You’ll recall that last week I took a gander at the top five most underrated hitting prospects in the game. This time, it’s the pitchers. I believe I amply qualified myself last week, but I’ll say again that calling anything “overrated” or “underrated” is horribly, terribly, awfully subjective and assumes I have some sort of internal, ruthlessly accurate method of reading the hype tea leaves. I don’t, but I can juggle.

Once again, the criteria are that a player didn’t appear anywhere on BP’s Top 50 Prospect List and has reached at least the High-A level this season. If nothing else, you can dance to it…

  1. Jeff Francis, LHP, Rockies, Age: 23
    Pre-2004 Stats: 191.1 IP, 3.39 R/G, 156 H, 192 K, 52 UBB, 10 HR, 3.62 K/BB
    2004 Stats: (Double-A-Tulsa) 86.2 IP, 1.87 R/G, 55 H, 112 K, 16 UBB, 6 HR, 7.0 K/BB

    Francis hails from the burgeoning baseball cubbyhole of British Columbia (seriously, it is), and while being a pitching prospect in the Rockies organization is a bit like being Julia Roberts’ distraction du jour–the honor is fleeing and likely to end badly–he is putting together a striking record of performance. Almost as striking as the length of the previous sentence.

    After being drafted with the ninth overall pick of the 2002 draft, Francis breezed through the Northwest and Sally Leagues not long after signing. Last season, in the decidedly pitcher-unfriendly Cal League, he again put up strong numbers. Although his command slipped a bit, Francis still did an exceptional job of keeping the ball in the park (eight homers in 160.2 innings at Visalia). This season, in his first taste of the high minors, he’s cut a wide swath through Texas League hitters. As you can see, the numbers above are unassailable. Francis also tops the loop in ERA, and in strikeouts by a total of 45(!). He already throws a solid fastball, but scouts think he’ll add more giddy-up once his upper body fills out. He’s made nice progress with his curve in recent months, and his change-up is coming along. His command is outstanding, and that will be what takes him places. The dual pitcher’s gulags of Colorado Springs and Coors Field await him, so there will be plenty of opportunities for his substantial promise to be derailed. Unaccommodating circumstances notwithstanding, young lefties who fan more than a batter per inning in the upper reaches of the minors while showing outstanding control are not to be ignored.

  2. Dan Meyer, LHP, Braves, Age: 22
    Pre-2004 Stats: 225.2 IP, 3.43 R/G, 192 H, 235 K, 48 UBB, 17 HR, 4.7 K/BB
    2004 Stats: (Double-A-Greenville) 53 IP, 2.04 R/G, 39 H, 65 K, 10 UBB, 1 HR, 6.5 K/BB

    A supplemental first-rounder in 2002 out of James Madison, Meyer began garnering attention after he laid waste to the Sally League for the first half of 2003 (81.2 IP, 95 K, 14 UBB). He spent the second half of the season in the Carolina League, and his performance raised some skepticism. Despite playing in what’s easily the best pitcher’s park in the minors, Meyer saw his strikeout rate drop notably, and his walk and homer rates increase slightly. Still, on balance his performance remained strong.

    This season, he’s been toiling in the Southern League, and his command (6.5 K/BB) has been at its best. He’s also surrendered only a single homer in 53 innings. He was slowed by an early-season ankle injury, but he’s showing no ill effects and is having his best month to date in June. Meyer boasts good movement on a low-90s heater and a promising slider. He’s shown reverse platoon splits in the past, but that’s neither here nor there in terms of being a career-altering problem. His dominant performance in Double-A means he’ll see the International League before season’s end and will be in the fray for a spot in the Atlanta rotation for 2005. It’ll only help that he’s in an organization with such a virtuoso handle on developing pitchers.

