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April 1, 2009

Future Shock

Impact Arms on the Way

by Kevin Goldstein

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Two words that excite both fans and team officials the most are "young pitching." It can be the the difference between the postseason and playing golf in October, it can be the key to a championship, and for teams not quite there yet it can be an exciting glimpse into what is hopefully a more successful future. In a game where changes are a given constant, this season is lining up to be no different than others when it comes to a preponderance of young arms, but some spring training injuries, as well as the potential for a very unique top pick in this year's draft, could lead to more new players showing up soon in box scores. Let's looks at some of the most important names, and the situations that are giving them (or delaying) their 2009 big-league opportunities.

Opportunity Knocks... Ahead Of Schedule

One of the bigger stories this spring has been the rash of injuries to starting pitchers, which is leading to a number of prospects getting longer-than-expected looks this spring, with many of them either pitching their way onto rosters, or being forced into big-league roles well ahead of schedule.

Poster Boy: Rick Porcello, Tigers. While it hasn't been made official yet, he remains the talk of Tigers camp after another stellar outing last Wednesday. Jeremy Bonderman's arm and Dontrelle Willis' head have created openings, and all signs point to the 2007 first-round pick beginning the year in the big-league rotation as a 20-year-old. He's incredibly difficult to project; the fact that he led the Florida State League with a 2.66 ERA in his full-season debut is remarkable, but made even more so by the fact that the Tigers limited Porcello's arsenal much of the season by forcing him to work more on throwing strikes and working efficiently as opposed to just blowing hitters away. The overall goal was to transform the best arm in the 2007 draft from a thrower into a pitcher, but the question remains whether 24 starts at High-A is enough of a lesson for him to be ready. His talent is unmistakable, his readiness is debatable.

Other Candidates

  • Nick Adenhart, Angels: Injuries to John Lackey and Ervin Santana provide him with a second chance, and those who saw him this spring think that he may have overcome his command issues.
  • Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, Athletics: A lefty (Anderson) and righty (Cahill) who both possess control, pitchability, and deep arsenals well beyond their years, the future of the A's rotation might be called upon now after Justin Duchscherer's surgery and Gio Gonzalez' sore shoulder.
  • Ricky Romero, Blue Jays: With Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum both still recovering from surgery, a wide-open competition for the back end of the rotation had one surprise winner in Romero, the first pitcher selected in the 2005 draft, and someone who has not yet fulfilled the resultant expectations. Scouts still project him as a fourth starter, which is exactly the role he earned this spring.
  • Jordan Zimmerman, Nationals: A lack of talent, not injuries, have created a job for him in the rotation. He seemingly gets better with every outing, and this spring he sat at 93-95 mph with his fastball while refining his slider into a true wipeout pitch. It might not be saying a lot, but he could be the Nationals' best pitcher right now.

Established Arms Now Being Counted On

These are the hurlers being counted on to play major roles in their respective rotations-they don't need to earn jobs, as they came into camp with those already set in stone, but now the pressure is on to perform.

Poster Boy: Joba Chamberlain, Yankees. No more messing around with roles, Chamberlain is a part of the Yankee rotation, period. While there are some concerns about velocity fluctuations this spring, it's foolish to expect him to sit in the upper 90s as a starter when he's pacing himself for six innings or more, as opposed to short relief outings. The bigger concern should be his long-term stamina; his breakout 2007 season is the only year in the last three in which he's remained healthy for a full year, as last year's expected breakout was hampered by shoulder problems, while general arm soreness held him back in 2006 during his final year at Nebraska. He's never thrown more than 120 innings in a season, and the Yankees will use him as their fifth starter this year, occasionally skipping him to manage his workload.

Other Candidates

  • Yovani Gallardo, Brewers: With Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia both gone, Gallardo becomes the Brewers' ace at the tender age of 23. They really have no choice, and he certainly looked ready to make an impact last year before his freakish knee injury.
  • Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: While still showing occasional control issues and some inconsistency with his breaking ball, Kershaw's stuff ranks with that of Rays stud David Price, and now that rookie-season adjustments are out of the way, he could be poised for a breakout.
  • Max Scherzer, Diamondbacks: Despite occasionally battling shoulder soreness this spring, Scherzer's pure stuff ranks with anyone else's in the Arizona rotation, but like Chamberlain, he's also never pitched more than 120 innings in a season and will be the team's fifth starter in order to keep his innings count down.

