This article is part of our John Sickels' Column series.
The Top Lefties
Welcome to our first prospect article for 2008. Let's get right down to it, and start looking at our top prospect lists.
There are four excellent left-handed starters on the prospect charts right now: Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, Jacob McGee of Tampa Bay, Franklin Morales of Colorado, and David Price of Tampa Bay. In the RotoWire Top 100 list I did back in late December, I had them rated as Kershaw, Price, McGee, and Morales in that order. But all four are so close that my thinking has changed several times over the last few weeks.
As I was finishing the 2008 Baseball Prospect Book, I initially rated it as Price, McGee, Kershaw, and Morales. The text of the book references this, discussing Kershaw being a tad bit behind the first two. But at the last second, just before the book went to press, I altered the Top 50 Pitching Prospect List to put it back at the original Kershaw, Price, McGee, Morales ordering. It was too late to change the player comments at that point, so there could be a bit of confusion among readers and I wanted to clarify that. Here is what I currently think about each of them.
Background: The seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft, out of high school in Texas, Kershaw is a 6-4, 220 pound lefty born March 19, 1988.
Stuff: Kershaw throws 93-96 MPH and has hit 99 MPH a few times. His curveball and changeup are somewhat erratic, but both project as plus major league pitches with more polish. His control needs some work, but scouts love his mound presence and confidence.
Stats: Kershaw has a 2.72 career ERA with a 217:72 K:BB in 159 innings, with 117 hits allowed. He posted a 3.65 ERA in 24.2 Double-A innings last year with a 29:17 K:BB ratio. His K:IP mark is excellent but his control is an issue.
Projection: If he can improve his command, Kershaw projects as a number one starter at the major league level. He has the highest physical ceiling of the group, but is less polished right now than the other guys. He's also the youngest, so this is to be expected.
Background: The first overall pick in the 2007 draft, Price was drafted out of Vanderbilt where he was an excellent college starter for three years. He stands 6-6, 215 pounds, born August 26, 1985.
Stuff: Price throws his fastball at 90-93 MPH though he can hit 94-95 when he needs to. His slider and changeup are already major league quality and will be above average to plus pitches. His command is excellent, and scouts love his intelligence, work ethic, and confidence.
Stats: Price has not pitched in pro ball, but his college stats were very strong. He went 11-1, 2.63 with a 194:31 K:BB in 133 innings for Vandy last year, and his sophomore and freshman numbers were also excellent. His K:IP and K:BB ratios stand out as major positives. Scouts anticipate that his adjustment to pro ball will be quick.
Projection: Given his combination of stuff, command, instincts, and confidence, Price projects as a number one starter in the majors. His absolute ceiling isn't quite as good as Kershaw's, but his polish is better and he likely has a lower risk of failure.
Background: Jacob McGee was drafted in the fifth round in 2004, out of high school in Sparks, Nevada. He wasn't as well-known as Kershaw or Price as an amateur, but he's taken huge steps forward as a pro. Born August 8, 1986, he stands 6-3, 190 pounds.
Stuff: McGee's velocity has increased over the last three years and he now throws 94-97 MPH consistently. His slider is very strong, and in general he's one of the most overpowering southpaw arms in baseball. His changeup still needs work.
Stats: In 407 career minor league innings, McGee has a 3.32 ERA with a 488:165 K/BB ratio. He dominated the Florida State League last year (2.93 ERA with 145:39K/BB in 117 innings) and held his own after a late promotion to Double-A.
Projection: McGee has the arm strength to be a number one starter, and at this point his command is better than Kershaw's, though not as impressive as Price's.
Background: Morales was signed by the Rockies out of Venezuela in 2002. Very raw at first, he has improved dramatically over the last three seasons. Born January 24, 1986, Morales stands at 6-0, 190 pounds.
Stuff: Morales works at 92-94 MPH but can hit 96-97 MPH at times, with sinking action. His curveball and slider are also impressive, but his changeup is erratic. His control is not always reliable, but has improved greatly since his early pro seasons.
Stats: Morales has a career 4.10 ERA with a 462:234 K:BB in 428 minor league innings. He posted a 3.43 ERA in eight starts with the Rockies late last year, with a 26:14 K:BB. He needs to improve his command, but his stuff was so good that he was able to get by without perfect control.
Projection: Morales can also be a number one at the major league level if he can sharpen his command a bit more. Pitching in Colorado reduces his margin of error but he did quite well in his major league trial last year.
You can see my dilemma here in rating these four prospects. All four of them have the ability to be ace pitchers. Kershaw probably has the highest overall upside in terms of pure stuff, but McGee and Morales are right there with him, and Price, the guy with the "weakest" fastball, still works in the 90s. Price has the best balance of other pitches, mound presence, and overall command, but he's also the oldest and has the least pro-level experience due to his college background. All of them have strong positives in the "intangible" department. You can make a great case for any of these guys to rank as the top lefty. Ultimately I went with Kershaw in the book, but all of them are outstanding. Morales has the clearest shot at a job in '08, and if you need short-term fantasy impact, he's the best choice. Longer-term, you can make a good case for any of them.