Prospect Positional Primer: Right Handed Pitcher
Late last fall, with inspiration from Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus, I began writing a series of articles which I titled “Positional Primers”. I broke down the Blue Jays system into seven categories; catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, centerfield, right handed pitcher, and left handed pitcher. In each article, I highlighted a number of players at the position being discussed, talked about what they’ve done and where they stand, and what to possibly expect moving forward. The lists weren’t prospect rankings or a depth chart, they were simply another, broader way of looking at some players in the system who are interesting, but won’t necessarily be included on my top 30 prospect list later this year.
In terms of page views and feedback (both positive and negative, but thankfully mostly the former), the series was one of the most popular things I’ve done in my two-ish years of writing about the Blue Jays. As such, I’ve decided to break down the system once again, and hopefully another year of experience and knowledge will make the list that much more thorough and interesting to the readers.
The sixth part of the series will look at right handed pitchers, a position where Toronto has one of the strongest and deepest systems in all of baseball. I narrowed the list down to just six pitchers, but I could have gone on for at least twelve to fifteen without scraping the bottom of the barrel if I had enough time and clever classifications.
- Top right handed pitcher prospect to reach MLB (last 5 years): Kyle Drabek
- Right handed pitchers in 2012 Top 30: 12
- Right handed pitcher WAR leaders in MLB (last 5 years): Roy Halladay (14.9), Brandon Morrow (9.6)
The King in the North
Noah Syndergaard – 2012 team: Single-A Lansing
8-5, 103.2 IP, 81 H, 30 ER, 3 HR, 31 BB, 122 K
2.60 ERA (2.21 FIP), 1.08 WHIP, 10.59 K/9, 2.69 BB/9, 2.16 GO/AO
Jays’ pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard can match heat with the best of them at training camp in Duendin. (STEPH ROGERS photo)
For the second straight year, Noah Syndergaard takes the crown as the best right handed pitching prospect in the Blue Jays system. While it may come as a shock to some, it’s something I’ve been confident in for a long time. People were quick to point out his rough start to the season, even labeling him as “overhyped”, but I as wrote a number of times in varying degrees of detail, the piggybacking system the Blue Jays implemented early in the year was holding him back. Once he was unleashed from those chains and restrictions, his potential was unveiled. In the 19 games he started, Syndergaard had a 1.47 ERA (1.66 FIP) and 0.89 WHIP to go along with a 10.17 K/9. He was scoffed at as a signability pick when the Blue Jays selected him in the supplemental first round of the 2010 draft, but with just two years of professional development he’s proven to be a whole lot more than that; he’s on the verge of being one of the better pitching prospects in baseball.
Syndergaard isn’t too far off from what I believe to be the ideal pitching prospect, if there is such a thing. First and foremost, he has the size and build that is capable of throwing 200 to 220 innings year after year. Syndergaard stands 6-foot-5 with a broad and muscular upper body. His lower half is a step or two behind strength wise, and I think it would be wise for him to add ten to twenty pounds onto his listed weight of 200 over the offseason. Pitchers are one of the few positions in all of sports where a “big ass” is beneficial. Syndergaard takes full advantage of his height, utilizing a high 3/4 arm slot to create a steep downward plane on his pitches. His delivery is loose and easy, and he repeats his mechanics well. He’s also a Texan, which is something I’ve come to appreciate in baseball players. Syndergaard has a commanding presence and a fighter’s mindset both on the mound and off the field, always seeking out ways to improve his game.
His physical maturity has a direct correlation with the improvement of his stuff, as through his first few years of high school, Syndergaard was rail-thin and struggling to touch 90 miles per hour. Since adding mass, his fastball has risen three full grades, from fringe average to arguably plus-plus. Syndergaard’s four seam fastball sits in the 93-96 mph range with ease, and has shown the capability of touching 97, 98, and even 99 miles per hour when he reaches back for some extra juice. His two seam fastball is a notch behind in velocity, sitting in the low 90’s, but shows much better life. Syndergaard will bore the pitch in on the hands of right handed batters, and run it away from left handed hitters. He mixes and matches the two pitches well, which is important for a fastball-reliant pitcher like Syndergaard.
