Friday, 11 December 2009

Farm Report 2009: The Starting Pitchers

I need to be a bit faster about wrapping these up. The Baseball America Top 10 list for the Blue Jays comes out December 14 and I'd like to have all the positional lists done before that time. Actually, in an ideal world my Top 40 list would have gone up before then but the delays associated with the host switch might have killed that chance.

In any case, here's my ranking of the Jays' SP prospects.

(see the 2008 list here)

1. Henderson Alverez: 4 - 18 - 1990 / 6'0", 190 / Free agent signing out of Venezuela

It's hard to overstate the team's opinion of the 19 year old right hander. Alex Anthopoulos has already referred to him as "maybe our #1 prospect" and he's not being hyperbolic when he says that. Alverez came into the season with outstanding ability to get the ball over the plate (1.17 BB per 9IP in 2008 in the GCL) and this year, in Lo-A Lansing, he added the ability to miss bats along the way. His ERA dropped from 5.63 to 3.47, his BAA dropped from .310 to .251 and if that wasn't enough, he dropped from 3 HR allowed in 46.1 IP in 2008 to ONE homer allowed in 124.1 IP in 2009. On top of that, his K rate improved as the season wore on. there's no facet of his game that should give us pause.

While the Jays are expressing new found caution when it comes to rushing prospects, Alverez is clearly ready for Dunedin and barring a setback Alverez could be knocking on the door by 2013 if not before.

2. Zach Stewart: 9 - 28 - 1986 / 6'2", 205 / 3rd round, 2008 draft

The prize return from July's Scott Rolen trade and, some argue, the guy who instantly became the Jays top prospect, Stewart has done nothing but impress during his brief pro career. The catch is, Stewart's inning ceiling is still relatively low, which seems to cause some confusion among commentators regarding his future role in the majors. count me as one who firmly believes the Jays will develop Stewart as a starter.

Stewart was used primarily as a reliever in college given that he featured a dominating fastball and a solid slider and little else. Some questioned the Reds' selection of a college reliever with ordinary stats in the third round but scouts were impressed with his physical ability. The problem is that being used in relief limited the innings he's accumulated in a given season. In 2008, between Texas Tech and the Reds minor league system, he pitched a mere 70 innings. At that point, there were questions about his control as he'd walked 35 hitters in those 70 innings.

In 2009, Stewart opened the season in the Sarasota (Hi-A) rotation where he posted seven dominating starts, featuring not only solid hit, HR and K rates, but greatly improved control (8 walks in 42.1 IP). The Reds promoted him to AA where he got another seven starts and continued to impress. The Reds then were forced to exercise caution lest Stewart accumulate too many innings. He was promoted to AAA and shifted to the bullpen where he accumulated another 12.1 innings before the trade. In other words, a man who came into the season with a ceiling of 100 IP at most, came to the Jays with 91 of those already in the bank. Thus the Jays wisely chose to leave Stewart in the bullpen to finish out the year.

Across the four team he pitched for in 2009, Stewart posted a 3:1 k:BB ratio in 105 IP and gave up only three homers. Look for the 23 year old righty to be a mainstay in the Las Vegas rotation in 2010. however, don't expect him to be forced into the majors as a starter. He'll be capped at roughly 140 innings this year and its unlikely the Jays will try to manage his innings in the majors. To say nothing of starting his service time clock when they have so many other options. With a solid season he could be a candidate for a major league job in 2011, however. All that said, the Jays have so much upper level SP depth that it isn't inconceivable he might end up as a closer candidate at some point.

3. Chad Jenkins: 12 -22 - 1987 / 6'4", 225 / 1st round, 2009 draft

Jenkins is approaching his 22nd birthday and, thanks to protracted contract negotiations, he has yet to give us any professional innings upon which to remark. Pitching at Kennesaw State in 2009, Jenkins posted 98 Ks and only 15 walks in 92 innings pitched, all as a starter. Jenkins is a highly intelligent and physically gifted pitcher who some scouts thought was very close to being major league ready on draft day. One report suggested he could hold his on in the majors by the middle of 2010.

