Isotopes have plenty of weapons and are eager to use them
ALBUQUERQUE — Glenallen Hill did not mince words when it came to his pitching staff with the Albuquerque Isotopes, and that could be seen as a vote of confidence.
Or the mother of all jinxes.
“I would not use the word ‘decent,’ ” said Hill, the fifth-year manager of the Isotopes during Monday’s media-day festivities at Isotopes Park. “We have a strong pitching staff. We have guys that have a lot of weaponry. We have guys that are power guys. We have guys that are really good with off-speed pitches, so that combination is good to have.”
The word “strong” has not been an oft-uttered phrase when it comes to Isotopes pitching. Only three times over the past 10 seasons have Albuquerque pitchers combined to record an earned-run average under 4.50, including last year’s 5.34 mark that was good for 14th in the 16-team Pacific Coast League.
Hill’s optimism, though, stems from the amount of top prospects he has at his disposal to start the 2019 Pacific Coast League baseball season, which begins at 6:35 p.m. Thursday when the Isotopes play the Salt Lake Bees at Isotopes Park.
The line of prospects starts with right-handed starter Peter Lambert, who already gave fans a sneak peak when he allowed just two runs over five innings with seven punchouts in the Isotopes’ 7-3 win over their parent club Colorado Rockies in a March 23 home exhibition.
Lambert is widely considered the organization’s best pitching prospect, and showed how good he can be during the first half of the 2018 season when he posted a 2.23 ERA in 15 starts with the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats. However, his second half of the season exemplified the struggles many a prospect faces when they arrive in Albuquerque. Lambert’s ERA more than doubled (5.04) and his walks plus hits per inning average jumped from 0.99 in Hartford to 1.57 in Albuquerque.
Hill, though, feels the 21-year-old’s outing last week demonstrated some maturity and growth on his part.
“You got a chance to see what he brings to the table this year,” Hill said. “He’s a year older. He made some adjustments. He has all the ingredients to go out and pitch and pitch well. He has great mound presence.”
But Lambert is just one of several prospects who have a chance to impress Isotopes fans and the Rockies’ brass. Ryan Castellani, Jesus Tinoco and Yency Almonte are a trio of right-handed starters who are highly regarded within the Rockies organization, and Almonte got a taste of the majors last season, posting a 1.84 ERA in 14 appearances out of the bullpen.
Also in the starting mix is Sam Howard, a lefty who struggled a bit in his second year with the Isotopes, as his ERA ballooned from 3.89 in 2017 to 5.01 last year. That led Colorado to take him off its 40-man roster, but brought him back a non-roster invitee this spring training.
Speaking off the bullpen, Justin Lawrence is another top prospect who elicited plenty of “oohs” when he hit 100 mph as he closed out the Isotopes’ win over the Rockies last week.
“I think we’re going to have a really good squad,” said Isotopes infielder Brendan Rodgers. “We have a mixture of some veterans with some experience and some young guys who have some power. We have some really good power pitching. our bullpen is going to be stacked.”
If the pitching holds up, there is little question the offense should come through with runs. The Isotopes were second in batting in the PCL and fourth in runs scored last year, and this year’s lineup is packed with potential. Rodgers, widely viewed as the Rockies’ top minor-league prospect, got a taste of Triple-A pitching, although he struggled with a .232 average with five RBIs in 19 games.
Hill lauded Rodgers for his steady demeanor, which might be tested as he tries to find a way to break into a crowded infield with the Rockies.
“He’s not flashy,” Hill said. “He gets the job. He’s very talented, focused. He’s an impact player, I think. We’re all excited and can’t wait to see him play on a consistent basis.”
That belies a minor league career that showed he can hit (.291 average over four seasons) and he has some pop in his bat, as he had 17 home runs in 426 at-bats. First baseman Robert Ramos hit 32 homers in stints with Class-A Lancaster and Hartford as he moved up the chain, and third baseman Josh Fuentes drove in 95 runs and his .327 with the Isotopes a season ago.
Rodgers said this year’s lineup might have more pop than in the past few years.
“Some of those gappers that were doubles [last year] might be home runs this year,” Rodgers said. “We got some thump in here with Ramos and Fuentes.”
Of course, all the runs in the world mean nothing if the pitching staff can’t do its part. Hill feels this year’s group has the ability to a special group.
It will just take time to see if his confidence is rewarded.