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August 31, 2006
Position Breakdown: Right-Handed Starters
With nearly one-third of all rosters consisting of right-handed pitchers, I decided to take this list up to 20. As always, to be eligible for the rankings, one must be in the minor leagues currently, so a guy like Matt Garza is not eligible.
The First Ten
1. Philip Hughes, Yankees
2. Homer Bailey, Reds
Really, you are looking at 1a and 1b here. If I ranked them tomorrow I might take Bailey. The next day I might go back to Hughes. The two are remarkably similar. Bailey was born about 50 days earlier than Hughes and both were 2004 first round picks out of high school. They both have classic power-pitcher builds, with Bailey at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds and Hughes a little bigger at 6-foot-5, 220. Both have electric stuff; while Bailey has a little more juice, Hughes has better command. Both began the year in the Florida State League, both dominated there, and both have had no problems adjusting to Double-A, holding opposing batters to a sub-.200 average while striking out more than a batter per inning. Both have made 25 starts, and their total numbers are nearly mirror images. Bailey has faced 560 batters, Hughes 542. Bailey has given up 96 hits, 46 walks and recorded 156 strikeouts, while Hughes has totals of 90, 34 and 163, respectively. Their immediate futures, however, couldn't be more different. Rumors in Southern Ohio have the Reds calling up Bailey to fill a rotation slot down the stretch as the Reds gun for a playoff slot, while Hughes will enjoy a peaceful offseason and is more than likely beginning next year at Triple-A Columbus. Bailey is expected to be the savior of a Reds rotation in desperate need of an ace, while Hughes will be eased into a star-studded lineup, with only the unique pressures of playing in New York on his shoulders. Flip a coin here folks, but my gut gives Hughes the wafer-thin edge.
3. Nick Adenhart, Angels
Going into the 2004 season, Adenhart was the top high school pitcher in the country. Then his elbow gave out, and Angels scouting director Eddie Bane was smart enough to take him in the 14th round and sign him for somewhere between one half and one third of what he would have cost had he been healthy all year. Now he's healthy and better than ever. The way things are going with Tommy John surgeries these days is a bit of a concern on a different level, and while I realize this is Will Carroll's area, bear with me a bit. What was once a career-threatening surgery is now pretty commonplace and recovery times seem to get shorter every year. In addition, the number of players who come back from the procedure stronger and throwing harder than they ever did is a percentage that continues to grow. Are we that far away from players having Tommy John surgery pre-emptively, or even in an attempt to become a better pitcher? There has to be a tipping point we are approaching where the improvements being made medically flip the risk/reward pendulum upside down, and then we will be having some difficult discussions about ethics.
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
Hochevar was arguably the best pitcher in last year's draft, and the Royals genuinely believed he was the best pitcher in this year's draft, and while we have just nine innings over the last two years to go on performance-wise, we have to respect the scouting reports here. Despite the year away from competition, Hochevar has been surprisingly non-rusty, sitting at 93-95 mph with a sharp curveball that has served as a second out pitch. While we'll get a much better feel for Hochevar in the Arizona Fall League, it's possible that we'll also get to see an earlier test as the Royals are considering a move to Double-A Wichita--where he's slated to begin next season--for the Texas League playoffs.
5. Tim Lincecum, Giants
Lincecum is quickly becoming one of the hardest players to rank in all of minor league baseball. While it's only 26.2 innings, the raw statistics are ridiculous, and the stuff is as well; Lincecum has already touched 100 mph as a pro, and his curveball is among the best in the minors. The only issues here are some control problems in his past and his size--but at what point do we stop caring about the fact that the guy is 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds? He showed a rubber arm in college, never having injury problems despite some ridiculous pitch counts on Fridays and frequent relief appearances on Sundays. He's an aberration, and he's seemingly proven that what is normally a concern shouldn't be in this individual case. Yet, I put him fifth here--on stuff alone, he might deserve a ranking as high as No. 1.
6. Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
No minor league pitcher has seen his stock rise more than Gallardo in 2006. In many ways, he's followed the Bailey/Hughes route--beginning the year in the Florida State League and showing no signs of slowing down following a promotion to Double-A. If anything, he's actually improved, allowing just 48 hits in 74.1 innings. Gallardo's raw stuff is not in the same ballpark as Bailey or Hughes, but he already has three plus pitches: a 90-93 mph fastball that he can spot at will, a slider with two-plane break and a hard changeup that he'll throw at any point in the count. He's a better pitcher right now than many of those ranked above him, but his ceiling is not as high.
7. Mike Pelfrey, Mets
The most well-paid pitcher in the 2005 draft, Pelfrey signed too late to make his debut last year, but he reached the big leagues this season after just 88 pro innings. At 6-foot-7, Pelfrey gets a strong downward plane on a sinking 92-95 mph fastball that has touched 98, and he commands the pitch well when many young and tall pitching prospects struggle to find a consistent release point. For anyone who saw his four big league starts, in which he had a 5.48 ERA and a sub-standard 13/12 K/BB ratio in 21.1 innings, Pelfrey's issues were clear. While the fastball is plus-plus, both his curveball and changeup are no more than average, and he lost confidence in the pitches, learning a difficult lesson about the need for a three-pitch arsenal. He's expected to get another look in September as the Mets put things into cruise control, so we'll see if he's made any adjustments. The secondary pitches don't have to be great, but he will need them to keep hitters on their toes.