The rest of Syndergaard’s arsenal is still in the development stage. His primary breaking ball is a 12-6 curveball that he throws in the 78-82 mph range. He generates plenty of swings and misses, but has had trouble consistently finding tight movement. Syndergaard began to work in a slider as the season wore on, and the early signs are encouraging. Thrown in the mid-to-high 80’s, the pitch meshes well with his arm slot, as it has two-plane movement as opposed to the frisbee-like sliders thrown by pitchers with lower arm slots. Syndergaard’s fourth pitch is a circle changeup with arm side fade. It has nice drop when thrown in the low-to-mid 80’s, but can get a little firm when thrown any harder than that. The arm speed on the pitch is good, and he disguises it well when his two seam fastball is working.
Command remains elusive to Syndergaard, as he’s still mostly a control pitcher. For someone who only turned 20 at the end of August, that’s more than acceptable. His stuff has allowed him to get away with a lot of things early in his career, but High-A, where he’ll open the 2013 season, could be a different story. It’s one of the bigger jumps in the minor leagues, and Syndergaard will be receiving a full workload for the first time in his career. He’ll need to learn how to pitch when he doesn’t have his best stuff, which is a process every pitcher must go through. Even if there are a few bumps in the road this season, the strides he’ll make with command and pitchability will be huge for his career in the long run. Needless to say; I’m excited.
Aaron Sanchez – 2012 team: Single-A Lansing
8-5, 90.1 IP, 64 H, 25 ER, 3 HR, 51 BB, 97 K
2.49 ERA (3.41 FIP), 1.27 WHIP, 9.66 K/9, 5.08 BB/9, 2.22 GO/AO
In terms of raw stuff, Aaron Sanchez is the top pitching prospect in the system, and one of the best in baseball. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to pitching than just stuff (though it’s awesome to have), which is why, for me, Sanchez takes a back seat to Noah Syndergaard and falls into the Question Mark category. The former supplemental first round pick has two glaring issues that will determine how successful he can or will be in the future; durability and command – or lack thereof, and both problems were on display during the 2012 season. Sanchez dealt with forearm soreness during July, and while he only missed two weeks worth of games, that’s not something you want to see with a 20 year old. He also visibly tired as the season wore on as well, resulting in arm drag and poor command. In his 90.1 innings, he walked 51, hit seven batters, and threw six wild pitches.
The durability concerns are based upon his lanky frame, as at 6-foot-4, he weighs just 190 pounds. His limbs are long and lean, with lots of room for added mass all over. Of the Lansing (soon to be Dunedin) Three, the organization will definitely need to take it the slowest with Sanchez. His inning jump was the smallest, but he was clearly the most impacted, and anything beyond a 30-inning hike in 2013 could prove to be damaging in the long term. The mechanics are clean, as he’s balanced and smooth in the delivery, and follows through with very easy arm action from the 3/4 arm slot. His lack of strength in his lower half has a negative impact on the consistency of his mechanics, as once he begins to tire his pitching base weakens and his release point falls apart. When this happens, the command problems I mentioned above really begin to creep up.
The stuff truly is dynamite. Sanchez’ fastball is on the same level as Syndergaard’s, sitting in the 92-96 mph range and touching as high as 98 miles per hour. The pitch has natural sinking action, and can explode on hitters because of the deceptively easy action in his delivery. It’s already at least a plus caliber pitch, and with improved mechanics (leading to more consistent life) it should settle in as an easy plus-plus offering. His curveball is the best breaking ball in the system, with similar future grades to his fastball though it’s a step behind at present. Sanchez uses his long arms to generate a tight spin rotation on the pitch, giving it great depth and break. He does an excellent job of getting both called and swinging strikes in the zone, but he’s still learning how to make hitters chase down and in the dirt. Sanchez has continued to work on the changeup he really only began using at the professional level, and it’s still below average. He has good arm speed on the pitch which aids with deception, but he’s still trying to smooth out the fade required for swinging strikes.
