September 6, 2016
The Situation: It’s September, and the Athletics’ rotation looks like Ivan Drago in the fourteenth round, so they will hand the ball to one of their top pitching prospects for what will likely be several turns in the rotation.
The Background: Cotton is a former 20th-round selection by the Dodgers out of the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2012, and he’ll be the second man from his native land to toe a big-league rubber. He showed some promise in a handful of appearances in the Pioneer League after signing, and posted solid numbers again to start his full-season debut in 2013. The Dodgers saw fast-track potential and jumped him into the Double-A bullpen, but he struggled with the assignment and returned to High-A, where he spent all of 2014 and piled up the second-most strikeouts in the California League. After injury forced a late start to his 2015 campaign, he went on to post an excellent season largely at Double-A, before continuing to pitch effectively in the rough-and-tumble PCL. He was traded to the Athletics as part of the return package for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick in July.
The Scouting Report: Cotton has progressed to the majors at a slow-and-steady pace. The 24-year-old fights standard stigmas as an undersized right-hander without great feel for a breaking ball, but he has consistently made it work on the back of a solid top-two, and some recent development with a work-around third pitch gives rise to optimism that he can stick as a starter.
He’s well-built, with broad shoulders, a thick chest, and a sturdy base that can hold some innings. The delivery begins with a loose progression through his early rock and takeaway check points, and, coupled with some rigidity in his leg kick, there are some early timing inconsistencies in the delivery that can sidetrack his command when he gets unbalanced. He’s fairly closed into a mild back-side collapse, with an uphill arm path to a higher three-quarters slot. The higher angle helps offset some of his not-there inches, and he employs a fairly short, closed stride that helps him come up and over to create a later pickup for hitters.
His fastball will sit in the 92-94 range with a couple miles-an-hour in the tank, and it’s a north-south four-seamer that can get on hitters quickly. It doesn’t have a ton of horizontal movement, but it does feature above-average “rise” to stay on plane longer and get above barrels. It plays up in the zone thanks to the deception and velocity, though his command of the pitch will wander, and the frequency with which he attacks above the belt leaves him vulnerable to the long ball.
He pairs the fastball with a truly devastating changeup, which he sells with excellent arm speed. The pitch has excellent plane from his arm slot, and he generates extreme tumble and velocity separation, often running 15-plus mile-an-hour differentials. It’s an easy plus pitch, and when he has feel for it and keeps it down consistently it’ll run double-plus.
He has struggled mightily to spin the ball in my looks across two years, showing a soft curveball that humps and lacks bite to finish at the bottom of the zone. He’s tried to solve that problem by developing a cutter as his primary third pitch, and it has shown promise as an effective east-west offering with some utility. That pitch’s evolution will have a lot to do with his ultimate role, and the fastball command will need to gain another measure of consistency if he’s going to stay in a starting rotation long-term. There’s a better chance of that happening now than it looked like there would be a year ago, however, and that improvement bodes well for Oakland.
Immediate Big League Future: A’s skipper Bob Melvin has suggested that both Cotton and fellow call-up Raul Alcantara will have the opportunity to remain in the rotation for the rest of the season, which would give the rookie a fairly extended four- or five-start audition heading into the off-season. The big-league audition will give the organization a chance to status-update on of their top young arms, as he’ll likely be in the mix for rotation consideration next spring. —Wilson Karaman
Fantasy Take: The U.S. Virgin Islands native was a prominent fixture in Carson Cistulli’s “Fringe Five” prospect columns long before he was shipped from Los Angeles to Oakland as one of the ancillary pieces in a package for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick at the trade deadline. After stringing together a stellar six-start stretch (2.82 ERA with 36 strikeouts and just seven walks in 38 1/3 innings) over the last month at Triple-A Nashville, he’s forced his way into the Athletics injury depleted rotation.
On the season, Cotton owns a robust 4.31 ERA with 155 strikeouts and 39 walks over 135 2/3 innings in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League this season. While his numbers don’t exactly leap off the electronic pages, PCL teams are averaging nearly five runs (4.78) per game this season and his ERA represents the 17th-lowest mark of any qualified starter in that league. Additionally, he owns the fourth-highest strikeout rate (10.3 K/9) of any Triple-A starter with at least 75 innings this season.
The 24-year-old’s excellent athleticism, in tandem with a superb four-pitch mix, and solid control, give him a chance to succeed at the highest level despite his size. If Cotton can come anywhere close to replicating his gaudy minor-league strikeout rates, he becomes an appetizing fantasy option in deeper mixed leagues over the final month of the season and going forward. – George Bissell
Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @vocaljavelins