At the end of every year I compile a list of arms I am monitoring closely. Actually the list never really goes away, it's just refreshed on an ongoing basis. Once a pitcher has established himself as a major league player (or shows me he is unlikely to do so), they are removed, and others who have caught my eye jump on. I'll admit, it's pretty exclusive company - some highly touted prospects never find their way onto my elite list.
This is something of a mixed bag with regard to qualifications. Most are players who spent 2014 in the minor leagues or have just been recalled with the expanded rosters, some will be recent draftees, and a small number could even be pitchers still attempting to establish themselves after a few short visits to the major leagues, or perhaps following a significant injury that kept them out of the spotlight for an extended period of time. In the majority of cases they will be in the consideration set to break camp with the big team next spring while a few are more likely to be called up at some point after the season begins. Let's get started.
Put These Guys On Your Watch List
Jameson Taillon (PIT) - I usually don't move a pitcher far down the list due to an injury, and Taillon is no exception. I was really looking forward his arrival in Pittsburgh this year, and just before the season, that anticipation went up in smoke. He had a partial ligament tear in his elbow, and rather than chance it giving out at an inopportune time, they opted to get it taken care of with Tommy John surgery in April. His ranking on this list is based more on observation than numbers - he posted a modest 3.73 ERA with just under a strikeout per inning between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013, but I have loved everything I have seen from the first glimpse. He should be back early next year, even though I expect him to build up at Indianapolis before joining the Pirates around mid-season. This guy is a treat to watch. I like him in 2015 and love beyond next season.
Noah Syndergaard (NYM) - Like Taillon, he's a horse and while Taillon missed the entire 2014 following Tommy John surgery, Syndergaard struggled most of the year with nagging minor injuries. Pitching at Triple-A Las Vegas - not the most pitcher-friendly environment - he had a flexor pronator strain (elbow), a sprained A/C joint (shoulder), a forearm strain, and ... OK, you get the idea. Add some bad luck (a .383 BABIP), and he displays a darkened form sheet with a 1.48 WHIP and a 4.60 ERA (his FIP was 3.20 by the way). However, he just turned 22, and he has already shown the tenacity to pitch through adversity. He should be primed to toss 180-190 innings next season, and a big chunk of that could be with the Mets. For comparison, I put his ceiling on a par with Matt Harvey, and I list both of them slightly ahead of Zack Wheeler. My recommendation is to hope his peripherals scare some other owners away.
Alex Meyer (MIN) - There is a trend developing here. At 6-foot-9, Meyer makes both Taillon and Syndergaard look small (they are both 6-6), and all three were arms I was very eager to see in the major leagues in 2014, only to be a bit disappointed and forced to be patient. Meyer has a devastating fastball that touches triple-digits and sinks, and he gets there fairly easily. He also throws a nasty knuckle-curve and a quality change-up so he is a prototypical power pitcher. The only thing slowing him down - not surprising for someone his size with such a repertoire - he has so many moving parts that his release point can come and go. That said, the consistency of his motion is improving, and when it clicks in, he could be a mound monster. He posted a 3.52 ERA and struck out 153 batters in 130 innings at Triple-A Rochester so the strikeouts are there. He's had a couple of minor shoulder issues, probably part of his motion that is still being smoothed out, but he has an incredibly high ceiling.
Lucas Giolito (WAS) - How much upside does Giolito possess? The Nationals selected him out of high school in the first round, knowing he had a significant elbow issue (he made just one pro appearance before undergoing Tommy John surgery), and they gave him almost $3 million dollars as a signing bonus. He's back now, and he tossed 98 innings with Low-A Hagerstown in 2014, compiling a 1.00 WHIP and a 2.20 ERA with 110 strikeouts, most of this coming before his 20th birthday. His fastball is rated a perfect 80 on the scouting scale - a rarity to be sure - and his power curveball rates a 70 while his change-up is an improving, and already good 60. To give you a measuring stick, those are better than those of Stephen Strasburg when he first turned pro. The Nats are still smoothing out his violent motion which is often looked upon as a major injury risk, and he is still young with limited pro experience so his debut in Washington may not come until late in 2015, if then, but they won't be able to hold him back long.
Julio Urias (LAD) - This summer, at 17, he was the youngest player to ever participate in the Futures Game, and he was right at home. In fact, he was more than comfortable. He spent the season at High-A Rancho Cucamonga, but to be honest, he could have handled more experienced competition. The Dodgers are trying to be patient, but it's not easy. Not only does he have a lively low-to-mid-90s fastball, and a knee buckling curve that is a pure pleasure to watch (unless you are in the opposing batter's box), but he has confidence and mound poise way beyond his years. Unlike the others mentioned here so far, he is 5-11 and a wispy 160 pounds so he has room to grow. Finally, he is a southpaw, but the "lefties need longer to develop consistency" label doesn't fit here. I just can't find anything negative to say about him, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him in Chavez Ravine later next year at age 18.
