Glenn Sparkman pitched in his first rehab start last Thursday. Could he be ready soon to help a tired Jays bullpen?
Stop me if you heard this one.
The Jays select a young starting pitcher in the December Rule 5 draft. The kid has talent, with a fastball in the 90-93mph range and one average breaking pitch (and a second one that is still a work in progress) but is far from a sure thing as a starter. There is also some concern about arm health, as the pitcher has already had Tommy John surgery.
The Jays plan to convert him to a long reliever in the near term, and hope that reduced innings can bump the fastball to the 95mph+ range and give him the luxury of relying more on his two best pitches. Best case scenario, he continues to work with Pete Walker on his other pitches and, if successful, transitions back into the rotation at some point.
Am I talking about Joe Biagini in 2015?
Or Glenn Sparkman in 2016?
Sparkman was drafted out of college by Kansas City in the 2013 amateur draft. He pitched well enough in rookie ball (1.72 ERA) in 2013 to skip low-A directly into high-A in 2014, where he continued to impress (1.56 ERA over 121 IP, and named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year). And impressively, Sparkman did this with a walk rate of less than two batters per game, showing unusually good command for a pitcher at this level.
He started well in double-A in 2015, but after only four starts he injured his elbow, necessitating Tommy John surgery. He missed the remainder of 2015, and when he came back in June of 2016 he struggled to a 5.22 ERA over four levels (from rookie ball to double-A). The Royals left him unprotected, and the Jays drafted him.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays had hoped that Sparkman could follow in Aaron Sanchez‘s footsteps, starting in the bullpen and eventually transitioning into a starter. But Sparkman broke his thumb in spring training, and has been on the DL ever since. He had his first rehab start on June 1st, throwing 57 pitches over 3.1 innings for High-A Dunedin. He looked good, with only three hits and a walk over the 3.1 innings, striking out three and throwing 40 of the 57 pitches for strikes, but he will need a few more rehab starts before being ready to join the major league club.
So why am I optimistic that Sparky can help the Jays in 2017?
First, because Sparkman is already generating strikeouts, with a 9+ K/9 over his minor league career. While his fastball has not been overpoweringly fast, he has a lot of deception with his delivery, using a slow-to-fast tempo that is tough for hitters to time up. Sparkman has already touched 96mph, so the potential for greater average speed in a relief role is clearly there.
Second, because while Sparkman is not yet a four-pitch pitcher, he does have one (or two) legitimate breaking ball weapons. In describing Sparkman’s stuff in 2015, Kiley McDaniel noted:
"His curveball is solid average, his changeup is average and his slider is fringy. Some scouts think Sparkman should throw his off-speed more to develop those pitches further, but he has lots of success with his fastball"
This is reminiscent of Joe Biagini, who (at the time he was drafted) was described as a fastball/curveball pitcher with a developing slider. In relief role, Sparkman will be able to rely more heavily on his fastball and curve, while still working on the changeup and slider.
And finally, I am impressed with Sparkman’s control. A pitcher can have all the velocity in the world, but a 102 mph walk is still just a walk. Over his minor league career, Sparkman has 255 strikeouts to only 55 walks – an excellent 4.6 K/BB ratio. Limiting walks as a reliever not only gives your defense a chance to help you, but also reduces the impact of the mistakes you *do* make.
The bottom line
The prototypical reliever would have a 95+ mph fastball with some deception/movement, at least one solid-average-to-plus breaking ball (two average breaking balls would be even better) and above-average control. Ideally, the reliever would also have recent experience as a starter or long reliever, so he could pitch more than 1-2 innings if required. Sparkman has the potential to check all of those boxes. And, with the Jays bullpen currently “running on fumes“, his timing could not be much better. Could he be the Jays’ next bullpen hero, wielding multiple armaments (pitches) to cut off the path of villany (Yankees)?