2021 Peripheral Prospect Shortlist: Pitchers

Recently I published my Peripheral Prospect hitters for 2021. In a perfect world I would have published my thoughts on a wider array of hitters periodically throughout the season. Alas, this is not a perfect world, so I settled for a year-end catch-all post.

Rinse and repeat for pitchers. The rules: (1) They pitched in the high minors (Double-A or Triple-A) but not the MLB level, and (2) they cannot be featured on any prominent top-100 list. Top-100 updates count (and all due respect to those updated lists, because revising your priors is not a bad thing!).

Brace yourselves: I’m kicking this off with three Cleveland farmhands with whom I implore you must familiarize yourself. Eight Peripheral Prospect pitchers for your fine Wednesday:

Peyton Battenfield, CLE SP

2021 stats (A+-AA): 2.53 ERA (3.01 FIP), 32.9% K (14.9% SwStr), 4.8% BB, 40.4% GB

Cleveland, the moment it acquired Battenfield from the Rays (and probably Battenfield, too, learning of his new home):

You can see it in his stats: Battenfield boasts impressive command while piling up whiffs. Once projected for a bullpen role, the Guardians transitioned him to the rotation, where he continued to dominate hitters (but in longer stints) with low-to-mid-90s heat and a filthy swing-and-miss cutter.

At this point, if you’re a minor league pitcher, it’s hard to imagine a better landing spot than Cleveland—doubly so if you profile as precisely the kind of pitcher the Guardians seem to develop so efficaciously. Like his predecessors who boasted gaudy strikeout-to-walk ratios (K/BB) like Shane Bieber, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and the like, Battenfield could quietly win you fantasy leagues in 2023.

…For as long as we can keep under wraps long enough in 2022, that is. I’ll tell you now, those like me who love a nice market inefficiency are already in the know about Battenfield. Make moves before you miss your chance, if you haven’t already.

Logan Allen, CLE SP

2021 stats (A+-AA): 2.26 ERA (3.30 FIP), 33.2% K (15.5% SwStr), 6.0% BB, 35.8% GB

Whereas Battenfield was drafted as a 9th-rounder—that is, whereas Battenfield has had to overcome much greater odds to get to where he is now—Allen was a 2nd-rounder and looked every bit the part in his first taste of pro ball. I suppose the Guardians felt a need to replace the veteran busted prospect Logan Allen with a new one.

But, for real, Allen cleans up with a plus (or better) change-up and a solid curve that he can throw for strikes. My understanding is Allen’s low-90s fastball velo made scouts and prospectors bearish on his eventual ceiling, and in their defense it remains to be seen how that fastball holds up against Triple-A and MLB hitters. But for now, between a well-rounded arsenal and solid command, Allen has established for himself a comfortably high floor.

Nick Mikolajchak, CLE RP

2021 stats (AA): 3.18 ERA (3.02 xFIP), 35.2% K (16.3% SwStr), 5.6% BB, 31.5% GB

I try to reserve these annals for starters, but I will make the very rare exception for Mikolajchak, who has yet to make a start as a professional. Purely in a relief-only capacity, Mik has compiled a 36.9% strikeout rate and 4.8% walk rate (32.1% K-BB, 7.75 K/BB), 2.09 ERA (2.64 FIP), and 16.1% whiff rate in 64 innings and change.

He’s a college arm who’s “old for his level,” but he has steamrolled his competition with a flat, elevated fastball from a low arm slot, a high-80s cutter, and a low-80s slider (that we list on his player page and have reported here as a curve—thanks to Eric Longenhagen for the specs and clarification). At that same linked post, Longenhagen reports that Mik added a couple of ticks to his fastball and curve: “he now has an impact power pitcher’s fastball/curveball combo.”

Whether it’s a curve or slider, it appears Mik will make mincemeat of opposing hitters with his fastball and breaking pitch with a show-me change-up that he may never need (but it probably wouldn’t hurt to have). I think Emmanuel Clase is not just superior to James Karinchak (and not just because of recency bias) but to most other closers. So you’re talking about an unstoppable force (Mik, in his upward ascent through Cleveland’s system) eventually confronting in immovable object (Clase), the latter of which should prevail. But it’s hard to imagine Mikolajchak in any place other than high-leverage relief, which could net him some holds and the occasional save.

Josh Winder, MIN SP

2021 stats (AA-AAA): 2.63 ERA (3.40 FIP), 29.1% K (16.6% SwStr), 4.7% BB, 39.0% GB

Longenhagen reported that, like Mikolajchak, Winder’s “changeup was altered in 2020 and now has a little more armside fade than it did before, and he’s also added a couple hundred rpm to his curveball.” Mind you, this was written before the 2021 season—that is, before Winder compiled one of the high minors’ best swinging strike rates. Sounds like causation more than correlation to me.

His fate, whether as a reliever or a starter, allegedly hung on the development of those secondaries which, indeed, developed. He has yet to appear in relief as a professional, and after massacring Double-A hitters (and with Minnesota’s rotation in shambles), Winder should hold on to aspirations of starting for a good while longer. He finished the season on a low note—a 4.67 ERA in four Triple-A starts—but he has exhibited the requisite skills for MLB success.

