In 2012, the Lansing Lugnuts held the title of the best rotation in the minor leagues. The Lugnuts received standout performances from top prospects Justin Nicolino (2.46 ERA in 124 innings), Noah Syndergaard (2.60 in 103 innings), and Aaron Sanchez (2.49 in 90.1 innings) as well as Jesse Hernandez (2.26 in 95 innings) and Dave Rollins (2.78 in 77 innings) on their way to leading the league with a 3.45 team ERA. Once again this year the best rotation (not in the majors) resides in the Low-A Midwest League. The Fort Wayne TinCaps, affiliate of the San Diego Padres, are the new champions. The Lugnuts have relinquished the belt. This year's TinCaps rotation offers arguably even more projectable young talent than the Lugnuts had a year ago in Max Fried, Joe Ross, Zach Eflin, Walker Weickel, and Justin Hancock.
Joe Ross ($2.75 million bonus) is the oldest of the bunch at a whopping 20 years old, the brother of Padres starter Tyson, and had a very nice first start against Great Lakes (5 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 1 HBP). He's an electric arm with tremendous upside, but he's yet to complete a full season of professional baseball. This will be his second stint in the Midwest League as he started the year there before poor results and injury derailed his season in 2012. Ross was able to salvage the year with a good showing in the Northwest League (2.02 ERA 28 K in 26.2 innings) and I'm looking for him to build on that this year in a major way. Ross has a plus fastball that he can push even higher and both his slider and changeup flash plus potential. He's tall and has long legs, giving him good extension and tons of torque. He throws his easy gas from a high three-quarters delivery. Where Ross will end up in the long run ultimately depends on his fastball command and the cohesiveness of his secondary pitches. He could be a mid-rotation innings eater who also gets strikeouts, but his ceiling is much higher.
Fried ($3 million bonus), drafted seventh overall in 2012, is the only lefty and has the highest ceiling with the potential for two plus pitches (if not better), an average changeup, and pitchability. In his Midwest League debut, Fried walked three and allowed a run in the first inning before settling in. He struck out the last two hitters in the first before sailing through the next three scoreless innings without allowing a hit. Fried struck out five in total while allowing just one hit in four innings. Fried is especially polished for a pitcher out of high school and there is plenty of projection here given his size. His curveball might already be a plus pitch as he gets long break on it making it very tough to hit. Fried can really command his curveball and choose whether he wants it to drop in for a strike or dip low and out of the zone. He has crazy great potential and I anticipate that he'll rip through the Midwest League this year.
** Must click link: JD Sussman, of BullpenBanter, has a piece up which includes GIFs of both Ross and Fried. It's well worth your time.
Zach Eflin, drafted 33rd overall in 2012, just turned 19, stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 200 pounds. He did not show nearly as well as Fried in his first start, but there's obviously a ton of potential and projection here. He's a really big kid still with plenty of time to fill out and also has a plus fastball which he could push even higher. The secondary pitches and command are there to work on, but he's already showing an above-average changeup and has an easily repeatable delivery. This could be a guy who opens up a lot of eyes this summer and becomes a mid-rotation workhorse in the future.
Walker Weickel, drafted 55th overall in 2012, has the best baseball name of these four and that is just the beginning of why I like him. He'll also have the longest road to the majors and clearly has the most filling out to do as he's listed at 6-foot-6 and 195 pounds. Weickel is thin and already sits in the low-90s with his sinking fastball and touches 95 mph. As he fills out he could do a lot more than just tick up with that pitch. His curveball will also benefit from added velocity and he's already showing a decent changeup. Weickel, like Ross and Fried, also throws from a high three-quarters arm slot. It's still mostly projection with Weickel as he's barely pitched in pro ball and still needs to fill out, but if this guy is the fourth best pitcher on a Low-A team, I would say that team is ridiculously stacked with talent.
Justin Hancock, 22, throws from a three-quarters arm slot and dominated Great Lakes in his first start (5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K). Drafted in the ninth round in 2011, Hancock had plenty of success in the Northwest League (1.61 ERA in 72 innings) last year after a rude awakening in 13 Midwest League appearances (6.95 ERA in 33.2 innings). He has a plus fastball that has movement and flashes a plus slider. Hancock was so efficient in his start against the Loons that he only faced 18 batters in five innings and with seven strikeouts that gave him a ridiculous 38.8 strikeout percentage for the game. Now that's just one game, but perhaps this shows that Hancock is ready for the challenge he quite possibly wasn't ready for last year.
The Other Guys:
Tayron Guerrero is everyone's favorite sleeper. The 6-foot-7 Columbian touched 100 mph in Instructional League and has closer potential. He's obviously a big guy who throws easy gas. Apparently, he also has a slider. Guerrero has pitched in three games out of the bullpen this season and he pitched pretty well in one of them (2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K). He was awful in the other two appearances, but it's a long a season. He's one I'm keeping my eye on.
Leonel Campos is the oldest of these pitchers at 25 years old after missing all of last season, but he still has some pretty good stuff. He's pitched out of the bullpen twice already and at the very least he's shown he can get strikeouts (4 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 2 HR, 2 BB, 7 SO). Campos is also a three-quarters arm slot guy who can throw in the low-90s and spin a breaking ball. It'll be interesting to see what the TinCaps get out of these two guys this season.
Roman Madrid, a seventh-round pick in 2012, ripped through the Northwest League last year with a league best 14 saves and 44 strikeouts in 37 innings. He's made just three appearances this season for Fort Wayne and he already has a save and two strikeouts. Madrid, 22, throws a fastball that sits 91-94 mph and has a plus slider. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he moves through the system quickly and becomes the first of these pitchers to appear in the big leagues.