Second-Half Studs

Be they not quite ready or simply left outside with no room on the big-league roster, for every team looking to add an arm via a deadline-day deal, there is another one with a top-rated prospect who needs just a little more seasoning before arriving at some point around the All-Star break with hopes of being ready for a larger role in 2010.

Poster Boy: Tommy Hanson, Braves. Hanson had one of the most statistically impressive seasons in the minors last year, but it was his historic Arizona Fall League performance in which he had a 0.63 ERA while striking out 49 in 28 2/3 IP against some of the top prospects in baseball that really had scouts reeling, with one making John Smoltz comparisons. The Braves have a long-term plan which involves 100-120 big-league innings following a late June or early July call-up.

Other Candidates

  • Carlos Carrasco, Phillies: The top prospect in their system has a changeup that seems to defy the laws of physics. He really just needs slight refinements at Triple-A, to work on improving his breaking ball and getting away from a tendency to turn big innings into even bigger ones, but he could keep the Phillies from being too busy at the end of July on the pitching front while providing an in-house upgrade over recently announced fifth-starter Chan Ho Park.
  • Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland, Rangers: 'Rangers' and 'pitching' are two terms that rarely go together, at least in any sort of positive way, but that's about to change; no organization can claim as many legitimate pitching prospects as Texas, starting with Feliz and Holland, who both went from Low-A to the verge of the big leagues last year. While both are lined up to make greater impacts in 2010, they should both reach the majors at some point during the season. Feliz has more upside, but Holland is no slouch, and will likely be the first of the pair to get a look.

Floating In Prospect Limbo

These were once-ballyhooed prospects, and many of them have already shined on the big stage, with World Series starts and big-league no-hitters to their credit. But things have gone south, and though the talent is still there, can the same be said of the opportunity?

Poster Boy: Clay Buchholz, Red Sox. Looking primed for a breakout last year following 2007's no-hitter, Buchholz entered the season as the top prospect in baseball, but mechanical tweaks sapped both his stuff and his confidence. He was arguably the best pitcher in Boston's camp this spring, with one scout saying, "the stuff and the swagger are back," following a recent performance. He's an underdog to take the fifth-starter job away from Brad Penny, but he'll be the first guy at Triple-A to get the call when the need arises.

Other Candidates

  • Homer Bailey, Reds: He's spent the last two years befuddling both scouts and the Reds with his inconsistency, but changes to his delivery this spring have him looking once again like one of the better pitching prospects in the game, with a more over-the-top delivery adding more tilt to his mid-90s fastball and power breaker. Micah Owings has likely beat him out for the final rotation slot, but like Buchholz he may not be biding his time in Triple-A for long.
  • Franklin Morales, Rockies: One of the top raw arms in the game, Morales was one of those late-season finds in 2007, as he helped lead Colorado to an improbable late-season run and World Series appearance. Then came a bit of a lost year, as he tried to pitch through a variety of minor bumps and bruises. While he's still not missing many bats, the scouting reports are solid, and he's earned another shot in the rotation.

Special Circumstances

Sure He's Ready, But We've Got Our Reasons: David Price, Rays. Debate rages as to the soundness of the decision, but the fact remains that Price will begin the year at Triple-A. Depending on when he finally gets the call, he's either a Rookie of the Year candidate or the most important player in the second half of the season.

Yes, He Really Is That Good: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (probably). While he's busy these days striking out Cougars and Horned Frogs, scouts are universal in the belief that Strasburg is a historic talent that a team can slot straight into a big-league rotation. The Nationals will need to take him first overall, and their willingness to bring him up immediately could lead to a quick signing. He won't have any pennant-race impact, but he might just be the key to some fantasy league titles.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

21 comments have been left for this article.

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