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 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 new 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? The Mets’ No. 2 prospect behind Noah Syndergaard, that’s who! Out of the Dominican Republic Montero signed with the Mets at the relatively late age of 20 back in 2011. Despite his late introduction to professional ball stateside however, the diminutive righty has shot through the farm system to become one of the more polished pitching prospects in the game.
What has he done? Montero split the 2013 season between Double-A and Triple-A, compiling a total of 156 innings and 150 strikeouts to go with a combined 12-7 record and 2.78 ERA in his 27 starts. Pitching in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in Triple-A, Las Vegas’ Cashman Field, Montero greatly aided his prospect status with 88.2 innings of sub-3 FIP ball – he had a 2.87 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and surrendered only two homers in nine home starts. Having started 2014 back in the PCL, the 24-year-old has done nothing but impress once again; prior to his promotion he was 4-1 with a 3.67 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 41 2-3 innings, and tossed 5 1-3 hitless innings (98 pitches) in his last start – a win over Salt Lake. He also started the 2013 Futures Game at Citi Field for the World team
How has he done it? Though slight of build, he possesses as close to a perfect delivery as any in the game, an easy and repeatable motion from a three quarter arm slot that truly benefits his performance. According to Marc Hulet of Fangraphs ‘[Montero’s] strengths as a pitcher are his above-average command and control, which help all three of his pitches play up. He possesses a low-90s fastball, slider and changeup.” Sounds dead-on: while he doesn’t overpower batters (though he can reach back for some 95 mph heat if he needs it), thanks to his sound mechanics, that great command of his fastball and slider in particular has allowed him to dominate his minor league competition thus far.
Why is he pitching in the majors? Primarily because Jenrry Mejia, after a couple of decent enough starts to begin the season, has lately proven he can’t work through a big league lineup effectively more than twice (he can ‘moonwalk’ off the mound after striking out a batter to end the inning however). To wit, Mejia was limiting opponents to a .193/.258/.246 line in their first plate appearance of the game, a somewhat-palatable .245/.365/.415 triple slash the second time around, but a disastrous .405/.500/.595 clip the third time through. Combine his dicey injury history (the 24-year-old has already undergone two operations on his right elbow, including Tommy John surgery in 2011), with the Mets’ horrific relief corps (they’ve deployed both Jose Valverde and Daisuke Matsuzaka far too plentifully for a team with any self-respect), and a trip to the bullpen was log in the cards for Mejia – opening up a rotation spot.
What they’re saying: Las Vegas 51s manager Wally Backman gave his departing stud a nice endorsement on his way out the door – “With Rafael, he’s able to locate to both sides of the plate, commands his off-speed stuff. He throws every pitch over the plate for strikes. If he falls behind in the count, he’s capable of throwing his changeup, his breaking ball over for strikes at any time. He’s always ahead in the count and the kid really knows how to pitch.” But c’mon, what was he really going to say? The objective Hulet, in his pre-season write-up of New York’s top 10 prospects deemed that “Montero cannot challenge the ceilings of Zack Wheeler or Noah Syndergaard but he has the potential to develop into a solid mid-rotation starter.” That’s a darn sight better than Mejia anyway.
Worth a follow on Twitter? Unfortunately not. As far as my not-so-extensive search indicated, Rafael Montero does not have Twitter, or even Instagram. He does however, have a very poorly maintained fan page on Facebook – which has so far garnered a whole 23 likes. Go Rafael!
Anything else? He’ll be squaring off against Masahiro Tanaka, who is currently the proud owner of a 2.57 ERA and perfect 5-0 record, so is unlikely to pick up the ‘win’. If he manages to notch a hit and break the Mets pitchers’ collective 0-63 streak though, he’ll be a winner in my eyes no matter what he does on the mound.
