As the season progresses (and sadly, as more and more starters succumb to Tommy John surgery), many a young pitcher will be called up to make his ML debut. To introduce some of the more intriguing first-time starters then, I’ve a priming segment: On The Bump. Consider these posts your cliff notes, a cheat sheet if you will, for looking good at the local sports bar in front of your friends, annoying your significant other at home, or purely for feeling smug whilst sneakily watching MLB.tv on your iPhone at work. Whatever floats your boat, you’ll be prepared at least.
Who is this guy? Timothy Edward Butler, that’s who! No wonder he goes by Eddie… Anyhow, Butler is a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher who grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia, and attended Greenbrier Christian Academy. The Texas Rangers selected him in the 35th round of the 2009 draft straight out of high school, but Butler opted instead to take his talents to Radford University. Three years later, he was a (supplemental) first round pick, this time drafted 46th overall by the Colorado Rockies, and received a $1 million signing bonus. Probably the right choice to stay in school then.
What has he done? Immediately sent to the Pioneer League after signing in 2012, Butler promptly went 7–1 with a 2.13 earned run average (ERA) and 55 strikeouts, leading the league in ERA, WHIP (1.06) and opponents’ average (.230) in his short pro debut. Not a bad start. His 2013 campaign though, would be even more impressive. Beginning the season with the Low-A Asheville Tourists, Butler would make only 9 dominant starts (1.66 ERA, 0.92 WHIP) in the South Atlantic League before being moved up to the Modesto Nuts of the California League. There we would again impress, posting a 2.39 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. After pitching one inning of scoreless ball in the All-Star Futures Game, the then 22-year-old was promoted once again, this time to the Double-A Tulsa Drillers, where he would make six starts to conclude the season. Allowing just two runs in his time at Double-A, Butler would finish the season with a cumulative 1.80 ERA, and strike out 143 batters in 149.2 innings (28 starts), and land on Top 100 rankings released by Baseball America (#24), Baseball Prospectus (#26), and MLB.com (#41). So far in 2014, he’s made 11 starts at Tulsa, throwing 68.2 IP with a 2.49 ERA and 1.180 WHIP, whilst forming one of the scariest one-two combinations in the minor leagues with Jon Gray.
How has he done it? Well, according to Fangraphs writer Marc Hulet’s scouting report when he ranked Butler as the rockies’ no. 1 prospect prior to the 2014 season, “Butler made huge strides with his secondary stuff in 2013 and projects to now have three solid weapons with his mid-to-upper-90s fastball, changeup and slider — all of which feature a lot of movement. He also has a curveball that lags behind his other offerings. Along with swing-and-miss stuff, Butler’s ground-ball tendencies make him an ideal pitcher for Colorado.” Here’s his changeup making Xander Bogaerts, you know, the guy currently hitting .297 with a 133 OPS+ who won a World Series ring with the Boston ‘freakin Red Sox last year and is a whole year younger than me, look particularly foolish during the Futures Game last summer:
With a pretty low arm slot (which helps him get so much late break on his secondary stuff, particularly that upper 80s slider), you’d have thought Butler would be susceptible to large platoon splits. Not the case; left-handed hitters hit just .202/.278/.300 against Butler in 355 plate appearances last year, compared to a .192/.250/.262 line in 512 plate appearances for righties. Though his K/9 rate has dropped off significantly so far in 2014 to just 5.24, it’s not too much of a worry at this point. Just re-watch the gif a few times – he’ll be fine. (For a more complete breakdown of his stuff, I’d recommend Baseball Prospectus’ ‘The Call-Up’ feature, though it’s available to subscribers only).
Why is he pitching in the majors? How about this? Because Franklin Morales is stinking up the joint. Pressed into starting duty after, surprise surprise, Brett Anderson of all people, was injured (who saw that coming?!), Morales has posted a 6.03 ERA in 62.2 innings of work, which is somehow the third-most innings anyone on the Rockies staff has pitched this year. Furthermore, those numbers are not simply bad luck, as evidence by his nauseating 5.77 FIP.
Meanwhile, after starting the season ridiculously hot, the Rockies have cooled significantly of late; since May 20, Colorado has won just two games and lost ten (including being drubbed 16-8 by Arizona last night) to fall two games below .500 and 9 1/2 games behind the division-leading Giants. In that stretch their staff has a 5.58 ERA, the second-worst such mark in the majors, and seen their offense further diminished by the losses of Nolan Arenado (broken finger, May 24th) and Carlos Gonzalez (finger, sent to the 15-day DL today). Throw in Jordan Lyles breaking his glove hand last night, and the Rockies are in addition to suddenly swooning, banged up too, and in need of some help to stay in the NL West race.
