Sunday, February 28, 2010

2010 Top Prospects pt. 9: Left-Handed Starters

Left-handed starting pitchers tend to be more coveted than their right-handed counterparts, and generally can succeed in the majors with less stuff. As a whole they do not throw quite as hard or have breaking pitches quite as nasty, but that does not mean they are lesser prospects. As always this year features many players with lights-out stuff as well. At the top of the list you will find some close to finished products, but there are also a bunch of very high ceiling players emerging in the low minors.

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
Pt. 8: Relievers

1. Brian Matusz - Orioles (7)

Matusz was about as close to major-league ready as you will find in a draft pick when he was taken 4th overall in 2008. He dominated college hitters with four pitches that all had potential to be effective major-league offerings and commanded them all. He needed less than a full season in the minors before making his big league debut and was solid over eight starts to close out the season for Baltimore. He should break camp with the team this year and be a fixture in their rotation for the season.

Matusz throws a fastball, curve, slider and changeup, getting great leverage on all of them because he stands 6'4 and uses a high 3/4 arm slot. The fastball sits in the low-90s and is a little straight but he is adept at spotting it to either side of the plate. He throws his curve and slider with similar frequency although the curve is slightly better at this point, featuring sharper downward break. His changeup is his least effective pitch but is still solid and gives him a weapon to combat right-handed hitters. It is his ability to spot all of his pitches that separates Matusz from other prospects. Because he does not have exceptional velocity or one dominating pitch, most evaluators do not believe he has the potential to be an ace, but he's an excellent bet to settle in as an efficient, durable number two starter.

2. Aroldis Chapman - Reds (16)

Chapman created quite a stir at the 2008 World Baseball Classic when he routinely threw in the high-90s for Cuba. Baseball scouts were drooling over his potential and when he defected last year suitors lined up for his services. Surprisingly it was the Reds that landed him. Despite his performance in the WBC, most who have seen him do not believe he is ready for the majors yet, and some wonder if he has the repertoire to make it at all as a starter.

Chapman has the best pure arm of any player on this list, giving him one of the highest ceilings. Right now he is extremely raw and throws essentially only a fastball and slider, with the latter needing a great deal of work. His fastball is not yet a reliable plus pitch either because he struggles to harness it. It is believed that he will be 22-years-old on opening day and that means that time is still on his side. He could probably handle the big leagues right now if used out of the bullpen, but Cincinnati gave him a ton of money because they believed he would be an ace to anchor their rotation. He will be one of the most watched players in the minors this year because everyone will be getting a chance to see him extensively for the first time and are curious what he is capable of.

3. Madison Bumgarner - Giants (17)

When the Giants selected Bumgarner 10th overall in 2007 out of a small North Carolina high school, they believed they were getting a lefty with a big arm that was a bit of a project. He surprised everyone in 2008 when he was simply the most dominant pitcher in minor league baseball. At 18-years-old he posted a 1.46 ERA over 141.2 innings while striking out 164 and only walking 21 in low-A ball. Last year he again kept his ERA under 2.00 but his velocity diminished as the season wore on and his strikeouts simultaneously plummeted. Even though he was working with the worst stuff he had shown as a pro, he pitched 10 major league innings late in the year, allowing only 2 runs and racking up 10 strikeouts. Although he wont be 21 until August, Bumgarner showed he was nearly ready for the majors now.

Bumgarner's loss in velocity as the year went on is a concern because the fastball is his only plus pitch, and it was sitting in the high-80s by September. There is no evidence that he was injured and most believe it was simply a product of a young player who was not accustomed to the increased workload. Interestingly, when his velocity dipped, his fastball's movement increased and he started generating a huge amount of ground-balls. His slider and change project to be only average so he will need his fastball velocity to return to the mid-90s if he expects to pitch at the front of a rotation. If that does not happen, he should still be an effective starter, but not nearly the pitcher most expected after his 2008 season.

