With left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes set to make what is perhaps the most important start of his career tonight at Steinbrenner Field versus the Yankees, the race between him, Jesse Litsch, Kyle Drabek for the final two spots of the Blue Jays’ Opening Day rotation will take a key turn.
There have been rumblings that Drabek is a lock to be the Jays’ fourth starter, and that the Jays have to simply decide whether Litsch or Reyes will be their fifth starter.
Obviously Drabek’s numbers last year at Double-A were impressive — helping him capture Eastern League Pitcher of the Year honors — and he’s been a treat to watch this spring. The question is, though, is he developmentally prepared to start 20-plus games at the Major League level next season?
The Jays don’t exactly have to look too far to find the reasons why they’re better off starting Drabek in the minor leagues, and having Litsch and Reyes as the final members of their Opening Day rotation.
Mat did a fantastic job on Monday outlining why Reyes is likely to crack the Jays’ rotation, and many of the comments on that article were directed towards whether or not Drabek should start the year in the minors because of his Major League service time clock. Since I started writing this article prior to those comments, that whole reason — albeit an extremely valid one — won’t be mentioned in order to refrain from repeating things that have already been said.
The main reason why the Jays should start Drabek in the minor leagues is for his development as a pitcher, and the Jays could monumentally benefit from taking a page from their division rival, the Tampa Bay Rays, on that front.
When 2007 1st overall pick David Price rocketed up the minor league ladder in his first professional season, the Rays called up him late in the season to appear in the bullpen, where he continued to dominate and was even handed the ball on multiple occasions in the World Series. Many felt that the minor leagues were child’s play for Price, and his dominant showing as a reliever at the Major League level reaffirmed the fact he was ready to step in at the big league level.
The Rays had other plans for Price the following year in 2009, though, and he was optioned to Triple-A to open the season. He was told to improve his fastball command and develop his changeup into a plus pitch before he would be called up to the Rays again. Price worked on that to-do list and received his call to the Majors after making 8 Triple-A starts that year, and the rest is history.
Now, Price was a 1st overall pick, and it’s tough to compare him to Drabek straight-up. Tampa Bay has another pitcher that is a perfect comparison for Drabek, though, and his name is Jeremy Hellickson.
Both Hellickson and Drabek made it up to Class-A in their first three minor league seasons, and while Drabek was forced to recover from Tommy John surgery, Hellickson was utterly dominant.
The similarities between the two players really start to become evident in their fourth minor league season, though. Hellickson was continuing his rise up the minor league ladder, and Drabek was set to pitch his first full season after Tommy John surgery. Both players started their fourth season at the Hi-A level before finishing at Double-A, and the numbers speak for themselves:
12-3, 3.19 ERA, 23 GS, 158 IP, 141 H, 9 HR, 50 BB, 150 K, 1.209 WHIP, 8.0 H/9, 2.8 BB/9, 8.5 K/9
11-5, 2.96 ERA, 27 GS, 152 IP, 148 H, 22 HR, 20 BB, 162 K, 1.105 WHIP, 8.8 H/9, 1.2 BB/9, 9.6 K/9
Hellickson’s fifth minor league season was split between Double-A and Triple-A in 2009, and Drabek’s fifth season — his first in the Blue Jays organization — was spent entirely at Double-A last year in 2010. Again, the numbers are comparable:
14-9, 2.94 ERA, 27 GS, 162 IP, 126 H, 12 HR, 68 BB, 132 K, 1.198 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 3.8 BB/9, 7.3 K/9
9-2, 2.45 ERA, 20 GS, 114 IP, 72 H, 8 HR, 29 BB, 132 K, 0.886 WHIP, 5.7 H/9, 2.3 BB/9, 10.4 K/9
Hellickson clearly dominated minor league hitters in his five minor league seasons, and Rays fans were calling for him to be at the Major League level in 2010. The Jays are now in the exact same situation with Drabek this year, as the Rays were with Hellickson last year.
How did the Rays handle it? By sending Hellickson back down to the minors of course, with a strict list of things to work on.
Prior to the 2010 season, Hellickson commanded his four-seam fastball very well, had a plus changeup, and could throw a solid curveball for strikes. While learning to attack hitters more with his straight four-seam fastball, Hellickson developed a cutter accidentally while trying to replace his curveball with a slider, and he also added a two seam fastball.
Hellickson added depth to his already impressive changeup, developed his curveball into a solid pitch, and his two new fastball additions developed late life, complementing his straight four-seamer extremely well. Furthermore, Hellickson mastered the ability to throw each of these five pitches from the same arm slot, making him incredibly deceptive on the mound.
The result? A 2.45 ERA (2.73 FIP), 2.7 BB/9, and 9.4 SO/9 in 21 starts with Triple-A Durham, followed by going 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA (3.88 FIP), 2.0 BB/9, and 8.2 SO/9 in 10 appearances at the Major League level.
Needless to say — especially after looking at the Rays’ transformation of Hellickson this past season — the Jays have a decision to make with Drabek, and it should mirror what the Rays did with Hellickson last year.
Right now, Drabek throws his signature plus plus curveball, a great four-seam fastball, and a changeup that needs some work. He’s complemented his four-seamer with a two-seam fastball that has good sink, and he added a cutter last year to be more effective against left-handed batters. Drabek’s fastball, curveball, changeup repertoire is enough to miss bats at the Major League level, but it’s definitely intriguing to think about the beast he could become with even more polish.
Drabek made significant progress with his cutter this past season, and further developing that pitch would help ensure his dominance against left-handed hitters. With his changeup, he needs to work on his arm speed when throwing the pitch and to make his delivery more deceptive to opposing hitters. While Drabek throws strikes and can locate his pitches fairly well, he did walk 68 batters last season and could benefit from working on mastering his command.
If the Jays did send Drabek down with a list of things to work on, by the time they called him back up for good, he would hopefully be able to throw four seam, two seam, and cut fastballs more confidently, his knee-buckling, 12-6 curveball with the same authority he has shown, and a plus changeup to mix in with his cutter to make left-handed batters look foolish.
The Jays haven’t had a pitching prospect like Drabek with such a high ceiling in some time, and taking some extra time to develop his game and make him a more complete, lethal pitcher on the mound could do wonders in making him the staff ace many are proclaiming him to be.
With such a special talent, wouldn’t it make sense to do it right?