For this series, I will be shuttling you through the minor leagues to discover the best talents at each position and ranking them in tiers according to skill, current and future ability, and whether the player in question is from Texas. Need to catch up on how I’m doing the rankings and the top right-handed pitchers? Take a look at Part I.
Leader of the Pack (Present): Matt Moore (Rays)
The case for: Moore has a wicked combination of stuff and is developing command over the stuff. At present, he can bring a plus fastball (that flashes plus-plus) that works in the 92-95 range, but can touch higher when he needs it. The curveball is a 70-grade behemoth, built on velocity and depth, not to mention a sharp break. It’s an above-average major-league out pitch now, and his command of it continues to improve; he can drop the pitch in the zone for a strike or put it in the dirt as a chase pitch.
The changeup projects to be an average major-league pitch at the very least; it already flashes plus potential, with good arm-side fading action and natural weight. The delivery has been considered noisy, leading to bouts of inconsistent command, but reports on the delivery have been positive and the command has been much improved in 2011.
With a strong, durable frame, a collection of above-average pitches, and a preternatural ability to miss bats, Moore projects to be a legit top-of-the-rotation arm at the major-league level. The Rays like to take it slow and low with their prospects, and that could keep Moore in the minors until late 2012. But don’t let the developmental philosophy cloud the legitimacy of his prospect status. Moore is the best left-handed pitcher in the minors, and looks to remain in this position until he vacates the farm.
The case against: I can’t make one, and I doubt you can either. He’s that good.
Leader of the Pack (Future): Matt Moore (Rays)
TCF: I don’t see Moore releasing his grip on the top spot until he is promoted to the major-league level. I have a few names in mind for his eventual successor, but the present and the immediate future belong to Moore.
High Ceiling Division
Martin Perez (Rangers)
TCF: Perez’s smooth, athletic delivery allows for above-average command projection. His fastball works in the 92-95 range, with good lefty movement (arm-side run). His changeup will flash plus-plus potential with good fading action and deception from his fastball. His curveball looks like another plus offering, with tight rotation and sharp vertical break. He’s the total package and projects as solid second starter on championship-level team.
Mike Montgomery (Royals)
TCF: He has excellent size and stuff. The fastball is a true plus pitch, sitting in the 92-95 range, with excellent late life. I’m a fan of his changeup, as it plays off his fastball very well with good, late action. The curveball seems to come and go, but projects to be at least an average pitch at maturity, giving Montgomery the chance for three 55-plus pitches. His command has been iffy over the last month, but if there isn’t a hidden injury issue, Montgomery has the necessary athleticism to find consistency in his mechanics. His ceiling remains very high.
Tyler Skaggs (Diamondbacks)
TCF: You can’t really ask for a more prototypical body, as Skaggs stands 6-foot-4 and weighs close to 200 pounds, with a frame capable of holding more mass/strength. The 19-year-old prospect’s game was once built only on projection, but his present arsenal is starting to mature, and he is emerging as a top-tier talent. Armed with a solid-average fastball that currently sits in the 89-93 range and projects to grade out as a plus pitch, Skaggs shows good command, working down in the zone with good life on the pitch. His curveball is a legit plus offering, with a 12-6 shape and tons of depth. The curve is a little soft (normally thrown in the low 70s) but one scout called it the best curveball in the Cal League. The changeup is another promising pitch, though it can’t compare to the curve. Skaggs continues to improve, and with more seasoning, could reach his ceiling as a second starter at the major-league level.
Daniel Norris (Blue Jays)
TCF: The top prep lefty in the draft, Norris projects to have a plus arsenal to complement a mature feel for pitching. Despite his present body, Norris can already pump fastballs in the plus range, sitting in the low 90s, and projecting to add more velocity as his body matures. His best secondary pitch is a changeup that already flashes plus, playing well off his fastball and showing some fading action. His curveball is still developing, but like his other pitches, comes out smooth from the hand and has above-average projection. You can make a case that Norris will end up with a well above-average fastball (from the left side), two solid-average to plus secondary offerings, as well as command and feel. That combo gives you a very delicious projection. Let’s call the ceiling a legit second starter and let the dreams form from that.
Lacks the Ultimate Ceiling of the ‘High-Ceiling Division’ but Still Packs a Serious Prospect Punch Division
Manny Banuelos (Yankees)
TCF: What Banuelos lacks in size [read: height], he makes up for with feel and depth. Despite being 5-foot-10, Banuelos projects to be a rotation arm for years to come thanks to his mature arsenal and advanced feel for sequence and situation. His fastball didn’t get the memo about being small; it works in the low 90s and hits higher when Banuelos reaches back for more. The changeup is a monster in the making, owning a 70 future on some scouting reports. The curve is another plus-potential pitch, but often lacks bite, with a long, soft break. Durability will be a concern until it isn’t, but I don’t see a long-term problem. Banuelos has a ceiling as a solid second/third starter at the major-league level and is currently one of the top lefty arms in the minors. The rich get richer.