4. Martin Perez - Rangers (23)

The diminutive Perez pitched all of last season at 18-years-old and dominated low-A ball. He struggled after a late season promotion to AA but that was expected for a player so young. Because he is a lefty from Venezuela and a little on the short side, Perez has been compared to Johan Santana routinely by scouts who have seen him. While comparing prospects to a multiple Cy Young award winners is usually ludicrous, it works on many levels with Perez. The pair have similar motions and while Perez is a long way from reaching that level, his stuff and feel for the game are extremely advanced.

It is rare to see a prospect with three pitches that all get called "plus" by nearly everyone who sees him, but that is the case with Perez. His fastball sits in the low-90s with exceptional movement, while his curve and changeup both seem to be allergic to bats. If Perez was a couple inches taller and had more than one full injury-free season under his belt, he would rank number one among left-handed pitching prospects. While I do not expect him to reach the majors next year as a 19-year-old there is an outside chance it may happen. If he does spend the whole season on the farm, Perez is the favorite to rank atop this list next year.

5. Mike Montgomery - Royals (24)

Montgomery is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Perez. He is a tall, lanky, left-hander with big time arm strength and a lot of rough edges to iron out. He was drafted in 2008's supplemental first round and spent his first full season in the minors split between two levels of A-ball, dominating both leagues. Many of the Royals highly drafted hitters have struggled in the minors, but their pitchers have advanced quicker than most expected and Montgomery has the highest potential of the promising group. He should spend most of this season in AA, getting his first taste of more advanced hitters.

Montgomery throws four pitches and by far the most advanced is his fastball. It sits in the low-90s but has touched 95 in some starts and gets described as heavy because of how rarely batters lift it. In 110 innings last season he allowed only one home run and that is primarily due to his fastball. Montgomery also features two different curve balls. One he describes as a "palm curve" that was his go-to breaking pitch in high school. It tends to get loopy but the more traditional variation he throws is sharp and powerful. Although he rarely throws his changeup, it has plus potential and he will need to use it more as he moves up the ladder. Montgomery has flown under the radar a bit so far but he has the stuff of a potential ace and should get a lot more recognition if he continues to succeed as he moves up the ladder.

6. Tyler Matzek - Rockies (31)

Matzek was drafed 11th overall in 2009 but was described by most scouts as the top high school pitcher in the draft. Some teams were scared off by his asking price, and he did receive a huge bonus of 3.9 million. He features a rare combination of size, projection and an advanced repertoire for a teenager. The Rockies have taken things slow with their prospects the last few years, particularly pitchers, but Matzek should start 2010 in a full-season league and could dominate in a fashion similar to the way Madison Bumgarner did in 2008.

Matzek's fastball has been clocked in the high-90s but generally sits in the 91-94 range with excellent life. He has shown both a curveball and slider that have potential and a changeup that he controls very well for a prep pitcher. Because he was able to retire high school hitters routinely with just the fastball, all of his secondary offerings are works in progress right now, and he will need time for them to develop. It is difficult to remember a left-hander drafted out of high school who had such a high ceiling and with so few red flags as Matzek. Colorado made a significant investment in him but he has an excellent chance at delivering in a huge way.

7. Christian Friedrich - Rockies (34)

Friedrich was the Rockies 2008 first round pick and was considered the most advanced left-handed pitcher in that draft other than Brian Matusz. That was very apparent last year as he Rockies gave him a fairly easy assignment and he responded by embarrassing hitters at two different levels of A-ball. Friedrich has outstanding control of all his pitches and rarely walks batters. While his command and advanced feel for pitching are generally the first things mentioned when describing Friedrich, his stuff isn't exactly pedestrian.

Friedrich does a good job working off his low-90s fastball. His best pitch is a big curveball that features sharp downward break. He also throws a slider and change that have average potential. Because Friedrich's command is so good and he throws four distinct offerings, he should be able to mow through AA batters. However, the Rockies have been reluctant to send young pitchers to their AAA affiliate because it is a very friendly hitting environment. Friedrich will be 23 in August and has a chance to reach the majors this season, but more likely will establish himself in the rotation at some point in 2011. He does not have the ceiling of Tyler Matzek but is a safer bet to become at least a mid-rotation starter.

