Wednesday, February 24, 2010

2010 Top Prospects pt. 8: Relievers

Relief Pitchers are by far the hardest group of prospects to rank. First of all, many of the relievers in the majors today are failed starting pitchers and they may have only made a handful of appearances out of the pen in the minors. But even more significant, is just how volatile the position is. So many relievers blow out their arms or come out of nowhere to post excellent numbers. Because of that, take this list with a grain of salt. I am sure that a lot of players listed here will never see the majors, and it is equally possible that some players I did not list are going to have very good careers. Several players that are currently starters who appear destined to move to the pen for one reason or another are here as well.

Pt. 1: Catchers
Pt. 2: First Baseman
Pt. 3: Second Baseman
Pt. 4: Shortstops
Pt. 5: Third Baseman
Pt. 6: Corner Outfielders
Pt. 7: Center Fielders

1. Drew Storen - Nationals (71)

Storen is the other player Washington drafted in 2009's first round. He was the first pure reliever selected after anchoring Stanford's pen. Storen is a little atypical for an upper tier closer prospect. He does not have huge velocity and generally sits in the low-90s. What makes him the top reliever prospect is his pair of breaking balls, both of which are plus pitches. Most relievers only use one secondary pitch, but Storen throws a big breaking curve and a power slider, both of which generate lots of strikeouts.
After striking out 66 in 42.2 innings as a junior at Stanford, Storen was selected 10th overall and signed quickly. Because of the quick contract negotiations, he was able to pitch 37 innings for Washington over three levels in the minors last year. He then picked up another 13 innings in the Arizona Fall League where he only allowed one earned run. Wherever he pitched last year, Storen was dominant. He struck out batters at a rate of 12 per 9 innings after signing, while allowing only 8 walks in those 37 innings.

The Nationals probably have the two players that should get to the majors quickest out of the 2009 draft in Storen and Stephen Strasburg. Storen has already had success in AA thanks to his excellent three pitch mix and plus command. Given how much he has already shown, and the general ineptitude of Washington's pen last year, I expect Storen to make his major league debut at some point in 2009, maybe even opening day. Even without a knockout fastball, Storen has closer potential and is as close to a sure thing to develop into at least a setup man as you will see in a relieving prospect.

2. Zach Stewart - Jays (85)

Stewart, acquired in the Scott Rolen trade last season, has bounced back and forth between the rotation and pen since signing as a third round pick in 2008. He still has a chance to make it as a starter, but I think his most likely destination is as a late inning reliever. Stewart's best pitch is a low-90s sinker that generates a ton of ground balls. He compliments it with a plus slider and a changeup that improved significantly in 2009 and now rates as an average pitch. When working out of the pen he rarely uses the changeup.

The Reds seemed to believe that Stewart was a reliever long term but moved him into the rotation to start 2009 to hasten his development. He responded well, making seven starts each at high-A and AA before earning a promotion to AAA. After reaching AAA they moved him back into the pen to keep his innings down, but he was traded soon thereafter. Toronto left him in the pen to close the year at AAA but has stated that he will return to the rotation to begin 2010. Stewart did not rack up gaudy strikeout totals, but his best pitch is the sinker, and he was a ground-ball machine last year.

Although Stewart's propensity for inducing ground-balls and three-pitch mix are probably enough to make it as a starter, I think he would be more effective out of the pen. He has never pitched a heavy workload of innings and although he has been healthy, it is always a risk converting a reliever to a starter. His stuff also is not as strong when starting and he may struggle to miss bats with the diminished movement on his slider. Stewart should see the majors at some point in 2010 and this will be a big year in determining his long-term role with Toronto.

3. Daniel Schlereth - Tigers (89)

Schlereth was a dominant power reliever at Arizona for three seasons before being drafted in 2008's first round by Arizona. He was sent to Detroit along with Max Scherzer in the deal that sent Edwin Jackson to the desert. Detroit loves power arms and Schlereth certainly fits that description with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. He also features a low-80s curve with 11-5 movement that is his strikeout pitch. He has toyed with a changeup but rarely throws it.

Schelereth blew away AA to begin 2009 and was in the majors before long, where he struggled with control. The strikeouts were still there but his walks ballooned to unacceptable levels. For a player one year out of college it is not surprising that he started to not trust his stuff and nibbled after the promotion. A little more time is all he should need to develop into a reliable option at the back end of a big league bullpen.

Detroit already had one of the best relievers from the 2009 draft in Ryan Perry and is probably looking at their future closer/setup combo with the pair. Schlereth has always generated more swings and misses than Perry and appears to be the more likely bet to be a dominant reliever in the majors. He will probably break camp with the Tigers and slowly work his way into higher leverage innings over the course of 2010.

4. Craig Kimbrel - Braves

Kimbrel's command can get a bit wayward at times, partially because both of his pitches move so much. His mid-90s fastball has big time tailing action and his slurvy breaking ball has made minor-leaguers look silly so far. Kimbrel only needs time to iron out his command issues and when that happens he should be a very effective reliever.

5. Phillippe Aumont - Phillies

The massive 6'7 Aumont has always flashed off-the-charts potential but has rarely been able to stay on the field because of injuries. His main pitch is a sinker that can sit in the mid-90s when he works in relief, and he also has a big breaking curve that has been inconsistent so far. The Phillies acquired Aumont as part of the Cliff Lee trade in the off-season and will attempt to develop him as a starter.

6. Dan Runzler - Giants

Runzler broke out with a big year in 2009, showing a mid-90s heater and sharp curve from a high left-handed arm slot. He got his feet wet in the majors last year and has the stuff to eventually become San Francisco's closer. His emergence was a bit of surprise and pairing him with Jeremy Affeldt should give the Giants two of the best power-lefty relievers in baseball.

7. Jake McGee - Rays

McGee looked like he might be anchoring the Rays rotation some day after big seasons as a starter in 2006 and 2007, but he needed Tommy John Surgery in 2008. He was able to get back on the field last year for a couple of innings but because of Tampa Bay's pitching depth he is unlikely to get a shot at starting with the team again. If he regains his full strength, McGee should be able to touch the high-90s with his fastball and strikeout plenty of hitters with his slurvy breaking pitch.

8. Henry Rodriguez - Athletics

Rodriguez has hit 100 with his fastball and 90 with his slider but rarely has any idea where either is going. His control has been awful, but his stuff is so overpowering, he probably would not even need average control to be an effective reliever. If it ever develops farther than that, he could be dominant.

9. John Gaub - Cubs

Gaub's stuff has steadily increased over the last few years and last season he routinely hit 95 with his fastball but his best pitch is a high-80s slider with as much movement as anyone's in the minors. He struggles to command it because of its break, but the pitch is essentially un-hittable for left-handed batters.

10. Rex Brothers - Rockies

Another lefty with a lightning quick arm that generates mid-90s heat and a plus slider. Brothers got some time in the low minors last year after being drafted and should fly quickly through the levels in his first full season, this year.

11. Josh Lindblom - Dodgers

Lindblom has been developed mostly as a starter but has been more effective out of the pen. He throws a sinker in the low-90s while starting but it jumps up in velocity as a reliever. He also features an above average curveball and fringy changeup. If he returns to the pen full time he may reach the majors this year.

12. Kam Mickolio - Orioles

At 6'9 and with an unusual delivery, it is tough for hitters to pickup the ball out of Mickolio's hand. His mechanics add deception but also hinder control, which has held Mickolio back thus far. His stuff is also extremely impressive as he generally throws in the mid-90s and also has an average change and slider.

13. Mark Rogers - Brewers

A former 5th overall pick in 2004, Rogers always had a huge fastball and big curve but little control. He missed all of 2007 and 2008 with arm injuries but was able to retake the mound last year. All three of his pitches (a changeup being the third) showed flashes of their previous potential last season and with more recovery time he may still have a chance at starting. Rogers is a wild card at this point because of his injuries and it is difficult to know exactly what Milwaukee can get out of him.

14. Scott Mathieson - Phillies

A former excellent prospect as a starter, Mathieson has had two arm surgeries since then but has reinvented himself as a power reliever. He can still hit the mid-90s with his heater and has a slider and changeup that both have good movement. Command was never his strong suit, even before the injuries, but it should be less of an obstacle working out of the pen.

15. Brandon Erbe - Orioles

Erbe is a solid prospect as a starter with Baltimore but there are so many talented pitchers in front of him, he is likely to end up in the pen. He uses a low arm-slot with an average slider and changeup, but all of his pitches should play up if he does become a reliever. He pitched very well in a brief appearance at the Arizona Fall League this year and would probably end up a starter for most teams.

