July 21, 2010
The Three R's of Systems Deep in Pitching
Most trade-deadline deals—the deadline is 10 days away—are predicated on pitching. This year is no exception; the big names you hear tossed around are Roy Oswalt, Dan Haren and Ted Lilly; teams are said to be seeking astronomical returns for even middle relievers.
What's the status of pitching in the minors? Which teams have strong pitching corps and could overcome a deal involving some of it, maybe for a bat? There are three organizations to focus on.
• No team in baseball has had a better year down on the farm than the Kansas City Royals, who have a trio of power lefties with star-level possibilities.
• The nonstop factory that is the Tampa Bay Rays system has more starters to come, with someone to watch at every level.
• Although the Texas Rangers are known for their power arms, it's a quartet of strike-throwers at the lower levels who are generating some attention of late.
Kansas City Royals: Lefties Abound
No team in baseball has had a better year down on the farm than the Royals. On the pitching side, most attention has been paid to Mike Montgomery and breakout player John Lamb, both of whom are in contention for best left-hander currently in the minors. The pitching goes well beyond that pair, though. The Royals legitimately have the makings of a powerful rotation.
In his first full season and already in Double-A, Chris Dwyer is only a step or two behind Montgomery and Lamb in the trio of elite lefties. A fourth-round pick last year who received first-round money ($1.45 million), Dwyer actually throws a tick harder than Montgomery and Lamb, but he doesn't have the same upper-level command or big league-ready secondary offerings. Still, the 22-year-old struck out 93 over 84.1 innings at Low-A Wilmington and has a 1.06 ERA in three Double-A starts. Like the two better-known names, he could be in line for a look at some point in 2011.
Far more of a sleeper—but one with a considerable ceiling—is right-hander Tyler Sample. A third-round pick out of a Colorado high school in 2008, Sample certainly looks the part: At 6-foot-7 and nearly 250 pounds, he has an imposing mound presence. He backs it up with a low-90s fastball that can reach 95 mph while adding in a curveball that flashes plus at times. The issue for Sample is control; he's still no more than a diamond in the rough with an unacceptable 60 free passes in 91.1 innings. At the same time, there's clear progress in this area. In his past four starts, he's whiffed 28 over 24 innings while walking just seven. If he keeps that up, he's yet another piece to the puzzle for a Royals team that could be a big player in the American League Central as early as 2012.
The Next Crop
Tampa Bay Rays: An Embarrassment of Riches
Although all the focus has been on Jeremy Hellickson all but spinning his wheels at Triple-A, the Rays have one of the deepest systems in all of baseball. Each of their full-season affiliates below Durham has plenty of starters who are intriguing scouts.
At Double-A, left-hander Alex Torres has a 2.96 ERA and projects as a solid back-of-the-rotation starter, but the big story of late has been fellow lefty Jake McGee. Once one of the top prospects in the system, McGee hadn't been the same since 2008 Tommy John surgery, but he's put together his best run since the surgery of late; he's consistently getting into the mid-90s with one of the best fastballs in the system. In his past four starts, he's struck out 34 batters in just 21 innings after seeing his ERA balloon to close to 7.00 in late May. His injury history has some wondering whether he wouldn't be better off in a relief role, but either way, he has to stuff to miss big league bats.
The top two starters at High-A Charlotte (Port Charlotte, Fla.) are a contrast in styles, as Nick Barnese has solid stuff and plus command; he hits his spots and stays ahead in the count. Left-hander Matt Moore, on the flip side, is a strikeout king. He led the minors in the category last year and this year is second with 133 K's; those numbers have come in just 97 innings. Moore has hit double digits in strikeouts in three of his past five starts. Although his fastball has true plus velocity, Moore's wipeout pitch is a classic 12-to-6 curveball that can be all but unhittable when he commands it well -- and therein lies the rub, as control problems continue to plague him (52 free passes handed out).
Meanwhile, at Low A, scouts like to argue over who is better among right-handers Alex Colome and Wilking Rodriguez. Colome throws a bit harder, getting up to 97-98 mph at times, but Rodriguez has a better breaking ball, touches 94 mph himself and is more than a year younger. Both have youth, stuff and projection on their side and are among the top pitching prospects in the Midwest League.
Texas Rangers: Mature Beyond Their Years
The Rangers have an imbalanced system that is heavy on pitching. We've already seen plenty of young arms in the big leagues with nasty, upper-90s heat; more are coming now that 2009 draftee Tanner Scheppers is moving back to the bullpen.
The rotation at Low-A Hickory has proved that the Rangers don't rely solely on the radar gun when it comes to finding young arms, though. The four arms getting the most notice are lefties Robbie Erlin and Robbie Ross (since promoted to High-A Bakersfield) and right-handers Matt Thompson and Braden Tullis. As a quartet, the group has walked just 68 batters in 314.2 innings. Those kinds of rates are rarely seen in the South Atlantic League. All the pitchers have back-end rotation potential, which is saying something in an age when many teams don't have a dependable fourth or fifth starter.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .