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August 17, 2006

Future Shock

Position Breakdown: Left-Handed Starters

by Kevin Goldstein

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Left-handed pitchers are always at a premium, and the reasons are obvious. While studies vary, it's generally accepted that 10-15% of the population is left-handed, yet in any one year 25-30% of the pitching population is southpaw. This means lefthanders have more than twice the chance to make it to the big leagues as a pitcher than righties, so parents: start tying that right hand behind your child's back as soon as possible. This also explains why it's hard to find lefthanders with the same stuff as the top righthanders, as we are selecting more from a much smaller pool. So in summary, righthanders are generally better pitchers than lefthanders, but a good lefty is more valuable. OK, enough of that, onto the sinistras.

1. Scott Elbert, Dodgers

Age: 21.0 H/9: 5.88 BB/9: 4.86 K/9: 11.03

This is another one of those mid-to-late first-round picks that allows Logan White's status as a scouting legend to grow. In 2003, he got Chad Billingsley with the 24th pick, and the next year, he drafted Elbert with the 17th overall selection. Elbert tore through the Florida State League this year in the first half of the season, and was almost untouchable in his last seven games:

 IP    H  R  BB  SO   ERA
-------------------------
30.2  14  3  16  44  0.88

Now that's how you get to Double-A before your 21st birthday. Not that the Southern League has been much more of a challenge, as opposing hitters are batting .176 off Elbert, who has also registered 55 strikeouts in 40.1 innings. Elbert entered the year with very good stuff, but it's gotten better all around this season. His fastball now consistently sits at 90-93 and touches 95 mph, while he has also shown the ability to maintain his velocity deep into games. His slider is a plus pitch if you are only measuring break, but as you can see by the walk rate, he has trouble throwing it for strikes at times. He's the rare tue power lefty, he's coming very quickly and he could be on the Chad Billingsley development path, landing in the majors by mid-2007 if his current run of success continues.

2. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

Age: 18.4 H/9: 7.00 BB/9: 1.25 K/9: 13.00

Kershaw didn't begin the season as the top high school talent in the draft, but he ended it as that, and nearly unanimously. It was considered nearly a lock that Detroit would take him at number six overall, but the Andrew Miller shenanigans dropped him one slot to the Dodgers, who where hoping that he'd fall to them. He's been nothing short of outstanding in his pro debut, with a 52/5 K/BB ratio in 36 innings. If anything Kershaw has better stuff and command than Elbert. As a pro, he's been sitting at 92-94 mph, and can dial it up to 96 when he needs it. His curve ball is plus as well--a big bender thrown in the low 70s that has made Gulf Coast League hitters look downright silly. Kershaw has the higher ceiling, but Elbert's success at more advanced levels gives him the edge for now--but it's very close.

3. Andrew Miller, Tigers

Age: 21.3 H/9: NA BB/9: NA K/9: NA

Considered by many to be the top player in the 2006 draft, Miller deliberately attempted to price himself out of the market, but Detroit called his bluff at number six and signed him to what is now commonly referred to as a "Mike Pelfrey deal," which in Miller's case consists of a $3.55 million bonus, a major league deal that guarantees him $5.4 million and a total package with incentives that is north of $7 million. It's a very similar deal to what number one overall pick Luke Hochevar received from the Royals, and it guarantees a September callup, though it is unlikely that Miller will pitch anything more than a few garbage innings in the season's final month, as it's mid-August and he has yet to make his pro debut at High Class A Lakeland. Miller is a scout's dream. A 6-foot-7 lefthander with a mid-90s fastball and wicked slider, Miller has the ability to dominate, but didn't always do so in college, at times struggling with command due to somewhat wild mechanics that are difficult for him to repeat. Some are talking about Miller making the playoff roster as a left-handed bullpen arm, but that seems to be a little too optimistic. Getting some innings logged in the Arizona Fall League and beginning next year in the Lakeland rotation makes more sense.

4. Donald Veal, Cubs

Age: 21.9 H/9: 5.47 BB/9: 4.78 K/9: 9.77

While the Cubs used their first round pick in 2005 to select the best high school lefty available in Mark Pawelek (below), 48 picks later they selected Veal, who has developed (at least for now) into the better prospect. Veal is a classic power pitcher--at 6-foot-4 and roughly 225 pounds and he unleashes 92-94 mph fastballs with sink and run and compliments the pitch with a plus changeup that can make hitters look foolish. He's still refining his slurvy breaking ball, and his control is spotty, but he's allowed so few hits that the walks have rarely hurt him in games. Beyond his raw numbers, Veal's consistency also stands out, as in 11 Florida State League starts, he's allowed one or zero runs eight times, and never more than three runs. Size, great numbers, plenty of room for improvement--what's not to like?

