There is strong speculation that the player to be named later in the Josh Donaldson trade is Julian Merryweather. Why do Team Shapkins consider him to have “impact player” upside?
While it is not certain, it appears increasingly likely that Julian Merryweather will soon be a Blue Jay. Who is he, and why does Ross Atkins see him as a “near-term prospect we feel can impact our major-league team in a significant way“?
Merryweather was drafted out of Oaklahoma Baptist University in 2014. He was an All-American at OBU, with a career 22-5 record over two seasons, an ERA of 1.73 and a 10.28 K/9.
You would think that, with stats like these and a 6’4”, 200 pound build, Julian would have been highly rated in the 2014 draft, but he had two strikes against him. First, he did not have the blazing, holy-cow-Batman high-90s fastball that scouts love. And second, OBU was a NAIA school (they were approved for NCAA Division II status on July 11, 2014 – one month after he was drafted). The NAIA was perceived (not unfairly) to have a lesser level of competition, which made Julian’s performance hard to put in context. He was accordingly not listed among Baseball America’s top 500 prospects (or Minor League Ball’s top 350). He ended up being drafted in the 5th round by Cleveland – but as a “slot saver”. His bonus of $20,000 was $280,000 under slot and by far the lowest signing bonus in the 5th round.
Toronto Blue Jays
Cleveland started him in low-A ball right away (the Mahoning Valley Scrappers) where Merryweather put up a solid but unspectacular 3.66 ERA over 46 innings. He followed that up with a 4.08 ERA (albeit with a 2.86 xFIP) in A-ball in 2015, by now pitching out of the bullpen. At this point, the “book” on Julian was that he “was succeeding as a 24-year-old in A-ball due to deception, a good changeup, and little else“. He was not even listed in the Cleveland top-30 prospects, and seemed destined to end his career in the low minors.
Then 2016 happened.
He was promoted to High-A Lynchburg to start 2016. Coaches there found a tweak to his motion, simplifying it and reducing the “noise”. Suddenly Julian’s fastball was regularly in the mid-90s, touching 97, and was rated the top fastball in the Cleveland system by Baseball America (ahead of Triston McKenzie, whose fastball was rated a 60). Julian’s above average curve and rapidly improving change, not to mention a better than 3:1 K/BB ratio, went from being mildly interesting weapons in the hands of a fringe finesse pitcher to important assets in a well-rounded pitching arsenal. He was moved back into the rotation, and pitched to an 8-2 record, a 1.03 ERA (2.98 xFIP) and a Carolina League all-star berth.
Merryweather received a midseason promotion to the AA Akron Rubberducks (don’t you love minor league team names?). He struggled in his first start, allowing nine earned runs over four innings (remind you of anyone?). But he settled down quickly, and put up a 2.96 ERA over his next 12 Duck starts that year. Akron manager Dave Wallace praised Julian’s performance and makeup, saying:
"“You see the stuff and you know it’s going to play here and beyond,” Wallace said. “He definitely has the stuff to be a big-league starter. You start there and then you add in the mentality, the work ethic, the composure, he’s a major league starter for a long time in my eyes.”"
Julian started 2017 in Akron, and made nine starts with a 3.38 ERA (3.10 xFIP), a 9.24 K/9 and an excellent 1.78 BB/9. By now, writers had begun to take notice. He went from being unranked in the Cleveland system going into 2016 to a #23 ranked prospect entering 2017. Writers were projecting him as a potential mid-rotation starter or strong bullpen reliever (possibly even a closer). Once again, Julian earned a mid-season promotion, this time to the Cleveland AAA affiliate, the Columbus Clippers.
His first game in AAA was a bit more auspicious than his first in AA. Facing the top offense in the International league, Julian shone:
"Over eight innings, the 25-year old befuddled top prospect after top prospect, shutting them out on just four hits while striking out eight and walking none. He was pulled after just 97 pitches, and consistently hit 97 miles per hour with his fastball. It was the best game of Merryweather’s career"
The rest of his time at Columbus was spotty. He finished his 16-start introduction to AAA with a poor 6.58 ERA … but with a .388 BABIP and a 3.89 xFIP.
Scouts are divided on why he struggled. Some believe that his fastball, as powerful as it is, lacks movement – and that AAA batters can hit a straight fastball a long way, even one coming at them at 97 mph. They say that his change and curve are not yet strong enough to keep batters honest, and point to his 15.7% HR/FB ratio in AAA as evidence that his pitch mix is just not major league level.
Others are more optimistic. Baseball America noted after the 2017 season that
"While Merryweather’s results suffered down the stretch with the Clippers, his stuff and peripherals remained strong. Merryweather has the stuff to start, but still is learning some of the finer points of pitching. His fastball sits in the mid 90s and regularly reaches 97 mph. His changeup can be an above-average pitch with fading action, but he will need to tighten the pitch up to get hitters to chase it more often. He throws both a curveball and a slider, which can be average offerings. He does a good job of using his 6-foot-4 frame to his advantage and works well down in the strike zone to create groundouts. He throws a lot of strikes and repeats his delivery well. Merryweather has the potential to be a starter in the big leagues"
Even if they disagreed on Julian’s 2017, most scouts agreed that 2018 would be a telling year. If he could continue his development, tighten his pitches and learn those “finer points of pitching” he could well find himself on the Cleveland roster by the end of the year. If not, he could end up in the bullpen … or remain at triple-A. Unfortunately, a UCL strain led to Tommy John surgery in March 2018. This surgery cost him his 2018 season, and (assuming 12-16 month recovery) will likely limit his contribution in the first half of 2019.
The bottom line
Late bloomers are often polarizing, and Merryweather is no exception. Is his fastball better than McKenzie’s 60, or does it lack life? Has he hit his ceiling at Triple-A, or is he still learning and growing? Does he really have the “stuff to start”, as BA says, and the “mentality / work ethic / composure” to succeed in the bigs?
For myself, I am cautiously optimistic. Baseball America’s assessment carries weight with me, as does the fact that Shapiro and Atkins (who followed Julian’s development while at Cleveland) believed him to be a valuable acquisition. I am reminded of Thomas Pannone, acquired from Cleveland in the Joe Smith trade. He was not ranked in the Cleveland top 30 prospects – but now he is competing for a spot in the Jays’ 2019 rotation. Julian Merryweather is a gamble, granted – but what minor league pitcher isn’t? And if Atkins is correct, and he turns out to be even an average mid-rotation starter for the Jays for 6+ years, the return for a devalued Josh Donaldson will be pretty good.