March 5, 2014
Get to Know
Relief Pitcher Prospects
Nope. I'm not doing it. I'm not dignifying the reliever position with an introduction.
To warrant inclusion here, every pitcher has to a) project to have at least eighth-inning upside, b) project to reach the majors by 2015, and c) project to have a huge impact in either strikeouts or WHIP.
Now, as we know, just about every starter could move to the bullpen, see their stuff play up and, voila, project as a high-leverage reliever! But that would make for a lame primer. Instead, I will cover only prospects who are frequently mentioned as (not necessarily who I personally believe will become) candidates to need a move to the bullpen in short order. Except for Yordano Ventura, because I'm convinced he's a starter.
I will also cover stupid reliever-only prospects, because despite my rugged Internet exterior, deep down, I care about you.
Let's get to it.
SP PROSPECTS WHO COULD MOVE TO THE BULLPEN
Carlos Martinez, Cardinals
Martinez may not deserve to be on this list based on projection alone—he'd probably be an MLB starter for 20 teams right now—but given the plethora of talented young arms in the rotation in St. Louis, he could start his career in the bullpen. You only have to see Martinez' arm action once to fall in love with him, and while Trevor Rosenthal might prevent him from earning saves in St. Louis, he'd be worth owning for the Ks and ERA alone.
Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays
The case with Stroman is simple: People think he'll have to move to the bullpen because he's short and are worried about his body holding up and his stuff playing up for 200-plus innings. While that’s a distinct possibility, Stroman's well-rounded arsenal and plus command give him the repertoire to start, and the Jays should at least let Stroman fail in the rotation before pigeon-holing him as their closer of the future. I don't expect an imminent move to the 'pen.
Alex Meyer, Twins
Whereas Stroman is considered too short to start by many, Meyer is considered too tall to remain in a rotation. It's difficult for Meyer to repeat his delivery, what with his 6-foot-9, 220-pound frame, and his struggles with command further muddle his future as a starter. The good news here is that if Meyer moved to the bullpen, his 80-grade fastball and plus slider would make him a dominant, intimidating reliever in short order. Plus, he'd have a great home ballpark.
Kyle Crick, Giants
All of the strikeouts, but all of the walks, too. Crick may have legit no. 1 starter upside, but he has serious work to do in the mid-minors in terms of refining command to remain in a rotation. If the Giants wisely let Crick continue to stretch out, we might not see him until late-2015 or 2016, but if he does shift to the 'pen, we could see him this year.
Mike Foltynewicz, Astros
Whereas many of the other starters listed above Folty currently have two offerings and are searching for a third, Houston's flame-thrower really only has one pitch right now. Fortunately, that pitch is a fastball that hits triple-digits with frequency and is already an MLB-caliber weapon. Folty has a prototypical starter's body and the Astros have no reason to rush him to the majors, but he's among the most likely names on this list to become a high-strikeout closer by mid-2015.
James Paxton, Mariners
Super unlike other names on this list in that his stuff is better than his command and control. Paxton will start the year in a thin Mariners rotation and have plenty of opportunity to stay there, but many scouts still think his future is as a primary lefty reliever out of a bullpen and possibly a closer in his prime.
Allen Webster, Red Sox
2014 could very well be a defining season for Webster. He's more than athletic enough to start, but he's yet to develop a truly reliable breaking ball, and his command and control both escape him at times. Webster has mid-rotation upside, but we're probably only another half-season away from needing to shift our view of him to more of an elite eighth-inning guy instead.
Lance McCullers, Astros
McCullers stretches the ETA portion of my requirements, but his upside and notoriety warrant his inclusion here. With a big fastball and impressive but inconsistent curveball, McCullers has the arsenal to miss bats. Unfortunately his delivery isn't clean and his command is below average, meaning a move to the 'pen could be in the folds. McCullers is probably going to both walk and strikeout a lot of batters as a major leaguer, but if that's a package that comes with 30-plus saves, it's quite valuable.
C.J. Edwards, Cubs
Edwards is the most exciting arm in a pitching-starved organization, so I get the hype. But he's among the more overrated fantasy prospects headed in 2014, and his overall lack of size—not just his lack of height—make him a long shot to remain in a rotation. The stuff will play in the back of a bullpen, but that would likely lead to undue disappointment for many.
Enny Romero, Rays
In many organizations, Romero would likely be held in the minors to continue his development as a starter. Given the collection of starting talent in Tampa, though, Romero could be ushered to the bullpen, where he could begin to earn holds as soon as he's summoned from the minors.
Jose Ramirez, Yankees
Ramirez may actually be somewhat underrated as a prospect—an incredible feat for a player in the Yankees system—but he faces long odds to remain a starter. Given the dearth of starting talent in the upper minors in New York, the Yankees may choose to keep Ramirez in the rotation for a while longer, but he's a better bet to serve as the Robin to David Robertson's Batman by next season.
