This article is part of our John Sickels' Column series.
The Top Righties
Last week we looked at the top four left-handed pitching prospects in the game. Today we'll switch over to the other hand and look at the top four right-handers as listed in the 2008 Baseball Prospect Book.
The first two choices aren't particularly controversial: many analysts see Clay Buchholz as the top right-handed pitching prospect in the game, with Joba Chamberlain a close second. After that things get interesting, with two Cincinnati Reds prospects, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, vying for third place on my list. Most analysts rank Bailey ahead of Cueto, but in the book I went with Cueto. Let's take a gander.
Background: Drafted in the supplemental first round in 2005 from Angelina (Texas) Junior College, Buchholz is a 6-3, 190 pound right-hander, born August 14th, 1984.
Stuff: Buchholz has tremendous stuff, including a 90-95 MPH fastball, an outstanding curveball, an above-average slider, and a major league changeup. All four of his pitches rate as above-average or better. His command is very good, and scouts praise his athleticism and overall aptitude for the game.
Stats: Buchholz began last year with a 1.77 ERA in 15 starts for Double-A Portland, with a 116:22 K:BB ratio in 87 innings. After posting a 3.96 ERA but with 55 strikeouts in just 39 innings in Triple-A, he went 3-1, 1.59 with a 22:10 K:BB in 23 innings in the majors, along with an impressive no-hitter. His statistics are excellent with no holes that I can see.
Projection: Buchholz projects as a number one starter at the major league level. About the only thing that could mess him up would be injuries, or a sudden regression in his control.
Background: Chamberlain was a supplemental first round pick in 2006 out of the University of Nebraska. Born September 23rd 1985, he stands 6-2 and weighs 230 pounds.
Stuff: Chamberlain can hit 100 MPH in short stretches when used in relief. As a starter his fastball is more commonly in the 94-97 MPH range, with strong movement. His curveball and slider are both very strong pitches, and his changeup is major league average. Scouts also like his confidence and presence. He has some nagging injuries on his resume.
Stats: Beginning 2007 in A-ball, he was promoted after a 2.03 ERA with a 51:11 K:BB ratio in 40 innings for Tampa. He continued to dominate in Double-A and Triple-A (combined 84:16 K:BB in just 48 innings), and was overpowering and very successful in the major league bullpen late in the year (0.38 ERA with 34:6 K:BB in 24 innings for New York).
Projection: Chamberlain has the stuff and aptitude to be a number one starter, but he could also be an outstanding closer. The main concerns are health and durability, which could make the bullpen option more attractive.
Background: Cueto was born February 15th, 1986. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, Cueto is short for a right-handed pitcher at 5-10, weighing in at 192 pounds.
Stuff: While Cueto isn't tall, there is nothing short about his stuff. His fastball is consistently at 92-94 MPH, and hits 96 at times. His slider and changeup are both above-average offerings, and his control is excellent. His mechanics are consistent and simple, which should help him stay durable in the long run despite his lack of big size.
Stats: Cueto started 2007 with Sarasota in the Florida State League, posting a 3.33 ERA with a 72:21 K:BB ratio in 78 innings. Promoted to Double-A, he took a step forward with his ratios, posting a 77:11 K:BB in 61 innings with a 3.10 ERA. He was even better after moving up to Triple-A, posting a 2.01 ERA with a 21:2 K:BB in 22 innings.
Projection: Cueto's combination of power, precision, and confidence gives him projection as a borderline number one or a number two starter at the major league level. I'm not quite as confident about him as I am about Buccholz and Chamberlain, but I really love what he did last year, and the lack of height doesn't bother me.
Background: Bailey was drafted in the first round in 2004, out of high school in LaGrange, Texas. A 6-3, 190 pound right-hander, Bailey was born May 3rd, 1986.
Stuff: Bailey has an impressive 93-96 MPH fastball, and at times his curveball is even better than the heater. His changeup remains a work-in-progress, and is definitely his weakest offering. Bailey's command comes and goes at times, but when everything is working he dominates the game. He was hampered by a groin injury during his major league trial last summer, which likely impacted his performance.
Stats: Bailey went 6-3, 3.07 with a 59:32 K:BB ratio in 67 innings for Triple-A Louisville last year, but posted a 5.76 ERA with a 28:28 K:BB in the majors in 45 innings. He had a 3.71 ERA in his last three major league starts, with better control than in his earlier outings.
Projection: Stuff-wise, Bailey projects as a number one starter. He needs to improve the changeup and his overall command.
Buchholz is the clear number one, rating an edge over Chamberlain due the latter's health concerns and uncertain long-term role.
The Cueto/Bailey decision was the tough one. Their fastballs are very close, with Bailey having a tad more consistent velocity, but with Cueto showing better control. Bailey's curveball is special, but Cueto's slider is solid and his changeup is much better than Bailey's. Cueto also has better command, but at least part of Bailey's problem last year was related to the groin injury. Bailey is bigger and fits the traditional physical profile of a mound ace better than Cueto, giving him more projectability. Cueto put up better numbers last year and is just three months older than Bailey, but Bailey was at a higher level of competition.
Ultimately I ranked Cueto ahead of Bailey because of the command issue, but it was close. The bottom line is that the Reds have two young pitchers who could be number one guys if they stay healthy.
Next week I will present an updated version of the RotoWire Top 100 Prospects list.
Article first appeared 2/13/08