8. Matt Moore - Rays (40)

Moore has been handled carefully by the Rays since they selected him in 2007's 8th round. He spent all of 2008 in rookie ball and absolutely blew hitters away and then did the same in 2009 at low-A. He averaged nearly 13 strikeouts per nine innings, but also just over 5 walks. Moore is one of those pitchers who seems incapable of throwing the ball straight and hitters in the low minors have looked foolish trying to square his pitches.

Moore's fastball usually does not come in at much over 90 miles-per-hour but has heavy sinking action that results in both swings and misses and weak contact. His best pitch right now is a high-70s curve that will occasionally flash movement unmatched in the minor leagues. His changeup also tumbles drastically and because of it he should have little trouble with right-handed batters. Although he cut down on his walk totals as the season wore on, command remains Moore's biggest obstacle. He has had difficulty throwing consistent strikes with all of his pitches and that is why his ERA crept over 3.00 last season even with his huge strikeout numbers. High-A hitters will probably not have much more success but by the time he reaches AA, Moore will need to show improved control to succeed.

9. Casey Crosby - Tigers (60)

Crosby was drafted in 2007's fifth round and signed to a well over slot deal. He already looks like a wise investment for Detroit. He is a similar pitcher to Montgomery, a tall projectable lefty with a live fastball and secondary pitches that boast potential. The reason he rates lower on the list is because he has already undergone Tommy John surgery. On the positive side, he bounced back last year to post impressive numbers in the low-A Midwest League. He was a strikeout machine and when hitters did make contact they routinely beat his pitches into the ground for weak outs.

Crosby's fastball was already back to its 92-94 mph velocity last season with life. He also showed the ability to command it well for a 20-year-old coming off major arm surgery. He also has a curveball that will flash plus movement that is generally more down than across the zone. Crosby's changeup lags behind his other pitches because he almost never threw it before getting hurt and does not trust it yet. The Tigers were careful with him last season, keeping him in a pitcher friendly league all year and keeping him on a strict pitch limit. Detroit loves power arms and has moved pitchers aggressively before, so it would not be a surprise see him reach AA this season.

10. Nick Hagadone - Indians (69)

Hagadone was a supplemental first round pick in 2007 but has registered just over 100 professional innings because he lost essentially all of 2008 and part of 2009 due to Tommy John surgery. Even with the injury concerns, Cleveland required his inclusion in the Victor Martinez trade because they believed he had ace potential. In terms of raw arm strength few can match Hagadone when he is healthy. Everything went right for him in the second half last year as he was able to take the field and his stuff was nearly all the way back.

Hagadone's fastball is routinely in the mid-90s with arm-side tail. It is a pure power pitch that he can throw up in the zone for strikeouts or down in the zone for ground balls. His slider is, in many ways, equally impressive. It has a huge amount of two-plane break that gets lefties to flail helplessly. He uses the pitch against right-handed batters as well and often has them swinging at pitches that almost hit them in the back foot. His changeup has been rarely used and lags well behind at this point. Hagadone could have success as a starter with just two pitches but needs to gain experience and build up his durability first. 2010 will be the first time he can truly focus on pitching as a professional and he could rocket through several minor league levels in 2010.

11. Zach Britton - Orioles (74)

Britton has quietly turned himself into an excellent prospect, slowly building up momentum since being drafted in the third round of 2006. Since signing he has been extremely durable and consistent but has never stood out because none of his pitches are particularly flashy. In all of the hype surrounding Baltimore farm hands Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and to a lesser extent Jake Arrieta, Britton has gotten lost. He is a sinkerball specialist, but unlike most pitchers of that type, he has the potential to develop into more than an innings eater.

Britton's bread and butter is his sinker, which generally averages about 90 miles-per-hour, but has more movement than many similar offerings used by major leaguers. Like most pitchers that use a sinker, he also has a solid slider that is his primary weapon against left-handed batters. What separates Britton is his changeup which already gets plenty of swings and misses from right-handed batters. He has only advanced to high-A so far but his versatile repertoire should make for easy transitions up the ladder. Britton will begin 2010 in AA and should be able to crack the rotation at some point in 2011.

