Headed in the right direction
GJ was only Rockies club to contend for postseason spot
It was always the hope that the young Grand Junction Rockies would grow into playoff contenders.
But after finishing the first half of the season six games below .500, the youngest team in the Pioneer League (21 years, 4 months old on average) sat down and talked things out.
“We did have a nice meeting before the second half started and it was basically to get everybody motivated and understand we have the ingredients on this team as far as the talent. I don’t think anybody doubted that,” said Tony Diaz, Grand Junction’s development supervisor.
“It was a matter of everyone pulling their weight and playing together as a team and doing what they are capable of doing and understanding things can turn around like this (snapping his fingers) in this league. We’ve seen it happen on other clubs, why not us?”
That meeting, 18-year-old third baseman Colton Welker said, gave the players the confidence they needed to make a second-half run, although they fell one victory short of the second-half title in the Pioneer League South Division.
“That meeting was huge,” Welker said. “Talent-wise we knew our team was a lot better than we performed in the first half. We came out a little slow in the second half and said, ‘Hey, let’s get this thing rolling.’ We took the trip to Montana and won (five of six) and from there it’s just been rolling.”
The final week of the season, Grand Junction was the only team in the Colorado farm system involved in a playoff race. That spoke volumes to Zach Wilson, the Rockies’ senior director of player development.
“I think any time that you have your minor league teams pushing toward the playoffs, that enhances the development process,” he said. “When a team at the very lowest end of your minor-league system, when they can start learning to play in games that matter and to understand what it means to be a teammate who’s fighting for other teammates to make the playoffs a reality, when you can do it at that level, I think that is a huge success.”
The Grand Junction Rockies were a playoff team their first two years after moving from Casper, Wyoming, before the 2012 season. This summer, the club’s fifth season in Grand Junction, the Rockies were fourth in the division in the first half before turning things around.
“You try and draw it up that way,” manager Frank Gonzales said before the final homestand of the season, “finishing strong and having some momentum late in the year. You look at the other side and (Great) Falls has turned the corner and Billings maybe doesn’t have much to play for.
“It’s been kind of fun watching the guys turn into what they need to be and that’s a competitive club that never quits.”
The Rockies needed to win two of the final four games at home to reach the playoffs. Instead, they lost the first three games of the series against Ogden, although it took some doing for the Raptors to pull ahead for the second-half title.
Because the Rockies don’t have a club in the Arizona League, Grand Junction is the first stop for most players out of the draft and promoted from the Dominican Summer League. The rest of the Pioneer League affiliations start the majority of their draftees in the AZL, so the Rockies are facing older, more experienced players nearly every night.
“I think it’s recognized we are young,” Gonzales said. “I don’t spend any time looking at anyone other than what they do. I don’t care about their age; we have a 28-year-old Triple-A guy pitch here one night and we didn’t care too much about that, either.”
Although the focus the final couple of weeks of the regular season was on the standings, you could see individual improvement throughout the year.
Pitcher Mike Nikorak, in his second year in Grand Junction, became a leader of the pitching staff after a struggle in his first summer of pro ball. Nikorak, who missed the final five weeks of the season after injuring a finger on his pitching hand, went 1-0 with a 3.68 ERA in only seven starts after going 0-4 with an 11.72 ERA in 2015.
Even after he was injured, Nikorak was a vital part of the second-half success. He’ll return to pitching in the Rockies’ fall instructional league in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Wilson saw one of Nikorak’s starts and was more than happy with the progress he made.
“He put up probably the best start of his career,” Wilson said. “It’s all coming together. The good thing is he’s more mature and he understands himself, understanding what it means to be a pro pitcher and the things he needs to do and specifics behind those things. That comes with age and maturity and experience.”
Part of Nikorak’s growth was helping mentor Riley Pint, Colorado’s first-round draft pick, who went 1-5 with a 5.35 ERA in 11 starts. The record might not have been what fans, or even Pint, wanted, but he clearly got started on the path to learning how to be a professional pitcher. Instead of relying on his 100-plus mph fastball for outs, he learned to use his full repertoire, especially trusting his off-speed pitches, to get outs.
“Riley is a development department’s dream because of the ability,” Wilson said. “He’s electric, absolutely. He’ll hone all of that and truly become a pitcher.”
Center fielder Pedro Gonzalez, in his first year in the U.S., was a shortstop until this year, and although he sometimes took unique routes to fly balls, his speed and strong arm made him a solid anchor in the outfield, Manny Melendez became a clutch hitter as a corner outfielder, as did Vince Fernandez, drafted out of UC Riverside in the 10th round this year, had 15 multiple-hit games and a 19-game hitting streak this season, the longest on the club this summer.
Jose Gomez, who turns 20 a couple of weeks before Christmas, evolved from a wide-eyed shortstop into one of the top hitters in the league. He finished with 98 hits, falling only eight shy of David Dahl’s club-record 106. He hit .367, third-best in club history behind Dahl (.379) and Yonathan Daza (.370) and had 27 multiple-hit games.
He’ll likely be part of a good-sized group from GJ that skips short-season A ball in Boise next summer and heads to low-A Asheville, quite likely along with Welker.
“Definitely coming in here I was nervous at first and now I’m extremely comfortable,” said Welker, the Rockies’ fourth-round pick out of high school who hit .329 with 22 extra-base hits and 36 RBI in 51 games. “Every day is more and more comfort level. It’s been a great transition level. I love it.”
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