April 1, 2009
Impact Arms on the Way
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.
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.
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
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.
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 .