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When pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training next month in Scottsdale, Ariz., eyes will be on Gray and Butler. While the Rockies insist they won't rush the pair, fans will watch them with hopes that they'll see them again during the 2014 regular season.
"They're smart enough; both those starters are bright guys with exceptional talent and they throw strikes," said Mark Wiley, the Rockies' director of pitching operations, who has a long career as a Major League pitching coach and in pro personnel. "That's the catch with a lot of guys that have power arms. You've got to get them under control to where they're throwing strikes before they can take advantage of pitch strategy and that kind of thing. Our guys, at least, they're beyond that. We can do a few more things. We can accelerate faster."
Gray, 22, hit triple figures with his fastball while at the University of Oklahoma, where he pitched well enough to entice the Rockies to select him third overall, and the thought as he entered pro ball at Rookie-level Grand Junction was he needed to learn to use his off-speed pitches. It turned out he had used his off-speed stuff, especially his changeup, at Oklahoma and was well ahead in the game.
Gray went 0-0 with a 4.05 ERA in four starts covering 13 1/3 get-your-feet wet innings at Grand Junction, then blossomed at Class A Advanced Modesto by going 4-0 with a 0.75 ERA in five starts covering 24 innings before the Rockies shut him down. They wanted to be careful with him, since he had pitched a full collegiate season.
"His changeup is pretty good -- he latched onto it much faster than I thought he would, using it more and getting an appreciation for it," Wiley said. "By the time we stopped his season because we got him to, cumulatively, the number of innings we wanted, he was really locked in, throwing the ball really well, really comfortable.
"He's a good team guy, a really good competitor and we know he has exceptional stuff, too."
Many of the scouts who watched Butler were split on whether his future was as a starter or a reliever. But Rockies vice president of scouting Bill Schmidt and the club's evaluators saw him as a starter and selected him 46th overall out of Radford University in 2012. The numbers are supporting the Rockies' decision.
In 41 Minor League games, all but one of them starts, he is 16-6 with a 1.90 ERA, with 198 strikeouts against 65 walks.
Butler, who turns 23 on March 13, began last season 5-1 with a 1.66 ERA in nine starts at Class A Asheville. Butler advanced to high-A and went 3-4 with a 2.39 ERA in 13 starts at Modesto to start last season, and was 1-0 with a 0.65 ERA in six starts at Double-A Tulsa. In that small snippet at Tulsa, he held hitters to 4.2 hits per nine innings. What turns heads is the movement on Butler's changeup -- something he displayed during a brief appearance in last year's Futures Game during All-Star weekend.
"He's really progressed and matured from the way he handled his games, the way he did his work habits, the way he prepared for games, which is what we were looking for," Wiley said. "He's a very competitive guy. His stuff speaks for itself.
"He's got a plus changeup. He already understands the value of it, when to use it, which is another part of the development thing. You can have a really good pitch, but you still have to learn how to use it and when to use it. He's gotten a good handle on that, which is another area he improved on dramatically throughout the year."
Dahl, who turns 20 on April 1, was the Player of the Year in the Pioneer League in 2012 after he hit .379 with a 1.048 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage at Grand Junction, but 2013 was dedicated to education.
The Rockies planned to have Dahl play at Asheville but decided early to send him back to extended spring training for disciplinary reasons. After returning to Asheville, he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. In just 10 games, he hit .275 with seven RBIs and posted a .425 slugging percentage. Multiple Rockies officials said they believe Dahl learned from his experiences.
Dahl tweeted Thursday:
"#tbt Being out since may 7th with an injury really made me realize how much I do love this game of baseball. Words can't describe how excited and anxious I am to get back on the field! #springtraining14"
Herrera, 21, won the South Atlantic League batting championship at.343 and posted a .419 on-base percentage -- which was second in the league -- with 16 home runs and 76 RBIs last year at Asheville. He also succeeded on 21 of his 29 stolen-base attempts. He was named a Topps South Atlantic League All-Star at the end of the season.