Last week in this space I took a look at the Cal League’s best position-player tools, and this week we’re back for the moundsmen.
Best Fastball (Starter): A.J. Puk, Stockton (Oakland Athletics)
I anointed Puk my favorite prospect of the year a couple weeks ago, and will point you in that direction for a longer look at what makes him so terrifying and potentially effective as a starter. The bottom line for fastball purposes is that he throws extremely hard, the velocity plays up on account of extension and a difficult pick-up, and he’s…we’ll call it “effectively wild” with the pitch. It projects to a true 70 pitch with our without command gains, and if he does ever figure out how to put a leash on the pitch (or deploys it in a bullpen role) it can play higher.
Exempt from this list is Walker Buehler, whose mere 16-plus innings in the league weren’t enough to qualify for distinction, though he’d have snagged the crown if eligible. Alvarez has some of the easiest plus-plus velocity I’ve seen in the flesh, but while there’s some life to the pitch, it’s fair straight, and he had an odd amount of difficulty commanding it in the zone despite simple, seemingly repeatable mechanics. The high-end velocity is delightful, however, and I still think there’s enough command projection in the profile to suggest a pitch that can play to 7 as a finished product. Alvarez’s less-heralded teammate in Rancho, Santana is still learning how to pitch after converting from shortstop only a couple years ago. Fortunately he’s got an excellent foundation, with a moving heater up to 97. Duplantier maximizes his 92-95 velocity with excellent extension and late run to sneak under barrels. The effectiveness of Quantrill’s gas is aided and abetted by the threat of his change, and his 92-94 sitting velocity (with 96 in the pocket) certainly doesn’t hurt matters. Tinoco’s velo will fluctuate a bit, and the mid-90s gas he worked with for much of the season was a relatively new toy after he reportedly sat high-80s to low-90s last year. The pitch shows quality sink and good plane to the bottom of the zone, though, with plus potential if the command takes a step.
Best Fastball (Reliever): Mason McCullough, Visalia (Arizona Diamondbacks)
If you like Tommy Kahnle types who generate velocity with sheer arm strength and straight-line momentum down the hill, you’ll dig McCullough. A teeny, tiny leg lift constitutes the entirety of his delivery, the rest is just a violent explosion of arm acceleration and drive to the plate. The raw ingredients of his fastball were the best in a bullpen this summer: mid-90s sitting velocity that bumped 98 with serious arm-side movement. So much movement, in fact, that it’s going to be a bigtime struggle for him to figure out how to harness enough of it to hold down a big-league job. But it’s big-league stuff, alright.
Yes, that Yoan Lopez, the one who Dave Stewart got all the crap for signing, and also the one who walked away from his team twice in the couple years since signing. He’s back now in reliever form, and after debuting in early July all he did was thoroughly destroy the Cal League, working up to 99 with bat-missing life. He basically whiffed every other batter he faced across 30-plus innings. Don’t look now, but he might end up turning into a useful piece after all. I just wrote up Warren and Bednar in our Peoria AFL preview; the latter is in the McCullough category of dudes with filthy raw material that they struggle to command, while Warren’s ball hops late and shows the ability to beat barrels to spots in and above the zone. Reyes slings heaters that will run up to 97 from a lower left-handed slot, which ensures he’ll enjoy every conceivable opportunity to figure out some semblance of an idea about where his pitches are going. Gonsolin grew into some serious man strength over the course of the season, taking his heater from 90-92 in my first look back in April to 98-99 (t100) in the Cal League playoffs. In a probably-unrelated development, he struck out more than two additional batters-per-nine in the second half. Before shuffling off to the White Sox for international bonus money, Burr ran it up to 98 with late sink during a dominant run where he got all of the outs via whiff or weak rollover.
Best Breaking Ball (Starter): A.J. Puk, Stockton (Oakland Athletics)
Puk goes two for two here on the back of a filthy slider that can plummet off the table in the high-80s. As with all things related to him, the pitch is inconsistent at present, and he’ll just as often as not get on the side of it and wind up with a softer, rounder result in the mid-80s. But those magical efforts where he snaps it off in proper sequence are things of beauty.
Despite remaining raw as a chaser, Nix’s curveball shows the makings of a plus offering, with a tight shape and nice downer action to it. He commands it into the zone effectively as a strike-stealer early in counts, and will work it at the higher end of its 77 to 80 band once ahead. Krook showed arguably the best raw shape to any curveball I saw in the league this year, but as was his wont struggled mightily to time and command it. The Giants mercifully converted him to the bullpen down the stretch, where an extra tick or two could help the hook play up all the more. Ferguson’s curve, meanwhile, showed a nice mix of command, polish, and shape. He has good feel for spinning it off a consistent release, and showed the confidence to execute it as either a strike-stealer or chaser.
