A funny thing happened on Nolan Arenado’s express trip to the big leagues. The train suddenly turned into a local.
A second-round draft pick out of California’s El Toro High School in 2009 and the Rockies’ much-hyped third baseman-to-be, Arenado watched as Double-A Tulsa teammate Josh Rutledge, a third-round pick out of the University of Alabama a year later, roared past him.
Arenado finished 2012 with a respectable .285 batting average, but his 12 home runs and 56 runs batted in were a serious comedown from his 20 and 122 in the same number of games at high Class A Modesto the year before.
Rutledge was hitting .306 with 13 homers and 35 RBI from the shortstop position when the Rocks called him up to fill in for the injured Troy Tulowitzki. Rutledge hit .274 with 8 homers and 37 RBI for the parent club. Even with Tulo healthy again, Rutledge is expected to make the Rockies again, this time as a second baseman.
Arenado will also be in big league camp by the time position players are required to report on Saturday. Of Baseball America’s top 10 Rockies prospects, four are non-roster invitees to the major league camp — Arenado, outfielder Kyle Parker and pitchers Tyler Anderson and Chad Bettis.
“I personally still think he definitely is that candidate,” Jeff Bridich, the Rockies’ senior director of player development, said on KOA when I asked him about Arenado.
“I think he’s talented enough and deep-down inside confident enough, athletic enough and skilled enough, to be our everyday third baseman in the future. He holds that decision inside of him, and I think that’s a lesson that he learned (last) year. That Double-A level is tough. It’s where the cream starts to separate itself. I think he was expecting big things out of himself — I know he was — and when faced with some adversity, just was unsure and didn’t know how to handle it.
“The crime would be if he doesn’t learn from that and apply it this year. Really, I think he’s just got to get back to being himself on that baseball diamond, being himself every day in terms of how he prepares and playing the game for the love of the game, which is really how he came into this organization out of high school. He was a very energetic, excitable, talented young man. He put a lot of pressure and stress on himself last year, and I’m very, very confident that he learned from that experience and will apply it well this year.”
The decision to invite Arenado to big league camp despite his disappointing 2012 season indicates the Rocks believe he might be ready to join the parent club sometime this season. For such players, the organization tries to get the “wow factor” of being around big leaguers out of the way in the spring.
“You usually make the decisions guy to guy,” Bridich said. “There’s a method to the madness. I would say that when certain players have done certain things that make you think that they could impact the big league club at some point during the season, you want to get them acclimated to not only the other big league players that might factor into that team that year, but the coaching staff as well. Kind of get that wow factor of being around the big league environment, get that kind of over and done with in spring training as best you can.”
This is also the case with Bettis, a second-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2010 who was expected to be on a fast track to the majors last season after an impressive 2011 campaign at Modesto, when he went 12-5 with a 3.34 earned-run average. But Bettis suffered a shoulder injury last spring and ended up sitting out the season.
“We were hopeful that Chad would be pitching for us, at least starting for us last year in Tulsa, and where he ended up, who knows, but he was beset by injury at the end of the spring training,” Bridich said.
“So his situation is really health first. I think he’s past it. He pitched for us in instructional league the first, second week in October, towards the end of our camp. I know he feels like he’s past the injury and is feeling strong. So first things first with him — getting back on the mound, getting his arm strength and body strength and muscle memory and all that kind of stuff back, and we’ll see what happens.”
The big league invite to Anderson, the Rockies’ first-round pick in 2011 out of the University of Oregon, suggests the Rocks think the left-hander could rise through the ranks rapidly.
“Tyler Anderson is obviously a talented kid who has also battled some injury stuff. Fortunately for him, it hasn’t been his arm. But (we’re) looking forward for him to put in a good full season of professional baseball. When I talked about that wow factor and kind of getting that out of the way, I think Tyler definitely fits into that type of category with this spring training invite.”
After last season’s disastrous decision to bring in veteran Jeremy Guthrie, who freaked out trying to pitch at Coors Field, Rockies management has been reminded that it requires a certain mindset to pitch here. So I asked Bridich how the organization goes about diagnosing that intangible quality in pitchers.
“It’s no surprise to anybody that there are challenges here, pitching at altitude,” he said. “I think that we have seen in the past that a variety of different types of pitchers can pitch well here. It’s not just one specific mold. But what really is telling is what’s inside of the guy — that fearlessness and the confidence that he can pitch anywhere, it really doesn’t matter, and that if he’s pitching in Colorado, it’s no different in his mind than pitching in Dodger Stadium or out east at sea level. It’s one of the toughest things to scout, because you can’t see what’s inside that player. But oftentimes, it’s the most important.”
Another top prospect to get a non-roster invite to big league camp this year is Kyle Parker, the former Clemson quarterback. The Rocks have gone one for two on football/baseball players lately. They also drafted Russell Wilson, who went back to football after a couple of unremarkable seasons in the minor leagues and became a rookie star with the Seattle Seahawks. Parker made the opposite call.
“Kyle is a very good athlete, a very powerful athlete, and I think last year he dealt with some unfortunate and unlucky injury circumstances,” Bridich said, referring to Parker’s 2012 season in Modesto. “He got hit with a pitch first game of the season and he broke his wrist and then towards the end of the season he kind of repeated history there, so he lost some time in the playoffs. In between all of that, he put together a very impressive offensive season and defensive season as well.
“He improved in many, many phases of his game last year. He used to have kind of a split personality between football and baseball, growing up and all the way through college. Now he doesn’t have that. He’s dedicated himself fully to baseball. He is a hard worker to begin with. He’s got work ethic; that is not a question at all.
“Really, it’s about paying attention now to some of the finer points of playing baseball and having some of that baseball experience under his belt that he didn’t have previously because he was spending a lot of time on the football field.”
Of the four, only Arenado has a full season at the Double-A level, which would seem to make him the most likely to wear a Rockies uniform sometime this season. But the invites suggest the organization thinks that any of the four could surprise and earn a promotion earlier than expected.