12. Manny Banuelos - Yankees (81)

On the surface, Banuelos appears to have a lot in common with Martin Perez. They are both undersized, latin, left-handed pitchers who dominated low-A last year at 18-years-old. However, Banuelos is simply not in Perez' league. He is even smaller than Perez at 5'10 and has less projection left in his body. Surprisingly, Banuelos' feel for pitching might be even more advanced than Perez'. His control is outstanding and even when he did occasionally get in trouble last year his poise helped him get out of danger. He is a decent athlete for his size and already does a solid job fielding his position, but needs to improve at holding runners on.

Where Banuelos falls short (no pun intended) is his stuff. His fastball sits in the high-80s and it is unlikely that he will add much more velocity. His changeup is an excellent pitch that gets swings and misses but his curve has been very soft thus far. The Yankees always try and teach their prospects a two-seam fastball but if Banuelos loses the typical 2-5 MPH by throwing that pitch, it is unlikely he will throw hard enough to get major-leaguers out. Anytime a teenager dominates the South Atlantic League it is worth taking note, but because of his pedestrian arm, Banuelos runs the risk of being nothing more than a left-handed Yusmeiro Petit, and that is what keeps him from being an elite prospect.

13. Danny Duffy - Royals (82)

Duffy was a third round pick in 2007 and lacks the ceiling of Royals' teammate Mike Montgomery, but is a very solid prospect in his own right. He is a little unorthodox in his delivery but it as worked for him so far, as he posted solid numbers across the board last year in high-A as a 20-year-old. He has shown an innate ability to miss bats with his fairly average stuff and could be a mid rotation starter down the road.

Duffy's fastball does not typically sit much over 90 miles-per-hour and even though it is not very hard, he does get his fair share of grounders with it by working down in the zone. It is actually his best current pitch because his curve gets too soft at times and his changeup is still developing. He will probably need to find a better secondary offering if he is going to have more success when he moves up the ladder. He has a lot of deception working for him, and enough arm strength to get hitters out. The Royals have a lot of talented young pitchers in the pipeline and it will be difficult for Duffy to standout from the crowd, but he has a good chance at finding a home in the rotation down the road.

14. Pedro Figueroa - Athletics

Figueroa is a power pitcher who works off a pair of fastballs and an inconsistent slider. He is still raw for a 24-year-old and has not pitched above A-ball, but has a potentially powerful repertoire. Before last season you would struggle to even find a mention of him on any prospect lists, but he was solid in 2009, mostly due to the improvement in his slider and now has a legitimate shot at being an above average starter.

15. Jon Niese - Mets

Niese has a fringy fastball but a plus curve and advanced control give him a chance to be a mid rotation starter in the majors. He suffered a brutal hamstring injury just as he was cementing his spot in the Met rotation last year. He should be fully recovered before the start of opening day, and if he is, Niese would probably deserve a spot in the Mets rotation.

16. Noel Arguelles - Royals

Arguelles was the other left-handed pitcher, that defected from Cuba, on the market. He is younger than Chapman but boasts less upside as his fastball is generally in the low-90s. His secondary pitches already show above average movement. It is difficult to evaluate him because we know even less about him than Chapman, and 2010 should give us a better idea of just how seriously he should be taken as a prospect.

17. Chad James - Marlins

James sometimes get lost because he was one of many extremely talented prep pitchers in the 2009 draft. An excellent athlete, he throws a low-90s fastball and a changeup that is already solid and has a chance to be plus. He has not found a consistent breaking ball yet and that will be one of his top priorities when he begins his professional career in 2010.

18. Robbie Ross - Rangers

Ross is an undersized pitcher with a quick arm and the ability to touch 94 miles-per-hour. His best pitch is a low-80s slider that features two plane break. He has not pitched in a full season league yet, but his stuff and propensity for inducing ground balls gives him mid-rotation potential.

