Potential aces on Rockies' farm


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies have selected 19 pitchers in the first or supplemental round of Major League Baseball's June draft since the franchise’s inception in 1993, and those picks have combined for a total of one All-Star appearance. It came from Jake Westbrook, who had departed for the Cleveland Indians when he made the All-Star team in 2004.

Westbrook, Jamey Wright, Jason Jennings, Jeff Francis and Rex Brothers all have enjoyed varying degrees of success in the majors, but Colorado's drafts have produced too many John Burkes, Mark Mangums, Matt Roneys and Chaz Roes for comfort. Doug Million tragically died of an asthma attack at age 21. Matt Harrington will forever be the poster boy for draft negotiations gone awry. And Greg Reynolds hurt his shoulder and never panned out after the Rockies selected him ahead of Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer in 2006.

That's a lot of disappointment to shoehorn into two paragraphs. So it makes for a heck of a plot twist that after all the time, money and energy the Rockies have invested in the futile quest for a staff ace, they might be on the verge of having a matched set.

Their names are Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler, and they're right-handers with big fastballs, college pedigrees and hopes of arriving quickly in Denver and sticking around a long time. With some helpful instruction, good health and a little luck, they'll soon be coming to a fantasy league draft near you.

"We project both of them as top-of-the-rotation-type guys," said Rockies manager Walt Weiss. "I don't have a crystal ball to tell you when they'll be pitching at the top of our rotation. But you just don't see young power pitchers with the ability to pitch like they have. They don't walk people, and they command their electric stuff. Usually that's a process for young power pitchers."

Pitching-rich Rockies?

As Gray and Butler prepare to navigate the final rungs of the minors, the short-term pitching outlook isn't quite as grim as Colorado's NL-worst 4.44 ERA last season might suggest. Over the winter the Rockies added Brett Anderson and Jordan Lyles, two erstwhile hot prospects, to a group that includes Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood and Juan Nicasio. In addition, former first-rounder Christian Friedrich finally appears sound again after two years of back trouble.

Although health and inexperience are legitimate concerns with most of these pitchers, the Rockies at least have some raw material to mold into an effective staff if a few things go right.

"We feel like we're in a position where people are going to start talking about our pitching, as crazy as that sounds with the Rockies," Weiss said. "I was away [from the organization] for a while. But I don't know if they've had this many arms running around a camp like we have."

Gray, a former University of Oklahoma Sooner, signed with Colorado for a $4.8 million bonus as the third pick in the 2013 draft. He went 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA in nine minor league starts last year, and could either begin this season with a refresher course in the high Class A California League or in Double-A ball with the Tulsa Drillers, who play about an hour from his hometown of Chandler, Okla.

Butler, who grew up in Virginia's Tidewater region, attracted interest from Virginia, Miami, Tennessee and Maryland before deciding on Radford, a smaller Division I school in his home state. He wanted to pitch as a freshman and knew he’d have to wait in line to have an impact with one of the established college powers. Butler's decision was validated when he blossomed with the Highlanders and received a $1 million bonus as the 46th pick in the 2012 draft.

Gray and Butler became friends last year in instructional ball and found they have a natural comfort level with each other. Gray projects a soft-spoken and serene personality, while Butler is the proverbial live wire, prone to keeping his teammates entertained with stream-of-consciousness banter about baseball and life.

"They have very different personalities," Weiss said. "One is the comic and the other is the straight man. It's Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon."

In the Cactus League, they share an apartment with two other minor leaguers and spend their free time going out to dinner or playing golf together in the great tradition of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. They're both ultra-long hitters off the tee and a tad erratic around the greens.

"It's like a Yankees and Braves matchup," Butler said. "We're both powerhouse guys and we hit the crap out of the ball. We only shoot in the mid-80s, but we have a lot of fun doing it."

Pitching junkies

Pitching is the common bond. Although the two righties have the velocity and movement to compile big strikeout numbers, they're more intent on keeping the ball below the knees and trying to induce weak contact as a way of keeping their pitch counts under wraps. Butler has 198 strikeouts and 65 walks in 217 1/3 professional innings, while Gray whiffed 51 and walked eight in 37 1/3 innings last summer.

"If you're living down in the zone, you're not going to get hurt as much," Butler said. "It's going to be hard for guys to get balls into the gaps or hit them out. It's a big part of my game to look for contact early. I know that's weird because we're power pitchers. But we also want to pitch deep into games."

Butler's money pitch is his sinker, a weapon so hellaciously heavy that it's prompted Weiss and some of the Rockies' coaches to have Kevin Brown flashbacks. At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Butler has a wiry physique and delivery that remind some Colorado hitters of Boston's Clay Buchholz.

"Eddie's like a wound-up rubber band," Gray said. "He has a really fast arm, and the ball just flies out of there."

Gray stands 6-4, 255 pounds and throws a plus slider and the classic "easy gas," clocking in the mid-to-upper 90s with what appears to be minimal effort. Among his peer group, Gray is most commonly compared to Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

If Gray and Butler diverge in one respect, it's in their competitive demeanors. Gray is an emotional flat-liner, capable of handling disruptions with barely a change of expression. Butler, in contrast, is predisposed to stressing the little things on the mound. The Rockies have told him -- and he's well aware -- that he can't be thrown off his game when the plate umpire is squeezing him or a few weakly hit ground balls happen to find holes.

"Eddie's got a short fuse, but he can control it sometimes," Gray said. "I tell him that's just typical for having red hair."

In the big picture, there's a lot to be said for putting in the time to improve. On Thursday, Gray and Butler pitched in an intrasquad game at Salt River Fields. They were only required to stick around for a few innings of the Colorado-Arizona game the next day, but Butler gravitated from the dugout to the bullpen, got immersed in talking ball, and stayed for the entire running time of three hours-plus. If he picked up a snippet of information that might come in handy down the road, it was worth the investment.

Lots more obstacles await in the coming years, as evidenced by the numerous attempts the Rockies have made to address their pitching woes. The Mike Hampton-Denny Neagle free-agent splurge gave way to the advent of the humidor as the big Coors Field pitching story. Two years ago, the Rockies defied convention by going to a four-man rotation and 75-pitch limits for all their starters. They finished the season at 64-98 under former manager Jim Tracy, and the experiment died a quick and merciful death.

At this stage of their development, Gray and Butler don't need to have the organization's sorry pitching history and the hazards of pitching at altitude drilled into their heads. Why bother? They're too talented and driven to be deterred by negative vibes and cautionary tales, regardless of what the media guide says.

"I look at this as an opportunity," Gray said. "It's a challenge to be overcome. The only reason I'm here is that I wanted to be in this position."

Shortly before or after Gray arrives in the majors, his roommate and golfing buddy Eddie Butler will be along for the ride. The Rockies have waited two decades for a homegrown ace to arrive. If the final payoff is a pair of aces, they'll gladly wait a little longer.