Note the change in course starting this week as we explore some special topics heading into the second half of the 2011 season. There have been some surprises, and there are likely to be a few more. Over the next couple of weeks, we will start by examining the exceptionally talented arms featured in the Futures Game, then next week, we will haul out the crystal ball, first to see if we can uncover some pitchers most likely to post a big second half, and then the following week, looking at the flip side, and discussing those hurlers who started off strong, but figure to cool off as the summer heats up.
The 2011 Futures Game:
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that the Futures Game is really more about enjoying the opportunity to see some of the best young talent in the game today than it is about actually scouting that talent, especially the pitching prospects. As with any huge game - and it is just that for the kids who are often making their first appearance on the big stage, while doing so against the very best, and in front of every scout and front office official of every major league club ... talk about pressure - it's also a one inning cameo that effectively eliminates the chance to see so many factors that contribute to a pitcher's upside or readiness for the big leagues. Add in that these players come from all the various minor league levels, meaning you have to adjust your expectations to the pitcher's current level, and comparisons can be quite challenging.
There is another thing the combination of a big stage and a single inning of work does to the overall experience - it adds velocity. Most of the pitchers in the Futures Game are starters, they typically throw around 100 pitches over six or seven innings each outing. Either the radar gun at Chase Field was hot, or the pitchers displaying their wares were really amped on this night; probably a combination of both. I would estimate that most reported pitch speeds were 2-3 mph faster than you would normally expect. For example, Matt Moore was clocked at 100 mph, and that is somewhat higher than you would normally expect from the Rays left-hander.
And that underscores another point. A left-handed pitcher at 100 mph? Even with a very forgiving radar gun, that is something you would have virtually never seen just a few years ago. For whatever reason, left-handed pitchers have always been slightly behind the curve when it comes to fastball velocity. Not anymore. That could be a big part of an evolving mound scene. Jamie Moyer is not your garden-variety southpaw anymore. Keep in mind, lefties have a built in advantage, and really good lefties accentuate that advantage. We have discussed the importance of a comfort zone for hitters in this column many times, and the importance, as a pitcher, of disrupting that comfort zone. While the natural movement of a left-hander's pitch benefits right-handed batters, they still don't see nearly as many pitches from that side, and are therefore at least slightly less familiar and comfortable with that motion and movement. In essence, higher quality left-handed pitching could be contributing to the recent "years of the pitcher." It's just a thought. The upgrade on that side of the rubber has to be having an impact.
All right, let's take a look at some of the arms featured in the Futures Game ...
The UNITED STATES is armed and dangerous ...
Matt Moore (Tampa Bay, Double-A Montgomery) - Wow! You have to start with him. While there are a few other pitchers mentioned as the best pitching prospect in baseball, I really don't see how anyone else could lay claim to that mantle. In the game, he was his typically wicked self while hitting 99-100 mph on the radar gun. He's not quite Stephen Strasburg, but he's about as close you can get right now. Moore is literally a strikeout machine, and I would expect most of that swing and a miss ability to translate to the big leagues, possibly in September. You want him on your team.
Shelby Miller (St. Louis, Double-A Springfield) - He jumped up to Double-A after having his way at High-A earlier this year and he hasn't missed a beat. His strikeout rate is down a bit (not too surprising) but he has a 1.90 ERA over seven starts at this level and he could probably handle even tougher competition. His label would say "refined" as he is well beyond his years in mound presence and has a very well-developed arsenal of pitches for someone with his experience. The Cardinals won't be able to hold him back for long, and like Moore, he could be in St. Louis for a look at the end of this year.
Tyler Skaggs (Arizona, High-A Visalia) - He actually moved up a bit on my prospects list after watching him in this game. He's another of those hard throwing lefties, and while he isn't as polished as Moore or Miller, he is making good progress, especially for a 19 year old. He has a lively fastball in the low to mid 90s that moves away from right-handed hitters, and he can show off a really nice power curve as his best weapon. He just needs to work on his off speed stuff and become more consistent with his command, and that should come with more experience. He's probably looking at late 2012.
Jarred Cosart (Philadelphia, High-A Clearwater) - He made quite an impression with his biting plus curveball and a mid-upper 90s fastball, but he is clearly still suited to High-A level competition. He doesn't have a particularly clean delivery, which creates command issues, and he has already had some health concerns so you have to consider him a work in progress. There is no question he has some electric stuff, but it might take a while for him to pull it all together. He has some work to do, but the Phillies will give him every chance to succeed. Best guess for his arrival is 2013.
Around the WORLD at 97+ mph ...
Julio Teheran (Atlanta, Triple-A Gwinnett) - Teheran is one of the pitchers some list ahead of Moore on the top prospects lists. He is pitching well at Triple-A, and has already had a taste of the big leagues with a couple of spot starts in Atlanta earlier this year. Because of his big arm, he can pretty easily get into the high 90s, and his already well-developed off speed pitches, he is right on the brink of being an impact pitcher in the major leagues. I'll be honest, I have never been as impressed with his stuff as many others. His command of the zone is still not quite where it needs to be, and he doesn't always make the great pitches when he needs them. Still, he's a good one to be sure, although I am not sure fellow Futures Gamer Arodys Vizcaino might not be pretty close to him in overall ceiling. Wouldn't the Braves like that?
