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March 1, 2011

Future Shock

Sixth in Line?

by Kevin Goldstein

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The untimely injury of Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright brings up the concept of the sixth starter. Teams stock their Triple-A rotations with a combination of prospects and wily, strike-throwing veterans, knowing that they'll need insurance, as the average team used more than nine different starting pitchers in 2010. In last week's piece, I identified a trio of prospects who are sixth-starter types now: Yunesky Maya (Nationals), Hector Noesi (Yankees), and Vance Worley (Phillies). Here are 10 more who will begin the year in the minors but could get a big league call sooner than expected if the need arrives:

Brandon Beachy, RHP, Braves
While Beachy is technically in the competition for Atlanta's fifth starter job, in reality it's Mike Minor's job to lose. One of the better scouting finds around, Beachy went undrafted out of Indiana Wesleyan, an NAIA school, where he was primarily a third baseman. The Braves remembered his arm strength from some summer league performances, gave him a shot two years ago and, in 2010, he won the minor-league ERA title while more than holding his own in a trio of emergency big league starts at the end of the season. With well above-average command and control of a solid-but-unspectacular arsenal, Beachy's ceiling is more of a back-end starter, but his polish could land him in the bullpen while he waits his turn.

Zach Britton, LHP, Orioles
The Orioles are flush with young pitching, and while Jake Arrieta is the favorite for the final slot in the rotation, the Triple-A Norfolk staff should provide plenty of alternatives. Chris Tillman is still first in line, but his stagnation of late could speed up the timetable of Britton, who has slowly become one of the better left-handed prospects around. With the best sinker in the minors and a good slider, Britton misses plenty of bats and generates ground balls like a factory. He should reach the big leagues at some point in 2010 and move toward the front of the rotation from there.

Kyle Gibson, RHP, Twins
Gibson seemed like a lock as a single-digit pick in the 2009 draft before a stress fracture scared teams off and dropped him to No. 22 overall, where the Twins happily grabbed him. He pitched like a top-10 pick in 2010, going from Low A to Triple-A during his full-season debut while showing the kind of polish that the Twins covet in young arms. Even without an injury, there's a good chance that he simply pitches well enough to force his way to Minnesota at some point in the year, although his ceiling tops out at third starter.

Michael Kirkman, LHP, Rangers
A fifth-round pick in 2005, Kirkman was only on the fringes of Rangers prospect lists until last year before some mechanical tweaks led to a breakout year at Triple-A and a late-season stint pitching out of the big league bullpen. While Kirkman might not be a stud, he has above-average velocity for a southpaw and a plus slider that, along with a solid changeup and good frame/delivery, should line him up as a decent No. 4 starter. The departure of Cliff Lee has created some serious flux in the Texas rotation, with the Rangers hoping for rebounds from Brandon Webb and/or Dave Bush while also giving closer Neftali Feliz a shot at moving back into the role he was originally groomed for. Kirkman doesn't offer that kind of upside, but he could provide some much-needed stability.

Jordan Lyles, RHP, Astros
Lyles can be a difficult prospect to wrap your head around. As a general rule, when a player reaches Triple-A as a teenager, as Lyles did in 2010, he is a future stud. That's not the case with Lyles, who gets hitters out with the combination of command and the ability to reach for any one of five pitches, the best of which are his slider and his changeup. After struggling for the first time following his promotion to the Pacific Coast League in August, the 20-year-old will need to prove himself at that level before earning big league consideration. But he should be in the majors before he can legally have a celebratory drink.

Lance Lynn, RHP, Cardinals
Once news of Wainwright's season-ending surgery became official, the Cardinals immediately made it clear that reliever Kyle McClellan would be first in line to take the 20-game-winner's spot in the rotation. At first, it seemed like a perfect slot for Lynn to step forward, but manager Tony La Russa's hesitancy with young players doesn't help Lynn's case, nor might his 4.77 ERA at Triple-A last year. Still, he made real progress during the second half of the year, bumping what was once an average-velocity fastball up to 95 mph and striking out 16 batters in a playoff start. If he can begin 2011 the way he ended 2010 and the Cardinals continue to have issues at the end of their rotation, he could be the best option by midseason.

Andy Oliver, LHP, Tigers
Oliver's big-league debut is already taken care of, as he made five starts in the middle of last year as part of his first full season as a pro. That was a rush job to fill a Detroit need, but he'll still begin 2011 as the top starter at Triple-A while the Tigers begin the year with Phil Coke and Brad Penny at the end of their rotation. Oliver has one of the strongest arms among left-handed prospects, sitting in the low-to-mid 90s deep into games, but he has always been seen as a bit of a one-trick pony who needs to find more consistency with his secondary offerings. With a better breaking ball, he's at least a third starter and maybe even more than that, so he'll be closely monitored with the Mud Hens.

Rudy Owens, LHP, Pirates
While the Pirates wait for exceedingly young but potential studs like Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, and Luis Heredia to develop, Owens is the best pitching prospect they have who could provide help in 2011. After leading the Eastern League in ERA last year, Owens will take his finesse-based game to Triple-A this year. While he doesn't throw hard, he has the accuracy of a laser-guided system and knows how to change speeds and batter's eye levels to keep hitters off balance. He's hardly the answer to all of Pittsburgh's problems, but he could be a solid, dependable starter once they're good.

Michael Pineda, RHP, Mariners
If anything, it's just a service-time issue that's keeping Pineda in the minors to begin the year. He certainly needs some development, but even the right-now version is a better option than some of what Seattle plans to throw out there. Pineda has the potential to slide into the second slot behind Felix Hernandez, with plus-plus velocity and control on a mid-to-upper 90s fastball that he can cut and sink. Like many prospects, he just needs a small amount of improvement on his secondary offerings (he'll flash a plus slider and has some feel on a changeup), but desperation in Seattle could have him refining those pitches in the big leagues.

Alex White, RHP, Indians
This year, the Indians will get a good idea of just how much of a future some of their young talent has in the big leagues. The 15th overall pick in the 2009 draft, White pitched well at both High- and Double-A in 2010 and will begin his second full year in the minors at Triple-A, just a hot streak away from Cleveland. He's a difficult pitcher to project, as he has a unique arsenal that relies primarily on a fastball than can get up to 94-95 mph and a downright nasty splitter. The Indians have to work on finding him a usable breaking ball, but he made some progress with a slider that will determine whether he is a starter or reliever in the long term.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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