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2021 Rockies Predictions: Three Potential Breakout Players

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Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to making some 2021 Rockies predictions, there are some exciting things to talk about. Shocking, I know. But in between all the chaos, the terrible predictions, and the completely understandable anger of the fanbase, there are quite a few young players who will receive extended opportunities to break out and establish themselves as solid contributors.

Every baseball writer loves doing stuff like this, where you get to project the positive future of some players who have shown flashes but haven’t quite put it together in the Major Leagues. Every team has a bunch of those, of course. I’m sure you, the fine reader of this article, can think of a few players like that on the team you root for. It can be frustrating at times, but it’s generally more exciting to be optimistic.

As dire as the current situation is for the Rockies, they also have young exciting talent, so let’s talk about some of them. Just so we’re clear, this list will feature three of those players, as you know already, and I’m giving myself the freedom to pick from anyone on the roster whether it be position players, starters, or relievers. I’m also placing some self-imposed limits, the main one being I can only pick players with less than three years of Major League service time. So let’s get into some 2021 Rockies predictions, shall we?

2021 Rockies Predictions: Brendan Rodgers Potential

As I tend to do, let’s get the easy one out of the way first. Rodgers has long been hailed as the next great middle infielder to wear the purple pinstripes. The third overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft has raked in every level of baseball he’s played in throughout his life… with the unfortunate exception of the Show. His Major League sample size consists of 102 plate appearances scattered across 2019 and 2020 and he’s slashed .196/.235/.227 as a big leaguer, which would be a “meh” line for a pitcher, not a highly-touted prospect.

On top of that, he’s gotten hurt quite a bit these past few years. Shoulder injuries ended his season in both 2019 and 2020 and even when on the field, the team seemed disinterested in affording him the playing time any prospect needs to get comfortable against Major League pitching. You can correctly attribute the lack of playing time to the Rockies’ ineptitude, but the injuries are definitely somewhat of a concern. So why is it I’m still confident in Rodgers for my 2021 Rockies Predictions?

Well, for starters, the guy is 24 years old, has crushed every level of baseball he’s previously played in and was a consensus top-30 prospect in baseball for years for a reason. He has easy plus bat speed and power to all fields coming from a very compact swing with very few moving parts and no obvious timing mechanism. He’s also capable of playing a solid shortstop and should be above average at second base as well. That profile of a legitimate middle infielder with the hitting ability to be an above-average hitter is a really valuable thing, by the way. They tend to turn into All-Stars. Just saying.

Now, of course, not all is sunshine with Rodgers. Shoulder injuries are no joke and he’s a pretty aggressive hitter who can oftentimes get himself out by swinging at pitches he should take, similar to former Rockie David Dahl in that regard. That’s no exaggeration either: he has swung at 41.8% of pitches out of the zone he sees as a big leaguer, and MLB average is around 30%. Not great. The Rockies tend to encourage this bad habit, so they would be smart to cut that out and make Rodgers focus on calming down and being more selective.

Another thing that benefits Rodgers and the chances of him breaking out? The Nolan Arenado trade worked out in his favor, moving Ryan McMahon over to the third base spot and opening up second base for Rodgers as a result. He’s going to be given every opportunity to sink or swim and I’m willing to bet he will swim, and swim very well indeed.

Yency Almonte Becomes a Rock in the Bullpen

The 2020 Colorado Rockies’ bullpen was a mess, a 6.77 combined ERA mess. If you ask most fans about it, the only positive thing they’d be able to muster was Daniel Bard‘s amazing comeback story. Buried underneath all the awfulness and overshadowed by Bard’s heroics, however, was a really strong showing from 26-year-old Yency Almonte, who put up an excellent 2.93 ERA (3.44 FIP) in 27.2 innings of work out of the bullpen with his three-pitch mix.

Almonte, originally a 17th round pick straight out of high school in 2012 by the Angels, was a starter for most of his Minor League career before going to the bullpen and making his MLB debut as a reliever in 2018. He was really good across 14.2 innings in 2018 (1.84 ERA, 2.96 FIP), but struggled a lot in 2019 and entered 2020 as an unremarkable part of the bullpen. He delivered in 2020, however, and take it from someone who watched the games: Almonte and Bard were the only two relievers who gave you faith whenever they came into the game.

So what went right in 2020 and what went wrong in 2019? Well…

2019 Edge%39.0%
2020 Edge%42.2%

Now, Edge% refers to the percentage of pitches a guy threw that ended up in the edges of the zone. In other words, it tells you how often a pitcher misses middle-middle. Almonte also threw more first-pitch strikes in 2020 (60.2%, up from 57.2% in 2019), which is always a good thing.

2019 GB%33.6%
2020 GB%56.8%

Groundballs are good, in particular when you play in Coors Field, the place where line drives and flyballs get rewarded more than anywhere else. Almonte’s four-seamer has really poor vertical movement but it induced a launch angle against of just 2º, which meant 60% of batted balls against it went right into the ground. His changeup was even more extreme, producing a launch angle against -14º and a 100% groundball rate. Yeah. 100%, not bad.

2019 xwOBA.381
2020 xwOBA.287

All this combined to create a much lower quality of contact, which is captured in his xwOBA. Almonte stayed away from the barrel, threw strikes, didn’t walk many batters, and got a ton of grounders. And if you’re thinking “wow, this really sounds like a starter’s profile”, you’re on point. I think Almonte could be a really valuable long reliever for this team and if they were willing to give him a shot to start, I suspect he’d do just fine.

That would require a spot to open up, however. Maybe if Jon Gray is traded? Who knows. Either way, as part of my 2021 Rockies Predictions, I expect Almonte to be a quality big league arm. And God knows this team needs a bunch of those.

Sam Hilliard Mashes The Ball Again

The 26-year-old Hilliard has what are called “loud tools”. He’s a 6’5″, 236-pound centerfielder with 97th percentile speed, outrageous bat speed, a cannon arm, and easy all-fields power. Athletically, the first comparison that comes to mind for me is former MVPs, Josh Hamilton, and Cody Bellinger. He’s that kind of athlete.

A former two-way college player, Hilliard put Rockies fans on notice in September of 2019, slashing .273/.356/.649 over 87 plate appearances in his first cup of coffee in the Majors with seven dingers and a total of thirteen extra-base-hits in 36 games. I mean, look at these home runs. Off some really good pitchers and both to the opposite field and the pull side:

Unfortunately, that performance didn’t carry over to the 2020 shortened campaign. Hilliard’s timing looked very off at the start of the season, he struck out 36.8% of the time, chased more bad pitches, walked less, whiffed extremely often, and made softer contact. All-around, it was a disappointment of a season even if he did hit six homers in 36 games, but the Rockies shouldn’t let that stop them from giving Hilliard more chances to prove he belongs in the Majors. No more Kevin Pillar blocking him, please.

Why? Well, players with Hilliard’s tools don’t come around that often. This is a player with 30/30 potential we’re looking at right here (Hilliard is 5/5 in stolen base attempts so far, by the way), and giving him time to either play himself into an everyday job or play himself out of the team seems smart in particular for a team that’s not going to be competing any time soon like the Rockies are.

You can see above how he whiffed way more at every type of pitch in 2020, and his swing path is always going to lead to a lot of Ks. Hilliard actually has the right idea in terms of approach, which is to be patient and wait for a pitch you can hammer. If he progresses adequately, he will give you value by taking his walks, hitting quite a few homers, running the bases at a good level, and playing solid defense in center.

The key here for Hilliard is plate discipline. The Rockies hitting coach Dave Magadan mentioned him as a potential breakout candidate himself so my 2021 Rockies predictions get some extra credibility, right? Whatever the case, those were my three potential breakout candidates. I’m actually excited to watch the Rockies again this year just to watch all the young players trying to figure it out. Better than endless mediocrity.

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Mario Delgado is a sound engineer and amateur (wishing to turn pro) baseball writer. I write for Overtime Heroics, MaxSportingStudio and on my own page.