A little advance warning – this post by no means condones the Doug Fister trade. The many reasons why that deal was immediately heralded as a coup for the Washington Nationals, rated not just by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs as the worst transaction of the 2014 offseason, but ranking no. 1 and 2 in the Baseball Prospectus staff’s 11 least-favorite offseason moves, all still stand true today. It was the sort of lopsided piece of business that, in the words of Jonah Keri, made ‘every front-office type, journalist, and peanut vendor share the same reaction at the same time: “The Tigers traded Doug Fister for what?!’ It doesn’t especially matter how Fister would go on to miss the first 34 games of the Nationals’ season recovering from a strained right lat muscle, and then allow five earned runs on nine hits over 4.1 innings when he finally made his debut against Oakland last Friday, the fact of the matter remains; you would have to think that if all other 28 ML teams knew Fister and crucially, his two years of team control, was available, Detroit would have received more in return than Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi*, and Robbie Ray.
But if there’s one thing we should have learnt by now, it’s the mantra that all new GM’s should have tattooed to their wrist: Don’t Doubt Dave Dombrowski.
This is the man after all, who cut his chops as the architect of the legendary (for sad reasons) 1994 Expos team. His next masterpiece of team-building; only steering the expansion Florida Marlins to a championship in just their fifth season of existence. Before he left the post in 2001, he’d drafted Josh Beckett and signed a 16-year-old kid out of Venezuela. That kid turned out to be Miguel Cabrera, and in 2003, the Marlins won it all once again. His subsequent work in Detroit is so legendary it’s a surprise that anyone trades with him anymore; he fleeced the Marlins to get Miggy after the 2007 season by giving up two top 10 prospects, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, who haven’t amounted to much. He bagged Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco at bargain prices. He nabbed Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer at the expense of Curtis Granderson. He picked up Jhonny Peralta, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, and of course Fister. In the 58 trades he’d made prior to this season at the helm in Detroit, Double D had given away just 84.5 bWAR worth of players, but acquired 188.9 bWAR – a net profit of 104.4 bWAR.
Might acquiring Robbie Ray just be his next heist?
As shouted from the rooftops at the time of the deal (Matthew Kory’s words in that aforementioned BP piece are a typical response), Ray wasn’t much of a prospect. After being popped in the 12th round and signed for nearly $800,000 in the 2010 amateur draft, he promptly slogged his way through the lower rungs of the Nats’ farm system for the next two seasons, the nadir coming when he posted a 6.56 ERA in 21 starts (22 appearances) at High-A in 2012. The light then somewhat clicked on in Ray’s third trip to the Carolina League in 2013, the 6’2 lefty putting up a 3.11 ERA in 16 starts, striking out 100 batters with just 60 hits allowed along the way, before he was promoted to Double-A in the second half. There he made 11 starts, struck out over a batter an inning (9.31 K/9 if you’re picky), lowered his walk rate, and had a 3.72 ERA. Then came the trade, and the projections, Marc Hulet initially pegging the Brentwood, Tennessee native with the following:
After making just 11 starts at the level last year, Ray will likely return to Double-A to open the 2014 season. A lack of premium talent in the upper levels of the system in Detroit could help him quickly reach Triple-A.
So much for that. Ray would jump straight into the Triple-A pool, and immediately dominate, making five starts (six total appearances) during which he assembled an impressive 1.53 ERA, before an injury to Anibal Sanchez (a finger laceration to be specific), dictated the Tiger’s find themselves a starter for May 6. As we all know, they called upon Ray, who in a feat literally no one expected, probably not even the mastermind/witch Dombrowski himself, pitched in the majors before Fister this season.
Yes, it was against the Astros, and as put by Jeff Sullivan, ‘there’s only so much you can make of a start, particularly when it’s a first start.’ But one run on five hits with five strikeouts in 5.1 innings? That’s something. Some of his pitches looked a work in progress, as excellently detailed by Sullivan here, but the promise was apparent. For an encore yesterday though, this time facing the Twins, he was even better; he stifled the Minnesota offense for six shutout innings, giving up just four hits and surrendering only one walk, striking out two. When he left, the Tigers were up 3-0, but would go on to lose 4-3 after the bullpen blew the lead. Having showcased a lean, athletic build, easy delivery, and decent four-seam fastball in his two starts so far, Ray has proven he has the components of a major-league starter – the results themselves speak to his effectiveness. Dave Dombrowski might well have done it again.