Best Secondary (Reliever): Art Warren’s curveball, Modesto (Seattle Mariners)
Warren made a bunch of progress this year in streamlining his once-woggly delivery after a conversion to the bullpen, and the stuff played way, way up from where it sat a year ago. Big velocity gains were one thing, but his progress in developing his curveball into a true swing-and-miss weapon was the biggest separator. It’s a tight pitch In the mid- to high-70s, with more vertical action than horizontal. It’s late bite makes it a particularly difficult pitch to handle when deployed as a chaser.
Lopez’s slider has been Part II of his resurgence, a gnarly high-80s wipeout pitch when he executes it. There’s a bit of “it’s not his fastball” grade inflation, but it’s a solid offering in its own right, and will flash plus of its own accord. Bracketing some of Lemond’s issues generating east-west movement with any of his pitches, the drop and tumble on his splitter is very good. He’s got a perfect high arm angle from which to deploy it, and before he wore down noticeably over the second half of the season it had flashed as enough of an out pitch to keep his long big-league odds alive. The undrafted Spitzbarth did some serious work with his hammer of a deuce during his time in the Cal drawing quality two-plane movement out of it while spinning it in the mid-80s.
Best Changeup (Starter): Cal Quantrill, Lake Elsinore (San Diego Padres)
Quantrill’s cambio is every bit as good as advertised – it may very well be the first one I’ve ever hung a 70 on, now that I think about it. The arm speed is a real separator for him, as he’s able to maintain and sell the pitch convincingly. He showed feel for locating the pitch in my looks, but it’s got that real Bugs Bunny action to it, where even when he makes a mistake and hangs one he can get away with it more often than not.
Lucchesi has one of the weirdest motions you’ll see out of a starter; it looks like a bad stop-motion animation take, with herky-jerky starts and fits at the beginning and a closed-off, uphill finish that makes diagnosing his release point very difficult. And that makes timing his changeup really, really hard to do. I didn’t get the best of looks at Barria, but evidently everybody else did, because he dominated his way to Triple A with impeccable command. The change allows him to get away with fairly pedestrian velocity, and he proved perfectly willing to flip the script and work off of it when he struggled to command the gas. Lambert doesn’t draw particularly notable velocity separation out of his change, but it plays really well off his fastball, and there’s just enough difference to make it a very effective pitch for coaxing out weak contact. Smeltzer’s low arm slot and slingy action help him generate a boatload of fade to his changeup, at least when he’s able to successfully turn it over.
Best Weird Reliever: Jack Anderson, Modesto (Seattle Mariners)
I felt so strongly about his idiosyncratic reliever game that I wrote up a “Notes” piece on him after first look. A true submariner with stirrups, mustache, and off-kilter mannerisms to match, Anderson impressed with surprising command of his low-80s, switch-back fastball. He generates just an absurd amount of groundball contact, and the breaker’s a fun kind of frisbee.
Others of Note: Colby Blueberg (SDG)
I’m not entirely sure what exactly Blueberg has left to prove against High-A hitters, but I do know that his production was again stellar in a second full season at the level. The Padres have unfortunately streamlined away a bunch of the short-armed, pole-vaulty motion he began last year with, but he still comes at hitters all funky-like and deploys two shapes of slider. At this rate he’ll be the Cal Leagues’ all-time Saves leader by next July.
Best Command: Nick Neidert, Modesto (Seattle Mariners)
Watching Neidert take a few warmup tosses, your first impression wouldn’t be to assume this is a dude capable of pinpointing balls all around the zone. But you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. The delivery is a hitchy affair, with a Kershaw-esque semi-pause on the way down into his drive and a glove hand that kind of hovers in space out front while he swing his arm. But by virtue of very good athleticism and excellent balance, he makes it work. He spotted pitches as well as anyone in the league this year, allowing him to play up the solid-average stuff by finishing sequences effectively.
Barria’s well-paced full wind and willingness to get after it in the zone combine to keep him painting all over the plate. There’s very good rhythm to his movements, to where he’s fluid and consistent from pitch to pitch. Shore supposedly squeezed a couple extra ticks out of his fastball at points last summer, but in my look he was busy making up for pedestrian gun readings by moving his fastball in and out and up and down. His ability to do that is going to get him to the big leagues some day.