The Situation: The Atlanta Braves needed a Thursday starter in place of Williams Perez, who was placed on the disabled list last week with a left foot contusion when he was hit by a batted ball. It presents an opportunity for Manny Banuelos, who has thrown well through 15 starts with Triple-A Gwinnett.
Background: Banuelos was once regarded as a highly ranked, impact prospect after signing with the New York Yankees and blowing through the minor league system over his first four years, reaching Triple-A by the end of 2011. He entered 2012 ranked 29th in the top 101 and immediately fell off the map because of an eventual need for Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss most of 2012 and all of 2013. Banuelos described 2014 as a “rehab year” with less-than-stellar stuff and struggles to avoid soreness. He was traded to the Braves this past offseason and is starting fresh with a strong, healthy arm, and it’s showing in the numbers.
Scouting Report: No longer the mid-90s lefty with the potential for big-time secondaries, Banuelos sits upper-80s to low-90s and will ramp up to 94 on occasion, resting around 90 throughout a start. His fastball lacks wiggle and room for error as he has to keep it down, on the corners (not out in the street) or sequence it well by changing eye levels. He shows the ability to do this with three pitches before pumping 92-93 above the barrel on occasion. His command wavers at times, so it continues to be a work in progress to spot the fastball. He works it well to the arm side but can struggle hitting the glove side.
Banuelos’ secondaries don’t feature the same sharpness and potential they had before surgery. The curveball and changeup don’t stand out as plus-potential offerings, but both are usable major league pitches. The changeup’s ceiling is a little higher with above-average potential, while the curveball flashes as more of an average pitch. Banuelos has an easy arm motion/smooth delivery and gets deception and fade from the changeup, but his command of the pitch continues to need improvement to be more than average. His curveball’s depth was inconsistent but flashed deep, sweeping break when he spun it well. He’ll spin it early and leave it high on occasion, and there isn’t quite enough bite to make it a true bat-missing pitch, but it should keep hitters honest enough to use with regularity in the majors.
The return of the curveball is good news, as he briefly flirted with a cutter/slider hybrid instead due to a lack of confidence brought on by arm soreness. That hybrid pitch never really developed well last season, and he’s back to using the curveball instead because he said his arm is 100 percent healthy. He still mixes a couple cutter/sliders per start, usually later in the outing, but it’s a fringy pitch.
Banuelos said he’s working between starts to regain arm strength, and he wants to get back to that mid-90s velocity he had before surgery. Whether that ever returns remains to be seen, but he seems to be working within himself to get the most from what he currently has to offer. The Braves bought fairly low on Banuelos, so his return to potential major league relevancy this season has been a pleasant addition to the team. He’s no longer the potential No. 2 starter seen before surgery, but there’s enough in the arm and stuff to project a No. 4 starter with relief duty as a backup plan.
Immediate Big League Future: Because he’s filling the spot of an injured starting pitcher who established himself in the rotation, Banuelos may not get extended starting time in Atlanta right now. However, if he carries his Triple-A success to the majors he could force the Braves’ hand in some way, whether it’s taking a rotation spot or staying in the bullpen. Banuelos is on an innings-limit this season, so they could choose to move him to the bullpen once Perez returns and let Banuelos ride out the rest of his innings in relief. Regardless, he’s seen as a strong rotation candidate for 2016. – David Lee
Fantasy Impact: Banuelos represents the cautionary end of the Tommy John spectrum. His return to form has been long and arduous enough that he hasn’t been so much as an afterthought in most formats for a couple years now. He’s managed to produce some solid surface numbers at Triple-A over the first half of this season, however, and now he’ll debut with what should be at least modest fanfare for those in NL-only leagues.
The feel-good real life story notwithstanding, Banuelos is one of the more difficult pitching prospect profiles to get behind. His old mid-90’s gas is long gone, leaving him without a plus primary weapon or any secondary bat-missers. He relies instead on working the corners and changing eye levels, and for a guy who had fringy command projection even before his surgery that’s not a great look. His walk rate at Triple-A has continued to hover north of four-per-nine, while his whiffs have steadily declined as he’s moved up the organizational ladder.
Assuming he’ll get at least a handful of trial starts, he’ll be on pace to take the ball for an intriguing second big league start at Milwaukee, they of the worst team TAv in the National League. Things get ugly with an unstartable trip to Colorado to close out the first half followed by series with the Dodgers and Cubs coming out of the break. If you’re in need of some rotation depth he’s worth a couple bucks in NL-only leagues to see what he can do, particularly in daily formats where you can stream for the Brewers matchup. Deeper mixed league managers may seek to invest at a similar level for that one turn. But as a longer term option he’s in wait-and-see-what-Roger-McDowell-can-do purgatory for the time being. – Wilson Karaman
- 90th percentile: 3.21 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
- 50th percentile: 4.43 ERA, 1.40 WHIP
- 10th percentile: 5.74 ERA, 1.70 WHIP
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