Drew Pomeranz (Indians)
TCF: He has an excellent combo of size and stuff. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound southpaw sets the table with a low-90s plus fastball, thrown with steep angle with heavy life down in the zone. His curveball is a legit plus-plus offering, with intense vertical movement. His mechanics are a bit noisy, resulting in inconsistent command. His changeup is also inconsistent, but with two plus offerings attached to an innings-eating body, Pomeranz looks to be a middle-of-the-rotation horse at worst, with a chance for a higher ceiling if the command improves and the change develops into an average offering.
Danny Hultzen (Mariners)
TCF: The top collegiate left-hander in the 2011 amateur draft, Hultzen was arguably the most polished pitcher in the class as well, projecting to reach the majors at some point during the 2012 season. Armed with a mature arsenal and a good feel for the mound, Hultzen lacks an elite ceiling, but with three solid-average pitches and excellent command, should become a number three starter at the major league level.
Robbie Erlin (Rangers)
TCF: Erlin lacks size and can’t match the stuff of the other arms on this list, but his “pitchability” is the most advanced on this list, and I could make an argument that it’s the most natural in the minors. Erlin uses a fading upper 80s, low-90s four-seamer to setup his secondary offerings (CH/CB), which both project to be slightly above-average, but aren’t crazy pitches. He recently added a two-seamer to induce more groundballs, and it’s only a matter of time before he adds a cutter to the mix. Erlin makes his living with command and sequence, showing multiple looks on multiple pitches, moving them all over the zone like a lefty late-era Maddux. What he lacks in ceiling he makes up for with intelligence and feel, and although the ceiling doesn’t look to be any higher than a solid number three starter, Erlin is a good candidate to push the boundaries created by his physical tools.
In the Shadows: Jesse Biddle (Phillies)
Biddle has a big frame (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) and big athleticism to go with a promising arsenal. The 19-year-old shows some fluidity with his mechanics, allowing for at least average command projections down the line. The present arsenal is immature, with a promising fastball that works in the low 90s and has been clocked as high as 97 mph, but the fastball velocity hasn’t been consistent and has been down this season. The secondary arsenal is equally inconsistent, but the changeup projects as a plus offering with good fading action. The curveball flashes potential despite it presently being underdeveloped.
Biddle’s arm could carry him to the top of a rotation if the secondary arsenal and command round into shape, but he’s a long way off and those are big ifs. Dream on the ceiling, people. Dream on the ceiling.
In the Shadows (Part 2): Enny Romero (Rays)
I couldn’t justify a spot for Romero in the “High-Ceiling Division,” but I also couldn’t finish this article without mentioning one the most electric arms in the minors. Romero is still raw, as his fastball command is below average and his changeup is still emerging from the water and learning how to breathe. His fastball will work in the low 90s, and can touch higher with relative ease. It projects to pack an even bigger punch when the 20-year-old grows into his ridiculously projectable 6-foot-3, 165-pound frame. His best secondary pitch is a plus-potential curve, a bat-misser that features a sharp vertical break (12-6 shape). The Rays prefer the sous-vide method of development, especially with pitchers, so Romero will be given time to refine at a slow, controlled pace. If it all comes together, Romero could be the name on the top of this list. The raw stuff is that electric.
In the Dark: Juan Urbina (Mets)
The son of former major-league reliever, Ugueth Urbina, this 18-year-old lefty signed out of Venezuela in 2009 for a reported $1.2 million. With only 48 innings of complex league action under his belt, the world has yet to receive a proper introduction to the younger Urbina, but his time is coming. Despite a presently immature arsenal, Urbina has the projectable body and athleticism to hold a high ceiling, though it’s all very abstract at this stage of the game.
Because of his fluid delivery, the clean arm action, and the physical projection, Urbina should eventually own a solid-average to plus fastball, a pitch he already throws in the upper 80s and can touch higher in bursts. His money pitch is a tumbling changeup, which, thanks to his repeatable mechanics and the aforementioned fluidity, offers excellent deception when played off the fastball. He can spin a good slider, but it’s still early in the developmental process and has a long way to go.
With a projectable frame (6-foot-2, 170 pounds), clean mechanics, an advanced feel for the changeup, and a plus-potential fastball, Urbina could emerge as a top prospect in the Mets organization. The road will get bumpy before it gets smooth, but that’s the beauty of the developmental process. Give him time. He has serious potential.
I Just Don’t Get it: Tyler Matzek (Rockies)
Not to micturate on the wounded (or the perceived wounded), but something is wrong with Tyler Matzek. After going 11th overall in the 2009 draft, Matzek jumped on the prospect landscape thanks to his combination of projection and present stuff. Inconsistency has always been Matzek’s shadow, following his fastball to the heights of plus-plus velocity to the depths of the mid-80s, sometimes during the course of one outing. The secondary offerings will flash plus and get you excited about his future, but then inconsistency inevitably shows up and starts raining contaminant on the arsenal. I don’t know if Matzek is pitching through an injury, if his mechanics are severely out of whack, if the on-the-field setbacks are affecting his mental approach, or if it’s a sweet concoction of all of the above, but I do know that Matzek’s command of his craft is no longer present. Something has to give soon, and after a demotion to Low-A Asheville, the wheels are on the brink of flying off the prospect’s bandwagon.