It has been another disappointing season at the corner of 20th and Blake streets in downtown Denver for the Colorado Rockies.
Despite having one of baseball’s premier young stars in Nolan Arenado and perhaps the game’s most coveted trade target in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado finds itself mired in last place in the National League West standings, and all signs point to the Rockies extending their postseason drought that dates back to 2009.
However, there appears to be some hope for the future just down Interstate 25, where the Rockies’ Triple-A club in Albuquerque features two top pitching prospects in right-handers Jon Gray and Eddie Butler.
Gray, the Rockies’ top pick in the 2013 draft, has a 3-5 record this season for Albuquerque, and leads the Isotopes with 84 1/3 innings pitched. While his 4.91 earned-run average doesn’t appear to be the stuff a future top-line starter is made of, his most recent outing Saturday against the Salt Lake Bees marked the first time in his past six starts that he had allowed more than two earned runs.
“Once I started mixing [my pitches] more, it seemed like I wasn’t giving up any more hard hits,” Gray said before the Isotopes faced the Bees last Friday at Smith’s Ballpark. “A lot of things have changed — not so much delivery or mechanically or anything like that, but more the mindset. It’s all about thinking. Your brain’s powerful. You’ve just got to use it the right way.”
Gray’s recent performance has drawn attention from the Rockies’ brass in Denver as he continues to improve. He continues to adjust to pitching at high altitude, as the Pacific Coast League includes stops in Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs and Reno, all of which sit at more than 4,000 feet of elevation.
“It’s definitely given me the obstacles that I need to deal with, but I think I’m handling them pretty well,” Gray said. “I think it’s really good to hit those obstacles down in Triple-A rather than up there [in the majors].”
Gray split the 2013 season between the Rockies’ Pioneer League affiliate in Grand Junction, Colorado, and their Class A affiliate in Modesto, California. He posted a 4-0 record and 1.93 ERA in nine starts. In 2014, Gray spent the entire season with the Class AA Tulsa Drillers, putting up a 10-5 record and 3.91 ERA with 113 strikeouts in 24 starts.
Butler, a year older than Gray at 24, was selected by Colorado in the first round of the 2012 draft. He made his major-league debut last season, making three starts for the Rockies and posting a 1-1 record with a 6.75 ERA in 16 innings.
Butler was named the Rockies’ fifth starter coming out of spring training this year, going 3-6 with a 4.80 ERA in 11 starts, including his first career complete game. However, he was sent back to Albuquerque in early June to work on his off-speed pitches, according to the Rockies. His results have been uneven since joining the Isotopes.
He allowed two runs in seven innings in a no-decision in his first Triple-A start of the season against Tacoma, but allowed five runs in five innings five days later in a loss to El Paso. His next start against El Paso went even worse, as he allowed seven earned runs and walked five batters in just two innings, but he was solid again Sunday as he allowed three runs and struck out four in six innings as the Isotopes topped the Bees.
Butler has risen swiftly through the Rockies’ organization as well. He dominated in 12 starts with Grand Junction in 2012, posting a 7-1 record with a 2.13 ERA and 55 strikeouts. The next year, he started nine games for Low-A Asheville, 13 games for High-A Modesto and six more for Double-A Tulsa, going 9-5 with a 1.80 ERA and 143 strikeouts.
Butler spent most of last season with Tulsa, going 6-9 with a 3.58 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 108 innings. He made single starts for Modesto and the Rockies’ former Triple-A affiliate in Colorado Springs, as well as making three starts in the majors. He earned his first major league win Sept. 20 at Coors Field in Denver against the Arizona Diamondbacks, allowing just one run on five hits with a strikeout and one walk in five innings of work.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah, who has been an avid sports fan as long as he can remember. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.