5. John Danks, Rangers

Age: 21.4 H/9: 9.10 BB/9: 3.03 K/9: 10.13

I think we ignore the 4.51 ERA for now. Danks is younger than Veal, in Triple-A and his ratios are very good. He has good velocity, good command and an outstanding curve ball, but being rushed through the system hasn't helped his stats, and now he's very close to the majors, but probably still a year away from being ready. Danks' biggest weakness is a tendency to work up in the zone, and when he misses, he gets hammered--as evidenced by giving up 21 home runs in 121.2 innings. So in many ways he's like Veal, where he's already good now, and should get better.

6. Franklin Morales, Rockies

Age: 21.3 H/9: 7.75 BB/9: 5.26 K/9: 9.97

Morales is a bit of an x-factor, as his pure stuff grades higher than many ranked ahead of him, yet his issues are also larger. Morales can absolutely bring it--sitting in the mid-90s and touching 98 mph in recent starts--but with 76 walks and 20 wild pitches, anyone can see that throwing strikes is a bit of an issue. His secondary pitches are effective, but he's still learning that a strike thrown at 93 mph with good movement is more effective than a ball in the dirt thrown at 98. If he can harness his stuff, he can be an upper-level starter, with late-inning relief work sitting in the shadows as the backup plan. I'd love to say we'll see how he does once he gets out of the California League, but Double-A Tulsa is next, so things don't get any easier.

7. Jacob McGee, Devil Rays

Age: 20.0 H/9: 7.14 BB/9: 4.36 K/9: 11.21

McGee is one of the reasons we use the word 'projection' when talking about teenage pitchers. Since being drafted in the fifth round two years ago, McGee has filled out, gained considerable velocity, honed his slider, and graduated from thrower to pitcher. Sitting consistently at 92-94 mph, McGee has six double-digit strikeout games and leads the Midwest League with 157 whiffs on the season. When one thinks about the Tampa Bay system, they think about bats, but with Jeff Niemann in Double-A and a rotation in the California League next year that will feature McGee and Wade Davis, there's some pitching coming as well.

8. Troy Patton, Astros

Age: 21.0 H/9: 8.29 BB/9: 3.30 K/9: 8.88

Patton got off to a slow start this year at High Class A Salem, but he earned a promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi after putting up a 1.90 ERA in his last nine starts. A ninth-round pick who received second-round money to sign, Patton is a bit undersized but his fastball is plus and his curveball grades out even better. His pitches lack a lot of movement and he's struggled a bit in the Texas League because his changeup is still very much a work in progress. After moving very quickly through the system, Houston might slow down his development somewhat as what has worked for him very well at the lower levels will need to be adjusted a bit to work at the higher levels.

9. Gio Gonzalez, Phillies

Age: 20.9 H/9: 7.77 BB/9: 4.57 K/9: 9.75

Gonzalez was the biggest prospect to come to Philadelphia in the Jim Thome trade, and while his season has been highly inconsistent, 20-year-olds with more than a strikeout per inning in Double-A don't exactly grow on trees. Like Patton, Gonzales uses his plus fastball to set up an even better curve, and while he's even smaller than Patton, he has a bit more velocity. Gonzalez's struggles--he had a 6.96 ERA in 10 June/July starts--revolved around command and a tendency to give up home runs, as when he misses, he misses up. If he's the pitcher he was in April and May, he ranks much higher than this. If he's the pitcher he's been since, he's possibly off the list. The truth lies somewhere in between.

10. Chuck Lofgren, Indians

Age: 20.6 H/9: 7.10 BB/9: 3.45 K/9: 8.23

After pitching well in his full-season debut last year, Lofgren has had a bit of a breakout performance this season, leading the Carolina League in ERA (2.46) and wins (15), while currently tied for second in strikeouts (117). Lofgren has pure power stuff, beginning with a 91-93 mph fastball that touches 95, a good feel for a changeup and a much-improved curveball that has been the key to Lofgren's success this year. He's a bit of a flyball pitcher and his stats have taken a bit of a dip in August, but he's in unchartered territory when it comes to workload and could simply be running out of gas. Double-A will be a big test for him next year, but all the building blocks for success are in place.

