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Prospect #1: RHP Jacob Turner
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: After being selected ninth overall in the 2009 Rule Four draft and signing a major league deal that included a $4.7M bonus, it quickly became apparent that Jacob Turner was in fact a dream come true, a Ken doll of pitching characteristics with prototypical size and strength, a clean and easy delivery that allows for repeatability and a potentially plus command profile, a lively plus fastball that can touch higher, an above-average 12-6 curve with tight rotation and excellent depth, a changeup with good action, and good overall feel for sequencing and situations.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: After reaching the majors last season, Turner will have every opportunity to claim a rotation spot during spring training. This is a huge jump for a young arm, regardless of the polish and punch of the arsenal, and Turner could face a harsh reality. Turner has advanced strike-throwing ability, but that shouldn’t be confused with advanced command. With the ability to throw his three-pitch mix for strikes, Turner can manage the intensity of the arsenal and force poor contact rather than go for throat rips with every at-bat. Against superior competition, throwing strikes is a good way to win the hearts of the hitters you face, as they can send you a flowers and chocolates after they victimize your offerings. At the major league level, you have to up the intensity of the arsenal while not only maintaining the ability to throw strikes but also refining the ability to throw quality strikes. With the training wheels still on the bike and the minor league blueprint for success still fresh in the mind, 2012 will be a developmental year for Jacob Turner, one that will feature a few highs and more than a few lows, especially if the 20-year-old is thrown to the major league wolves.

Prospect #2: 3B Nick Castellanos
Background with Player: Industry sources.
Who: A first-round pick in the 2010 draft, Castellanos was impressive in his full-season debut. He showed offensive upside in the difficult offensive environment of the Midwest League and took developmental steps forward at the hot corner despite some rough patches throughout the season. The 19-year-old projects to be a first-division talent at the major league level, with a smooth, balanced stroke that allows for hard contact and some power potential to go along with good actions and arm strength at third. How much power Castellanos will bring to the table is a subject of debate, with some envisioning a 25-30 home run threat at maturity while others see more batting average and less over-the-fence power, something like 15-20 homers per to go along with lots of doubles.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Falling victim to the allure of power can alter a hitter’s mechanics, approach, and ability to make consistent contact. If Castellanos starts pressing for power, knowing his body and swing have the necessary components to remove a ball from the yard, you could see any number of these eventualities. It’s not uncommon for hitters to sell themselves out for power, and the bad habits that either start the process or evolve during it aren’t easy to get rid of. Basically, selling out for power is a lot like dealing with herpes. Some of the bad habits: putting too much loft into the swing; trying to hit under the ball; leveraged swing that grows in length by the day; dropping the back shoulder to load the swing, and so on.  This could be a breakout year for the hot corner hero, but it could also be a year where the poisons of power overwhelm his approach and lead him astray. In the advanced Florida State League, giving pitchers a recipe for your own termination isn’t likely to end well for the hitter in question.

Prospect #3: LHP Casey Crosby
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: A fifth-round pick in the 2007 draft, Casey Crosby has been fighting his injury and command demons from the outset, flashing electric stuff from the left side but struggling to put it all together in one cute package. When he can spot it, Crosby’s fastball is all kinds of nasty, with plus-plus velocity and late arm-side jump. His curve is a tight tumbler and could end up as a plus pitch, but his changeup is rarely lauded for its attractive qualities. The inability to throw strikes is Crosby’s tether to his current status; a step forward in that department could push the 23-year-old into rarified air rather than a discussion about his long-term role, which many in the industry are convinced will be in the bullpen.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Crosby’s developmental journey is far from over, but he needs to iron out the delivery and release-point issues that have plagued him in the past if he wants to move forward as a rotation prospect. Assuming he rises to the Triple-A level in 2012, Crosby and his electric fastball won’t be able to out-maneuver a walk ratio of 5.3 per nine and arrive on the other side without some damage. Assign that last sentence a larger, bolder font and change the level to the majors and then run screaming out of the room. Crosby doesn’t need pinpoint command to stick in a rotation, but he does need to throw strikes in order to dodge the call to the ‘pen.

Prospect #4: LHP Drew Smyly
Background with Player: Industry sources.
Who: Drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft, 22-year-old southpaw Drew Smyly made his professional debut in 2011, reaching the Double-A level and putting his name on the list of arms that will be in contention for a rotation spot coming out of spring training. Pitching downhill with good angle, the 6’3’’ lefty is more command/control than electricity/intensity, changing speeds with a heavy, low-90s fastball, hitting spots, and using a deep sequence to miss bats and force weak contact.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Pitchers with stuff have a weapon to not only miss high-level bats, but to survive encounters with the zone should they miss their spots. Command/control types lack that luxury, as deception and location are the preferred swords of the fight and precise execution is necessary for success. In 2012, Smyly is likely to spend more time in the minors, no doubt finding favorable outcomes on the back of his ability to locate and manipulate a deep arsenal. When he reaches the majors, his margin of error will shrink dramatically, highlighting the pitchers every weakness. There is a big difference between a pitcher with 80-grade command and a pitcher with 60-grade command, similar to the difference between a fastball that can touch 93mph and a fastball that can touch 99mph. Smyly is a very talented pitcher, with good (but not great) stuff, very good (but not special) command, and very good feel for the mound. It’s a nice profile for a back-end starter who gets beat up on occasion, or even a solid-average middle of the rotation starter that has a knack for avoiding abuse. It’s not is a profile for a pitcher that is going to enjoy more sunshine than shade.

