The Colorado Rockies had many problems in 2022, perhaps best reflected in their 68-94 record.
For example, the pitching staff had a league-worst 5.08 ERA; the Rockies had terrible situational hitting; and their problems with the “Coors Effect” persisted, earning them a 27-54 road record.
Finding a new face for the Colorado Rockies
But beyond on-field performance, the Rockies had another issue: They were boring. There’s no other way to put it. Certainly, part of that stems from marginal play, but the Rockies also lacked a clear identity and a face of the franchise, someone for fans to recognize and rally around.
CJ Cron, for instance, was the Rockies’ lone All-Star, but his is a quiet leadership, and bat flips really aren’t his thing, and while Ryan McMahon had the fifth-highest Pitches/Per Plate Appearance (4.27), but that isn’t the kind of thing fans get excited about. No one really stood out.
Consider what the experts said. Here’s Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post: “Bottom line: this franchise lacks an identity and it needs to take a hard look at itself.” When asked to give a one-word description of the Rockies season, Nick Groke went with “Confusing.” In a recent podcast, AT&T SportsNet broadcaster Drew Goodman also noted the team lacked an identity.
For a baseball franchise in the business of selling tickets and engaging fans, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
The past face of the franchise
Of course, this is the kind of thing that a franchise may experience when trading off its previous face of the franchise, Hall of Fame third baseman, and current St. Louis Cardinal Nolan Arenado.
The Rockies spent years crafting Arenado’s image (#NolanBeingNolan), but when he left — and Arenado made clear that he very much wanted to leave — they were missing more than a third baseman. They lost a franchise focal point and a fan favorite. Fans reminded the organization of this of throughout the 2021 season as the Rockies went a dismal 74-87.
The Rockies had hoped that perhaps Trevor Story would take Arenado’s place, but he left in free agency and signed with the Boston Red Sox, leaving the Rockies with a gap in both their infield and their public relations.
The current face of the franchise
The Colorado Rockies attempted to change that in 2022 when signing Kris Bryant to a seven-year, $182 million contract.
They had long pursued Bryant and expected to draft him in 2013, but the Cubs beat them to it. In signing Bryant, many considered the contract unexplainable. As Bob Nightengale wrote, “It. Makes. No. Sense.”
Actually, the logic is fairly straightforward. In addition to his offensive skills and an rWAR of 29.2, the Rockies were trying to create a new face of the franchise, someone to take everyone’s mind off the absence of Nolan Arenado. Bryant is, after all, a former Rookie of the Year, NL MVP, a key part of a World Championship Cubs team, and a good-looking fellow (which never hurts). The Rockies’ Opening Day hype video opened with a close-up of Bryant smiling. The new face of the franchise had arrived.
Until it didn’t.
Because of injuries, Bryant played in only 42 games and has yet to hit a home run at Coors Field. It’s difficult for a player to be the face of the franchise when he’s not actually on the field. No other player really stepped up to take Bryant’s place, and so the confusion persisted.
The future face of the franchise
Meet Zac Veen, the Colorado Rockies’ first-round draft choice of the 2020 draft, ninth pick overall, and one of the best bats in his class. Veen was a graduate of Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange, Florida. The corner outfielder, who hits left but throws right, will be 21 in December.
Veen regularly worked out with Rockies second baseman Brendan Rodgers, who provided a sense of the ballpark and the organization. Veen said of being drafted by the Rockies, “I know that ball flies [at Coors Field]. I know hitters love it there.” He added, “I can’t wait to go hit there.”
That time may be arriving sooner than most expected for the Rockies’ top prospect.
Veen has moved rapidly, both through the Rockies’ system and the prospect rankings.
He spent 2021 with the Low-A Fresno Grizzlies, where he had 478 plate appearances that resulted in 15 home runs, 46 extra-base hits, and a wRC+ of 135. While there, he also stole 35 bases as his willingness to steal bases made itself known.
Veen started 2022 in High-A Spokane, beginning slowly but finding his swing as the season progressed. In 400 plate appearances, he hit 11 home runs and earned a wRC+ of 125 before being promoted to Double-A Hartford. He only had 141 plate appearances with the Yard Goats, hitting one home run and earning a wRC+ of 41. That may seem concerning, but Hartford is not a hitter’s park, so keep that in mind.
He’s also stunningly aggressive on the base paths. Veen stole 36 bases in Fresno, 50 in Spokane, and five in Hartford. As a further illustration, consider his stand-out performance at the 2022 Futures Game. He went two for three and stole two bases — first second and, right after that, third. (View game highlights here.)
Then there were the Dinger cleats, which give a sense of Veen’s style. He’s getting some serious ink on his left arm; he’s experimenting with a mustache, and he can totally rock a pair of mirror shades. (This all sounds frivolous, but when becoming the face of a franchise, the look matters.)
Veen also does not lack for confidence. As he told Nick Groke in July, “I personally believe I’m an MVP . . . . I don’t know when that day will be, but I know it’s going to happen. I believe it’s going to happen.”
Yes, that will definitely play in Denver.
Attending finishing school
Baseball America has described Veen as “one of the most exciting prospects in the sport.”
Currently, he is living up to expectations in the Arizona Fall League with the Salt River Rafters. It is, admittedly, a small sample size, but in 12 at bats, he has six hits, including a double and a home run, four RBI, and six stolen bases. (On a Rockies team that stole the second-fewest bases in MLB in 2021, Veen’s base-stealing prowess is deeply attractive, especially as the league tries to increase on-base action.) He also has an OPS of 1.422. Again, all small-sample-size caveats apply, but Veen is a prospect with promise.
The Rockies appear to be seeing that as well given that they are speeding up Veen’s development. There are rumors he could be promoted to the Rockies as soon as 2023. He would be 21.
There are also indications that the Rockies are helping Veen become more comfortable with having a public-facing presence. He recently wore a mic when working out in the AFL, which both gives fans a sense of his personality and allows him to practice with, well, being the face of the franchise. (He likes someone telling him he looks like the Grinch?)
He just needs a little more development, both on the field and with the PR folks.
Surely part of Kris Bryant’s job is to help players like Veen prepare for the next level — and that moment in the near future when the Rockies’ window opens. Bryant, after all, found himself in a similar position as a rookie in Chicago. Who better to model for young players the way forward?
Given that in September the Rockies called up prospects Michael Toglia and Ezequiel Tovar, they are clearly preparing for the future, trying to get fans to look forward at what could be rather than back at what was.
As Skyler Timmins writes of Veen, “I haven’t been this excited about a Rockies prospect since Nolan Arenado back in 2013.”
The Colorado Rockies are banking on it.