Jenkins features two plus fastballs - a two-seamer and a four-seamer - and major league quality pitches in his slider and his change up. He has the build of a workhorse type pitcher and room for more improvement in his already considerable skills. the caveat of course is that the level of competition he's faced to this point has been questionable. Jenkins could start his pro career as high as Dunedin and move as fast as his results merit. If things go well, one might anticipate the Jays having a top-rated starter prospect knocking on the door of the majors in each of 2011, 2012, and 2013.

4. Brad Mills: 3 - 5 - 1985 / 5'11", 185 / 4th round, 2007 draft

Funny thing about Mills, he was the third ranked starter on my list last year, and both the starters ranked ahead of him lost their rookie status in 2009 and he's ranked 4th this year. It's not so much for lack of performance on his part, albeit he had a bit of a lost season, but the fact that the three mentioned above simply have a higher ceiling than Mills.

Last spring the reportage on the Jays training camp featured many stories about how the team was very impressed with Mills' make-up and intelligence. while he's a player of back-of-the rotation tools, he gets the most out of his abilities and is a smart competitor. The circumstances of the spring competition left Mills on his way to AAA Las Vegas and Ricky Romero coming from the back of the pack to break camp with the major league squad. April saw Mills, who had entered the season with less than 33 innings pitched above A ball, struggle with his control and have serious difficulty striking out batters. The thinking was beginning to grow that he would perhaps be well served to return to AA. But he turned those numbers around in May and June (55 Ks in 55.1 IP) to the extent that he got a call from the injury plagued major league club in mid-June.

That's where things really went off the rails for Mills. The young lefty got knocked around in two starts for the Jays and was promptly shipped back to the 51's where he got all of one more start (an impressive one) before succumbing to an injury that would cost him the rest of the season. I've just wasted the last hour trying to confirm WHAT was injured, with no luck. I THINK it was his back, but I'm uncertain. At one point it was announced he was heading to the AFL then that was changed. I've heard nothing to suggest that Mills will not be ready to throw in the spring but the landscape has changed radically.The major challenge for Mills, from a scouting perspective, is keeping the ball down and avoiding the long ball. From an organization point of view, it's something else altogether.

The emergence of Romero, Cecil, and Marc Rzepczynski in 2009, along with the recovery or potential recovery of Marcum, McGowan, and Litsch, creates an intimidating depth chart above him, and the approach of the three righties listed above creates a pretty narrow window for the 24 year old lefty to make his mark.

5. Robert Bell: 8 - 26 - 1985 / 6'3", 190 / 18th round, 2008 draft

I think I can confidently say that I've got Bell ranked higher than anyone else, and it's possible that I'm giving him too much credit for dominating the Florida Stat league as a 23 yer old but it's also possible that Bell turns out to be a late round steal. Bell was moved by the Jays out of the bullpen and into the starting rotation in July, and he only has 10 starts as a pro. But the thing is, he got even better as a starter than he'd been in the pen. How good had he been?

Well consider, in 2008 he pitched 30.2 innings of relief, striking out 43 and walking . . . none. Zero. Nada. in 2009 he started off in the Dunedin bullpen and 40.1 innings over 32 appearances, pitching in the shadows of more notorious relievers Tim Collins and Trystan Magnuson. In that time he gave up a stingy .200 BAA and struck out 56 while walking 10. After moving to the rotation, he threw another 56 innings and had a better ratio of hits allowed, walks allowed and homers allowed (only one as a starter) while lowering his BAA and posting a strikeout per inning. It's uncertain if the Jays' depth chart can accommodate him as a starter all the way to the majors, but he deserves the chance to remain in that role until it's proven he can't handle it.

Bell has also been referred to in some quarters as a potential closer. But that was before his remarkable performance in the rotation. At a bare minimum he's going to be either a nice trade chip or a potentially solid RH set-up man.

6. Bobby Ray: 1 - 21 - 1984 / 6'5", 195 / 7th round, 2005 draft

Ray is a dead ringer for A.J. Burnett except for the fact that he doesn't have AJ's arm. Still, the soon to be 26 year old RHP is not without talent. After being beset with injuries in 2006 and 2007, Ray re-established his credentials with a solid but unspectacular season in 2008. Early on in 2009, he was the beneficiary of other people's injuries, but after pitching 24 innings for the Jays, the injury bug returned, this time in the form of dreaded shoulder issues. Ray was back rehabbing in Dunedin late in the year and got to pitch in the AFL where he got another 24 innings over seven starts, with mixed results.