  3. Josh Banks, RHP, Blue Jays, Age: 21
    Pre-2004 Stats: 66.2 IP, 2.83 R/G, 58 H, 81 K, 10 UBB, 1 HR, 8.1 K/BB
    2004 Stats: (A-Dunedin) 60 IP, 2.55 R/G, 49 H, 60 K, 8 UBB, 4 HR, 7.5 K/BB

    Here’s another example of the devastating stable of high-command arms the Blue Jays are cobbling together. Banks doesn’t get as much ink as some within the system, but from a performance standpoint he’s been amazing thus far. After being drafted out of Florida International with a second-round pick in 2003, Banks was dispatched to the short-season NY-Penn League, where he joined Auburn in what would turn out to be a Panzer Division of a team (56-18 record). It’s not entirely surprising that, as a polished, college-trained arm, he wasn’t challenged by his short-season peer group, but an 8.1 K/BB? Filthy.

    He’s back at it in ’04. Despite skipping Low-A entirely, Banks has been largely untested in the Florida State League. It’s a stretch to find anything remotely worrisome about that stat line, but the uptick in homers will have to suffice (although it’s still well within acceptable boundaries). He sports a low-90s fastball, good splitter and a nicely developing slider. Obviously, he knows how to make batters miss despite staying in the strike zone, which is as valuable a skill as a pitcher can have. He missed part of his sophomore season with a semi-minor elbow problem, but so far those problems haven’t recurred. Presently, Banks ranks second in the FSL, and no one’s even close to him in terms of K/BB ratio.

  4. Clint Goocher, LHP, Diamondbacks, Age: 22
    Pre-2004 Stats: 33 IP, 2.73 R/G, 28 H, 33 K, 6 UBB, 1 HR, 5.5 K/BB
    2004 Stats: (A-Lancaster) 83.2 IP, 3.98 R/G, 87 H, 78 K, 9 UBB, 10 HR, 7.8 K/BB

    The Snakes nabbed Goocher in 2002 as a draft-and-follow out of San Jacinto JC in Texas. He signed just prior to the ’03 draft and promptly carpet-bombed the short-season Northwest League. Now consider this tandem transition: Not only did the organization decide to convert him into a starter, but they also skipped him right past the Midwest League to Lancaster of the Cal League–for pitchers, the most hostile park in the most hostile circuit.

    In spite of these conditions, Goocher has been dominant: a sparkling 7.8 K/BB ratio and almost a strikeout per inning. He’s surrendered too many homers, but considering the circumstances that’s forgivable. Also consider that Goocher left April with an ERA of almost 6.00. That he’s been able to thrive after undergoing a change in role, suffering a slow start and toiling in a hitter’s league and park is highly commendable. Goocher leads the Cal League in K/BB ratio and places fourth in strikeouts. He doesn’t throw hard, but he has exceptional control of his slider and fastball.

  5. Zach Duke, LHP, Pirates, Age: 21
    Pre-2004 Stats: 201.2 IP, 3.61 R/G, 162 H, 161 K, 64 UBB, 9 HR, 2.52 K/BB
    2004 Stats: (A-Lynchburg) 66.2 IP, 1.89 R/G, 45 H, 73 K, 14 UBB, 3 HR, 5.21 K/BB

    The Pirates selected Duke as a prep talent in the 20th round of the 2001 draft. He signed too late to pitch that season, but the following year he made a strong showing in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. In 2003, he posted a 3.11 ERA and allowed only seven homers in 141.2 innings in the Sally League, but his strikeout rate took a notable dive.

    This season, however, he’s assuaged all worries about his ability to dominate hitters. Despite pitching in probably the best hitter’s park in the Carolina League, he leads the circuit in ERA and presently ranks third in strikeouts. Duke rarely reaches 90 with his fastball, but it has good movement and has been more than enough to complement one of the best curveballs in the minors. He’s making good progress with his change this season, and he’s still doing a fine job of keeping the ball on the ground. Duke dropped quite a few organizational jaws with his pre-spring training workouts this season, and he’s close to being on the fast track. Don’t be surprised if he’s in Double-A by mid-July.