No, Ray’s not an impact rookie like Jose Fernandez, with a future as an ace ahead, but could he develop into an above-average mid-rotation starter, more than capable of eating 200 innings a year? Absolutely. Already, he’s a back-of-the-rotation type. Funny, because many would label Fister an above-average mid-rotation starter too, except that he’s 30-years-old and heading for free agency. Ray, on the other hand is just 22, and has six full years of team control left before he’ll sniff the lucrative open waters. That payday might yet be delayed even further, seeing as how Ray is due to be sent back down to Toledo today with Sanchez returning from the DL, such is the wealth of starting pitching in Detroit.
Still, you’re telling me that Dombrowski couldn’t have got Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, or even Rafael freakin’ Soriano included in the trade, to prevent bullpen blowups like what happened yesterday occurring?! C’mon man…
* Lombardozzi was of course then included in Detroit’s trade for Alex Gonzalez, as they
panicked and pulled the trigger too early sought a capable fill-in at shortstop with positional incumbent Jose Iglesias out for the year.
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.”
Heading into yesterday’s game against Tampa Bay, I would have imagined not too many Royals fans would have been pleased with the how the young season had to that point played out. Tipped by many for at least a Wild-Card berth – if not more – the early returns hadn’t exactly been encouraging (Salvador Perez‘s performance excluded – the guy is incredible); the normally-dominant bullpen, already weakened by the loss of Luke Hochevar, was all of a sudden looking shaky – Greg Holland and the gang yielding walk-off wins to the Detroit Tigers in the first two games of the season, and leaking runs since. Ned Yost was still driving the diehards crazy with his lineup construction and in-game decision making – #Yosted and #smrtbaseball routinely appearing together on my Twitter feed. New second baseman Omar Infante was sidelined by a beaning – a loss made all the worse by KC management decided having a backup middle infielder on the 25-man roster was unnecessary. Emilio Bonifacio – their infield utility man from last year – was raking with his new team, the Cubs. The team was yet to hit a home run, ranking last in the ML with a .307 slugging percentage. The last thing Royals fans needed then, was to see reigning AL ROY Wil Myers and the Rays to come to town and serve as a reminder of how they likely only have 31 more starts of James Shields, and thus what might have been.
It’s amazing what a 102.9mph fastball will do however, to wipe a discouraging early season slate clean.
Yordano Ventura is here to wash away my pain and suffering.
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) April 9, 2014
After having his first scheduled start of the season against the Detroit Tigers (perhaps fortuitously) rained out, the diminutive Yordano Ventura finally got his chance to shine yesterday – and boy, did he show out; as Michael Baumann put it on Grantland earlier today “my goodness gracious, was Kansas City’s Happy Meal–size top pitching prospect as good as advertised.” Yeah… that about sums Ventura’s performance up.
In six innings of work, the 22-year old allowed only two hits and walked none, striking out six batters and flashing incredible stuff – quite simply dominating the poor Rays hitters. His well-renowned four-seam fastball (Ventura already owned the fastest regular season pitch by a starting pitcher during the PitchFX era, a 102.8mph offering that Yan Gomes somehow hit for a single last September) was just as advertised, the righty throwing his trademark heat 45 times out of his 98 pitches at an average velocity of 99.5mph. And no, that average is not a misprint – per Brook’s Baseball, his top velocity last night was actually 102.9mph, therefore giving him both the first and second fastest regular season pitches by a starting pitcher during the PitchFX era.
The Dominican Republic native also flashed a 96mph cutter (which he threw 10 times), a 97mph sinker (2) and a 83mph curve (19 times) that on one occasion just froze Evan Longoria. But it was perhaps his changeup that was the star of the Ventura show; coming in at an average of 89.51 mph (and thus quicker than both fellow rotation mates Jason Vargas‘ and Bruce Chen‘s four seam fastball offerings), the pitch generated 4 swings and misses, and befuddled Wil Myers more than once (Myers would endure a particularly horrific evening, striking out 3 times – much to the glee of Royals fans).
All in all, it would be a highly impressive showing from the young flamethrower, his dominant outing serving to not only dispel fears that his 5’11 frame might only limit him to bullpen duty and justify the spring decision to include him in the starting rotation, but alleviate the fan’s fears of losing Shields for nothing at the end of the year (especially given how the once-vaunted crop of young arms on the KC farm – Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi etc. – have either failed to develop or been traded away).
