SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Since their last playoff appearance in 2009, the Rockies have slid backward from third place to fourth to consecutive last-place finishes in the National League West. As the team has bottomed out, so has the pitching staff, which recorded the worst ERA in baseball in 2012 and the worst in the NL in '13.
Fortunately for Colorado, help is on the way, and fast. The Rockies have the game's top tandem of pitching prospects in right-handers Jon Gray and Eddie Butler.
Gray, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, can reach 100 mph with his fastball and wipe out batters with his slider. Butler, a supplemental first-rounder in '12, has a fastball and slider that are nearly as devastating as Gray's -- not to mention a better changeup and command. Both Gray and Butler could start the season at Double-A Tulsa and finish it at Coors Field.
"We certainly haven't had a pair of pitching prospects like that in the 10 years I've been here," senior director of player development Jeff Bridich said. "People talk about 2007 when Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales came up, but this external buzz definitely outweighs what they had. Obviously, we're very excited. Eddie is closer to helping us out, while Jonathan has a few things to do to get acclimated to the life of a professional."
While Gray and Butler dominate any discussion about Colorado's farm system, there's also a very prominent group of young hitters at the lower levels. Shortstop Rosell Herrera has average or better tools across the board and won last year's low Class A South Atlantic League MVP Award and batting title, hitting .343. He'll advance to high Class A Advanced Modesto to start the 2014 season.
Center fielder David Dahl, a 2012 first-rounder, has even better all-around tools and could join Herrera in Modesto or return to Class A Asheville after missing most of last year with a hamstring injury. If he heads to the latter destination, he'll team up with two other exceedingly toolsy players -- center fielder Raimel Tapia and third baseman Ryan McMahon. Tapia led the Rookie-level Pioneer League in hitting (.357) in '13, just as Dahl did the year before.
"We probably haven't had a group of position players like this since Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins," said Bridich, citing three 100-RBI guys from the Rockies' pennant-winning 2007 club. "I don't know how long any of these guys are going to start at the level stay at. Hopefully, they advance."
Three questions with Dahl
After being the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 Draft, Dahl signed for $2.6 million and then hit .379/.423/.625 to win MVP honors in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. His first full year in pro ball didn't go anywhere near as smoothly, as he got suspended at the start of the season for missing a flight and played only 10 games before a right hamstring tear ended his season.
MLBPipeline.com: After all the initial success you had in 2012, how hard was it to deal with your hamstring injury in '13?
Dahl: When I got hurt and had an MRI, I knew I'd be out for a long time, but I didn't think it would be all year. I hoped to play in the final month, but it was a really slow rehab process. They sent me out to Arizona, I had to come out to the field in the morning, get my work in doing the rehab, then it was back to the hotel. It drove me crazy. I couldn't hit, I couldn't do too much. The first month, I could barely walk.
MLBPipeline.com: Can you find a silver lining in what you went through?
Dahl: It was really frustrating, but at the same time, it was actually a blessing. I know now what I have to do to get better, to stay on the field in terms of working out and eating better. It taught me how anything can happen to you in this game. Now it's like I never had the injury in the first place with the way I prepare. My whole body feels good. I get my sleep, eat properly and take care of myself a lot better. It's going to help me be a better ballplayers down the road.
MLBPipeline.com: What have you been working on this spring?
Dahl: I've been mainly trying to get stronger with my legs so they don't get sore. They used to get sore a lot. I'm trying to use my legs more in my swing. Also, I'm trying not to drift as much at the plate, and staying back more on the ball.
Camp standout: McMahon
With their second-round pick in the 2009 Draft, the Rockies took a California high schooler who became their starting third baseman. History may have repeated itself last June.
Four years after finding Nolan Arenado, Colorado grabbed McMahon. Though he also played quarterback at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. -- which has sent four passers to the NFL, including two Heisman Trophy winners -- McMahon was firmly committed to baseball and signed for $1,327,600.
McMahon's hitting prowess earned him that bonus, and he lived up to his reputation by batting .321/.402/.583 as an 18-year-old in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. He also stood out with his solid play at third base and with his makeup.
"He has the ability at a young age to manipulate the barrel, adjust to the pitch and impact it," Bridich said. "That advanced feel for a teenager is very special. His ability to play third base and make plays in his first camp also stand out. He does things instinctually and naturally at a very high level."
Breakout candidate: Tapia
Tapia wasn't a big-money international signing, turning pro for $175,000 out of the Dominican Republic in November 2010. But he's on the verge of becoming a big-time player.
The Rockies have brought Tapia along slowly, keeping him in the Dominican Summer League for two seasons before he made his U.S. debut with a third year of Rookie ball in 2013. He batted .357/.399/.562, topping the Pioneer League in hitting as a 19-year-old. Tapia's 29-game hitting streak fell three short of the league record.
A well-rounded player, Tapia barrels balls easily and should have at least average power once he fills out his 6-foot-2 frame. He has the speed for center field and the arm strength for right, though he's still learning how to make the most out of his quickness on the basepaths.
"It's not just the tools you see," Bridich said. "It's the energy he brings, the type of teammate he is, the type of belief he has in himself. You add all these intangibles, and he's a very special young man. His hit tool is his best pure tool, but if you consider his intangibles a sixth tool, they could be the best."