August 15, 2002
Three Systems, Twelve Good Lefties
Just like their MLB counterparts, minor league systems are bereft of quality left-handed pitching. Each team might have one or two top-notch arms, but finding teams that possess four or more solid left-handed pitchers is a rarity. Here are three teams that can boast of both quality and quantity.
At the time Cliff Lee was acquired in the Bartolo Colon deal with Montreal, he was the top pitcher in the Eastern League. The 23 year-old was hampered early in his career by an inconsistent delivery which led to command problems, but he's done a better job repeating his motion in 2002. He has the standard four pitch arsenal, with an 89-92 MPH fastball, a 71 MPH curveball, an 81 MPH slider, and a 79 MPH change-up. He will use any of his pitches at each point in the count and will throw strikes. He was 9-3 with a 3.58 ERA, a 3.7-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 10.7 K/9, and a .189 opponent batting average for two Eastern League teams, and is 3-1 with a 3.30 ERA in five starts for Triple-A Buffalo.
Billy Traber is another pitcher acquired via trade, coming to Cleveland in the Roberto Alomar deal. He was a former number one pick by the Mets whose debut was delayed by elbow surgery. He is a very polished pitcher who sets up his pitches well and works slowly. He'll work his 85-89 MPH fastball, 78 MPH circle change-up, and 72 MPH curveball with regularity and will offer an 80 MPH splitter for show. The 22 year-old has a slight hesitation to his 7/8 delivery which gives hitters problems in picking up the baseball. He was an outstanding 13-2 with a 2.76 ERA, a 4-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 7.2 K/9, and a .235 opponent batting average for Double-A Akron and is 2-3 with a 3.82 ERA in six starts for Triple-A Buffalo.
Brian Tallet is a tall (6'7") pitcher who has picked up his velocity (89-92 MPH) since turning pro after a successful career at LSU. He has a very nice 80 MPH slider that is murder on left-hand batters and does a fair job at locating his fastball. His new 3/4 delivery is considerably more fluid than his previous mechanics, where he threw across his body. The 25 year-old still needs to sharpen his command (2-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and be more deceptive with his change-up. At Double-A Akron, he was 10-1 with a 3.08 ERA, 6.4 K/9, and a .233 opponent batting average and is 1-1 with a 3.42 ERA in four starts for Triple-A Buffalo. Getting stronger and registering more strikeouts will be key for him.
Alex Herrera is small in stature (5'10"), but has a plus fastball, in the low 90s with late movement. His 80 MPH slider has the potential to be another solid pitch and he does a nice job at working low in the strike zone. The 25 year-old registered nine saves with a 3.38 ERA, a 2.5-1 K/BB ratio, 9.6 K/9, and a .200 opponent batting average at Double-A. He shows plenty of confidence on the mound and projects as a successful situational reliever.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Mark Phillips was out of shape when he reported to spring training, which set him back a month, but is getting better with every outing. He is 8-8 with a 4.60 ERA, 8.9 K/9, and a .221 opponent batting average at Single-A Lake Elsinore. His walk rate (87 walks in 123.1 innings) is his worst enemy, which has caused him to be inefficient, running up high pitch counts and leading to early fatigue. The 20 year-old doesn't have much polish in pitching or fielding his position, but he has dynamic movement to his pitches. His out pitches are a fastball in the low 90s, and a curveball that flutters in in the mid-70s, and he's fine tuning his change. He has a solid pitcher's build, but needs to get more serious about his trade.
Eric Cyr has thrown well when his pitching hasn't been interrupted by injury (elbow and shoulder) and off-field distractions. With an athletic, slender build and a smooth delivery, he gets good movement to his 88-92 MPH fastball and 75 MPH knuckle-curve. His 79 MPH slider and 78 MPH sinking change-up have the potential to be good pitches, but he doesn't disguise them well, making him reluctant to throw them when behind in the count. The 23 year-old shows a lot of poise on the mound and knows how to set up hitters. At Double-A Mobile, he is 4-6 with a 3.24 ERA, a 1.9-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 8.1 K/9, and a .222 opponent batting average. He has just started pitching again, after spending time on the DL.