With Ventura in tow, there’s significant cause for optimism in Kansas City – the season is yet young, and the team simply too good (and the AL Central too weak) to continue slumping the way it has; the bullpen issue will resolve itself eventually. Infante will come back. Bonifacio won’t hit all season-long in Chicago. The team have already (finally) called up Johnny Giavotella to resolve the infield issue. Yost even employed a decent-ish lineup in today’s game! Things should turn around soon enough. But even if the Royals’ season does continue down the disappointing path it has initially taken, in Ventura, there will at least be a must-see pitcher on the bump every fifth day, pumping 100mph fastball after 100mph fastball for six innings at a time.
If Tuesday was anything to go by, that’s not a bad consolation prize.
Pittsburgh’s top pitching prospect reportedly first began feeling pain in his elbow with two weeks remaining in spring training having been re-assigned back to minor league camp, and was at first prescribed two weeks of rest. Upon resuming throwing activity however, further pain led to additional examinations of the joint, during which it was discovered that the prized righty had a partially torn ulner collateral ligament. Though not fully ruptured, the UCL was deemed by Dr. David Altchek to be too damaged to possibly repair and rehabilitate without going under the knife, meaning the Pirates will now be without Taillon for not only the entire 2014 season, but likely some of 2015 too.
Selected with the 2nd overall pick of the 2010 MLB amateur draft out of The Woodlands High School (Texas), the Pirates gave Taillon a then-franchise record $6.5 million signing bonus. Handled incredibly carefully during his three years in the minors, the heralded prospect progressed slowly, but deliberately – his pitch repertoire and mechanics drawing comparison to Stephen Strasburg along the way. In 2013, he split time at Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, making 25 starts (and one relief appearance) and throwing 147 1/3 innings en route to a 3.73 (and a 8.7 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9), and was due to initially resume 2014 at Triple-A Indianapolis with a view to his major league debut coming later in the season. Obviously, such a timetable has now been set aside.
Taillon’s 12-18 month absence will not only be an unfortunate bump in his promising development though, but a colossal blow to the Pittsburgh’s best laid plans, the 22-year-old’s stint on the shelf presumably leaving them a little short in quality rotation arms for 2014. With A.J. Burnett gone to Philadelphia (the circumstances of his departure remain fairly dubious – Burnett having said he would retire, only to later renege on his word), the Pirates were counting on the Canadian American’s high-90s heat being available to call up mid-season, his arrival figuring to provide a similar boost to that which Gerritt Cole provided in 2013 – a move which propelled the Bucs back into the postseason after a 20-year drought. Now however, given how unlikely it seems that they will acquire another quality arm from outside of the organization, in their push to make it back to the playoffs, the club will be extremely reliant upon Cole’s continued ascension, Francisco Liriano to remain Matthew Berry’s ‘Fantasy Kryptonite’, Edinson Volquez to be a Liriano-esque success of a reclamation project, Wandy Rodriguez‘s health, and Charlie Morton.
Given how poor my Cincinnati Reds and (barring the Cardinals) the rest of the NL Central have looked so far, Taillon’s absence might not hurt so much during the regular season; as well as the aforementioned five starters, Pittsburgh can still call upon Stolmy Pimentel, Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton as alternatives, or even stretch out Jeanmar Gomez from his relief role every now and again as they work their way through the rest of the season. The playoffs however – should the Pirates make it back again – would likely be the arena in which the loss of the Taillon’s potential impact would be felt most. We saw just last year how valuable a prospect’s live arm can be in such a setting; aside from Cole in Pittsburgh, Sonny Gray was arguably Oakland’s best chance in the ALDS against Detroit, while Michael Wacha similarly provided St. Louis with some impressive postseason pitching. Losing the 10th best pitching prospect in the game (per Baseball America‘s 2014 prospect rankings) and what ESPN writer Christina Karhl called “mid-90s gas and big-breaking benders” then, will severely deplete what damage Pittsburgh once might have stood of inflicting come October.
So while the modern frequency and recovery rate of Tommy John surgery would suggest we’ll see Taillon back on the bump at some point in 2015, the present prognosis for Pittsburgh isn’t quite so sunny; with the ace up Clint Hurdle‘s sleeve rendered moot, the Pirate’s chances of playoff success just got substantially lower.