Since the inception of the Mountain West Conference, baseball has taken a backseat to the conference’s outstanding football teams. The schools that initially formed the MWC had little regard for their baseball programs. Most were a mere step above a club team and some schools didn’t even have baseball. From 2000 – 2004, the conference player of the year (or co-player of the year) was awarded eight times and only one of those players, Chris Shelton, went on to play in the big leagues. During that period, it was unheard of for a MWC team to make the College World Series. Oh, how things have changed.
San Diego State, Utah, New Mexico and TCU have made baseball success a priority and have seen big returns. The quality of play has increased dramatically. In 2010, TCU made the conference’s first College World Series appearance and will open the 2011 season as the number one team in the country. Since 2005, there have been numerous MWC Players of the Year that are either contributing in the big leagues or are top prospects in their organization’s system.
New Mexico’s Danny Ray Herrera and TCU’s Jake Arrieta were Co-Pitchers of the Year in 2006. Today, Herrera is a solid reliever for the Reds and Arrieta is a starter for the Orioles. In both 2008 and 2009, the award went to Stephen Strasburg, arguably the hottest Major League pitching prospect of the last twenty years.
What does this have to do with the Rockies? Currently, Colorado has two Mountain West Players of the Year in its system. First is Bruce Billings. In 2005, Billings was selected as a starting pitcher, but has since moved to the bullpen. He is on a shortlist of minor league relievers that could see time in Denver next year. More on Billings later though. Next is Jordan Pacheco, the second baseman out of New Mexico that won the award in 2007.
At La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, Jordan was all-state in basketball and baseball. He was a member of three state championship teams, one basketball and two baseball. He especially excelled on the diamond, hitting over .500 in both his junior and senior seasons and earning a designation as one of the top pitchers in the state. Even with his high school success, Jordan was not drafted. Instead, he committed to play baseball for New Mexico.
Pacheco went on to become one of the greatest baseball players ever to play at UNM. As a freshman, he hit over .400 and was named a third team All-American and Freshman All-American. Despite enduring a bit of a sophomore slump, Pacheco hit .350 and was All-Mountain West. He returned to form as a junior, hitting .397/.511/.580 and earning MWC Player of the Year honors.
Players with that kind of college career are usually selected in the first five rounds of the draft, but uncertainty surrounding Pacheco’s defense caused his value to dip. When the Rox picked Pacheco in the ninth round of the 2007 draft, he was seen as a solid bat with no true defensive position. Scouts didn’t think he was quick enough for a major league second baseman and didn’t have the arm strength for third. Fortunately, the Rockies were wise enough to focus on Pacheco’s bat and found him a position to play later.
After selecting Jordan, Colorado sent him to Casper where he played short and third for the Ghosts. In 192 Casper at bats, Pacheco hit .292 and played well enough to finish the season in Tri-City. Jordan entered the 2008 season as a middle-tiered Rockies prospect. He hit for average, but lacked power and was a not a great defensive infielder. After going through all of the 2008 Spring Training with Pacheco as an infielder, the Rockies decided to make a change; they moved him to catcher in an effort to increase his chances of making the big leagues. Plus, at the time, the Colorado farm system was mostly devoid of solid catching prospects.
Expectedly, in his first season as a catcher, Pacheco struggled with the nuances of the position. But, as the season progressed, he adjusted and showed signs of promise. He spent all of 2008 in Tri-City, hitting .280.
In 2009, Jordan’s move to catcher began to pay huge dividends. Playing for Low A Asheville, he made giant strides defensively and hit .322/.379/.492 in 451 at-bats. He belted 13 homeruns and 30 doubles and was named the MVP of the South Atlantic League.
The organization saw enough promise in Pacheco to call him in for 2010 Spring Training with the big club as a non-roster invitee. He made quite an impression. Manager Jim Tracy was particularly taken with the catcher. That spring, Tracy mentioned Pacheco by name on several occasions, lauding him for the way he carried himself while amongst big league ballplayers. In less than two seasons, Pacheco had elevated himself from a fringe infield prospect to a top flight minor league catcher.
Jordan’s performance in 2010 amplified the organization’s excitement. He hit .321 for High A Modesto before earning a promotion to AA Tulsa. There he hit .333 in 21 games. He totaled 89 RBIs for the year, leading the Rockies’ entire minor league system. All the while, his improvement on defense was steady.
This past fall, the Rockies selected Pacheco as one of six prospects to participate in the Arizona Fall League and he was terrific. Playing alongside some of the game’s top prospects, Jordan hit .317/.416/.460. His team, the Scottsdale Scorpions, won the league title.
Without a doubt, the Rockies will invite Pacheco to Spring Training again this year. In November, as protection from the Rule 5 Draft, Jordan was placed on the forty man roster — a true testament to his potential. He won’t make the team, but will certainly gain from the experience. He will likely play next season in Colorado Springs, and if we are lucky, he will be a September call up. Also, with a farm system that is suddenly rich in catching, Pacheco has a high trade value. Mike McKenry, Wilin Rosario and Pacheco can’t all be the Rockies’ catcher of the future, meaning one of the three will eventually be traded.
I praise the Rockies for their outside the box approach with Pacheco. They could have left him as a marginal infielder, but their foresight filled an organizational need with a piece that was already in place. Also, hats off to Pacheco for his hard work. He’s another one to keep an eye on.