Liam Hendriks (Minnesota, Double-A New Britain) - He is generally higher on my list than you might expect. In fact, I rank him slightly higher than the more publicized Twins prospect, Kyle Gibson, who also participated in the Futures Game. I am always impressed with young pitchers who display good stuff and excellent command of a wide array of pitches. Hendriks is no soft-tosser, he sits comfortably in the low 90s, his fastball has a lot of sink, he will cut it from time to time, and he has a plus slider and change up to go along with a nice curve. And, he throws them all for quality strikes. The Twins are moving him methodically through the system so he could arrive sometime in 2012.
Henderson Alvarez (Toronto, Double-A New Hampshire) - Alvarez looks like he is coming along nicely as he makes his way up the Toronto food chain. Like Hendriks, he fits into that good stuff with excellent command category. In fact, he may actually throw too many strikes. We covered that concept in a previous Notebook - sometimes the best pitch to throw is a breaking ball in the dirt rather than something in the strike zone. He actually has more of a power arm, so his greatest need is development of his off speed pitches. He has a solid change up, but will benefit from more reliable breaking pitches, which are not there yet. If he can get those to same level of command as his fastball and change, his future could be pretty bright. He could probably be a major league reliever now, but the Jays would like to give him time to see if he can make it as a starter.
James Paxton (Seattle, Double-A Jackson) - Yet another taking a bit of a step up on the watch list, Paxton has an interesting, yet not terribly repeatable, motion that makes it difficult for opposing hitters to pick him up. The Mariners started him at Low-A Clinton, but he quickly proved to be beyond that level of competition so they jumped him to Double-A where he made his first start for Jackson earlier this month. He has a big fastball with that reach back delivery and a fast arm that gets to his release point quickly. He will need to refine his other offerings, and could actually end up as a power guy in the bullpen, but he'll be intriguing to follow.
Some short takes:
Matt Garza (CHC) - Rumors are circulating that the Red Sox would like to add him to their mound corps this year. Even with the Cubs, I would expect him to have a stronger second half, so if he moves to Boston in the next couple of weeks, you can pencil him in for a very big August and September.
Felix Hernandez (SEA) - He's just getting warmed up. His numbers for the first half have been rather pedestrian, for him, but keep in mind he really turned it up a couple of notches in the second half last year. There are signs he could be doing the same thing this season and that would be a big boost for his fantasy owners.
Jair Jurrjens (ATL) - Can you expect Jurrjens to finish the season with a 1.87 ERA? Probably not. However, with his solid assortment of pitches, he is likely to keep opposing hitters off balance and to continue his early season success. There are still doubters out there, but I am not one of them. I targeted him in every draft this year.
Jake Peavy (CWS) - I don't believe he is completely healthy, but I also believe he is too driven and restless to sit around when he thinks he could be pitching. Unfortunately, pitching at less than 100% can sometimes be very unproductive for fantasy teams. If he is still sore and keeps pitching it probably won't get better. A risky play these days.
Jeanmar Gomez (CLE) - The Indians are experimenting with rotation options including Zach McAllister and Gomez. They probably offer close to the same marginal upside right now, but either would likely be an upgrade over Mitch Talbot, and Fausto Carmona was no walk in the park when he was healthy. They need Alex White back.
Chris Capuano (NYM) - I'll admit I have never been a big Capuano fan, but he is starting to win me over. The Mets haven't helped him much of late, but he could be a serviceable back of the fantasy rotation guy going forward. He'll get you some strikeouts, and if he cuts back on the walks a bit, his other peripherals could fall in line too.
Zack Britton (BAL) - The Orioles are pointing to the end of July for the next start for Britton, which would address two issues. He needs to make some adjustments as the league is beginning to figure him out, and the extra time in the minors will effectively delay his arbitration clock by a year.
Nick Blackburn (MIN) - Speaking of needing to make some adjustments, Blackburn has been about as hittable as any pitcher in the game his last few starts. He certainly doesn't have overpowering stuff, so he has to have pinpoint command of the strike zone. It's not there right now. Avoid him if you can.
Brad Lidge (PHA) - Lidge should be close to the end of his rehab stint and will likely be back in the Phillies pen shortly after the break. Antonio Bastardo will probably go back to his set up role and Ryan Madson will do the same when he returns. It looks like Jose Contreras may not be an option with his recent rehab setbacks.
J.J. Putz (ARZ) - Putz is reportedly making steady progress and expects to return soon after the break. While he is probably always going to be an injury risk, he is also one of the more reliable closers in the game when he is healthy. He should step right back into the end game picture assuming no setbacks.
Brandon League (SEA) - David Aardsma is making some progress in his rehab, but Seattle is probably not in any hurry to get him back into the mix. Other than about one week in May, League has been one of the best closers in the game and the Mariners have no real reason to contemplate a change. He should be safe going forward.
Craig Kimbrel (ATL) - The biggest concern with Kimbrel has to be overwork. The Braves continually find themselves in close games, and they are compelled to use Kimbrel to close things out. He has done pretty well, and their best alternative, set up guy Jonny Venters has also been extremely reliable, but that has resulted in a very heavy workload for him as well. Hopefully the load will ease in the second half.
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