The 2019 season in Minor League Baseball marked an end to a simpler time in the world of affiliated baseball.
There were 160 teams in 15 different leagues in various cities across the United States and Canada. (Vancouver is the only one north of the U.S. border.)
A global pandemic wiped out all semblance of normalcy to everything and the entire slate of games for the 2020 MiLB season was canceled.
When the traditions of baseball returned in 2021, a few major details had changed: four entire leagues were removed as affiliates as well 43 different minor league teams that lost the summertime celebration to the community they served.
Due to the reorganization of MiLB, the Colorado Rockies were without the Asheville Tourists as their Low-A affiliate for the first time in franchise history. Since 1994, virtually every player that came through the Rockies’ farm system spent part of their early career at historic McCormick Field in western North Carolina.
The reshuffling of affiliates meant prospects would experience their first full-season of pro ball a little closer to Denver. The Fresno Grizzlies, recently demoted from the Triple-A Pacific Coast League would now be the preantepenultimate stop before Coors Field.
Opening Night 2021 was delayed until May 4, but it featured recent high-profile draft picks Zac Veen and Drew Romo, not to mention a 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic who would get the start at shortstop for the Grizzlies.
On the first pitch he saw that night in the top of the first against the Giants’ Low-A affiliate, he recorded the Grizzlies’ first hit as a Rockies affiliate, a double to left field. He’d later record two more hits, including his second double, and stole a base.
Just one year later, Ezequiel Tovar would climb every rung on the minor league ladder to make his Major League debut with Colorado. (He’d get a base hit in the very first pitch he saw in the Majors as well.)
While reaching the Show in the season after being in Low-A is a rarity, it’s even more unique for a player to have their first big league appearance only a year or so out from being a teenager.
The 2022 Grizzlies featured seven players who began 2022 as a teenager and one of them, 3B Warming Bernabel, was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month.
Here are nine prospects who played their first full-season in the minors this season who could possibly follow in Tovar’s footsteps and debut with the Rockies in 2023:
3B Warming Bernabel
The 20-year-old led Fresno through their first-half finish with a slash line of .317/.390/.504 before being promoted to Spokane on July 3. He skipped zero beats.
The Dominican born third baseman was able to hit for nearly the same average and slugging percentage in the High-A Northwest League against pitchers two-and-a-half years older than him. That additional experience meant pitchers were more polished, as witnessed by Bernabel drawing only two walks in 109 plate appearances.
An invitation to the prestigious Arizona Fall League helped extend his season after he missed action with a hand injury and an avoidable concussion (an opposing player walked out of the dugout and into Bernabel’s path while he attempted to catch a ball in foul territory).
Bernabel makes tons of contact. He was a bit overmatched in the AFL, but managed to keep strikeouts to 19%.
There’s room for improvement defensively, but there’s a lot to project, especially as the former shortstop with a strong arm that continues to learn a new position.
Considering Nolan Arenado was described as “duck-footed” and “lumbering” as a high school prospect who some believed would be better served as a catcher than on the left side of the infield, Bernabel very well may be in great company when it’s all said and done.
LHP Joe Rock
Rock is the only player on this list to not step foot in the California League in 2022. In fact, he’s never played there.
Drafted in the second round of the 2021 MLB Draft out of Ohio University, Rock was sent directly to Spokane to start his first full-season of baseball. By the end of it, he made two starts with Double-A Hartford facing hitters three-and-a-half years older.
The 22-year-old uses all of his 6’6” frame to get extension and cut on his mid-90s fast thanks to an arm slot lower than most. A slider that some might describe as a sweeper is an above average second pitch while his split-change is coming along.
Listed at 200 pounds, Rock has made weight gain a focus during the offseason.
“(The Rockies) give you a guideline and they give you expectations, but it’s ultimately on you,” he said of his nutrition goals after the season. “For me, it’s just eating right and killing it in the weight room.”
Should Colorado find itself contending for the playoffs next season, Rock would make for a great left-handed candidate out of the bullpen for the final push.
C/1B Hunter Goodman
If the minor league season was any longer, Goodman very well may have made his debut for the Rockies at the end of the season.
The 23-year-old out of the University of Memphis led all purple prospects with 36 home runs in 2022. He dominated the Cal League before being promoted to Spokane on July 6 and arguably played even better.
If that’s not enough, he added two more home runs to the ledger after being called up to Double-A on September 6 for his final 12 games of the season.
Goodman struck out 26% of the time last season, but that’s not as much of a concern since he’s shown a great ability to hit for both average and power.
His defensive position, on the other hand, may be the only thing that prolongs his opportunity in MLB. Though drafted as a catcher, Goodman is better served at first base. Corner outfield could also be in his future.
Regardless, having the designated hitter in the National League now means a player with a penchant for pop has a greater chance of getting an opportunity.
C Braxton Fulford
Fulford was selected out of Texas Tech University in the sixth round and had a reputation as a catch-and-throw kind of backstop. He’s not a top 100 prospect with hype surrounding him like Romo, but Fulford is highly regarded by the organization.
After showing there’s more to his game than just receiving with 15 home runs for Fresno (tied for third-most on the club), he was chosen to represent the Rockies in the AFL, a rarity for a player drafted only the year prior.
LHP Evan Shawver
Shawver wins the award for most likely to make the jump to the majors like Lucas Gilbreath.
Gilly was a starting pitcher in 2019 at what was then High-A Lancaster and his next professional game was as a reliever in the big league for the Rockies in 2021.
Being able to pitch in the high-90s without the ability to throw strikes means you’re not effective. Deceptive and funky – along with every other adjective to describe a southpaw hurler – Shawver fills up the zone and produces out. He could support the bullpen late in 2023 if all continues to go well for him.
LHP Mason Green
Green is regarded as a starter in the long run, especially after being named a Cal League All-Star as the best left-hander in the California League.
The 23-year-old went 27-0 during his career at the University of Central Missouri before Colorado drafted him in the 12th round in 2021.
Success in the Northwest League with Spokane during the second half wasn’t as dazzling as the first with Fresno, but the Kansas native could begin 2023 at Double-A before taking the path as another Yard Goat starting pitcher who later debuted that same season: Noah Davis.
Wild Card: RHP Adam McKillican
McKillican’s story is an interesting one. Undrafted out of an NAIA school, he was signed by the Texas Rangers before being released early in 2022. Colorado scooped him up, skipped an assignment to Low-A in favor of one for High-A and McKillican led the team with a 1.64 ERA in 44.0 innings.
The 24-year-old Canadian is currently playing in the Australian League for the Adelaide Giants. His 5.19 ERA in seven games is less concerning when noting that 4.89 is the league ERA. McKillican has struck out 12 while walking none in 8.2 innings for one of the best K/9 and K/BB rates this winter.
Wishful Thinking: SS/2B Adael Amador & OF Yanquiel Fernández
This may be a stretch, considering these two players just completed their age-19 seasons, but fans should be able to dream. So dream away that either one – or both – could actually become the youngest to ever debut for Colorado.
The two have been tied at the hip since being signed by the Rockies during the 2019-20 international signing period and leading their teams at every stop.
In 2021, it was winning the Dominican Summer League. In 2022, it was winning both the first and second-half with Fresno and being named Cal League All-Stars.
Realistically, reaching the Majors may still be another two years away for Amador and Fernández.
If Tovar’s dream came true in 2022, why can’t others in 2023?