16. Scott Elbert - Dodgers

Elbert recently moved to the pen due to durability and command issues. His low-90s fastball, sharp slider and deceptive changeup all have plus life and can miss bats, but Elbert's command over all of them is below average. Moving to the pen should help him stick in the majors faster, where he could be much more than just a lefty-specialist.

17. Zach Braddock - Brewers

Braddock has much better command than most relieving prospects and his stuff is more than sufficient as well. He generally throws in the low-90s with his fastball and has an excellent slider as well. Braddock has moved slowly thus far but should make it to the majors this year if he continues to pitch at such a high level.

18. Brad Holt - Mets

Holt generated a lot of buzz with a great debut in 2008 but came back to Earth a bit last year. He has decent command and excellent life on all three of his pitches, although his velocity on all of them is less than ideal. He is going to continue to develop as a starter for now but his stuff should play up in the pen and I think that will be his ultimate destination.

19. Craig Italiano - Padres

Italiano was drafted as a Starter by the A's in 2005. Although he has worked mainly out of a rotation since, Italiano's future is in the pen. He has had some serious durability issues since being drafted and only has two reliable pitches so relieving is the best fit for him. He has a low arm-slot that results in his slider having big break across the zoneand he is particularly effective against right-handed batters because of it.

20. Josh Fields - Mariners

The previous Mariners regime loved taking relievers in the first round and Fields was drafted with the intention of him being their closer some day. At Georgia he had one of the best breaking pitches in the country and mid-90s velocity but his stuff has dipped since turning pro. He will try to regain his previous form this year and re-establish himself as a top relieving prospect.

21. Mark Melancon - Yankees

Melancon had Tommy John surgery shortly after being drafted but has been durable and consistent since. He struggled with his command in a couple brief stints with the Yankees but his low-90s fastball and power curve make him look like a future setup man.

22. Antonio Bastardo - Phillies

Bastardo has mostly been a starter but the Phillies seem intent on using him out of the pen now. He will probably not be a lefty-specialist because his best secondary offering is an average changeup. Bastardo should spend most of 2010 at the back of the Phillies bullpen gaining experience, and his plus velocity from the left side could make him a setup man down the road.

23. Aaron Poreda - Padres

Poreda was part of San Diego's return for Jake Peavy. He fires mid-90s fastballs from a low arm slot but is yet to develop a reliable secondary pitch. It is his failure to develop another offering that forced him to the bullpen. His fastball has the potential to be special, but he will be stuck as a middle reliever without another pitch.

24. Graham Stoneburner - Yankees

This might be a bit of a homer pick, but I really like Stoneburner's combination of a mid-90s fastball with movement and a short breaking power slider. He has only one professional inning under his belt so far but could move quickly as players in the low-minors will likely find his stuff overwhelming.

25. Mike Dunn - Braves

Part of the package acquired for Javier Vazquez, Dunn throws both his fastball and slider very hard. His command has always been poor but it is slowly improving and if that continues, he has closer's stuff.

26. Jose Ceda - Marlins

Ceda missed all of 2009 after surgery on his arm, but before that was one of the best relieving prospects in the minors. Pre-injury he pitched routinely in the upper-90s and featured a hard breaking slider. His command was always fringy and missing time will certainly not help that, but few can match his velocity.

27. Anthony Slama - Twins

Slama is probably the softest thrower on this list but also has generated some of the most extreme strikeout totals. His sinker does not get much above 90 and his slider often sits in the 70s, but both pitches have a ton of movement. Already 26 and without great stuff, it remains to be seen how Slama's results will translate at higher levels, but he has handled every challenge thus far.

28. Ryan Tucker - Marlins

Tucker has spent time as both a reliever and a starter, but his two pitch mix fits better in the pen. He throws hard and his slider is so fast it looks like a cutter, but major-leaguers were not fooled by his stuff last year. He will get another chance to stick with Florida this year.

29. Josh Roenicke - Blue Jays

Another player acquired in the Scott Rolen trade, Roenicke doesn't boast Zach Stewart's upside but looks like a sure bet to stick in the majors. He throws a four-seam fastball with good life and two sliders with different velocities and break. He is 27, but a finished product that will stick in the majors this year.

30. Donnie Veal - Pirates

Veal always drew comparisons to Dontrelle Willis for his low arm-slot from the left side and fastball/slider combo. Those comparisons turned out to be a little too accurate as both have struggled mightily with control problems the last couple seasons. Veal was one of the best pitchers in the Arizona Fall League this year and that has resulted in renewed hope that he may figure it out yet.

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