From top prospects to oft-injured veterans, here are a dozen unproven pitchers PECOTA projects to make an impact in 2019 if they get the opportunity …
The latest promising starter produced by Cleveland’s pitching factory, Bieber’s mediocre 4.55 ERA last season was driven by a sky high .356 BABIP and masked an otherwise impressive showing by a 23-year-old rookie. He racked up 118 strikeouts vs. 23 walks in 115 innings, good for the 10th-best K/BB ratio among all pitchers with at least 100 innings, and unlike many extreme strike-throwers he managed a neutral ground-ball rate of 47 percent and served up just 13 homers in 485 plate appearances. Bieber may lack top-of-the-rotation upside, but the mix of a 92-94 mph fastball, two solid breaking balls, and impeccable control is more than enough to predict mid-rotation success.
Burnes dominated Single-A and Double-A as a starter in 2017 and then shifted to the bullpen at Triple-A last year in preparation for a call-up to Milwaukee. Once there he made 36 appearances (counting the postseason), all of them as a reliever, and logged 47 innings with a 2.48 ERA and 46/12 K/BB ratio while holding opponents to a .188 average. Like so many young Brewers pitchers—two more of whom you’ll read about shortly—Burnes’ exact role isn’t clear, but what’s obvious is that he has big-time upside somewhere. Burnes was basically a two-pitch reliever in his debut, relying mostly on a mid-90s, high-spin fastball, but as a starter in the minors he was known for being polished and for having three usable off-speed pitches.
Castillo was a popular breakout pick last year, but stumbled out of the gates in April by allowing 25 runs in 29 innings. That ruined his season totals, but Castillo had a 3.57 ERA and 141/36 K/BB ratio in 141 innings from May 1 on, holding opponents to a .232 average and .286 on-base percentage. Knocked around by left-handed bats who keyed on his fastball, Castillo added more late-season sliders to his usual fastball/changeup mix and had his best month in September. Castillo’s four-seamer (96.4 mph) and two-seamer (96.1 mph) both ranked among the 10 fastest by pitchers with at least 150 innings and his changeup held opponents to a .198 average. If his slider can pick up a bit more of the slack, it’s a straightforward recipe for success.
One-third of the Chris Archer haul, Glasnow stepped into the Rays’ rotation and out-pitched him after the trade. He’s a four-time BP top-101 prospect, rising to no. 11 in 2016 and no. 14 in 2017, and the scouting report remains the same: If he can consistently throw strikes, he can be a front-line starter. It’s a small sample, but his walk rate went from 14 percent in Pittsburgh to 8 percent in Tampa Bay, with a similar jump in strikes thrown, and Glasnow managed that without dialing back his 96-98 mph fastball. His curveball is also a swing-and-miss weapon that pairs especially well with a fastball he likes to work high in the zone. PECOTA assigns him the highest “breakout” rate (34 percent) among all pitchers projected to throw at least 100 innings.
Perhaps the biggest breakout prospect of last year, James turned his career around following treatment for sleep apnea and tore through Double-A and Triple-A with 171 strikeouts in 114 innings. He piled on another 29 strikeouts in his 23-inning Astros debut, showing off a 96-98 mph fastball, a plus slider, and a solid changeup. James’ control is spotty and his pre-2018 track record is nothing special, but the Astros working their usual magic on a pitcher with his jaw-dropping raw stuff is scary. This week’s quadriceps injury takes him out of the running for an Opening Day rotation spot, which is a shame given that PECOTA projects the 26-year-old for the 14th-best strikeout rate among all starters, but James could be even scarier out of the bullpen.
One of four prospects acquired from Houston in the Gerrit Cole trade last winter, Musgrove had a solid first season in Pittsburgh and showed signs of more upside. His slider and changeup were both plus pitches, finishing off 64 of his 100 strikeouts while allowing just four homers, but Musgrove used them relatively infrequently and instead turned to a fastball variation nearly two-thirds of the time. It mostly worked for him, but it’s hard not to look at his by-pitch results and overall pitch mix without thinking he’d benefit from more off-speed reliance. If nothing changes for Musgrove, he’s a fine, strike-throwing mid-rotation starter, but there’s seemingly a path here to more missed bats and less hard contact.