Prospect #5: RHP Brenny Paulino
Background with Player: Industry sources.  
Who: The 18-year-old Dominican arm made his stateside debut in 2011, spending the majority of the season at the team’s Florida complex, where his projectable arsenal was able to avoid hard contact and miss some bats. The 6’4’’ 170 lbs. righty can already dial his fastball up to the mid-90s (in bursts), from a lighting fast arm and good extension that allows for both velocity and movement, and gives the pitch a future that could end up near elite. The secondary arsenal is immature, as is the command profile, so Paulino is very much a dream at this stage of the developmental process. But ceilings are sexy, and Paulino’s ceiling can stand without intimidation beside some of the bigger names in the organization. The conceptual space between his present and future grades is immense, but tall, projectable pitchers with arm strength and arm speed are always worth the extra patience involved.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: In the complex league, it’s not uncommon to see pitchers building the foundations of their arsenal, which starts with establishing arm strength through fastball (four-seam) repetition. Because of his age and the present state of his arsenal, Paulino would struggle with a full-season assignment, much like he did during his five-inning snapshot in the Florida State League in 2011. The strength of the fastball suggests an assignment to Low-A is within reason and the weakness of everything else suggests such an assignment could lead to setback. That said, setbacks can be a good thing when they are followed by steps forward, and pitchers with intense raw stuff need to be challenged by more advanced hitters in order to take those developmental steps. It’s possible that the Tigers will elect to keep the young arm in extended spring training before sending him to the New York-Penn League, where yours truly can stalk scout Paulino with a smile. Regardless of the assignment, I expect to see struggles when the catcher goes away from the fastball.


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Excellent write-up, Jason, and the comments on Turner certainly ring true.

Getting the ball over the plate and inducing weak contact are two very different skills, and while the former often serves as a stepping stone to the latter, not every hurler can make that leap.
Re Turner: Agreed that getting the ball over the plate and inducing weak contact are different skills, and even third different skill is inducing swings and misses, a skill I wish Tiger pitching coaches would stress more than this "pitch to contact" attitude that's turned Rick Porcello into a steady reliable journeyman rather than the next great ace he was billed at when he was drafted. Pitching to contact is also a questionable strategy when you consider the defensive infield the Tigers are going to run out there this year (Cabrera 3B, Peralta SS, Rayburn 2B, Fielder 1B)

Re:Castellanos: very valid concerns regarding getting into bad habits to accentuate power, especially in this organization that doesn't seem to have a single hitting coach that can teach the virtues of laying off bad pitches.

Re: Crosby: He's a TJ surgery survivor, so hearing he's struggling with command is as suprising as the eastern Sunrise. Must as I admire his pluck overcoming this, I wish they had pulled the trigger on the Crosby for Matt Holiday trade. Had they tried to boost the lineup this way instead of settling for Aubrey Huff, they would not have needed the one game tie-breaker they lost to the Twins that year.

Re:Smyly, best case for him, he gives Turner just enough competition he doesn't get complacent but doesn't press and ends up in the 5 slot, then gets flipped for a hitter when the inevitable Delmon Young crash comes, or the defensive atrocities at third and become too much to bear, or the bullpen loses yet another arm to traumatic injury.
It's true that command is usually slow to return after TJ surgery, but it's not like Crosby is still bleeding from the knife. His elbow was repaired in the fall of 2007. His command issues at this point go beyond the procedure.
Does Detroit's front office have an ownership mandate to get prospects, or at least high-bonus first round pitchers, to the Majors quickly? Illitch sure seems bent on winning a World Series asap, and Bonderman, Verlander, Porcello, and probably Turner all got zipped to the Majors with just a year or two of development time.

Also, more generally, is pitch-to-contact 'easier' to teach than strikeout ability? Or at least, does encouraging pitchers to do that move them through the system quicker?
"Or at least, does encouraging pitchers to do that move them through the system quicker?"

This is an interesting question. I can't speak to their specific developmental philosophies, but academically speaking, throwing strikes and encouraging weak contact is an efficient execution of the task at hand. Strikeout pitchers have to throw more pitches, they have to up the intensity of some of the offerings, and they have to learn to work outside of the zone. Much like selling out for power, chasing the strikeout can lead to bad habits, like elevating and losing pace. One would think a pitcher with the foundation to throw strikes would move up the professional ladder faster than pitchers who lack that fundamental skill. It makes sense. Draft arms that can throw strikes and put them on an accelerated developmental plan. Take the training wheels off after a few seasons in the sun and see what happens.
Pitching to contact might help preserve the life in these tender young arms. After a few years of pitching, they will probably just naturally have more command and therefor be more ready to start painting the corners.