Aaron Sanchez (TOR) - Unlike the arms listed above, Sanchez has already gotten a taste of the major leagues, and he liked it. The Jays brought him up in late July to bolster their bullpen, but his future is likely eventually in the rotation - possibly beginning next season. He has logged 31 innings, many in high-leverage situations, including a couple of save opportunities, and he has posted a microscopic 0.66 WHIP to go with an equally impressive 1.15 ERA. His fastball averages 97 mph, and he has the full package of complimentary pitches so while his numbers are probably enhanced by his pitching in short bursts, they should translate well to a rotation spot. He's been on a steady march to Toronto, with stops in Double-A and Triple-A this season, but even though he's just 22, he is ready to contribute in a big way. Will he close or join the rotation in 2015? Whichever, he looks ready to handle whatever may come.
Aaron Nola (PHI) - Nola was just drafted this season, and he came with a "nearly ready for prime time" tag. He hasn't disappointed. He tossed 31 innings at High-A Clearwater, and followed that up with 24 innings at Double-A Reading. In both cases, he wasn't over his head so in 2015 he could spend time back at Reading, a little time at Triple-A, and then make a move to Philadelphia. Note, he had thrown 116 innings at LSU before being drafted so a severe innings limit is unlikely. Nola doesn't have the overwhelming stuff most of the others here will feature, but it's more than enough, and he has polish. That's becoming a regular feature of arms coming out of LSU's baseball program. Earlier this year Kevin Gausman showed off the grooming he received there, and late this year, the next name on the list provided some encouraging glimpses of his upside. Major college baseball is probably played at a level roughly equivalent to High-A ball, and especially when it comes to pitching development, LSU could exceed that projection.
Anthony Ranaudo (BOS) - Injuries slowed his progress earlier in his pro career, but he made it to Triple-A Pawtucket for a full season in 2014, and when Boston cashed it in for this year he got the call for an audition. His Boston numbers haven't been eye-opening - a 1.48 WHIP and a 5.29 ERA in 33 innings, including a whopping 10 home runs allowed, but he has logged over 170 innings this year and could be wearing down a bit. He's tall, with a lot of moving parts, so he can sometimes struggle to get into synch, but when he does have it all together, he throws a wicked fastball on an extreme downhill place, a power curve, and a pretty good change-up so there is a lot of projectability. People have been overlooking him since he came out of LSU, but don't make that mistake. Those numbers just promise to make him very affordable on draft day.
Honorable Mention - Here are a few more names I am monitoring (in no particular order). Some are borderline, and just missed the top list, some have had injuries that sidetracked their development, and a few are still fairly raw talent, but have shown me enough already to be considered if they continue to move forward: Kohl Stewart (MIN), Danny Hultzen (SEA), Archie Bradley (ARZ), Robert Stephenson (CIN), Dylan Bundy (BAL), Casey Kelly (SD), Tyler Glasnow (PIT), Andrew Heaney (MIA), Kyle Crick (SF), Zach Lee (LAD) and Rafael Montero (NYM).
There are certainly many names that could easily be added to this list, and I apologize if your guy isn't here - but I like to focus on the handful of arms I consider the most likely to have a significant positive impact, and these are the pitchers who populate the list today. Tomorrow, the list could, and probably will, change slightly.
The Endgame Odyssey
The potential impact for 2014 is pretty much over, but there are some situations to monitor for next season, including relievers like Drew Storen, who has probably reaffirmed his claim to the closer's role in Washington. I look for Rafael Soriano to be wearing a new uniform next season. ... The Twins shut down Glen Perkins after he suffered some neck and shoulder soreness, but it sounds like he'll be good to go by spring. ... What happens to Jonathan Papelbon in Philadelphia? His contract is a liability, but he is a good possibility to move this winter, perhaps opening the door for Ken Giles. ... I fully expect Joakim Soria to re-surface as a closer somewhere. It may be in Detroit where Joe Nathan has struggled most of the season and may decide to call it career - a very distinguished career. ... Addison Reed regularly served up gopher balls in Arizona this season, but he's better than his numbers suggest. Look for better next year. ... And speaking of next year, I went over the list of closers and I wouldn't be surprised if a dozen or more teams have a new closer by Opening Day. But, that's another season, so we'll meet back here for spring training 2015!