Raimel Tapia is one of the Colorado Rockies (if not all of baseball’s) most exciting and unique prospects, but his path to a starting spot in the major leagues is anything but clear.
In 2011, Tapia, then just 17 years old, made his professional debut with Colorado’s Dominican Summer League team. He hit .262; Tapia hasn’t finished a full season with a batting average below .300 since.
Tapia started last season in Double-A, and after posting a .326 average over 424 at-bats, he earned a promotion to Triple-A, where he posted an even higher average (.346, albeit in only 104 ABs).
Tapia’s gaudy numbers were rewarded with a September call-up to the MLB roster. Most of his time was spent on the bench though, as Tapia only started five games and had just 38 at-bats total. Still, he generally handled himself well in his limited playing time, and generally looked ready (or at least very close to ready) to a major league ballplayer.
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Unfortunately for Tapia, just because he’s ready doesn’t necessarily mean the Rockies are ready for him.
When Tapia was called up last year, Baseball Prospectus wrote this about him:
"Blessed with a preternatural hit tool, catalyzed by elite hand-eye coordination and bat speed, the 22-year-old outfielder has displayed a propensity to barrel pretty much anything opposing pitchers have thrown at him, regardless of location, throughout his minor-league career. Legitimate questions regarding his defensive flexibility, future power potential and whether his extremely aggressive approach at the plate would be exploited against advanced pitchers in the upper minors have gradually transformed the Dominican Republic native into one of the most polarizing prospects in fantasy baseball over the past few seasons."
Ignoring the part about fantasy baseball at the end, this is a tidy recap of Tapia as a prospect. He has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to square up pitches all over the zone and turn them into hits, but there are still some questions about how Tapia fits into the Rockies long-term future.
Tapia hit just eight home runs in 528 at-bats last season, and all eight were at the Double-A level. He’s still young and skinny, so there’s reason to project some growth as a power hitter, but Tapia’s ultra-aggressive plate approach makes it even more unlikely that he’ll ever be a big power hitter.
Because of that, Tapia’s best positional fit would be center field instead of one of the corner spots. That’s the spot where he’s played the most in the minor leagues, but it’s somewhat difficult to picture that happening in Denver.
Tapia is a plus runner, but his defensive instincts have been questionable at times. Coors Field is arguably the toughest place to play center field in the major leagues, and one misstep can be the difference between a triple and a catch on the warning track. And even if Tapia is capable of playing the position, there’s another, bigger problem.
If we assume that Gerardo Parra is going to be on the opening day roster (and with the salary he’s making, that seems like a safe assumption), the Rockies already have four players on their 25-man roster that can play center field.
And those players aren’t scrubs either; Charlie Blackmon was one of the best center fielders in baseball last year, Ian Desmond was signed to play first base but will almost certainly see some time in the outfield at some point, and David Dahl is one of the Rockies’ brightest young stars.
Add it all up and it’s hard to see how, outside of injuries to multiple players, Tapia is going to play a significant role on this team in 2017.
So should Colorado cut bait and trade Tapia? Not necessarily. The Rockies have reportedly been exploring trades for Blackmon this offseason, and Carlos Gonzalez could leave in free agency after this season. It’s entirely possible that Jeff Bridich and the rest of Colorado’s front office still view Tapia as the center fielder of the future in Denver.
But the “ifs” keep piling up when discussing Tapia. If he develops power. If he can play center field. If Blackmon or Gonzalez leaves. For a top prospect, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding his future. The Rockies probably aren’t the best organization for Tapia to get a big league opportunity. Unfortunately for him, that decision is out of his hands.