One of my favorite shows on TV is Adam Ruins Everything. If you haven’t seen the show it’s on Netflix, check it out, ignore his haircut. Adam Conover, the host, disproves a common misconception shared by a majority of the population. Today I attempt to do the same, but with a baseball slant, as I take on “The Rockies block their prospects” myth. My name is Ralph Lifshitz and this is Planting Flags!
It seemed like an appropriate time to touch on it with the clamoring around the three-way battle for the second base job between Garrett Hampson (People’s Champ), Ryan McMahon (2018 People’s Champ), and Pat Valaika (deep sigh). There’s been a lot of “don’t trust the Rockies and prospects” talk. Even from yours truly, it was my justification for having Hampson lower than Eddy or Matt in the process of constructing the Fantasy top 100 list. I can’t say for sure if Hampson or McMahon will win the job. Hell, it could be Valaika (shudders)! But if Hampson wins the job out of camp he’ll be in some strong company historically.
Below I go back to 2012 player by player discussing each of the Rockies’ homegrown position players and starters. Hopefully this will at the very least provide some context to the argument that the Rockies block their prospects. I think you’ll see it’s not that straightforward.
Nolan Arenado 2013 - Did they possibly suppress Arenado? He was up in late April following the trade of opening day starter Chris Nelson to the Yankees. Arenado started 133 games that season before owning the corner spot in Denver ever since.
Charlie Blackmon 2011 - Chaz Noir was up in 2011 and saw time in parts of three seasons before nailing down an everyday role. He actually exceeded his limits in 2011 despite not really seeing significant time until two years later.
Trevor Story 2016 - Story broke camp in 2016 and has owned the shortstop job ever since.
DJ LeMahieu 2012 - Despite seeing his first service time with the Cubs, he spent the majority of his season in the majors in 2012, where he surpassed his limits with the Rockies.
David Dahl 2016 - After seeing just 300 or so plate appearances above A ball entering 2016, Dahl worked his way to Coors by late July. He saw a healthy 237 plate appearances in the second half and started in left field nearly everyday. A stress fracture in his rib sustained during Spring Training of 2017 ended his season before it began, as he saw just 19 games late in the season at Triple-A Albuquerque.
Starting his season late in 2018, Dahl started the majority of the games between April 22nd and May 30th before once again sustaining a significant injury. A fractured foot kept him on the shelf until early August, where he once again saw a healthy amount of playing time (174 plate appearances). He’s now considered the starter heading into the season and he’ll be just 25 on opening day. Seems more injury than a case of being blocked at the major league level.
Ryan McMahon 2017 - McMahon was primarily held down in 2017 despite excellent production because he didn’t truly have a place to play. Arenado was clogging up his native home at the hot corner, and he had little experience at second or first. He did see 24 plate appearances with the big club in 2017, but the majority of his season was spent between Double-A and Triple-A.
Heading into 2018 the hope was McMahon could solidify time as an everyday first baseman or possibly a super utility type giving them an opportunity to wean him in as a data-driven second baseman. He broke camp with the team, but didn’t play everyday. This isn’t all that out of character for the Rockies who seem to slowly expose their rookies and young players to the bigs (Blackmon, Tapia, Dahl) before giving them everyday roles (Blackmon and Dahl). While standouts like Arenado, Story, and their pitching counterparts- well it’s a slightly different story.
We have yet to touch on possibly the greatest example of the Rockies’ willingness to promote aggressively: an entirely homegrown starting rotation. The only technical exception is German Marquez, who was acquired from the Rays prior to 2016, but spent the majority of the 2016 season in the upper minors. Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, and Tyler Anderson are all former first round picks of the team, and Antonio Senzatela signed out of Venezuela in 2011.
Jon Gray 2015 - Jon Gray’s first full season professionally was spent at Double-A, followed by 20 starts at Triple-A in 2015 before being promoted to the majors in early August. He made nine starts down the stretch for a last place Rockies team. Since then Gray has made 80 starts over a three-year span and looks locked into a rotation spot yet again this season.
German Marquez 2016 - Marquez made his major league debut at 21 after making just five starts at Albuquerque. He began the following season at Triple-A, before seeing promotion at the end of April. There’s a case to be made that the Rockies did in fact suppress Marquez’s service time, but he wasn’t exactly dynamic in his 2016 cup of coffee. What isn’t disputable is the 62 regular season starts he made before his 24th birthday.
Tyler Anderson 2016 - An elbow injury that cost Tyler Anderson his 2015 delayed the southpaw’s arrival by a year. He made five starts between Hartford and Albuquerque before finding a spot in the Rockies rotation by June 2016.
Kyle Freeland 2017 - The former eighth overall pick dealt with injuries (shoulder and bone chips in elbow) in 2015 too before spending a full season in the upper minors in 2016. Over the last two seasons Freeland has been a rotation fixture making 62 starts.
The Raimel Tapia Conundrum
Raimel Tapia 2016 - The most frequently cited example of Colorado’s supposed Prospect Blocking ways is the enigmatic Raimel Tapia. The outfielder actually exceeded his rookie limits in 2017, but has yet to earn a regular spot. Perhaps he’s on the Blackmon/Dahl model of earning a gig, or maybe he’s just not as good as his numbers suggested. His contact ability is unquestioned, and he can run, but it’s not paired with good enough instincts to take full advantage of his athletic gifts. Though he did show significant improvement in his steal efficiency last season in Triple-A. During his previous MLB exposure (239 plate appearances) he’s produced just a 71 wRC+.
The Rockies have Dahl, Desmond, and Blackmon penciled in as the opening day outfield, but any injury might mean an opportunity for Tapia to prove himself. Was the Carlos Gonzalez signing last year a sign that the organization didn’t feel Tapia and Dahl (who was coming off an injury) weren’t ready for full-time roles? Probably, and I’m not sure they were necessarily wrong, as much as that might irk many of us.
The Rockies are in a competing window, one that likely expanded further with the extension of Nolan Arenado. The signing of Daniel Murphy potentially signals trouble for Ryan McMahon, but his inspired play has earned him an opportunity as an option at second or a possible utility bat. He’s in direct competition with another homegrown player in Garrett Hampson, who happens to also be having a strong spring. Each player has a chance at earning the everyday gig, and whether McMahon or Hampson win the job it likely tells us a lot about how the organization views them. It’s hard to doubt the Rockies’ track record as more often than not they’ve gotten their picks and signs to the majors, producing numerous homegrown stars over the last decade. Do the comfy confines help? Certainly, but this is a team that has relied on homegrown players for the better part of a decade.
So do the Rockies block their rookies? Suppress their service time clocks? In my opinion they do not. In fact they’re possibly among the most aggressive in giving players service time early in their careers. Did they possibly push back the arbitration clocks on Arenado, Marquez, and Anderson? Maybe, but they all played prominent roles by May-June of that first year. The Rockies don’t block their prospects, just the ones that aren’t ready for prime-time.
The Rockies holding their prospects back is fake news.