So Many Big Upside Pitcher Gambles

With the increasing specter of a very delayed start to the season, teams on the bubble of contention have more incentive to make a play at fielding their best roster from day one. The lengthy Major League season is designed to weed out fluky short term performances. For example, the Phillies finished fourth in the NL East last season, but they led the division through the end of May.

The 2020 season was shaping up to be a good one in terms of competitiveness. I count only seven not making any effort to contend. Another eight are probably best classified as long shots with a chance to surprise us. At the very least, they’re moving in the right direction. It’s these eight teams that are most positively affected by a shortened season.

This can be great news for prospects, especially pitchers on innings counts. So today, I’d like to look at some pitchers who are now poised to receive a larger share of the workload.

Established Guys

Lance McCullers Jr.

Julio Urias

Brandon Woodruff

Carlos Martinez

Dinelson Lamet

These guys aren’t meant to be the focal point of this article, so let’s touch upon them briefly. All five have experienced health-related woes in recent years which were expected to affect their availability for a full 32-start season. McCullers and Urias are the only ones known to be on an innings limit, but it’s fair to assume the others were going to be very closely monitored at the very least.

All five of these arms have the potential to go on ace-like tears. One characteristic of this group is a propensity for short starts. McCullers and Lamet are max-effort pitchers who aim to fire five highly effective frames before heading to the shower. The Brewers love to maximize their pinch hitter usage which limits Woodruff’s ability to work deep into games. Martinez used to munch innings, but he hasn’t started since the first half of 2018.

Urias is the mystery box of the group. He also happens to be the most like the players in the next tier. After his injury last season, he was used as an Opener and long reliever. He seemingly has the stuff to make classic seven-inning outings, but there’s no proof of concept. At least not in the majors.

Some others who fit in this classification include Tyler Glasnow and just about every presently injured pitcher like Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Blake Snell, Carlos Carrasco, and even Griffin Canning. These aren’t interesting players to discuss, so let’s just move along.

Prospects on Bubble Teams

Spencer Howard

Nate Pearson

Michael Kopech

MacKenzie Gore

Jesus Luzardo

A.J. Puk

Dustin May would have qualified for this section if the Dodgers weren’t the Dodgers. Presently, he’d have to sneak past either Alex Wood or Urias. Ross Stripling is in the picture too. For now, I suppose he’ll await an injury to another rotation member. While I believe he’s better than Wood, that is both a “belief” (i.e. unfounded in reality) and only a very marginal upgrade. The Dodgers are better off hoarding the depth than trying to eek out an extra quarter of a win.

The same cannot be said about the other six pitchers listed above. They represent clear and massive upgrades to other internal options. And the Phillies, Blue Jays, Padres, White Sox, and Athletics need every marginal run in their favor if they hope to knock off the competition.

Let’s start with Howard who only recently appeared in his first Grapefruit League game. The Phillies top prospect is already arguably the best starting pitcher in the Phillies system with only Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler on hand to possibly gainsay the point.

Howard has a four-pitch repertoire of above average offerings. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and can run as high as 99-mph. He’ll induce plenty of whiffs and exhibits at least average command and control. Howard has yet to be challenged in the upper levels of the minors, having made only six starts in Double-A. He also thrived in the Arizona Fall League where he posted 27 strikeouts against just 10 hits and 10 walks in 21.1 innings. The elevated walk rate could indicate he’ll need to nibble a bit against tougher competition.

Pearson is similarly impressive (video) with one of the most devastating repertoire’s in prospectdom. He sits in the upper-90s and can pop 102 on the gun as a starter. He throws a sort of slutter – it’s a little more than a cutter but a little too hard for a slider – which can reach as high as 95-mph. His changeup is a lethal weapon against left-handed hitters, and he shows excellent feel for it. He’ll also throw a curve which looks to be at least an average offering.

In the Blue Jays system, only Hyun-Jin Ryu can reasonably claim to be a better pitcher than Pearson. He’s had some injury issues in the past but was finally healthy last year. Overall, he threw a little over 100 innings. If the Jays can milk another 100 innings from Pearson in the majors while getting some improvements from their young, but talented offense, they could really surprise some folks in the AL East.

Kopech has a similar mix of tools and weapons to Pearson, just without the devastating changeup. He’ll comfortably sit in the upper-90s and pepper the triple-digits. His breaking balls, especially his curve, have insane velocity separation from the heater. Despite a history of command issues, the light bulb seemingly clicked in 2018 – shortly before his elbow popped. He was one of the more closely covered pitching prospects this spring, and it appeared his command was, if anything, improved.

He’s well-removed from his Tommy John surgery at this point. While he would have been on a workload cap of some kind in a full season, he should be free to take a full fifth of the White Sox starts. That’s a huge upgrade on one of Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease, or Gio Gonzalez – not that they’re slackers.

The Padres are already known as perhaps the most aggressive team when it comes to prospect promotions. Nor do they fuss about club control. It’s a refreshing approach for fans. Gore, like Howard, has only minimal experience in the upper minors – five Double-A starts. Gore could take the place of Zach Davies, Joey Lucchesi, or the always-injured Garrett Richards.

The long-limbed southpaw has a funky delivery, which seemingly helps his stuff to play up. The fastball, at around 93-mph, doesn’t have special velocity but still plays like a double-plus offering. His repertoire is rounded out with a slider, curve, and changeup, all of which interact well with his heater and deceptive delivery. The tempo of the delivery reminds me of Cole Hamels but with an actual full set of weapons.

Luzardo, Puk, and Dalton Jefferies could help form the most dynamic Oakland rotation since the heyday of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson. Luzardo, a southpaw, was already ensconced in the rotation, but now we don’t need to worry about workload caps. Per BrooksBaseball, he appears to throw two distinct fastballs (scouting reports tend to focus only on his sinker). He has excellent feel for a breaking ball which he can shape like a curve or a slider. He’ll also toss a changeup which rates out as at least average.

Puk is currently recovering from minor shoulder inflammation or else he might have have ousted Chris Bassitt (himself an interesting deep league flier), Mike Fiers, or Sean Manaea from a rotation perch. Puk was on the fast track to the majors in 2017 before running afoul of the elbow reaper. He came back late last year mostly as a reliever, and could probably benefit from some competitive work in Triple-A.

The big southpaw relies on upper-90s zip with a devastating slider. Of those profiled here, he has the least matured repertoire. However, while he could be a dominant reliever right now, a future in the bullpen doesn’t seem necessary unless health intervenes. He also has a curve and changeup, and both pitches should play passably. Early in his career, Puk might be best employed as a short-outing starter in the mold of McCullers.

Since I mentioned him, Jefferies has swing-and-miss secondaries with excellent command of a four-pitch repertoire. His changeup is described as his best weapon. The Athletics don’t lack for rotation depth on the 40-man roster, but Jefferies seemingly rates as the most immediately impactful option on the farm.

We hoped you liked reading So Many Big Upside Pitcher Gambles by Brad Johnson!

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Has MLB established short-season policy on super 2 designation and any other mechanisms which teams (recently, not the Padres, as noted) wait out to preserve duration of team control? If there are guidelines, how might they affect 2020 promotion decisions, when games start? If guidelines are TBD, shouldn’t we be careful about the possibility of teams delaying promotion of relevant prospects many weeks after the season finally begins?