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June 12, 2002
Touring the Minors: Goin' Through Mobile
If there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, why can't we keep them off our lists?
Fourteen of Baseball Prospectus's Top 40 Prospects are pitchers. Of the 15 players receiving honorable mention, six are pitchers. John Sickels has 22 pitchers listed in his top 50, with three more who would make it if they prove to be healthy. In its Prospect Handbook, Baseball America has four Top 50 lists, and each list has at least 19 pitchers.
If it's generally true that there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, it's axiomatic that there is no such thing as a high school pitching prospect. Paul Covert recently demonstrated this point, and Bill James has famously inveighed against wasting high draft picks on high-school pitchers, yet teams continue to draft them and draft them high, with eight of them going in the first round of the 2001 amateur draft.
Of course, some teams have runs of success. The Cubs and White Sox have been getting all the press the past two years, John Sickels wrote in this year's Minor League Scouting Notebook that the Mariners "have enough minor league pitching talent to stock two farm systems." The Astros are right there with them, as well, but the best pitching talent in the minors belongs to the San Diego Padres. The Padres have so much good young talent that they could lose half their pitching prospects and still have enough to front a championship rotation as soon as 2004.
The Padres were BP's consensus pick to finish second in the National League West this year, with six of 15 contributors predicting them for first place. As Joe Sheehan noted a couple of weeks ago, though, the Padres' hopes for the postseason are now dead. Injuries have undone the Padres season, and the hot play of the rest of the division foretells another season under 80 wins. They're on pace to win just 71 games.
Even if the Padres finish in last place it won't be a lost year. Bad organizations waste seasons like this; good ones use them to prepare for next year. Chris Kahrl and I have written previously about the Padres' hitting prospects and organizational savvy. The typical Padre hitter fields his position like a one-armed paperhanger with crabs, but he can put runs on the board, and there's enough talent in the organization to lead the NL in scoring before long. Yes, they are having trouble scoring runs this year, but last year they were sixth in the National League, and only Texas scored more road runs.
Now the pitchers are coming to join them. First, it was Adam Eaton and Brian Tollberg. Last year it was Brian Lawrence. Now, it's Dennis Tankersley, the first of several highly-regarded prospects the Padres will call to the majors over the next couple of years.
Tankersley began the 2001 season at Lake Elsinore, where he overmatched the Cal League before being promoted after just eight starts. He manhandled the Southern League too. He didn't slow down until his elbow wore out at Triple-A. In his three starts for Portland before being shut down, his ratios were decent in spite of a grisly ERA. His line for the year shows why he's high on prospect lists:
Year Level Affiliate IP H BB SO HR ERA 2001 High A Lake Elsinore 52.1 29 12 68 1 0.52 2001 Double-A Mobile 69.2 44 24 89 6 2.07 2001 Triple-A Portland 14.1 16 8 16 2 6.91
With his elbow healthy, he started this season at Mobile. His walk and hit rates were higher than last year, but the Padres, facing some injury problems, saw enough to call him up after just seven starts at Mobile:
The Padres' rotation is staffed with finesse pitchers, while Tankersley throws two mid-90s fastballs and a major-league slider. Like the other Padre pitchers, he works ahead in the count. Unlike the other Padre pitchers, he's no longer a Padre, having been sent back to Mobile after posting a 7.75 ERA in seven starts and failing to get into the fifth inning in any of his last three outings.
Tankersley isn't the only promising Padre pitcher to have gone through Lake Elsinore last year. Jake Peavy, who ranked one slot behind Tankersley as BP's #12 prospect, was in that rotation. So were Eric Cyr, Ben Howard, and Oliver Perez. They led a staff that overwhelmed the Cal League, leading it in ERA, strikeout-to-walk ratio, strikeouts, fewest walks, and fewest homers allowed. They were reunited this year at Mobile. The BayBears are third in the Southern League in ERA and lead the circuit in strikeouts and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Peavy won't be long for the minors, and he might be ahead of Ben Howard for the next call-up, even though Howard has already been promoted to San Diego once this year. Everyone is impressed with his ability to spot every pitch in his repertoire wherever he wants to put it. He's more of a finesse pitcher than Tankersley, but in addition to a slider and change-up, Peavy has a fastball that gets into the low 90s, good enough to have a strikeout rate last year second only to Josh Beckett. Here's how his last two years shape up:
Year Level Affiliate IP H BB SO HR ERA 2001 High A Lake Elsinore 105.1 76 33 144 6 2.90 2001 Double-A Mobile 28.0 19 12 44 3 3.08 2002 Double-A Mobile 72.1 58 29 84 3 2.74
Like Peavy, Howard was signed out of high school. His professional career started memorably, as he led his league in walks in each of his first four seasons.