Alex Colome, Rays
Colome is an even better bet to move to the bullpen than is Romero, thanks to his injury history. The Rays develop strikeout pitchers with poor command like the Cardinals develop scrappy .300 hitters.
Other: Daniel Corcino – Reds, Jonathan Crawford – Tigers, Rafael De Paula – Yankees, Luke Jackson – Rangers, Ethan Martin – Phillies, Tyler Matzek – Rockies, Trevor May – Twins, Robbie Ray – Tigers, Chris Reed – Dodgers, Felipe Rivero – Nationals, Keyvius Sampson – Padres, Domingo Tapia – Mets, Brandon Workman – Red Sox, Michael Ynoa - Athletics
TRUE RP PROSPECTS
Heath Hembree, Giants
One of the higher-profile reliever prospects in the game over the past two seasons, Hembree should see substantial time in the majors in 2014. His fastball/slider combo should push him to the back of the Giants bullpen in short order, and he'll be worth rostering in deep leagues even if he's not earning saves.
Chris Withrow, Dodgers
Withrow walked a few too many batters in his first taste of MLB action last season, but he also notched 43 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings. Saves will be hard to come by with a loaded bullpen around him, but Withrow is a nice grab late in NL-only or extremely deep mixed leagues thanks to his strikeout and ERA potential.
Donnie Joseph, Royals
Because what the Royals need is more good, young relievers! He faces plenty of competition in this organization, but Joseph can be a team's no. 1 lefty reliever in short order. From a fantasy perspective, he could have Matt Thornton's career.
R.J. Alvarez, Angels
Alvarez put up video game numbers at High-A in his first full professional season in 2013, but he profiles more as a set-up man at the MLB level rather than a shutdown closer. Still, that's nice, right? That's a pretty sweet life.
Chad Bettis, Rockies
It's tough to think of bigger red flags than shoulder soreness and a home park of Coors Field. Bettis is intriguing because of his pre-injury fastball/slider combo, but he's risky even for reliever, which is sort of like being annoying, even for a Craig Goldstein Twitter opinion.
Johnny Hellweg, Brewers
Technically still a starter, but c'mon now. With a deceptively deep collection of pitching talent in or near the majors, the Brewers should just move Hellweg to the bullpen, where the Jon Rauch comparisons would become apt.
Bruce Rondon, Tigers
Rondon throws really, really hard. Like, super hard. And his slider is inconsistent, but quite good when it's on. Unfortunately, Rondon has poor command and control, suffered an arm injury last season and has a body by Milk Duds. Maybe he can be Fat Daniel Bard, but there's a lot of downside here, too.
Arodys Vizcaino, Cubs
With his slender frame and history of arm trouble, many had been calling for Vizcaino to move to the rotation well before Tommy John surgery ended his 2012 season. His fastball/curveball combo will let him dominate if he's on the mound, but from a health standpoint he makes Brandon Morrow look like Mark Buehrle.
Jeurys Familia, Mets
Great arm, but can he stay healthy? Can he throw strikes? These are the uncommon questions that plague Familia.
Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
Not really a prospect and won't be ready until midseason, but technically a prospect. The Cubs are absolutely going to sell Jose Veras at the deadline if he's even been moderately effective, so maybe Fukijawa will get a shot then. Welcome to the exciting world of reliever prospects.
Jake Barrett, Diamondbacks
Barrett has a "frontline setup profile," according to Jason Parks and co., and he should reach the majors soon. He won't be pitching at the very end of a bullpen anytime soon thanks to Addison Reed, but he could be intriguing in NL-only and holds leagues nonetheless.
Ken Giles, Phillies
Giles is starting to earn some press thanks to his impressive fastball and quick ascension through the minors. There are a lot of young, hard-throwing righties in the Phillies bullpen, but Giles could be one of, if not the, best of them by late 2014.
Nick Wittgren, Marlins
A bad team that should be looking to shop it's closer. A young, little-known reliever who should make his MLB debut at some point in 2014. If you're looking for a super sleeper to see saves by the end of 2014, Wittgren is your man. That being said, don't touch him unless you're drafting, like, 800 players.
Others: Dellin Betances – Yankees, Drake Britton – Red Sox, Arquimedes Caminero – Marlins, Wilmer Font – Rangers, Onelki Garcia – Dodgers, David Goforth – Brewers, Nick Maronde – Angels, Mark Montgomery – Yankees, Mike Montgomery – Rays, Josh Osich – Giants, Zach Petrick – Cardinals, Adys Portillo – Padres, Carson Smith - Mariners, Ryne Stanek – Rays, John Stilson – Blue Jays
Ben Carsley is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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