Mike Bynum is back on the prospect map again, after struggling with a knee injury and his command in 2001. The 24 year-old has one of the better breaking pitches in the minors - a slow slider that breaks extremely hard. His 88-91 MPH fastball is good enough to keep hitters from just sitting on breaking stuff, and Bynum's increasing the use of his change-up. He blistered Double-A hitters, going 4-0 with an insane 0.82 ERA before getting promoted to Triple-A Portland, where he is currently 3-2 with a 3.69 ERA. His overall command (4.3-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio) is outstanding, though he does have trouble with right-handed batters. A relief role will suit him fine if the rotation presents a problem.
Rusty Tucker has simply been dominant all season, saving 22 games with a 1.31 between Single-A Lake Elsinore and Single-A Ft. Wayne. The 22 year-old is not an imposing figure, but has a vicious fastball that reaches the high 90s, complemented by an 80 MPH slider, both thrown from a drop-and-drive delivery. His peripheral numbers back up his ERA, showing a 3.7-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 12.1 K/9, and a .175 opponent batting average. He pitches very aggressively and has such good command of his fastball and resilience that it would be a waste to use him just for situational purposes. The Padres really need to get him to the upper levels to get a better read on his dominance, but he looks to be the real deal.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Francisco Liriano made dramatic improvements to his mechanics and pitched so well in the first half that he represented San Francisco and the Dominican Republic in the Futures Game. The 18 year-old has an extremely live arm, with an explosive 92-96mph fastball that can stand on its own. His 79mph curveball and change-up are not polished pitches, but he'll have time to work on them. He missed a few starts due to elbow soreness, but has been effective, going 3-6 with a 3.49 ERA, a 2.7-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 9.6 K/9, and a .203 opponent batting average. The Giants have had him on a pitch count to protect his arm and will obviously need to fill-out his lanky frame.
Eric Threets, 20, throws harder than any left-hander in organized baseball, reportedly reaching triple-digits with his fastball. The big-bodied pitcher works more comfortably in the 92-97 MPH range and has a nasty 83 MPH slider that needs better command. The Giants changed his delivery upon signing from a sidearm motion to a high 3/4 delivery, resulting a smoother arm action and improved overall command. He was cruising along at Single-A San Jose with a 1.86 ERA and 11.7 K/9 before an elbow injury caused him to take a couple of beatings, lifting his ERA to 7.79. If he can straighten things out and stay injury-free, Threets has an extremely high upside.
Ryan Hannaman is the third Giants' pitcher with an electric fastball. He features a 91-96 MPH fastball, an 82 MPH slider, and a change-up. More athletic than Liriano and Threets, he was extremely raw when San Francisco got him, but has done a better job at repeating his delivery and improving his command. At Class-A Hagerstown, he is 6-6 with a 3.14 ERA, a 2.9-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 9.8 K/9, and a .257 opponent batting average. The 20 year-old will battle hitters relentlessly, but has a tendency to try to overpower everyone, and ends up leaving pitches in the middle of the zone. He needs to improve his secondary pitches and set up hitters more effectively.
Noah Lowry is the perfect complement to the hard throwers, as the Pepperdine product is extremely polished and possesses a repertoire more like Jamie Moyer than Billy Wagner. The 21 year-old gets good movement from his 87-91 MPH fastball, but it is his 74 MPH curveball and his ability to change speeds that keeps hitters off-balance. He has wrestled with shoulder problems for the past two years, possibly stemming from being overworked as a collegian, and he is on a pitch count as well. He is 3-5 with a 3.03 ERA, a 3.2-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 9.5 K/9, and a .200 opponent batting average at Single-A San Jose. Stamina is an issue with him right now, but Lowry could progress rapidly through the system if his shoulder is sound.
Deric McKamey is a minor league analyst for Baseball HQ and Street & Smith's publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.