As Spring Training rapidly approaches and speculation surrounding the future of baseball’s brightest prospects spreads like wildfire, The Golden Sombrero will highlight some of the notable and intriguing Spring Training invitees from each organization.
Christian Friedrich*, LHP: After the Rockies drafted Friedrich with the 25th overall pick in the 2008 draft, he posted a 6-5 record with a 2.41 ERA, 1.145 WHIP, 159 strikeouts and 43 walks over 119.2 innings in 2009. However, he has struggled to repeat that success and has battled a series of injuries over the last two seasons. The 6-foot-4 left-hander features a low- to mid-90s fastball (usually low-90s since overcoming elbow issues) and a below-average change up, but his best pitch has always been his 12-to-6 curve – an absolute hammer. Having grown up in the Chicagoland area around the same time as Friedrich, I had the opportunity to see him throw several bullpens, and his hook was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Friedrich’s mechanics and arm-speed still suggest a moderately-high ceiling, which is probably why he holds a spot on the Rockies’ 40-man roster. Barring a setback in Spring Training, Friedrich will likely begin the 2012 season in Triple-A with a chance for a late-season call-up.
Nolan Arenado, 3B: Ranked by The Golden Sombrero as the No. 21 prospect in baseball headed into the 2012 season, Arenado had a monster 2011 campaign for High-A Modesto. The Rockies’ 2009 second-round draft pick slashed .298/.349/.487 with 32 doubles, 20 home runs, and a whopping 122 RBI in 517 at-bats. Arenado also made strides in his plate discipline and approach, evidenced by his 53/47 K/BB ratio. Although the results have always been there, scouts have been skeptical of his power potential due to his extremely level bat path. However, after a subtle alteration to his swing, Arenado’s power emerged last season and is here to say. His ability to square up the ball and generate extension after contact has always been exceptional. His defense at the hot corner also improved in 2011, but he’ll never be anything more than an average defensive third baseman. Arenado will likely begin the 2012 season in Double-A, but if he continues to rake – and considering the Rockies’ lack of a true third baseman – it’ll be hard to deny him a late-season call-up.
Chad Bettis, RHP: Much like Arenado, Bettis had a breakout season for Modesto in 2011. The 6-foot-1 right-hander went 12-5 with a 3.34 ERA, 184 strikeouts, and 45 walks in 170 innings and earned Class A California League pitcher of the year honors. Given his height and arm strength, Bettis’ consistency and durability in 2011 is encouraging. His arsenal is highlighted by two plus pitches: a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and touches the upper-90s, and a tight, hard-breaking slider. Bettis also features both a curveball and change up, but neither pitch is particularly advanced and needs considerable development. At the moment, he projects as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter – the development of his secondary offerings this season will dictate his ceiling as a starter. Bettis should begin the 2012 season in Double-A, but given his plus heater and slider, he could find himself in the Rockies’ bullpen at some point in 2012.
Tim Wheeler, OF: Arguably the most promising of the slew of toolsy Rockies’ outfielders, Wheeler batted .287 with 28 doubles, six triples, 33 home runs, 86 RBI, and 21 stolen bases. However, he struck out 142 times in 561 at-bats compared to 59 walks. Since entering the minor leagues in 2009, the left-handed hitting Wheeler has struggled with keeping his front-side closed at the plate and therefore has a tendency to swing more with his upper body instead of using quick wrists. At 6-foot-4, 205-pounds, Wheeler possesses excellent athleticism that is on display at all times. His defense and arm profile well as a big league right fielder, but his bat will ultimately be the determining factor. Beyond his strikeout tendencies, the main knock against Wheeler has been his inability to hit left-handed pitching. If that can improve that in Triple-A, Wheeler has a legitimate shot to make his MLB debut in 2012.
Kent Matthes, OF: Coming off a season in which he slashed .334/.378/.642 with 39 doubles, 23 home runs, and 95 RBI for Modesto, the 6-foot-2 outfielder has the potential to emerge as one of the Rockies’ top prospects in 2012. Like Arenado, Matthes has a linear bat path that results in ringing doubles and home runs that might as well have gone through the wall rather than over. He can turn around the best of fastballs, though he will need to improve his offspeed pitch recognition to be a power hitter at the next level. While his speed is average at best for a right fielder, Matthes possesses a plus arm that should compensate for any defensive inferiority. A fourth round draft pick in 2009 draft out of Alabama, Matthes missed portions of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with injuries, so a strong follow-up showing in Double-A in 2012 could significantly boost his stock.