m extremely happy right now. Just taking it minute by minute.”
If all goes as planned, not many minutes will go by before Rockies fans start recognizing him.
“Hopefully,” he said, gleefully.