Paddack has thrown just 38 innings above Single-A, but PECOTA is convinced he’s ready to thrive in the majors right now. He won’t get that chance, but it may not take much to get an early-season look in the Padres’ underwhelming rotation. Acquired from the Marlins for Fernando Rodney in mid-2016, the 23-year-old right-hander missed all of 2017 recovering from elbow surgery and looked better than ever in his 2018 return. Paddack has pitched brilliantly before and after going under the knife, posting a 1.82 ERA with 230 strikeouts vs. 20 walks in 178 career innings. His raw stuff doesn’t match that dominance, but he’s far from a junk-baller and BP’s prospect team is a believer, ranking him no. 37 overall and no. 14 among pitchers.
“One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.” Peralta is 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, he’s a fly-ball pitcher with shaky control, and he’s essentially a two-pitch starter with a low-90s fastball. And yet he proved almost impossible to hit in the minors, striking out 358 in 265 innings from 2016-2018, and had immediate success in the Brewers’ rotation as a 22-year-old rookie, posting the 11th-best strikeout rate among starters with at least 70 innings. Peralta does a masterful job hiding the ball and his delivery has Tim Lincecum-like extension, which helps his pitches play up. It’s possible his “gimmick” will eventually stop flummoxing hitters, but it hasn’t yet and PECOTA is a believer despite the nontraditional profile.
Pivetta had an ugly 7-14 record and 4.77 ERA in 32 starts last season, but nearly everything else about his performance stood out in a positive way. And given how awful the Phillies’ defense was at times, focusing on the underlying numbers only seems fair to the 26-year-old right-hander. His fastball averaged 95 mph, his slider and curveball were both effective, he generated a neutral 47 percent ground-ball rate, and among all pitchers with at least 150 innings he ranked 16th in strikeout rate and 26th in K/BB ratio. Deserved Run Average saw Pivetta’s performance as worthy of a 3.40 mark last year and PECOTA agrees with that overall assessment, projecting him for a 3.48 ERA in 2019.
Skaggs is a former top-25 prospect who has generally pitched well in the majors through age 26, but never-ending injuries have gradually emptied out his bandwagon. Last year was a familiar story, as a strong first half gave way to a poor, injury-filled second half. His overall numbers were nothing special, but Skaggs’ swinging-strike rate jumped thanks to an improved changeup, his ground-ball rate trended toward neutral, and for once his injuries had nothing to do with his left arm. If you’re feeling optimistic, top same-age comp Patrick Corbin works well as a left-hander who had initial success, battled injuries, and finally broke through in his late twenties. If you’re not feeling optimistic, how did you make it this far into the article?
Whitley is the no. 1 pitching prospect in baseball, in an organization that seems to get the absolute most out of every arm they touch, and PECOTA thinks he’s ready to hold his own in the majors at age 21. However, he’s a less obvious breakout pick than top hitting prospects like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Eloy Jimenez were, because his call-up isn’t as likely to be directly tied to service-time manipulation, he was limited to just 26 innings last season due to a drug suspension and minor injuries, and his minor-league track record includes all of 137 innings. When the BP prospect team and PECOTA agree so strongly on a pitching prospect that’s enough for me, but Whitley’s placement on this list is banking on his arriving in Houston by June 1.
Woodruff was a big part of Milwaukee’s blurred-roles pitching staff in the second half, facing an average of nine batters per appearance despite his lone start coming in Game 1 of the NLDS. All of his minor-league work from 2016-2018 was as a starter and he’s expected to join the Brewers’ rotation full time this season, giving the 26-year-old a chance to lean more heavily on a deep repertoire of secondary offerings in addition to a mid-90s heater. Factoring in the workload increase for the sturdy 6-foot-4 right-hander, PECOTA projects Woodruff to have the 26th-best ERA among all pitchers expected to make at least 20 starts. If you watched Woodruff in the playoffs, you probably don’t need me (or PECOTA) to tell you he has plenty of upside.
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