Last year he had a transformation more impressive than Nick Neugebauer's. The Padres changed Howard's arm slot, and just like that he found his control. In 2000, his BB/9 rate was 9.32; last year at Lake Elsinore he cut that to 2.83. He has a 95-mph fastball that he has gotten up to 99, and he backs it up with a good, hard slider. Howard strikes out more than a batter per inning, and like the rest of the Padres' pitching prospects, he doesn't give up a lot of home runs.
Howard's opportunities will be conditioned on his maintaining his control. When he moved from high A to Double-A, his K/BB ratio went up, though not dangerously, and it has stayed at that same level this year. His 63 combined innings at Mobile were good enough to justify a call-up. He got drilled in his 11 major-league innings, and his ratios are way off since being demoted to Portland, so we might not see much of him until next year.
Year Level Affiliate IP H BB SO HR ERA 2001 High A Lake Elsinore 101.2 86 32 107 4 2.83 2001 Double-A Mobile 30.0 17 15 29 3 2.40 2002 Double-A Mobile 33.0 26 16 30 2 2.18 2002 NL San Diego 10.2 13 14 10 4 9.28 2002 Triple-A Portland 25.0 23 9 12 5 5.04
You wouldn't trust Eric Cyr with your cat, but you want him in your organization. Along with Tankersley, Peavy, and Howard, Cyr will give the major-league rotation a makeover, from finesse to power. There were times last season when he was unhittable, and while his off-speed stuff needs to catch up to his fastball before he'll make it to San Diego, he has done enough to be mentioned along with his rotation mates from Lake Elsinore. Heck, his 2001 performance is enough to get him mentioned with Mark Prior. Tankersley got the publicity, but Cyr was the star of the staff.
Year Level Affiliate IP H BB SO HR ERA 2001 High A Lake Elsinore 100.2 68 24 131 1 1.61 2002 Double-A Mobile 67.2 55 32 59 6 3.06
We know Tankersley, Peavy, Howard, and Cyr. But the new name is Oliver Perez, and he's the one we'll all be talking about next February. We didn't include him in this year's book.Baseball America ranks him as the #10 prospect in the organization, behind the other four and Mark Phillips. Sickels only grades him at a C+, but expect that grade to improve, and expect him to make the book next year.
Perez throws a slider and a 94-mph fastball. His curve and change-up are nearly major-league ready. He has the makeup to complement his stuff: he moves the ball around the zone, changes speeds, works fast, and isn't afraid to challenge hitters. His pickoff move is as good as Mark Buerhle's. Signed out of Mexico three years ago, this is exactly the kind of player the Padres would love to have in their new park every fifth game. In 101 2/3 combined innings at high A, Perez had 128 strikeouts, a 2.30 ERA, and four home runs, 49 walks, and 81 hits allowed. He's doing as well at Mobile, where in his last start he threw seven two-hit innings, striking out 12.
His numbers for last year and this year:
Year Level Affiliate IP H BB SO HR ERA 2001 A Ft. Wayne 101.1 84 43 98 9 3.46 2001 High A Lake Elsinore 53.0 45 25 62 4 2.72 2002 High A Lake Elsinore 48.2 36 24 66 0 1.85 2002 Double-A Mobile 23.0 11 16 34 3 1.17
Those are the big five, but the Padres also have another raft of prospects at A ball. Mark Phillips, a high schooler drafted in the first round, is in Jim Callis's top 50. Other Padres worth noting are Mike Nicolas, Justin Germano, and, signed out of a Japanese high school, Nobuaki Yoshida. This group isn't advancing as quickly as last year's Lake Elsinore rotation, but within two years they should be replenishing the upper levels after the others have reached San Diego. The last member of the 2001 Lake Elsinore staff, Chris Rojas, should also get a shot. In another organization—the Brewers, for example—he would be taken more seriously, as would his Mobile teammate Matt Hampton, and Junior Herndon, who threw a no-hitter earlier this year in Triple-A. But this isn't the Brewers, or the Cubs for that matter.
The Padres already have decent major-league pitching, with some of the best prospects in the game coming soon, and they have several solid arms in the lower minors. There might not be such a thing as a pitching prospect, but the Padres' talent is a hell of a demurrer. If you're going to pay attention to young pitchers, the Padres are the team to watch.