What they’re saying: “The time is right… Eddie has been very dominant at times over the last couple of seasons. We knew he was a big-leaguer, it was just a matter of time. We feel like we could use some help in the rotation and he’s a very talented young pitcher.” Thanks for making my job easy Walt Weiss. Much better than Troy Tulowitzi’s offering anyway – “I hope he comes in and pitches well enough to give us a chance to win.” Great insight there Troy.
Worth a follow on Twitter? Err, maybe? Here are a few samples:
8am class.. this sucks…
Blake shelton !!!! Whoooo! Awsome.
— Eddie Butler (@Butler4Life) June 25, 2012
On the bus to Rome. New bus driver. Working bus. Gonna be a good road trip
— Eddie Butler (@Butler4Life) May 16, 2013
Perhaps not actually.
Anything else? He’ll be going up against Hyun-Jin Ryu and the Dodgers when he makes his debut at Coors Field on Friday, so perhaps don’t rush out to add him in your fantasy leagues just yet. Keep an eye out for his Double-A running mate Gray too; with Lyles’ injury, he could soon be arriving in Colorado to partner Butler once again in the very near future.
As the saying goes, ‘there’s no smoke without fire.’ So when a rainout last Friday conveniently enabled the Blue Jays to shuffle their Triple-A affiliate Buffalo’s rotation, and align the starts of prized prospect Marcus Stroman with the struggling Dustin McGowan, the rumors that an imminent rotation change north of the border started like wildfire. With McGowan apparently lacking the stamina to pitch deep into games (he recently admitted to feeling fatigued around the 60-pitch mark), Stroman dominating Triple-A competition, and the Blue Jays desperately needing strong contributions from their starters in the loaded AL East, the move looked locked in; yesterday’s aligned outings, Stroman vs Louisville, and McGowan at Kansas City, should have been the duo’s last shared night of pitching (starting-wise, anyway – out of options, McGowan would likely end up in the bullpen).
The 6-foot-3 McGowan, who has lost years to injury, tried his best to delay the inevitable yielding of his rotation spot to Baseball Prospectus’ no. 27 ranked prospect. Against the same Royals offense that last week made Corey Kluber look like Clayton Kershaw, McGowan turned in his finest outing of the season, allowing only three hits and two earned runs in six innings of work, dropping his ERA from 6.88 to 5.87 in the process. Unfortunately for the 32-year-old, Stroman was also at his best – more on that later – seemingly intent on proving to Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous why it should be him taking to the bump to face the Pirates on May 4th.
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) April 30, 2014
At just 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Stroman might not immediately look like one of Major League Baseball’s best pitching prospects, but the soon to be 23-year-old’s filthy stuff (it’s his birthday on Thursday) belies his less than imposing stature. Since being taken with the 22nd overall pick by the Jays back in 2012*, the native of Long Island, N.Y., aside from a short PED suspension in 2012 (deemed a genuine mistake from an earnest kid – he paid off his mom’s mortgage with part of his $1.8 million signing bonus), has rolled his way through the minors. After an impressive, albeit abbreviated, 2012, he was excellent for Double-A New Hampshire in 2013, recording strikeout and walk rates of 28.1% and 5.9% respectively, in 111.2 innings of 3.30 ERA ball. So far in 2014, he’s been even better; heading into Tuesday’s match-up with Louisville, in his first taste of Triple-A competition, Stroman had a 2.18 ERA with 26 strikeouts and six walks over 20 2/3 innings.
I hear you though – ‘Get to the good bit – what about that ‘filthy’ stuff you mentioned?’ Well, according Jason Parks’ Top 101 Prospects write up for Baseball Prospectus:
The diminutive former Duke Blue Devil and USA Baseball standout showcases a dynamic arsenal and, with a plus-plus fastball and slider, one of the most explosive one-two combinations in the minors. The heater is a low to mid-90s offering with late giddy up, while the slider comes with sharp wipeout action. He shows excellent feel for the slide piece, with an additional ability to tighten it up to cutter depth with upper-80s to low-90s velocity. He’ll also flash a plus changeup with abrupt late fade and good trajectory deception.
