Rockies sizzling shortstop prospect Ezequiel Tovar closes in on league jump
The buzz surrounding Rockies prospect Ezequiel Tovar is resounding.
So resounding, in fact, that the 20-year-old shortstop could soon follow in the footsteps of Troy Tulowitzki and Trevor Story, the two best shortstops in franchise history. And while the Rockies are cautious about when Tovar will make his major league debut, it’s not out of the question that he’ll play at Coors Field this summer.
Now, about that buzz. Listen.
General Manager Bill Schmidt: “He’s in a good place, I mean a very good place, and he plays with a lot of confidence. From the first time I saw him, I thought we had something that wasn’t normal; someone who was lucky enough to be a very good player.
Chris Denorfia, Double-A Hartford Yard Goats manager: “The beauty of Ezequiel is that he’s excellent on both sides of the ball. He is a game-changer, both defensively and offensively.
Rockies director of player development Chris Forbes, speaking last month before a game at Coors Field: “I could see Tovar catching the ball here tonight. Defensively, he is ready.
So what does “Toby”, as his Hartford teammates call him, think of the hype?
“I’m ready to play anywhere, but I just have to keep doing what I’m doing,” Tovar said Friday in a phone interview from Hartford, where the Yard Goats were hosting the Reading Fightin Phils.
“I become a better hitter,” he continued. “I read pitchers a lot better.”
The stats confirm the buzz surrounding the prospect of Maracay, Venezuela.
It’s usually a huge leap from high-A to Double-A, but Tovar entered the weekend slashing .320/.403/.587 with 10 home runs, 10 doubles, three triples, 30 RBIs and 16 interceptions in 43 games. Keep in mind it made it in the Eastern League, with its cold spring weather, salty pitches and pitcher-friendly ballparks.
Additionally, Tovar has only been caught stealing once during the entire season. He entered the weekend on a 12-game steak in which he was hitting .400 with a 1.234 OPS.
“He’s been fantastic,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “We saw him in spring training, and the coaching staff and I were impressed. And what caught our attention was looking back at a lot of prospects. They didn’t do what Tovar did to Double-A.
Tulowitzki, 21, hit .291 with 13 homers in 104 games for Double-A Tulsa in 2006. He made his major league debut Aug. 30 of the same season.
“It wasn’t my level of talent that I thought about a lot when they brought me up,” Tulowitzki said. “I was still raw, but I was confident in my talent. But I loved competing and I knew I wasn’t going to be afraid of the competition or the bright lights.
“I didn’t make it bigger than it was. It’s different for everyone, but for me, I felt like I had the ability, so no matter who they put on the mound, or who was in the opposing dugout, I was going to compete and not give in to the fact that I was young.”
Schmidt first saw Tovar play when he was just 15 years old. Tovar reminded him of a young Omar Vizquel, Venezuela’s 11-time Gold Glove shortstop, who happens to be Tovar’s role model.
“When I first saw young Mr. Tovar, I was like, ‘Wow!’ said Schmidt. “We knew he could line up, but we thought the bat had a chance.”
When Tovar started his professional career in 2018 in the Dominican Summer League at age 17, he was a hitter who stood 6 feet tall and weighed 164 pounds. He now only hits from the right side, weighs 194 and can drive the ball out of the park to all courts.
“The power was a bonus,” Schmidt said.
For Denorfia, Tovar is the kind of player who influences his teammates and helps win ball matches in various ways.
“It has this trickle effect,” Denorfia said. “He makes so many plays, he takes the pressure off the pitching staff and I have to use fewer bullpen guys. It makes my job so much easier. This is my love poem for him as a defender.
Tovar showed promise as a top-tier hitter in spring training when he was named camp’s most valuable player. He hit .550 (11 for 20), with a 1.650 OPS and three home runs in 10 Cactus League games. He didn’t stop knocking.
“What he can do as a 20-year-old is very special,” Denorfia said. “He has quality bats almost every time.”
A prime example of Tovar’s prowess beyond his years came in a May 29 game at Richmond.
“It was his first at bat of the game and he was 3-0,” Denorfia said. “We gave it the green light. So this 20-year-old kid takes an A-plus hack and hits an opposite-field homer.
“Now most young guys would have fallen over themselves trying to make it 3-0 and they would have ended up fouling or going out. But he got up and hit an “oppo” homer. He’s a special kid with incredible maturity on both sides of the plate.