With the "injury prone" label now firmly attached, and the Jays expansive high-minors depth chart, Ray needs to stay healthy and effective in 2010. This ranking is possibly generous, since there is much than can go wrong here given the nature of his latest injury. But he's either better or closer than anyone else that might have been listed here, in my opinion. If he can stay healthy, he has a chance to at least be a solid relief pitcher in the majors.

7. Andrew Liebel: 3 - 22 - 1986 / 6'0", 195 / 3rd round, 208

Liebel is an interesting case. He's one of those guys who can throw all his pitches for strikes, but none of them are outstanding pitches. He is, in a sense, the right handed version of Brad Mills, but that kind of ability doesn't get you as much traction when you aren't left handed. On the other hand, Liebel was regarded as one of those guys with a very good makeup and a solid "baseball IQ" that should allow him to make the most of his limited abilities. Last year I mentioned that he's the sort of guys that Dave Bush or Shaun Marcum were expected to be when they were in A-ball and that still applies, in the most general sense. But Marcum's ratio's were much much better all through the minors and he actually got a cup of coffee in the bigs at 23, so Liebel isn't remotely in his class, ability and more importantly performance wise, at this point.

In a weaker field, Liebel is the sort of guy who might bounce back and fourth trying to break into a major league rotation he's not quite good enough for. In the Jays' system, I tend to think he's never going to be high enough on the depth chart to be a major leaguer, short of a rash of injuries leaving them no alternative. I think his ceiling is not unlike that of one-time Jays minor leaguer Josh Banks, albeit with a somewhat different skill set.

8. Luis Perez: 1 - 20 - 1985 / 6'0", 205 / FA signed out of the Dominican Republic

Honestly, Perez is listed here almost entirely just because he's on the 40 man roster. His walk rate was high, and his K rate low for my tastes to be a 24 year old pitcher at AA. On the other hand, his BAA against was pretty good and his HR rate was above average, and he did skip Dunedin to get here so it's possible the Jays coaches see something that doesn't come through in the numbers. Still, the backlog of prospects is going to make it tough for Perez to advance in the Jays' system if everyone is healthy (like that ever happens).

9. Jose Vargas: 7 - 19 - 1990 / 6'0", 166 / FA signed out of Panama

Vargas started the season at the tender age of 18. He pitched in the Dominican Summer League which is a very low level of competition but he was outstanding in that role for the second straight year. The lean lefty posted a minuscule 1.34 ERA in 16 games, though only 6 were starts. He did pitch just as well as a starter as a reliever, averaging over 5 IP a start and posting a WHIP right around 1.00 while holding opposing hitters to a .225 BA (as a starter, .211 overall). Vargas could be next year's Alverez in terms of bursting onto the Jays' prospect charts if he gets a chance to play in Auburn at least..

Other names to notice in 2010:

Rieder Gonzalez, Kenny Rodriguez, Chuck Huggins, Kyle Ginley, Daniel Webb, Egan Smith, Randy Boone, Deivy Estrada (Estrada rocked the DSL to the tune of an 2.66 ERA pitching almost the entire season at age 16)

Now, I wouldn't be doing justice to this position if I didn't note that while technically no longer prospects, Brett Cecil and Marc Rzepczynski while technically no longer prospects or even rookies are still not locked-in major leaguers either. The odds are pretty strong that one or both could pitch in the minors for a significant portion of 2010.

Here, for your edification, is a depth chart of Jays starters, ranked on the major league level by career innings pitched (injured players marked with *):

Roy Halladay, Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan*, Jesse Litsch*, Ricky Romero, Scott Richmond, David Purcey, Brett Cecil, Marc Rzepczynski, Bobby Ray, Brad Mills. It's not hard to see how some of these guys, even those who have graduated from prospect lists, could spend a lot of time in Vegas this year.

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