I'm not looking to brag, but I predicted Jeff Francis' breakout before the season. No, I hardly believe this is much more than a lucky guess, and am not going to call myself the "Expert of Underrated Prospects." But today I'm going to go out on a limb, and predict the breakout of two more pitching prospects.
How much success am I predicting? Well, let's say that I believe these two players will be, in one year's time, one of the 3 best 1-2 pitching prospect tandems in the minor leagues. Funny to think that a year ago, I never would have guessed it would the World Champion Boston Red Sox that would own their rights.
My favorite of the two had a 4.28 ERA in the Florida State League, so it is fair to say I'm going out on a limb. But, the Red Sox 2002 second-round pick pitched much better than his ERA implies. A southpaw, Jon Lester had sparkling peripheral numbers, from a 8.17 H/9, to a 9.66 K/9, to a 0.19 HR/9. The latter ratio, quickly becoming a favorite peripheral to me, is amazingly low. Sarasota, according to Baseball Prospectus 2004, is a slight hitter's park, meaning Lester's achievement of 2 homers allowed in 90.1 innings is fantastic.
Yes, you heard that right, only 90.1 innings. Lester had 21 appearances with the Sarastoa Red Sox during the season, with an average of a little more than 4 IP per game. The Red Sox are using his arm sparingly, worried they'll rupture one of their better prospects. This is a big kid, listed at 6-3, and 200 pounds. He will turn 21 years of age during the offseason, and spend the 2005 season in the Eastern League.
Off the top of my head, I would say that Lester ranks in my top 5 of southpaw pitching prospects in the minor leagues. But that, my friends, is a topic for another day.
Lester's teammate for two seasons has been Jon Papelbon, a 2003 fourth-round pick from Mississippi State University. The former Bulldog was a reliever in college, with a 2.28 ERA in 25 games in his Senior Season. After being signed quickly, the Red Sox sent Papelbon to the New York-Penn League, where he had a 6.34 ERA in 13 games split between relieving and starting. He showed a good ratios in K/9, K/BB and HR/9, intriguing the club to extend Papelbon's stay in the rotation.
One year later, this looks like a fantastic decision. In 24 starts with the Sarasota Red Sox, as a 23-year-old, Papelbon had a 2.64 ERA. He only allowed 97 hits in 129.2 innings, striking out 153, walking 43, and surrendering six home runs. This was a great season for the 6-4, 230-pound right-hander.
According to Peter Gammons, the Eastern League Red Sox organization will be stacked next year, with Lester, Papelbon, Abe Alvarez and Manny Declareman all in their rotation. I am a fan of Alvarez, though not so much on Declareman. I think all three of my favorite pitchers could be ready for the Majors by 2006, with Lester having the billing of a future star. Papelbon's future in the big leagues is near guaranteed, though he could end up back in the bullpen. Alvarez is a very solid pitcher that could be what Bronson Arroyo was this season.
Lester-Papelbon for 2005. What's your pick?