The recurring theme is his lack of command, which is why he receives the Question Mark label for me. Sanchez can get the ball into the zone, sometimes, but even when he does, he has little feel for where the pitch is going. If he could more precisely locate his pitches, his stuff would play up so much better. A lot of his struggles in the second half came as the result of consistently poor location, as the only area he appeared capable of hitting was the upper part of the plate. Sanchez has the athleticism and baseball acumen to resolve these problems, but it’s most certainly going to be a process, and a slow one at that. Remain patient, because more so than any other player in the system, if Sanchez gets himself right, he has absolute superstar written all over him.
On the Rise
Roberto Osuna – 2012 team(s): Rookie-Bluefield, Low-A Vancouver
2-0, 43.2 IP, 32 H, 11 ER, 2 HR, 15 BB, 49 K
2.27 ERA (2.79 FIP), 1.08 WHIP, 10.10 K/9, 3.09 BB/9, 1.08 GO/AO
Osuna delivers a pitch for the Vancouver Canadians (Image courtesy Battersbox.ca)
I’m not sure any Blue Jays prospect made a bigger splash during the 2012 season, so Osuna fits the On the Rise moniker perfectly. When Toronto signed the then-16 year old Osuna, he was pitching for the Diablos Rojos del Mexico in the Mexican League, which is a remarkable feat considering that many feel the league is roughly the equivalent of Triple-A baseball. He (or his rights-holding team, anyways) received a 1.5 million dollar signing bonus in July 2011, and Osuna was thrown right into the fire this past summer. Not only did he makes his debut stateside, he skipped the Gulf Coast League altogether, starting his career with Bluefield. After four starts and three relief appearances with the club, Osuna received a promotion to Low-A Vancouver where he finished the year with five starts. His Vancouver debut on July 28th, however, was the organization’s best start of the season; Osuna pitched five shutout innings, allowing just one hit and one walk, while striking out an incredible 13.
Despite no discernible physical development, Osuna’s stuff has taken a significant leap forward over the past year. His fastball has risen to the 91-94 mph range consistently, and Osuna has shown the ability to gear up for some 96 miles per hour heat when required. One of his greatest strengths is his fastball command, which is arguably the most important trait for a young pitcher to learn, and likely the main reason he’s been able to dominate hitters well above his age group. Furthermore, he’s already excelling in pitchability, as he adds and subtracts from his fastball to mess with timing and keep his opposition off balance.
He mixes and matches even further with a split-change that carries plus potential. The offspeed pitch is thrown in the 77-82 mph range, giving it excellent velocity separation while showing both break and deception as he maintains arm speed through the release. There’s isn’t a complete consensus on what Osuna throws for a breaking ball, as while some classify it as a curveball or slurve, others have labeled the pitch a slider because of the bite and two-plane movement. Whatever you want to call it, the pitch rounds out Osuna’s arsenal well, and could become above average as he’s already shown he’s comfortable throwing it in most counts and against both lefties and righties.
Osuna has a sturdy build at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, which is why many have labeled him as lacking projection. While he’s unlikely to burst up another two inches and add 20 pounds, he’s proven over the past year that improvements in mechanics and baseball acumen can be far more important to development than just physical projection. Osuna has a legitimate mid-rotation starter ceiling, and the next step in the quest to reach that goal will be Lansing. It’s expected he’ll be on a tight leash innings-wise just like Syndergaard, Sanchez, and Nicolino were last season, but Osuna could reach the majors as a 20 year old if things unfold as the Blue Jays hope.