But is Tovar special enough to make the quantum leap from Double-A to majors? Or will he have to make a pit stop at Triple-A Albuquerque this year or next?
“He plays with a lot of confidence,” Schmidt said. “Now we want to see how he reacts when he starts to face the pitchers for the second or third time. They will adjust so we want to see how he counters.
Tovar hit a disappointing .161 (14 for 96) in the 2021 Arizona Fall League, despite hitting three home runs. It was his first taste of failure.
“He struggled a bit, but maybe it was good for him,” Schmidt said. “He hunted a lot, but he made some adjustments and that helped him a lot. We could see the difference in the spring.
Tulowitzki bypassed Triple-A and went straight to the majors, and Story played just 61 Triple-A matches in 2015. Whether or not Tovar follows a similar fast track remains to be seen.
Tulowitzki, who was seasoned with three years of college ball at Long Beach State, cautions that it takes a special person, as well as a special team, for a young player to thrive.
“It’s a big leap and I don’t think it’s for everyone, to be honest,” Tulowitzki said. “I wasn’t close to a finished product and I had to learn from the big leagues. But I wasn’t scared, I had a good work ethic and I was outspoken.
“I thank some of my Rockies teammates – Matt Holliday, Spilly (Ryan Spilborghs), Josh Fogg, Yorvit Torrealba – for being there to support me. They loved those things about me. Having teammates like that and having the right culture of clubhouse is essential.
“Because if you get called too soon and you fail, and you don’t have the motivation or the work ethic, you’re playing with fire.”
Denorfia thinks Tovar has similar qualities to Tulo.
“First of all, he’s not giving me any red flags,” Denorfia said. “He is very meticulous in his day-to-day work and he has shown the working habits and routine of older players.
“He doesn’t just swing to swing during batting practice. He has a plan, everything has a purpose. That’s a pretty good indication of a guy’s level of maturity.
Tovar, who plays with captivating flair, should delight Rockies fans. He’s smart enough to avoid predicting what’s next in his career.
“I love playing baseball, I’m confident and I’ll be ready to improve,” he said.
Ezequiel Tovar’s road to stardom
First came Troy Tulowitzki, then Trevor Story. Next up is Ezequiel Tovar, who is on his way to becoming the next great Rockies shortstop.
A comparison of the three players’ journeys to the majors:
* Drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft (seventh overall) out of Long Beach State at age 20.
* 2005 High-A Modesto: Hit .266 with an OPS of .800 and four home runs in 22 games.
* 2006 Double-A Tulsa: Hit .291 with .843 OPS and 13 home runs in 104 games.
* Major League debut: August 30, 2006, age 21 – 324 days. Hit .240 with a .609 OPS with a home run in 25 games.
* Drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft (45th overall) from Irving High School (Texas) at age 18.
* 2011 Rookie League Casper: Hit .268 with .799 OPS and six homers in 47 games.
* 2012 low-A Asheville: Hit .277 with .872 OPS and 18 home runs in 122 games.
* 2013 high-A Modesto: Hit .233 with a .700 OPS and 12 home runs in 130 games.
* 2014 low-A Tri-City, high-A Modesto, Double-A Tulsa: Hit .263 with an .841 OPS and 14 homers in 108 games with three teams.
* 2015 Double-A New Britain, Triple-A Albuquerque: Hit .279 with an .863 OPS and 20 home runs in 130 games with two teams.
* Major League debut: April 4, 2016 at age 23 – 141 days. Hit .272 with a .909 OPS and 27 homers in 97 games. (A season-ending thumb injury in August cut his season short).
* Signed as an international free agent on August 1, 2017 in Maracay, Venezuela, at the age of 16.
* 2018 Dominican Summer League: 0.262 with 0.723 OPS and no homers in 35 games.
* 2019 Rookie League Grand Junction, low-A Boise: Hit .253 with a .640 OPS and two home runs in 73 games with two teams.
* 2020 minor league season canceled due to the pandemic.
* 2021 low-A Fresno and high-A Spokane: Hit .287 with a .796 OPS and 15 homers in 104 games with two teams.
* 2022 Double-A Hartford: Hit .320 with a .980 OPS and 10 homers in 45 games (entering Friday’s play).
—Patrick Saunders, The Denver Post