Jon Gray walked onto the sun-warmed grass at Isotopes Park on Monday morning, took a quick look around and smiled.
The Colorado Rockies’ top pitching prospect has fond memories of the ballpark that many expect to be just a brief final stop on Gray’s rapid rise to the major leagues.
“I picked up my first NCAA win here,” the 23-year-old right-hander said during the Isotopes’ annual media day. “It was the second week of the season in 2012, pitching against the Lobos. I remember being really nervous but I pitched all right. It was a pretty cool experience.”
The Rockies organization is hoping Gray’s first season of Triple-A baseball will be equally memorable. He comes into the campaign rated as the organization’s top prospect and the 11th-best in baseball, according to MLB.com.
“He’s one of those pitchers who has the qualities to be very, very dominant,” Isotopes manager Glenallen Hill said.
Gray figures to draw a start sometime during Albuquerque’s season-opening four-game series against Reno, which begins Thursday. He’d probably be happy to match the results of his last performance at Isotopes Park.
Then a sophomore starter for Oklahoma University, Gray pitched five shutout innings on March 4, 2012, in a 4-0 victory over the University of New Mexico. It was his first year with the Sooners after a season at Eastern Oklahoma State College.
Things have gone pretty well for him since.
After a strong sophomore campaign, Gray was dominant as a junior. He went 10-3 with a 1.64 earned-run average and 147 strikeouts in 126 innings and was named a first-team All-American playing for his beloved home-state Sooners.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Gray can hit 100 mph with his fastball and had already been drafted in the 13th round out of high school and in the 10th round coming out of junior college. He opted not to sign either time.
Gray did sign when the Rockies made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft and it hasn’t taken him long to reach the brink of the major leagues.
In his first full season as a professional Gray went 10-5 with a 3.91 ERA for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers in 2014. He struck out 113 in 124 innings while walking 41.
Darryl Scott was Gray’s pitching coach last season at Tulsa and has made the move to Albuquerque with him for 2015. Scott is more than happy to work with the young right-hander once again.
“Jon’s exciting to watch,” Scott said, “and it’s more than just velocity. He’s got command with the velocity, he’s got movement with the velocity. Everyone talks about his fastball but he’s got a plus-slider and a plus-changeup, too. From my standpoint, he’s way ahead of schedule.”
Isotopes catcher Ryan Casteel, who caught Gray in Tulsa last season, agreed.
“(Gray) has some of the best stuff I’ve ever caught,” Casteel said. “When he’s out there I just focus on attacking the hitters and working to his strengths.”
Gray was with the Rockies for big-league spring training this year but he is not on Colorado’s 40-man roster. That probably means he’s got some work to do in Albuquerque before any potential promotion.
That’s fine with Gray, who says he’s looking forward to pitching in the same high altitude and changing weather conditions he can expect if he ends up playing in Denver.
“I take it as a challenge,” Gray said. “If you learn to pitch in a place like this, you’ll have the advantage in every home game. The other team has to pitch here, too, and their guys might not be used to it.”
Seeing top prospects like Gray take the mound may take a little getting used to for Isotopes fans as well. The team’s former parent club, the Los Angeles Dodgers, often avoided placing top pitching prospects in Albuquerque, concerned that the difficult conditions would adversely affect their confidence.
Such is not the case with the Rockies.
“I think they want their top guys coming through here,” Scott said. “Get them to pitch in altitude and difficult situations so when they walk into a game in Denver, they’ve done it. Don’t worry about the conditions, just get outs and win ballgames.”
That mindset suits Gray perfectly.
“I’m here to develop as a player,” he said. “I’ve still got things to learn and improve on, but I also like to win every game I pitch. That may not be realistic, but I will give 100 percent every time out. I promise you that.”