The magnificent 7
7 former GJ Rockies players point the way from Rookie ball to the Show
When you walk into the Grand Junction Rockies front office, there’s a large television mounted high on a wall, usually tuned to a Major League Baseball game, especially when the parent Colorado Rockies are on the field.
Under that TV screen are a half-dozen photographs, the players who, over the past five seasons, got their start in Grand Junction and have made it to the Show.
It’s Grand Junction’s version of a wall of fame.
It’s safe to say that every player reporting to the Rockies’ Rookie affiliate has taken a look at the photos of Eddie Butler, Jon Gray, David Dahl, Carlos Estevez, Scott Oberg and Kyle Freeland (Raimel Tapia’s photo is set to be added soon) and said to himself, “Why not me?”
The club will place an alumni wall on the concourse at Suplizio Field in time for Monday’s opener of the GJ players — and now, a coach, with former manager and development coordinator Tony Diaz the big club’s first base coach — who have made it to the big leagues.
The day Butler was called up was a call for celebration at 1315 North Avenue. The Rockies’ Compensation A draft pick in 2012 breezed through the minors, pitched in the Futures Game before the 2013 MLB All-Star Game and was the talk of the game, striking out Boston’s Xander Bogaerts on three pitches, starting him off with a 97-mph sinking fastball, then coming back with an 88-mph breaking ball and finishing him off with a 90-mph change-up that former MLB pitcher Rick Sutcliffe called “filthy.”
Fans on social media started begging for his call-up. The Rockies desperately needed him.
In June of 2014, two years to the day after he was drafted, Butler got the call from Double-A Tulsa. His debut came against the Los Angeles Dodgers, throwing 5 1/3 innings in a 7-2 loss.
The next morning, he woke up with a sore shoulder, the start of a rocky couple of years with Colorado. He struggled with his command, and the sinker, his calling card pitch, wasn’t sinking. Finally this spring, the Rockies gave up on the 26-year-old right-hander, designating him for assignment. He was traded to the Chicago Cubs on Feb. 1 for pitcher James Farris, who’s at Triple A Albuquerque.
Last weekend, Butler, who was called up to the Cubs in May, started against the Rockies in Chicago. He took the loss against rookie Jeff Hoffman and through Friday is 3-2 with a 4.41 ERA as the Cubs’ fifth starter.
Butler’s rise and fall with Colorado served as a cautionary tale about quick call-ups and how quickly fortunes can change in the big leagues, but several other former GJ players have followed him to Denver, and so far, have had better results. Outfielder Jordan Patterson has been up for short stints the past two years, and his ability to play first base has helped his cause.
Oberg, a closer in Grand Junction, has pitched out of the bullpen with mixed results the past three seasons. Axillary artery thrombosis, blood clots in his right arm, shut him down last season, but he seems to have rebounded and has been more consistent this season in the still-developing bullpen. He’s 0-1 with a 5.81 ERA in middle relief.
Estevez, who signed as a free agent in 2011 out of the Dominican Republic, had a short stint as the Rockies’ closer last season and has been shuttled between Denver to Albuquerque this season. As much as getting noticed for his blazing fastball, Estevez gained fame by sharing the given name of actor Charlie Sheen, and even met the actor during a trip to Los Angeles last season. And, of course, his intro song at Coors Field is “Wild Thing,” shared by Sheen in the movie “Major League.”
Gray, the Rockies’ top pick in 2013, opened this season as the staff ace after a stellar call-up last season. He was sidelined with a stress fracture in his left foot, but is pitching in the minors on a rehab assignment and should be back with the club in the next week or two. Earlier this season, Gray cut his shoulder-length red hair and donated the locks to be made into wigs for cancer patients.
Dahl was on the verge of opening the season as the Rockies’ starting left fielder, but a stress reaction in his ribcage put him on the disabled list, and he’s been slow to heal. Injuries have been about the only thing that have stopped the former first-round draft pick in 2012 — he tore a hamstring in 2013 that cost him most of his first full season in the minors, then had his spleen removed in 2014 after colliding in the outfield with a teammate.
He was called up last season and tore it up, entering spring training as the favorite to be the everyday left fielder until the ribs started bothering him. He’s in Scottsdale, Arizona, for rehab, and no timetable has been set for his road back.
Right now, the two hottest former GJ Rockies are Freeland, who, ironically, was drafted the day before Butler made his pro debut in 2014, and Tapia.
Freeland, the former Thomas Jefferson High School star, started out in GJ, then moved to Class A Asheville in August of 2014. He had bone chips removed from his left elbow during the offseason and returned to GJ in 2015, but once he was medically cleared, he was off to Class A Modesto. He moved to Double-A Hartford and then Triple-A Albuquerque last season, and was a non-roster invitee to spring training this season.
The lefty made the most of that chance, made the big-league roster and hasn’t disappointed, improving to 8-4 with Saturday’s win over San Francisco, a key component of the impressive stable of young arms in the rotation.
The Rockies couldn’t hold Tapia back much longer, and this past week he showed why. With Dahl on the shelf, Gerardo Parra injured and Carlos Gonzalez struggling at the plate, Bud Black put Tapia in the starting lineup Wednesday.
Signed in 2010 out of the Dominican, Tapia responded by going 4 for 4 on Wednesday and scoring three runs. He got another start Thursday at Coors Field, and after the Rockies blew a 9-1 lead, the left-handed hitting outfielder slapped the game-winning hit into right field for his first walk-off hit in the majors and his first ice-water dousing after being mobbed by his teammates. Friday, Tapia continued to shine, going 2 for 4 with one run scored.
Tapia, who also played in the MLB Futures Game as he was coming up, has retained his unique two-strike batting stance, crouching low in the batter’s box to make it tough for pitchers to strike him out. He had a three-K game in May before being sent back to Albuquerque, but in nine games since being recalled on June 6 has fanned only twice.
After Thursday’s game, Black talked about Tapia, calling him a “unique” player, “from his hair to his stance to how he runs. Things that I like about him is he likes to play, he likes to play and he wants to contribute. You hear me talk about good Rockies, he’s a good Rockie, man, even if he’s in Albuquerque, he’s a good Rockie. He’s gonna be a good Rockie.”
The players who will come through Grand Junction this summer are just starting out. They’re going to have great games, they’re going to have awful games. Some will be here all summer, others will move up the ladder.
Although Denver is only 243 miles from Grand Junction, it’s anything but a direct route when it comes to baseball, but the wall of fame shows the road to the Show can, and does, start in Junction.