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Breakout Candidates for 2016: Colorado Rockies

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Bobby Glover continues his series looking at players with the potential to provide unexpected value to their teams in 2016

Rockies Pitcher Jon Gray
Rockies Pitcher Jon Gray
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a fifth straight losing season, the situation in Denver is indeed dire.  Fortunately for Rockies fans, the organization seems to have finally acknowledged the depth of the hole in which they find themselves.  The Troy Tulowitzki trade in July signaled an important shift in the direction of the franchise.  At this point, a Carlos Gonzalez deal would seem to be a foregone conclusion as the Rockies appear ready to reshape their roster in some interesting and significant ways.

The good news for the Rockies is that, at least on the offensive side, they seem to have many of the pieces of a winning club in place already.  As always in Colorado, pitching is another matter.  The Rockies have consistently struggled to produce pitchers who are capable of handling the rigors of pitching in Coors Field on a yearly basis.  Jorge de La Rosa and Chad Bettis are coming off solid years, but beyond that, the Colorado rotation leaves much to be desired.  At this moment in time, it appears the situation for the Rockies is the same as it's ever been:  try to produce enough offense to overcome the difficulties of preventing runs in their home park.  Here we will look at a few players who might be able to help on both sides of the equation.

Top Candidate:  Jon Gray. The former third overall pick in 2013 got his first taste of the Majors in 2015.  Much of analyzing Gray's recent performance boils down to timing and context  Despite an unsightly 5.53 ERA and 1.62 WHIP over 40.2 innings in his first nine starts, Gray offers much to be optimistic about heading into 2016.

Following an awful start to the season including a 10.70 ERA in four April appearances at Albuquerque, Gray slowly began to right the ship.  While his overall PCL line including a  4.33 ERA and 1.49 WHIP is not exactly the stuff dreams are made of, it's important to remember that Albuquerque is a hitters' park in a hitters' league.  His 8.66 K/9 and 3.88 FIP in Triple A are much more relevant.

After an adjustment period to pro-ball, Gray's stuff returned to a level more commensurate with his pedigree and status as a former first rounder this year.  His fastball averaged 94.3 and topped out at 98 in his brief Major League trial.  PITCHf/x data indicates that his slider, which receives potential plus grades, was also a strong weapon against the world's best bats with opponents mustering just a .183 wOBA against it.  His peripheral numbers are indicative of a player who could be on the verge of cementing a place in the Rockies rotation going forward.  On the strength of solid K/BB marks of 8.85 K/9 against 3.10 BB/9, Gray managed a 3.63 FIP in his nine start debut.

Context is critical in evaluating what Jon Gray is today, what he might become, and what he will be in the future.  With Colorado as his home park, he is unlikely to produce sparkling overall numbers-- now or ever.  Baseball analysts conquered such issues long ago, yet even though we are fully aware of the effect that park and league context has on player statistics, it will be difficult people to accurately evaluate Gray-- now or ever.  He may not be a true ace in the dominant mold that Rockies fans were hoping for when he was drafted, but there is a good chance he will earn his place at the top of the Colorado rotation beginning in 2016.

Dare to Dream:  Ben Paulsen. A former third round pick out of Clemson back in 2009, Paulsen has endured a slow climb through the Rockies system on his way to the Major Leagues.  For much of his first three seasons in pro ball, it appeared as though Paulsen would never develop the offensive profile necessary to be a big league first baseman.  Then in 2013 at Triple A Colorado Springs, Paulsen finally started showing signs of life as he took to the hitter-friendly environment of the PCL.

Following a 124 wRC+ mark at Colorado Springs in 2013, Paulsen returned to Triple A in 2014.  A notable improvement in walk rate from 7.4% to 11.7% fueled an even more productive run in his repeat of the league.  The Rockies rewarded Paulsen with a handful of sporadic opportunities for the big club in 2014 before calling him up for good in May of 2015.

Paulsen was respectable, but mediocre while earning the majority of the playing time at first base this season.  A .277/.326/.462 line would look impressive most places, but Coors Field is not among them.  Ultimately, Paulsen's line translates to just 97 wRC+ leaving him well shy of the benchmark for an impact first baseman.

Paulsen enters his age 28 season needing a big year to ensure his place in the Majors for the long run.  In what should be his prime years, with some big league experience under his belt, I think Rockies fans can #daretodream that Ben Paulsen may have a career year in him this year.  I think Paulsen is capable of a 20+ homer peak in Coors Field, and the state of the Rockies roster might afford him the opportunity to prove it.

Rookie Watch:  Trevor Story. Even before his recent legal troubles, most in the industry seemed to believe the Jose Reyes era in Colorado would be short-lived.  The prevailing logic is that the Rockies would try to help Reyes rebuild his value before shipping him off to a contender and expanding on their total return for Tulowitzki.  Although it has not happened yet, Reyes is not a long term solution for the Rockies.  Story should be the beneficiary of his eventual departure.

Following a bumpy transition to Double A in 2014 which included a hideous 34.6% K-Rate, Story saw his prospect stock drop throughout the industry.  The Rockies shifted affiliates from Tulsa in the Texas League to New Britain in the Eastern League, and Story jumped back on the fast track in 2015.  Story split the year between New Britain and Albuquerque, totaling 70 extra base hits and 22 stolen bases while playing strong defense mostly at shortstop.

The strike zone still presents a challenge for Story.  Despite all his flashy production, he amassed 141 strikeouts against 51 walks in 130 games last year.  If he brings power, speed, and defense like he did in the upper minors in 2015, the Rockies will gladly accept the trade off.  If his contact woes limit the ability of his other skills to play, it could be another "Story".  Whatever the case, we should know more in a year's time as Story appears poised to reach the Majors in 2016.

Final Notes: Eddie Butler seemed to be a logical post-hype candidate for this series.  Upon further review, I cannot find much cause for optimism.  Butler hasn't been good since Double A in 2014, and hasn't been impressive since 2013.  Although any player with his prospect pedigree should not be completely disregarded at age 25, Butler has some work to do if he is to deliver on any bit of his former promise.