Quite simply, Stroman has elite promise in the strikeout-ability category**. Turns out he can field his position pretty handily too:
That video was filmed during Stroman’s outing for Buffalo against Louisville yesterday, and may have been the fourth or fifth most impressive thing he did all night. The highly touted right-hander didn’t allow a hit in six shutout innings against the Bats, striking out 10 and issuing just one walk before being lifted after 80 pitches (56 of them for strikes).
With a 1.69 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings, it’s taken all of five starts for Stroman to make it quite obvious that Triple-A is of no obstacle to him, and he’s done seasoning in the minors. Assistant GM Tony LaCava recently stated that Stroman’s time is ‘coming soon’ – that time should be now. With McGowan not the only Blue Jays starter struggling (hey there Brandon Morrow!), and the team badly in need of a power arm atop the rotation (however good they are, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey aren’t exactly lighting up radar guns), there’s an obvious need for the organizations no. 2 prospect too. Toronto management should not let themselves be confused by Kansas City’s terrible offense.
* Washington had actually drafted him straight out of Patchogue-Medford HS back in 2009 in the 18th round, only for Stroman to go to Duke University instead.
** Considering their shared diminutive profiles, the subsequent concerns over his pitch trajectory, and the incredible strikeout potential they both possess, I can’t keep myself from drawing comparisons between Stroman and Yordano Ventura – who is working out pretty well in Kansas City by the way.
Release the prospect hounds! Yesterday, they had George Springer‘s Astros debut to slather over; soon they should have another stud outfield prospect to get excited about too. After Pittsburgh’s starting right fielder Jose Tabata left yesterday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds with “mild” concussion-like symptoms* – an injury sustained when he crashed into the fence making a spectacular catch – the Pirates have a decision to make: do they simply continue on their NL Central quest with Travis Snider manning RF everyday, or do they call up top prospect Gregory Polanco from AAA to the majors? If you were wondering, the correct answer is the latter option.
Signed as an international free agent back in 2009, the toolsy outfielder from Santo Domingo emerged from nowhere in 2012 to post a .325/.388/.522 line at Low-A West Virginia in the South Atlantic League, with 16 home runs and 40 stolen bases in his 485 plate appearances to boot. Having earned a ranking as the 51st best prospect in baseball from Baseball America, Polanco’s breakout continued last year, the then 21-year-old batting .285/.356/.434 (and accruing 12 home runs and 39 stolen bases too) across three stops, finishing the year at Triple-A Indianapolis. Having appeared in 44 Dominican Winter League games in which he produced a .922 OPS, the fast-mover homered off of David Phelps in his very first at-bat of Spring Training this year, eventually posting a very respectable .804 OPS in his 10 games played. Everything then looked in place for Polanco to make his big league debut with the Pirates sometime after the Super-2 deadline in June.
In conjunction with Tabata’s injury, Snider’s own health problems/lack of production, and Pittsburgh’s slow start, the 22-year-old’s incredible showing so far in 2014 may have accelerated that original timetable; rivaling the much-ballyhooed production of Springer, Polanco has so far batted a ridiculous .426 with two home runs and six extra-base hits in his 47 at-bats for the Indianapolis Indians. Perhaps even more incredibly, considering how he’s still learning to identify and handle breaking balls, according to J.J. Cooper, as of Tuesday Polanco had swung and missed at only six of the 170 pitches he had faced so far this year, one of which was to protect on a steal attempt. In the words of former Double-A coach Carlos Garcia, “You are talking about the next superstar for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This kid is unbelievable.”
While the full extent of Tabata’s ailment is unclear as of yet, Pittsburgh could certainly do with the shot in the arm Polanco has the potential to provide offensively. Continuing the positional malaise of last year (Pittsburgh’s right fielders combined to bat .242/.299/.385 with 16 home runs, 62 RBI and 144 strikeouts in 675 plate appearances, good for 0.8 collective fWAR), the 2014 platoon of Tabata and Snider have so far combined to hit just .231/.275/323 with only two home runs and 4 RBI through their 69 plate appearances. Their struggles however, have only been a microcosm of the team’s offensive woes; the Bucco’s currently have a team batting average of .223 (third-worst in the majors, propped up only by Houston and Tampa Bay), and a ghastly on base percentage of .294 (26th in the ML), while their 57 runs scored place them in the lower third of NL production. It’s likely however, that the Pirates will at least wait a little while to see what Snider can do in an everyday role, though his own brittle injury history (the 26-year-old set a personal high when he played in 111 games for the Pirates in 2013) and lack of production (he owns a .641 OPS in 471 plate appearances in his time as a Buc) don’t offer much hope of a breakout ahead.
