Updated: June 1, 2014 at 8:02 am
DENVER — On sun-blessed game days at Coors Field, one question tickles the minds of Rockies fans inside the ballpark.
Do you need a special ticket to get into the party deck? (Answer: No.)
The second burning question is this: How are Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler and the other young arms coming along? That should be the burning question, anyway.
Because what develops (or doesn't develop) on the pitching mounds in Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Colorado Springs will have a longer impact on the Rockies franchise than what happens in Denver against the Dodgers or Giants in the National League West.
On a 2-6 road trip that ends Sunday at Cleveland, the big-league Rockies are spiraling from "We're for real" to "We're really a 75-win team." Down on the farm, there's either enough pitching promise or pitching propaganda to tempt fans into believing there is legitimate hope for the future.
Whether it's Double-A prospects Gray, Butler, Danny Winkler or Triple-A arms Tyler Matzek, Christian Friedrich or Christian Bergman, the depth appears promising, if unproven.
"You have frontline prospects like Butler and Gray, and you have guys pitching their way into the conversation," said Jeff Bridich, the senior director of player development for the Rockies. "That's when you get depth. I think it is (as good as it looks)."
Can the Rockies develop their young arms? Are those arms close to being ready?
This isn't about that. This is merely a tutorial on what the Rockies are looking for as they consider unleashing a minor-league pitcher into Coors Field.
"Generally, with all of our pitchers, we're looking for pitch execution. That's No. 1," Bridich said. "Are they able to assert the bottom of the zone and get ground balls?"
One example is the change-up thrown by Matzek, the Sky Sox lefty, Bridich said.
"That's the pitch we're watching with Tyler Matzek, the change-up. Is he using it effectively?" Bridich said. "For another guy it could be that he's trying to sharpen his slider or breaking ball. But this year for a lot of those guys, it's been the change-up.
"When people like Walt Weiss or Dan O'Dowd or Bill Geivett are asking, 'How is this guy doing?' we are drilling down to that specific detail with those guys. We know exactly what they need to work on to be able to pitch up here effectively."
Bridich has an office at Coors Field. His real office is mobile, bouncing between Modesto and Tulsa and Colorado Springs to scout their minor-league pipeline.
Gray and Butler — the premier prospects in the farm system — likely would make a stop in Colorado Springs before leaping to Denver, Bridich said. It also sounds like the Rockies would prefer if injured starters Brett Anderson and Tyler Chatwood return to the rotation, so Gray and Butler aren't pitching in Coors Field this season.
"Not to speak for everybody, but having them (Anderson, Chatwood) healthy is the much better solution for depth than having to go to these kids right now," Bridich said.
Coors Field always will be the X-factor. For young pitchers, it's viewed as a mile-high drunk tank that seems to have a dizzying effect on their pitching sobriety.
"The biggest thing (when) pitching here is to keep your head," said Giants right-hander Matt Cain, who, on April 23, saw a 5-1 deficit turn into a 12-10 win for San Francisco.
"You go into the game with the mindset a four-run game is like a one-run game."
Considering their hitter's park, are the Rockies extra-careful with prospects?
"If you want to call it careful, you can call it careful. I think we have to pay attention to how guys respond to adversity," Bridich said, again referencing the mental side of the equation. "I think you really have to be in good communication with those players to see if they shut down and handle it unprofessionally, or if they try to learn from it next time out. You have to pay attention to their demeanor as much as their slider or their change-up."
Are Butler (2.39 ERA in 10 starts at Tulsa) and Gray (7.71 K/9, 1.68 BB/9 in 10 starts) the second coming of Jason Verlander and Matt Scherzer? Fingers crossed.
The search for the prototypical Coors Field pitcher has been a long one. The Rockies usually get lost along the way.
The ideal pitcher at altitude often is defined by a high rate of groundballs. But what is the Rockies' definition of their prototypical pitcher, the guy who turns thin air into thin ERAs?
"I think the prototypical Coors Field pitcher is a confident, resilient competitor," Bridich said. "Whether you're Josh Fogg or Ubaldo Jimenez — who couldn't be more two totally different pitchers — you must be a guy that believes you are going win the game. If you don't believe that, it doesn't matter what kind of stuff you have."
Is the right stuff in Tulsa and Colorado Springs? That's the burning question.