SCOTTSDALE – Before every at-bat, Rockies outfielder prospect Zac Veen stands in the on-deck circle drawing a smiley face in the dirt with his bat before his eventual duel with the pitcher on the mound.
A closer look at Veen reveals that he also wears a gold chain that displays a smiley face on it.
“Ever since I was younger I was putting the smiley face in the dirt as part of my ritual or whatever you want to call it,” Veen said. “I remember somebody called me ‘Smiley’ one day. So that’s what I ended up getting on my necklace. I kind of just roll with it.”
You might say that Veen is poised to become the “smiley face” of the Rockies franchise.
The ninth overall pick of the 2020 MLB Draft, “Smiley” goes through his on-deck ritual, then often launches a baseball into the stands or steals a couple of bases, or drives runners across the plate.
It’s no wonder that Veen is putting a lot of smiley faces on Rockies management, especially manager Bud Black, who believes he has the makings of a five-tool player.
“The thing that excites us the most about Veen is his all-around game,” Black said. “He plays defense, he can run, he can throw, and I think he’ll develop into some power with the bat.”
With just 190 pounds spread across his 6-foot-4 frame last season, Veen appears at a glance to be a lanky, slow player built to hit for power and plod around the base paths. Turns out it’s exactly the opposite.
In fact, Veen’s best trait on the field so far in his career has been his speed.
After being selected by the Rockies as the second high school player taken in the 2020 draft, Veen ran wild on the base paths in his first season in the minors with the Fresno Grizzles, the Rockies’ Single-A affiliate, stealing 36 bases in 106 games during the 2021 season. He was caught stealing 17 times.
Veen improved on the base paths the next season when he stole a whooping 55 bases in 126 games and was caught just nine times while splitting time between the High-A affiliate Spokane Indians and the Double-A affiliate Hartford Yard Goats. In 21 games during last season’s Arizona Fall League, he racked up 16 steals, while being caught just twice.
While Veen has been successful as a baserunner, it isn’t just because of speed. In fact, his high school buddies joked about his speed.
“My teammates in high school would always say the only person who thinks Veen is fast is Veen,” he said. “That phrase still plays in my head every time I’m about to steal a base. It didn’t stop me from stealing then and it doesn’t stop me now.”
Veen attended Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange, Florida, where he batted a team-best .414 while stealing 32 bases and driving in 36 runs as a senior. He was named The Daytona Beach News-Journal Baseball Player of the Year in each of his final two high school seasons.
Still, Veen was actually surprised when the Rockies called his name.
“I think on draft day, you never know what’s going to happen,” Veen said. “You kind of just go into it expecting and hoping for the best. I’d say it all worked out.”
Speed wasn’t the only factor that brought Veen to Colorado’s attention. Really, it was just a plus.
In his first and only year in Fresno, Veen hit .301 with 15 homers while driving in 75 runs. The credit for his successful first year goes to Freno hitting coach Nic Wilson, who Veen said is somebody he can always count on for tips in the cage.
Despite struggling between Hartford and Spokane the next year, where he only hit 12 homers despite nearly 70 more plate appearances and saw his batting average slip to .245, Veen bounced back to slash .333/.444/.444 in the fall despite hitting just one homer and his performance earned him AFL Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Veen’s sweet left-handed swing was inspired by someone he’ll probably play against one day – Philadelphia Phillies superstar Bryce Harper.
“I always tried to swing like Harper when I was younger,” Veen said. “He was my idol, and I never really looked at a lot of videos. So I just tried to do it like him as much as I could.”
During spring training this year, Veen came to camp as a non-roster invitee. However, he immediately caught fire, stealing eight bases and driving in eight runs in only 48 plate appearances. Despite getting sent down to the minors to start the season, the 21-year-old left a strong impression.
“He plays with a youthful enthusiasm that is great and genuine,” Black said. “He really enjoys playing. Guys in the clubhouse mentioned that there’s a swagger to him. Just his personality and his nature are great. But he’ll be the first to tell you that, all that’s great, but he knows that performance is what this game is all about.”
Rockies pitchers Kyle Freeland and Daniel Bard said Veen has tons of talent and skill and is a fun player to watch. Freeland called him “a firecracker” and said he’s going to be an exciting player to see in the future.
Veen reportedly even put on 25 pounds of muscle during the offseason, which should help his durability.
“I definitely did change some things up,” Veen said. “I think in the past, I put on some weight, but it’s never been good, solid weight. This offseason, I ended up actually hiring a nutritionist, and kind of just really dialed in what I was putting in my body.”
Veen was drafted with the potential to become the new face of the Colorado Rockies, and he appears to be on track to do it even if it means he has to wait a little longer to make his big league debut.
If Veen performs as anticipated, he’ll likely be called up to the big club sometime this season.
However, whether he’s driving balls out of the park and swiping bases in the minors or majors, Veen will be doing it with a smile on his face.
“I do think there’s more than one way to score runs or win a baseball game,” Veen said. “So anytime I’m on the bases or on the field, I think there’s something I can do to help the team win.”