Experienced pitching will be instrumental for GJ Rockies this season
As Grand Junction Rockies manager Frank Gonzales settles into his second season, he’ll have more familiarity with the players on this year’s team.
The Rockies are a little bit older this season — especially with pitching — and Gonzales spent countless hours working with prospects in extended spring training.
That’s resulted in a high level of comfort for the skipper, in his fifth year with the organization. Gonzales managed Class A short-season Boise for one season before arriving in Grand Junction and was a pitching coach for Tri-City — the short-season affiliate before Boise — for two seasons. He coached at Fort Collins High School and Colorado State University before that.
Gonzales said the familiarity and experienced pitching is a luxury in Rookie-level baseball, even with only a few players from last year’s team returning. The college-heavy pitching staff might limit the available arms early in the season as they battle fatigue, but the added experience will pay off later in the season.
“Obviously, we’ll give them the first few weeks to get their feet under them,” Gonzales said. “Give them a chance to figure out what pro baseball is all about. We’re not out to change anybody and we want to see them do what they did to get drafted. We’re excited to see these guys.”
Those pitchers include at least one high-profile arm. Ben Bowden, the Rockies second-round pick in 2016, is on a rehab assignment on the Western Slope. Grand Junction pitching coach Doug Jones said Bowden suffered a minor muscle strain in his throwing arm after protecting a woman whose luggage fell from the overhead compartment. Jones said the Vanderbilt product is a talented pitcher who should progress quickly.
Jones worked with Bowden during a post-draft stop in Boise before Bowden jumped straight to Class A Asheville.
“When he’s healthy, he’s going to be pretty good,” Jones said. “He’s going to be a good one and it makes it a lot of fun when you have a guy who has a clear idea of what he’s trying to accomplish.”
Bowden had a 3.04 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings for the Tourists. The 22-year-old said his rehab is going well, that he looks forward to pitching at elevation and he thinks highly of Jones.
“In the back-end of the bullpen, like myself, he helped me,” Bowden said. “When I showed up in Boise, he was there and he really helped me out. I just pick his brain every chance I get. He’s really good with sharing stories and all the knowledge he’s got from the years he was pitching. He’s an incredible help to all of these guys.”
Jones was the pitching coach in Boise for two seasons before joining Gonzales in Grand Junction. He had a 16-year MLB career as a relief pitcher and was a five-time All-Star. Jones, along with Gonzales, who pitched for several seasons in the minor leagues, will guide a pitching staff that has more experience than is typical for Rookie-level baseball. In addition to Bowden, 26-year-old Devin Burke is rehabbing in Grand Junction, David Holman dropped from Class AA Hartford to rehab, and Steven Ascher, 23, was demoted from Hartford to work on his secondary pitches.
Mike Zimmerman, last year’s 11th-round pick, returns for a second year in Grand Junction. Last year’s 15th-round pick Justin Valdespina is back for a second season, as are Dominican Summer League products Jan Carlos Lopez and Jefry Valdez. There’s also Logan Longwith, formerly with Detroit, who was signed as a free agent. The same can be said for Robert Strader, a left-handed pitcher and former 12th-round pick who was released from Baltimore’s minor-league system.
Combine that with the Colorado Rockies taking four college pitchers in the first five picks and 18 college pitchers through the entire draft, there’s plenty of experience to go around. In fact, after the Rockies’ selected prep infielder Ryan Vilade with their top pick, the next 34 players were drafted out of college.
In the field, Pedro Gonzalez, a highly touted DSL player, returns for a second season in Grand Junction. The Rockies signed him for $1.3 million last season as a promising infielder, but a growth spurt pushed the 6-foot-5 prospect to the outfield, where he’s still learning to play.
Together, Gonzales said the experience will help. The manager added that the time he spent in extended spring training with the players already has made an impact.
“If I’m not mistaken, there’s three or four guys repeating — Pedro, Jefry Valdez, a few other guys — but for the most part, we have a whole new group,” he said. “The 15 or 17 guys we have here, we’ve gotten to know them well and had a really good extended spring. I thought the guys came together really well. Bunch of great guys and they compete. You know, it’s hard to say exactly what it will look like because we’re missing more than half the team, but if these guys will show up and compete the way they have in extended, I don’t have any worries about how we’ll do.”
Winning often comes second to development in Rookie-level baseball, but Gonzales said the Rockies have potential there, too.
“There’s just an easy way about them,” the manager said. “It’s the quiet way that they go about their business. There’s days where we have to give them a little kick to get them going, but that’s just part of being in 105-degree weather in extended. We really need to get under the lights, get in front of a big crowd, get into real, meaningful game situations.”
A large number of drafted players will arrive in Grand Junction today, with those still in contract negotiations drifting in when their deals are finalized.
Gonzales said he’s studied Vilade and would be excited if he’s assigned to the Rookie-level Rockies.
“I looked at some video of all those guys and, obviously, the guy who went No. 48,” Gonzales said. “He’s a good-looking player, so if we get him, that’d be great. We’re just really excited to get the entire group together and get going.”