Dream on Me
Adonys Cardona – 2012 team: Gulf Coast Blue Jays
0-1, 15.2 IP, 15 H, 11 ER, 1 HR, 10 BB, 20 K
6.32 ERA (3.58 FIP), 1.60 WHIP, 11.49 K/9, 5.74 BB/9, 1.25 GO/AO
Adonys Cardona warms up during Spring Training 2012 (Image via MLBProspectPortal.com)
When the Blue Jays signed Adonys Cardona as an International Free Agent in the summer of 2010, they gave him the largest bonus ever for a Venezuelan player; 2.8 million. That’s how highly the organization thought of the right hander, and why they remain high on him even after a derailed season. Cardona made his debut as a 17 year old in the summer of 2011, appearing in 10 games in the Gulf Coast League. He showed impressive stuff, racking up 35 strikeouts in 31.2 innings. In a bit of a surprise move, he was re-assigned there this past summer. There were rumors he was dealing with arm soreness in the spring, and those reports appear to have been actualized as he appeared in just eight games, totaling 15.2 innings. Even with the apparent setback, he’ll still be just 19 years old on Opening Day, and Cardona has more than enough raw talent to catch up to some of the more highly touted arms in the system.
Like nearly every potentially elite pitching prospect, Cardona is armed with a promising fastball. Over the past two years it’s risen from the 86-90 range up to the 90-95 mph range consistently. The fastball has good life and he commands it well given his age. One of the most promising aspects with Cardona’s fastball is the potential growth to come. He’s still a string bean at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, and while he doesn’t have the broadest of frames, there’s plenty of room for some physical maturity.
Cardona throws a curveball, but at present it’s struggling to be an average pitch. The offering has hard, late break, but it’s easy to pick up out of his hand, particularly when his release point is early. His overhand arm slot really benefits the vertical drop of the pitch, so if he can improve his mechanical consistency and match his release point to his fastball, the curveball could be above average. Cardona’s third pitch is a changeup that he’s shown surprising feel for. His quick and easy arm action really aids in the deception, as the pitch is difficult to distinguish from his fastball. Like most young pitchers, Cardona is still working on balancing firm and fade, as he will occasionally throw the changeup too hard. Control of the offspeed pitches hasn’t been as much of a problem as command, where Cardona is still below average.
Under normal circumstances, when a pitcher has two years of short season ball under his belt, you expect him to make the leap to a full season club in his third year. Unfortunately, that’s not going to be the case with Cardona. He’s fallen so far behind innings-wise that he definitely needs a third year in short season, though hopefully it will be with Bluefield or Vancouver. Once he gets back on track, health permitting, you can start thinking about Lansing in 2014, and so on. For now, the best course of action is the safe one, and that sees Cardona attempting to build his arm strength up to 40-50 innings in 2013.
The Bullpen Guy
Marcus Stroman – 2012 team(s): Low-A Vancouver, Double-A New Hampshire
3-0, 19.1 IP, 16 H, 7 ER, 1 HR, 9 BB, 23 K
3.26 ERA (2.89 FIP), 1.29 WHIP, 10.71 K/9, 4.19 BB/9, 1.92 GO/AO
Stroman pitching for the Orleans Firebirds in the Cape Cod League during the 2011 season (Image via JaysProspects.com)
The Blue Jays selected Marcus Stroman with the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 draft, which was quite a coup when you consider that Baseball America ranked him as the 10th best available talent. Teams likely shied away from the right hander for two related reasons: his size, and his undefined role. Stroman stands just 5-foot-9 while weighing 185 pounds, which is hardly the ideal body type for a pitcher. As such, even though he did work as a starter for Duke during his college days, most feel his future is in the bullpen. While serving as Team USA’s closer in the summer of 2011, he pitched 8.1 shutout innings, allowing no hits, just one walk, while striking out 17. Clearly, he’s comfortable in the role. Unfortunately for Stroman and the Blue Jays organization, he received a 50 game suspension late in the season for a “performance enhancing drug”, which cut his year short and will delay his debut in 2013.
