Today we will take a look at a few pitchers who are striking out at least a batter per inning in the International League, and who may make their way onto a big league roster near you this summer.
Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves
Minor lost out to Brandon Beachy for the last spot in the Braves rotation this spring, but now Beachy is on the 15-day DL (and likely out at least three weeks), and Minor has succeeded in the minors. While the Braves called Scott Proctor up to take the roster spot for now, they plan to make another move on Wednesday when Beachy was supposed to start—the move in question could involve Minor.
Minor has given up just nine runs in nearly 40 innings for a Run Average of 2.04. He has punched out 9.8 batters per nine, and walked just 2.9, a continuation of the success he had in Triple-A in 2010 (10.0 K/9, 3.2 BB/9). At this point it doesn't look like he has very much left to learn at the level—he should be prepared for his career as an above-average starter in the bigs right now.
Of course, the Braves need room for him to be that guy, and the only reason there is any at the moment is due to Beachy going down. Kevin Goldstein considered Beachy a back-end rotation regular heading into the year, ranking him the #10 prospect in the system, but thought much more of Minor, naming him the #3 prospect in the organization, and a four-star one as well. Beachy has been excellent at the MLB level, though—he has 9.3 strikeouts per nine and a 3.2 K/BB in 59 1/3 innings over 11 starts—so Minor will have to be flawless in order to show he deserves it more in the present day.
Snag him in case he does just that, especially in NL-only leagues. But be aware that Beachy may very well slot right back in to his slot once he returns from his oblique injury.
Andy Oliver, Detroit Tigers
Charlie Furbush, Detroit Tigers
The Tigers may not need another starter right now, but if it comes down to it, they have two to choose from at Triple-A Toledo. Andy Oliver, who started for the club five times in 2010, and Charlie Furbush are both putting up quality lines so far. I'm cheating a bit to get Oliver on this list, as he is whiffing 8.9 batters per nine, but he is walking 3.5 per nine, keeping the ball in the park, and continuing his success at the highest level of the minors that he began last year. Given his age (23 years old) and inexperience (Oliver's first professional season was 2010), Oliver has progressed at an impressive pace.
Goldstein rated Oliver as a four-star prospect and the #3 prospect in the system, and expected him to appear in the majors at some point in 2011. The average (or worse) walk rate he has displayed at Triple-A is something that he will deal with continually—his control isn't great—but he does get his strikeouts, and, as a southpaw, shouldn't suffer as much against some of the American League's more powerful lineups.
Furbush, like Beachy, is considered more of a back-end starter. He gets by with deception and command rather than pure stuff. It's hard to argue with his current results, though: Furbush is punching out 10.5 per nine—his 47 strikeouts lead International League pitchers—and has a 3.9 K/BB in his 40 1/3 innings at Toledo. That is a huge jump from last year, when he struck out just 6.8 per nine in his first stint at Triple-A.
Furbush is a bit older than Oliver at 25, so chances are good that if the Tigers just need a pitcher to go for a spot start or to replace someone during a short DL stint, he will be the go-to guy, giving Oliver more time in the minors and keeping the Tigers from burning another one of his options were he to need to be sent back down. A more permanent rotation spot—assuming he pitches better than he did last year—would be Oliver's for the taking. The Tigers have no problem putting young starters in their rotation when they deem them ready—ask Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, and Rick Porcello about that—so his age is not a barrier to a job.
Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays
With Andy Sonnanstine pitching poorly as a starter—he has given up three homers in 8 1/3 innings as a starter this year, with four strikeouts and five walks allowed—the Rays may be tempted to dip into their deep farm system for a temporary arm to fill in for Jeff Niemann, who is expected to remain on the DL for a few more weeks.
Cobb could be one of those options, as he dominated Double-A last year (9.6 K/9, 3.7 K/BB, 2.71 ERA) and has started off well at Triple-A in 2011 (10.0, 4.2, 1.31). Goldstein says that Cobb “has more control than stuff, but his plus changeup allows him to compete at the upper levels”—the pitch has worked for him at both Double- and Triple-A, so the lone test remaining is the majors.
While Goldstein likes Cobb's change, he ranked him the #19 prospect in the system, so it isn't like he is the top Rays pitching prospect or anything—that honor goes to Matt Moore, now that Jeremy Hellickson is in the majors to stay. Filling in for Niemann for a few starts would be a good test of Cobb, though, and something the Rays should (and may) consider. Cobb is set to start tonight, so if he is pulled from his start, get yourself to the waiver wire before someone else grabs him.
Kyle Gibson, Minnesota Twins
The Twins pitching has been awful over the first month-and-a-half of the season, so it won't take much for Kyle Gibson to work his way into the rotation in Minnesota. Goldstein rated Gibson as the #4 prospect for the Twins (and their top pitcher), and he has justified that in the early goings. After pitching 15 ho-hum innings in Triple-A in 2010, Gibson has racked up 37 strikeouts in 37 innings and has walked just seven batters.
He has had trouble with the long ball, though, allowing 1.5 per nine—that shouldn't be a surprise, given the Twins' tendency to love pitchers who stay in the strike zone and pitch to contact. Gibson won't walk a ton of batters because of this, but he will strike people out. Think of him as a little like Scott Baker in that regard.
Gibson's strikeouts may drop a little as he moves up that one last rung on the ladder and experienced hitters make him pay for pitches he got away with at Double- and Triple-A. He is still be expected to be a quality hurler, though, so don't be afraid of a few homers—Gibson is the kind of guy, like Baker, who will help you in multiple categories due to his tendency to live in the strike zone with quality stuff.