11. Mark Pawelek, Cubs

Age: 20.0 H/9: 7.62 BB/9: 3.70 K/9: 8.06

Call me crazy, but I just thought he'd be better than this. The 2005 first-round pick pitched very well in his pro debut, and it was somewhat of a surprise to see the Cubs have him start the year in extended spring training, although they also had highly-regarded first-round pick Ryan Harvey do the same after his pro debut. So now he's in his second year as a pro, he's yet to pitch in a full-season league, and while he's been dominant at times, he's also been highly inconsistent and hasn't missed bats like many expected. Already in the low-to-mid 90s and expected to gain velocity as his skinny frame fills out, Pawelek shows plus secondary stuff at times, but like his performances, all of his pitches other than the fastball are inconsistent. His ceiling is very high, but there's not enough performance yet to place him higher.

12. Jaime Garcia, Cardinals

Age: 20.1 H/9: 8.79 BB/9: 2.07 K/9: 7.53

The late-round find of the 2005 draft, Garcia was a 22nd-round pick last June, but has already reached High A and was selected to participate in this year's Futures Game. With an 80/18 K/BB ratio in 77.2 Midwest League innings, Garcia got bumped up before his 20th birthday, and he's shown two plus pitches with a 92-94 mph fastball and power curve. Garcia has struggled at times since his promotion, as opposing FSL hitters have tagged him for a .291 average, but bad defense is the partial culprit here, as his groundball/flyball ratio is extreme at more than three to one, and many of those hits will turn into outs with more advanced gloves behind him. Scouts don't see much projection in him, but getting anything out of such a late pick is good--getting a No. 3 or 4 starter is absolutely outstanding.

13. Jonathan Sanchez, Giants

Age: 23.8 H/9: 3.92 BB/9: 3.50 K/9: 11.75

Like Garcia, Sanchez is another late find, going in the 27th round of the 2004 draft out of Ohio Dominican, a small NAIA school. After striking out 166 over 126 innings in his full-season debut, Sanchez was very impressive in spring training and the Giants moved him to the bullpen in Double-A to prepare him for a big league callup. While he pitched pretty well in limited relief work for the Giants, he's back in the rotation at Triple-A and delivered five no-hit innings in his last start. Sanchez pitches primarily off his 92-95 mph fastball, and its movement makes it a plus-plus pitch, but his secondary offerings are spotty and he has no projection. A solid arm who might be better off returning to the bullpen in the end.

14. Travis Wood, Reds

Age: 19.5 H/9: 7.66 BB/9: 3.63 K/9: 9.24

A second-round pick out of an Arkansas high school last year, Wood's pro debut last year bordered on stunning as he struck out 67 in 49 innings while allowing just 28 hits. Wood has two very good pitches in a 91-94 mph fastball and a plus-plus changeup, but he's also a bit on the small side and extremely raw when it comes to his mechanics and the lack of a useable breaking pitch. The progress he makes with his curveball will define his future role, and his development will require patience.

15. Sean West, Marlins

Age: 20.2 H/9: 7.99 BB/9: 2.78 K/9: 7.81

While Wood is raw, West is absolutely tartare. There's no bigger gap on this list between what a player is and a player can be. At 6-foot-8 and roughly 230 pounds, West is an intimidating presence on the mound, and everyone thinks that his velocity, which currently sits at 89-93 mph, has a good chance to jump significantly. Like many young behemoths, he struggles to find consistent mechanics, and while he's flashed the potential for good curveball, it's not there yet. He's the guy where everything needs to click. If it does, he's possibly top five next year.

Honorable Mention:

  • Dana Eveland, Brewers: The big (6-foot-1, 260+ pound) lefty can't get anyone out in the majors, but is rarely touched in Triple-A. Milwaukee just hopes that his mirroring of Ben Hendrickson is temporary.
  • Kasey Kiker, Rangers: Rangers hope they have another Scott Kazmir or Billy Wagner in the well-under six-foot lefty who can bring it in the upper 90s. At this point, he's nowhere near as good as Kazmir was at the same age, but that kind of velocity is hard to ignore.
  • Scott Lewis, Indians: Speaking of hard to ignore, Lewis has been used very conservatively at High Class A Kinston, yet the 1.40 ERA, the WHIP under one and more than one strikeout per inning remain. Very few think he'll be able to maintain this at higher levels, and as he's nearly 23, it's time to find out.
  • Garrett Olson, Orioles: Solid college arm has solid stuff and has put up solid numbers while reaching Double-A and should be solid big leaguer. Solid prospect.
  • Alexander Smit, Twins: The next Flying Dutchman? Probably not, but the import from the Netherlands has gained a ton on his fastball and is thriving in return to rotation.

Next Friday: Righthanded Starting Pitchers.

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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