Working in the bullpen, Stroman has two pitches that already grade as at least plus, which is why, among others, Keith Law of ESPN felt that he could have been pitching in games in Toronto this past September, suspension be damned. His fastball plays up in short bursts, as while he sat 92-94 mph in the rotation, he ramps up to the 93-96 mph range in the bullpen, while touching as high as 98 miles per hour. One of Stroman’s strongest traits is that despite his diminutive build, he maintains velocity extremely well. The fastball has impressive arm side run and sink, but he has more control than command of it at this point, leading him to occasionally catching too much of the plate.
Stroman’s highest rated offering is his slider, which was arguably the best breaking ball in the 2012 draft. It has excellent depth and sharp, hard biting break while clocking in the 82-84 mph range. It’s his go-to pitch, and for good reason, as he has excellent command of the slider and can throw it both in and out of the zone against both lefties and righties. Stroman has begun to throw a cutter more often, which at 86-90 mph is nice middle ground between his two best pitches. It bores in on the hands of left handed batters, while breaking away and out of the swing plane of right handed batters. He rounds out the arsenal with a solid, mid 80’s changeup that benefits from his quick arm action. It’s a little firm, as its vertical drop isn’t quite where you want it.
The starter versus reliever debate with Stroman will continue until the Blue Jays come out and share their intentions, which with this front office, isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. I think the bullpen role is the correct one, but unlike most people I don’t see him as a closer type. The effort in Stroman’s delivery could prevent him from ever throwing 200 innings in a season, but I can’t peg him in as a 60 inning guy either. I’d like to see the Blue Jays utilize him in a hybrid reliever role, where he’d receive the innings of a long man, but would pitch in high leverage scenarios. A team’s most dire situation is rarely with no outs in the ninth, and having a pitcher like Stroman capable of coming in during the 6th or 7th inning with runners on and shutting the opposition down for two or three frames would be incredibly valuable. It was a role many talked about with Tim Lincecum when he was drafted, and while he had an extremely high peak, the starting rotation has clearly worn him down at just 28.
Remember the Name
Alberto Tirado – 2012 team(s): GCL Blue Jays, Rookie-Bluefield
3-2, 48.0 IP, 32 H, 14 ER, 0 HR, 17 BB, 39 K
2.63 ERA (2.89 FIP), 1.02 WHIP, 7.31 K/9, 3.19 BB/9, 1.35 GO/AO
Alberto Tirado (Image via BlueJays.scout.com)
The hype train has quickly picked up on this young Dominican, as he’s gone from under the radar prospect to the middle of the spotlight in just a few months. Tirado was signed as 16 year old during the 2011 International Free Agency period, and received a rather ho-hum bonus of just 300 thousand dollars. The Blue Jays clearly had their projection goggles on, however, as Tirado has long levers and a thin, athletic frame. His delivery is just as promising, as he uses his lower half well and his arm action is very loose and easy. Since signing, he’s continued to grow and add muscle, which has seen a noticeable augmentation in his stuff.
Previously struggling to register 91 on the gun, Tirado is now comfortably sitting between 91 and 94 miles per hour and commanding it well. He’s touched as high as 95 and 96, but consistent readings at that level may not come for another year or two. Coming in from a low 3/4 arm slot, the pitch has a bit of natural cutting action away from right handed batters. Tirado complements the fastball with a power slider that shows late break on two planes and serious depth. The slider has superseded a once promising curveball, a pitch the Blue Jays organization clearly feels is less conducive to success with his arm slot. He completes the arsenal with a changeup that is surprisingly advanced, and uses it to put away left handed batters.
Tirado finished his debut season with three starts for Bluefield, but the more important number is the 48 total innings he threw. Whether he starts with Bluefield or Vancouver next season, Tirado should be looked upon to consistently throw five innings or 70 pitches per outing in order to further build his arm strength and prepare for full season ball in 2014. If Tirado performs as well as we hope and expect next June and July, I wouldn’t be shocked if he finds himself in the Midwest League at some point in August.