Tommy Romero, TBR SP

2021 stats (AA-AAA): 2.61 ERA (2.85 FIP), 33.3% K (16.2% SwStr), 7.1% BB, 35.5% GB

The Rays’ system is so preposterously deep (remember, it casually traded away Battenfield, who ranked an absurd 48th within the system prior to last season) that Romero is purely organizational depth where he might otherwise be a legitimate starting pitching prospect for a talent-starved team.

Romero arrived in St. Petersburg as part of the Alex Colomé trade (you win some, you lose some) as, in the words of Longenhagen, a “spin axis freak,” largely relying on a unique delivery to propel him to success. Then, like everyone and their mothers, he added 4 to 6 mph, suddenly sitting mid-90s with an unusual delivery and fastball shape. Evidently, it worked: he went from a very modest profile to a seemingly spectacular one.

If you read the hitters’ counterpart to this post, you will remember nearly everyone on that list was Rule 5-eligible. Count Romero as part of that group as well (and Winder, too, because of course). So, maybe he gets a shot elsewhere on a team that needs him more. Longenhagen had projected him in relief before his breakout 2021, so his tune may have changed since, but regardless, some teams simply don’t have the luxury of stowing an arm like Romero’s, funky as it is, in the bullpen.

Brandon Williamson, SEA SP

2021 stats (A+-AA): 3.39 ERA (3.20 FIP), 37.4% K (17.0% SwStr), 8.1% BB, 40.0% GB

Since his debut in 2019, Williamson boasts some of the gaudiest strikeout and swinging strike rates in all the minors. Longenhagen ranked him fairly highly within the org (12th preseason, 9th midseason), and he was a 2nd-rounder in 2019, so it’s not as if he’s a total nobody—and the peripherals to date suggest as much. From Longenhagen:

The command still gets a bit loose, but his low-to-mid 90s heater and low-80s power breaker feature good shapes and spin, and his changeup projects as average. Pitch efficiency will ultimately define his role as a starter or reliever, but he certainly looks like some kind of future big leaguer.

Incidentally, Williamson’s outcomes also seem to reflect some of Longenhagen’s concerns—chiefly, that he can’t really sustain his stuff in long-enough spurts required of a successful starting pitcher. The strikeouts are there, and the command is good enough (although one must approach an 8% minor-league walk rate with caution), but the ERA and BABIP are inflated for someone who could, and perhaps should, be so dominant. Still, he pitched into the sixth inning in nearly half his starts, finishing six-or-more innings in about half of those.

The Mariners have some interesting arms ascending the ladder, yet somehow the major league rotation is, in a word, barren. Behind Marco Gonzales, Logan Gilbert, and Chris Flexen 플렉센, there’s hardly any depth (Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield, and recently-departed Ljay Newsome have/had done little to inspire confidence). That means we could see Williamson in the Seattle’s rotation as soon as 2022, especially in light of its bullpen being jam-packed with impact arms.

Jake Eder, MIA SP

2021 stats (AA): 1.77 ERA (3.18 xFIP), 34.5% K (15.3% SwStr), 9.4% BB, 50.3% GB

Whereas most other Peripheral Prospect pitchers thus far boast strikeouts and command, Eder lacks the latter but makes up for it with something toward which the others hadn’t really shown a propensity: ground balls. Eder signed in 2020 out of college, so he hit the ground running this year, starting at Double-A and promptly striking out nearly 35% of the hitters he faced en route to a sparkling 1.77 ERA.

Longenhagen has expressed skepticism of Eder, whom he has tracked for half a decade, and his skepticism appears relevant and warranted in light of Eder’s nearly double-digit walk rate. There’s big velo (less so at Vanderbilt than in high school) but “zero feel to pitch.” It’s the kind of profile that would play up in relief, certainly.

Mostly, I’m curious where the grounders come from. It could be a small-sample blip—anything can happen in 70-plus innings—but perhaps it’s from his curve, which MLB.com calls a low-80s slider. Regardless, the movement of this particular secondary (which MLB.com graded as “plus”) and velo differential could keep hitters off-balance. It could also simply be the product of hitters chasing mediocre control. Either way, big-time K’s and grounders don’t grow on trees.

Graham Ashcraft, CIN SP

2021 stats (AA): 3.00 ERA (2.86 FIP), 28.4% K (15.3% SwStr), 8.1% BB, 58.8% GB

Here we go again: whiffs plus grounders. Ashcraft leads with a power cutter and finishes with a power slider that, in this post, he throws at the top of the zone for a backwards K. Most likely he routinely works it low, which means he works up and down pretty effectively.

Like Eder and Williamson, it remains to be seen how Ashcraft’s fringe-average command will fare as a starter at the highest level. Perhaps his most realistic comp, at least from a “profile and role within the same organization” standpoint, is Tejay Antone. (Antone had a power sinker, not a power cutter, although in 2021 he did away with it in favor of a perfectly divvied slider-curve-fastball mix. But I digress.)

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Honorable Mentions for Dudes who Graduated in 2021

Reid Detmers, LAA SP
Aaron Ashby, MIL RP/SP
Glenn Otto, TEX SP
Joe Ryan, MIN SP
Kutter Crawford, BOS SP
Reiver Sanmartin, CIN SP

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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1 year ago

Jake Eder was #76 on Baseball America’s midseason list before he blew out his elbow. He technically isn’t eligible for this by your qualifications.