Already possessing the range of a center fielder thanks to that foot speed that so aids him on the base paths, Polanco would thus likely be an instant upgrade not only at the plate, but in the field as well; along with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, his presence would almost instantly elevate Pittsburgh’s to one of the most exciting outfield trios in the game**. Given the competitive nature of the NL Central – with the perennial win-machine Cardinals, frisky Brewers, and my Reds coming around too – and how their other top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon (out for the year due to Tommy John surgery) and Tyler Glasnow (lower back tightness) are both on the shelf, Pittsburgh probably can’t afford to wait much longer for Polanco’s impact. The Pirates need to get their season going if they’re to seriously push once again for the playoffs. Calling up Polanco – especially now that there is a spot in the lineup available – would certainly be one way to move into a higher gear.
And really, if Houston can promote Springer already, given their more pressing circumstances, Pittsburgh have little excuse not to.
* I will for once resist arguing that there is no such thing as a “mild” concussion.
** Baseball Prospectus, in fact, wrote of the impact of such a defensive triumvirate, “the gaps in the PNC Park outfield will be the newest graveyard for doubles and triples.”
When I first found out I would be attending the University of Oregon for this academic year, I immediately scoped out the Eugene sports scene. Obviously there were the Ducks – who hasn’t heard of them? – and the Nike-inspired running community, but what I didn’t know was that the town was also home to the Eugene Emeralds, the short season affiliate of the San Diego Padres. I quickly threw myself into their season, and followed them from afar; a decision that led to my specifically bookmarking one prospect’s Baseball Reference page, a player who I’ll be closely monitoring this upcoming year.
After batting .345 for Mississippi State, and pasting 16 homers in the process of leading his squad to the College World Series finals, the Padres selected first team All-American Hunter Renfroe with the 13th overall pick in the 2013 amateur draft – a move called by Fangraphs to be “interesting… given that his best tool is his plus raw power and the club plays its home games in a very spacious park.” Still, with the ceiling to be a five tool outfielder at the major league level, the Padres saw a bargain; scouting director Billy Gasparino dubbing his pick “a unique player.” And after quickly signing their prize for slot value ($2,678,000), the right fielder was despatched off to the Northwest League to join the Ems.
Renfroe didn’t stay in Eugene long enough for me to catch him live, but performed well enough in his short stay to be ranked the no. 2 prospect in the league, right behind the Cubs’ 2013 first round pick Kris Bryant; after just 104 at bats (25 games), Renfroe had a slash line of .308/.333/.510, including nine doubles and four home runs, numbers sufficiently dominant to warrant his end of season promotion to the Midwest League. There, with the Fort Wayne TinCaps, he fared less well, compiling a .212/.268/.379 line (with five doubles and two home runs) in his 16 games against sterner competition – struggling to either get on base or hit the ball with his customary authority. After following up his long collegiate season with his professional debut, the power hitter’s slower bat speed was most probably an issue simply caused by simple fatigue rather than anything to have long-term concerns about.
That would be his decison-making on when to swing the lumber; With a cumulative OBP of .308 across his professional career so far, and a 49/8 strikeout to walk ratio to boot, Renfroe undoubtedly has room to improve in terms of plate discipline and pitch recognition. Still, as Baseball Prospectus said of the slugger, his “ability to hit to hit tape-measure homers cannot be ignored.” With solid range, good athleticism and a gun for an arm too (the 22 year old is a converted catcher, but also apparently featured a mid- to upper-90s fastball as a reliever), Renfroe profiles favorably as an above-average right fielder. An above-average right fielder whose batting philosophy – as told to David Laurila – is to “just try to hit the ball right in the face.”
Despite his late season struggles, the scouts remain high on Renfroe; he has already drawn comparisons to Nelson Cruz, with Fangraphs writer Marc Hulet assessing “the Mississippi State alum looks capable of developing into an average or better corner outfielder with 20+ home run potential.” The Padres too, have every confidence in their outfield prospect; Projected to begin the season at High-A Lake Elsinore in the California League, if all goes well for Renfroe, he should end the year bombing away in Double-A, with an eye towards making his major league debut in 2015. There he will hopefully be part of the next great Padres team, joining a group that ideally will also include fellow top prospects Austin Hedges, Max Fried, Matt Wisler, and Casey Kelly.
I’ll be keeping tabs on him every step of the way.