19. Jaime Garcia - Cardinals

Garcia spent most of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery but saw his stuff return fully by the end of the year. His best pitch is a swing-and-miss curve with hard downward bite. His fastball only occasionally gets above 90 and he does not throw a changeup but Garcia has mid-rotation potential. He features a cutter along with his fastball and curve to combat right-handed hitters and it has worked so far.

20. Trevor Reckling - Angels

Reckling had one of the least impressive strikeout-to-walk ratios of any prospect but still has front of the rotation potential. His biggest asset is the deception he gets from an unorthodox delivery, but his stuff is also excellent. He has a big breaking slurve to go with an advanced changeup and solid sinking fastball. He was not ready for AA last year but held his own and may start 2010 back there.

21. Aaron Miller - Dodgers

Miller barely pitched in college but the Dodgers took him in the supplemental first round anyway because he can run his fastball up into the mid-90s. He also has a solid slider but struggles to command both and is extremely raw for a college draftee. As a two-way player, he is an exceptional athlete and should be able to fix his command in time.

22. Mike Minor - Braves

Minor was taken 7th overall in 2009, a significant reach for a pitcher that generally works in the high-80s with a fairly straight fastball. He also features two fringy breaking balls and a changeup that is currently his best pitch. Minor's biggest asset is his ability to command all his offering and change speeds. He profiles as a back of the rotation starter with an outside shot at being a bit better than that.

23. John Lamb - Royals

Lamb wasn't considered by most teams in the 2008 draft because he missed his high school senior season with an off the field injury. The Royals did their homework and got a pitcher with mid-rotation potential for their efforts. He has the standard fastball/curve/changeup repertoire and all three pitches have a chance to be slightly above average.

24. Kasey Kiker - Rangers

Kiker's stuff has dropped off since he was drafted and his ceiling has fallen along with it. On his best days he now works in the low-90s with a solid curve and above average changeup. At 5'10 he struggles to keep the ball down and without his plus velocity might be too homer prone to stick as a starter in the majors.

25. Troy Patton - Orioles

Patton was the key piece in the trade that sent Miguel Tejada to the Astros, but he injured his arm before ever throwing a pitch for Baltimore. Finally healthy in 2009, his stuff was not quite all the way back and his once superb command also did not show up everyday. He has a low ceiling, but his stuff might improve some as he moves farther away from the date of his surgery.

26. Andy Oliver - Tigers

Oliver was a typical Tigers draft pick because his lone plus asset is arm strength. He can sit in the mid-90s at times but all of his secondary pitches are in the nascent stages and his command is also a bit rough. He has potential but will take more work than most college draft picks.

27. Travis Wood - Reds

Wood is a changeup specialist with below average fastball velocity and a curve that is below average as well. Because he only has one plus pitch Wood seems like a potential reliever, but without an average breaking pitch, he is more effective against right-handed batters. The Reds have several young starters and Wood may get lost in the shuffle but he could find a home in the back of their rotation.

28. Matt Maloney - Reds

Maloney does not have a single above average pitch but is a stereotypical crafty-lefty who throws nearly every pitch in any count. His ability to change speeds and mix his pitches has been very effective against hitters in the minors but probably will not work as well against big-leaguers.

29. Chris Dwyer - Royals

Dwyer is very raw for a 21-year-old but can sit in the low-90s and has two potential plus secondary pitches. He throws his curveball hard and that gives it sharp break and he will occasionally flash a plus changeup although the pitch is very inconsistent. Dwyer should start 2010 in low-A and simply needs to harness his arsenal.

30. Kyle Lobstein - Rays

A raw 2008 draft pick, Lobstein's velocity, movement and command all fluctuated wildly during his debut last season. He has a quick arm that should give him above average velocity and he will occasionally show a big breaking curve. He threw a changeup occasionally last year but it was typically too hard did not give enough separation from his fastball to be effective.

31. Juan Urbina - Mets

Because they lacked a first round draft pick, Urbina was the best amateur talent the Mets brought into the organization last year. Only 16, he already throws in the high-80s and has the makings of a plus changeup. He is all projection at this point but was one of the best available pitching talents coming out of Latin America last year.

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