8. Adam Miller, Indians
Patience is a virtue. I detailed Miller's background story in Monday's Ten-Pack, and he's been fantastic in the second half of the season. While he's lost just a tick on his fastball, he's still touching 98 mph at times. Steps forward in both his control and secondary pitches more than make up for the lack of velocity and actually improve his future profile. Throw in a groundball-to-flyball ratio of nearly 2-to-1 and an 0.92 ERA in his last nine Double-A starts, and Miller has regained his status as a potential impact starter.
9. Eric Hurley, Rangers
Hurley did something none of three pitchers from the much-ballyhooed DVD trio was able to accomplish--mastering Double-A on the first attempt. In six starts at Frisco, Hurley has a 1.95 ERA and has allowed just 21 hits in 37 innings, but he'll miss his final two starts of the year with a ribcage injury. Still a month away from his 21st birthday, Hurley is long and lean with a fastball that already sits in the 93-95 mph range. While his slider has made great strides this year, Hurley still rarely throws the changeup he's been working on in game situations. With four power arms in the system (DVD and Hurley), one of these guys has to work out, right? The Rangers and their 4.67 team ERA can only hope so.
10. Jeff Niemann, Devil Rays
While he didn't make his season debut until June, Niemann has taken the hill every five days for 13 starts, his first healthy stretch as a pro since being taking fourth overall in 2004. His stuff is very good, as are his stats, but there are a number of concerns here, beginning with a history of elbow and shoulder problems. While Niemann is huge at 6-foot-9, it's not a lanky, fluid height like Pelfrey or Andrew Miller have. At 260 pounds, Niemann is chunky, clunky and unathletic, leading to more concerns about the health history. He has a chance to be an impact starter, but there are too many negatives to rank him higher.
The Next Ten
11. Humberto Sanchez, Tigers
In June, Sanchez would have ranked higher, but he's only pitched only once since mid-July because of elbow problems. He's gotten multiple opinions on it and the good news is that even Dr. Lewis Yocum says that it's just chronic inflammation, and not a damaged joint. If he begins 2007 perfectly healthy, he could be in the Tiger rotation by mid-season.
12. Kevin Slowey, Twins
It's ridiculous to compare any pitcher to Greg Maddux. Slowey is that kind of pitcher in that he doesn't light up the radar guns or feature a breaking ball that seemingly defies the laws of physics, but his ability to throw any of his pitches exactly where he wants them makes him a nightmare to opposing hitters. You really want to question Minnesota's ability to develop pitchers?
13. Will Inman, Brewers
Inman's raw numbers, including a 1.40 ERA in 103 innings line up with anybody's, but some elbow problems, a short, stocky build and a fastball that sits at 90-93 mph leaves many wondering if it will work at the upper levels with the same consistency.
14. Philip Humber, Mets
Another one of those pitchers who had Tommy John surgery, returned quicker than expected and has looked as good as he ever did, if not better. Pitching very well in Double-A, both he and Pelfrey will compete for Opening Day rotation slots in 2007.
15. Brandon Erbe, Orioles
As young as most 2006 draftees, the 2005 third-round pick has been dominant at times thanks to a fastball that touches 98 mph, but his secondary pitches are a work in progress, and he's clearly run out of gas in the second half.
16. Carlos Carrasco, Phillies
Possibly the least well-known name on the list, The Venezuelan has dominated the Sally League with a low-90s fastball and plus-plus changeup--an extremely rare commodity to find in a teenager.
17. Hayden Penn, Orioles
After blowing up in eight big league starts last year, Penn will get a chance to redeem himself in September as he's finally all the way back after missing two months following an emergency appendectomy.
18. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox
Yes, he's older than Michael Bowden, but he's also just a wee bit better--showing three plus pitches at times with a 92-94 mph fastball, good slider, and swing-and-miss changeup.
19. Deolis Guerra, Mets
His ratios aren't great, but this is a guy born in 1989 (feel old yet?) who is already in the Florida State League and holding his own. Sitting at 89-91 mph with plenty of projection thanks to a 6-foot-5, 200 pound frame, Guerra's changeup is already a solid offering and his curveball has made great strides. The Mets need to slow down his development, but his ceiling is sky high.
20. Wade Davis, Devil Rays
His season has been marred by inconsistency in velocity, command and results, but he's hit 97 mph at times with a breaking ball that has been inconsistent but plus at times. He's pitched well down the stretch, but one gets the feeling that next year in the California League will either be a breakout campaign or a complete nightmare when he visits the hitting-friendly environments of the Southern division.