Parker learning first to be ready for any opportunity
Rockies prospect, normally an outfielder, using AFL to become versatile
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As the final Salt River hitting group finished batting practice on another spectacular Arizona morning, many of the Rafters had inched their way toward right field for a shorter commute to the home clubhouse at Salt River Fields.
Not right fielder Kyle Parker.
There was Parker, stationed at first base, squeezing every ground ball and every one-hop throw out of pregame work, a routine he has followed virtually every day in the Arizona Fall League.
A power-hitting outfielder in his first three Minor League seasons, Parker is undergoing a crash course at first base this fall as the parent Colorado Rockies explore their options to replace Todd Helton, who announced his retirement last September after 17 years as a fixture at first base.
"The biggest thing I am trying to do is get better playing first base," Parker, the No. 9 prospect on the Rockies' Top 20 list, said of his initial appearance in the AFL.
"I haven't had too many games over there," added Parker. "If I come away with anything, it is to feel good defensively, and I feel like if I do that it will be successful. It is something they want me to feel out. It's something they want me to get good at. I haven't been there too long. That's why I'm here."
Late-season speculation out of Denver was that National League batting leader Michael Cuddyer could slide from right field to first base in 2014 after making 223 career starts there, most of them since 2009. Jordan Pacheco started 39 games at first last year; Cuddyer made 13 starts.
Parker, who had his third 20-home run season in as many Minor League levels at Double-A Tulsa in the regular season, spent 18 games at first base as the Drillers' season wound down in preparation for further immersion in the AFL. He also played 77 games in left field after spending the previous two exclusively in right.
"Things happen a lot faster than when you are in the outfield, so you have to be instinctively ready to go," Parker said. "You need to make split-second decisions. Moving from the outfield to infield, it's just mentally knowing what I need to do in those little situations where you have to know exactly what to do with the ball instinctively."
The Rockies understand the complexity of the move, but they also understand Parker could be just the multi-tasker to do it. An elite athlete who also excelled at quarterback at Clemson University, Parker became the first NCAA Division I player to throw 20 touchdown passes and hit 20 home runs in the same school year when he accomplished the feat in 2009-10. One day stands as a marker. Parker threw for 171 yards and a touchdown in the Clemson spring football game on April 11, 2009, then belted two home runs with five RBIs in a doubleheader against Miami later that day, homering in each game.
Parker, the 26th player taken in the first round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, had 21 homers and 95 RBIs in his first season at Class A Asheville of the South Atlantic League in 2011. He followed with 23 homers and 73 RBIs at Class A Advanced Modesto of the California League in 2012 before making the step to Tulsa this year.
A right-handed hitter, Parker hit a long home run to right-center field on opening night in the AFL on Oct. 8. He hit his second homer, also to right-center, as part of a two-hit game Oct. 22, and he followed that with a three-hit game Oct. 23. His middle-of-the-field plan has been a staple throughout his career.
On Nov. 2, he played in the Fall Stars Game for the East Division all-star squad.
"Whenever my approach is up the middle or go the other way and I get the barrel on the ball, good things seem to happen for me," Parker said. "Obviously, I am going to have ups and downs, but I'll be at my best if I can mentally stay there."
However things shake out regarding his position, Parker wants to make sure he is prepared.
"I think it is more just that they think it would be something nice for me to be able to do," Parker said. "Obviously, I can still play outfield. Just being able to do different things could put me in a good situation for different opportunities.
"I want to be ready for any opportunity, and if the opportunity is [first base], then that's what I have to do to get ready. If the opportunity is in the outfield, then that's what I have to be ready for, too. Having some diversity and being able to do different things just allows for you to be in a better situation."
• SS Cristhian Adames was on a roll, hitting safely in six of seven starts as October neared an end, capping that run with a four-hit game Oct. 26 that included a double and a three-run home run in a 20-0 victory at Peoria. Adames, a non-drafted free agent signed out of the Dominican Republic just before he turned 17, jumped his AFL average to .333 with the big day. Adames hit .267 with a career-high 13 stolen bases at Double-A Tulsa this summer, adding 19 doubles and 36 RBIs.
• C Dustin Garneau broke out in a big way with two home runs including a grand slam and six RBIs in a 20-0 victory over on Oct. 26 in Peoria. Garneau had all three of his AFL homers in 11 days while rotating behind the plate as one of three catchers on the Salt River roster. He had his first homer and two doubles in a three-game stretch in mid-October and was hitting .231 with those three homers in his first eight games. Garneau has shown power in the Minors, hitting 17 homers at Asheville in 2011 and 13 more with 47 RBIs at Tulsa this summer. That was his first stop above Class A after signing out of Cal State-Fullerton as a 19th-round Draft choice in 2009.
• OF Tim Wheeler , whose power production has suffered since undergoing surgery to remove the hamate bone in his right hand two weeks into the 2012 season, hit his first AFL home run as part of a two-hit day Oct. 23 against Surprise. Wheeler, who had 33 homers at Tulsa in 2011 while stamping himself as the top position player prospect in the Rockies' system, had two homers in 92 games at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2012 and five in 109 games at Colorado Springs this summer. Entering week six of the AFL, Wheeler was hitting .278 with four doubles, one home run, 11 RBIs and a .381 on-base percentage in 19 games.
• RHP David Houston was 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA and allowed only two runs, both earned, in his first 19 2/3 innings over his first eight games as he continued his transition to the bullpen. A seventh-round Draft pick out of Boston College in 2008, Houston was a full-time starter in his first five pro seasons before joining the bullpen in Tulsa after making 13 starts there. Both of his appearances after a promotion to Colorado Springs were in relief.
• LHP Tyler Matzek, the Rockies' first-round Draft selection in 2009 out of Capistrano Valley (Calif.) High School, struggled in his first five outings out of the bullpen, giving up five earned runs on six hits (including two home runs) and six walks. But he rebounded in his next four outings to smooth his AFL statistics to read a 1-1 record and 4.22 ERA with 11 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings. Matzek was 8-9 with a 3.79 ERA in 26 starts at Tulsa this season, the most victories in his pro career, while he works on refining his command. He entered the AFL with 329 walks in 471 Minor League innings.
• LHP Kraig Sitton, who was 6-5 with two saves and a 2.92 ERA in 52 appearances at Modesto this season, had a 0-2 record and 9.00 ERA mark at Tulsa, numbers skewed by his second outing when he was charged with six runs in two-thirds of an inning.
• RHP Cole White did not have a decision in his first eight AFL appearances (6 1/3 innings), all out of the bullpen, while allowing three runs (two earned) on four hits with seven walks. He was touched for a two-run home run Oct. 16 but allowed only one other run (unearned) in his other seven outings. He was 2-4 with 19 saves and a 2.97 ERA at two stops in Double-A this eason after being traded by Kansas City to Colorado early in 2013. He had all his saves at Tulsa.
Jack Magruder is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.