There was no Huston Street this season. No pitcher that dazzled on both the stat sheets and scouting reports. The Arizona Fall League is rarely a haven for pitchers, who have come to avoid the hitter-friendly league. Last year Street created noise all over the league, as both his numbers and fastball impressed everyone that saw him. This year, we have seen none of that.
However, ten pitching performances from the AFL stand out, even if nearly all of them had flaws. I have grouped them into four categories, based on their statistics, and in many instances, their future roles on a pitching staff.
Group One: Glen Perkins and Jamie Shields
Undoubtedly the two Cy Youngs of the AFL season. The two were first and second respectively in innings pitched, and both were in the top five in both ERA and strikeouts. Furthermore, control is a problem for neither, as the two combined for a 68/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Perkins is the more well-known of the two, a first round pick by the Twins in the 2004 draft. He had a history of success before the AFL, pitching great at the University of Minnesota, as well as in both low and high-A. However, after a good first half performance in the Florida State League, Perkins struggled mightily in AA. Every ratio, including his historically great control went out the window, and his ERA neared 5.00.
The AFL, in this instance, should be a reminder that Glen Perkins is a legit pitching prospect, and will likely be a preview of what we might see from him next year in AA.
On the other hand, we have Jamie Shields. Older than Perkins by sixteen months, Shields was chosen in the sixteenth round of the 2000 draft out of high school. He lost his 2002 season to injury, struggling in the California League during the 2003 and 2004 seasons. However, when moving to a more pitcher-friendly environment this season, Shields thrived, lowering his ERA to 2.80 in 109.1 innings.
Shields great pitching in the AFL should come as evidence that his 2005 campaign was not a fluke. Instead, he deserves a spot on the Devil Rays 40-man roster, and if not, a spot in some organization's camp as a Rule 5 selection. Sure, his stuff might never impress a scout, but his control and newfound durability could yield a moderately successful Major League career.
Group Two: Adam Loewen, Humberto Sanchez and Clint Nageotte
While both Perkins and Shields belong in the back end of a rotation, our next three pitchers are tweeners. All have succeeded in the past -- and at the AFL -- as starters, but their performance has indicated a move to the bullpen could provide more consistency.
The most obvious name on this list is Adam Loewen, a former top five selection that has not been able to turn the corner as a starter. After a rough 2004, Loewen's 2005 looked fantastic with a 9.25 K/9 and 2.58 G/F ratio. His AFL obviously followed suit, as he continued to keep the ball on the ground and struggle with control. It seems that one way to harness Loewen's stuff, while maintaining his good strikeout, hit and groundball ratios would be to convert him to relief. However, expect the Orioles to give him at least one more season to prove his worth.
It seems that a bullpen that already has Franklyn German and Fernando Rodney just is begging to add Humberto Sanchez. Like the other two, Sanchez has a huge frame and fantastic, hard stuff. He has a career 8.62 K/9 ratio, and if you exclude the 2002 and 2003 seasons, he has struck out 195 men in his last 182.2 innings. However, he also walked 84 during that time, the cause for an ERA that has been above 5.00 during the time. His latest struggles were in Erie, one of the minor's best parks for hitters, though he has yet to dominate regardless of the environment. Given his stuff and ability to keep the ball in the stadium, Sanchez should move to relief as early as next season, where he could truly succeed.
Finally, we have a name that has already spent time at the heart of this debate: Clint Nageotte. Formerly a top Mariners pitching prospect, the team converted him, and his vicious slider, to relief this season. However, in an effort to extract more starting pitching from their farm system, they tried him in starting again this fall. The results: complete success. His control was fantastic, his stuff kept the ball in the park, and he continued to miss bats. Now, Nageotte finds himself right where he started, back in the relief vs. starting debate. Look for the former to win out.
In my opinion, of this group, only Loewen holds the potential to stay in the starting role. However, that hardly means that all three will not be successful, in whichever role suits them best.
Jered Weaver, Bill Murphy and Scott Mathieson
Unlike the first two groups, the pitchers in this group do not all profile to have similar future roles. However, all have relatively similar skillsets, and as a result, had similar performances in the AFL. All three had high ERAs in Arizona, likely the result of high HR/9 ratios. However, along with high hit rates, all three struck batters out at impressive rates, while not giving up very many free passes.
The most famous example of this type of player was Jered Weaver, who was inconsistent in his seven-start AFL stint. He gave up 30 hits -- four of which were home runs -- in 24.2 innings, leading to a 5.47 ERA. However, impressively he struck out 35 batters, while walking only five. This is a skill that Weaver has had since college, though his problem of being too hittable is a new one. I still believe Weaver has a future in the rotation, but he must find an ability to give up less fly balls, and as a result, less home runs.
One player with eerily similar statistics was Bill Murphy, southpaw in the Arizona system. Murphy gave up four home runs and 36 hits, while striking out 36 and giving up four walks in his 27 innings on the mound. I've never been a fan of Murphy, who I watched pitch in the 2004 Futures Game. Murphy has been too hittable for awhile now, though his strikeout numbers do indicate a future could be had in a relief role. It wouldn't hurt the Diamondbacks to send Murphy back to the PCL in 2006, but this time in much shorter stints.
Staying with the theme of ex-Futures Game pitchers, we have Scott Mathieson, who snuck into the 2005 All-Star contest. His stuff was impressive in his short stint in Detroit, as well as his 26 innings in Arizona. Mathieson struck out 36 batters during that time, but unlike the names that preceded him, did not show great control (11 walks). He also struggled with opponents making too much contact, as he surrendered 34 hits (and four home runs). However, Mathieson's strikeout numbers and impressive fastball indicate he could follow Ryan Madson in moving to the Philly bullpen.
Shane Komine and Taylor Buchholz
Finally, we finish with two pitchers that might not have the potential of the previous eight, but without question, have the numbers. First, there is Shane Komine, the small A's right-hander that has become known as "Hawaiian Punch-Out." This comes from Komine's noted strikeout history, which included four straight seasons with a K/9 over 9.00 at Nebraska. The ninth-round pick sat out of most of 2005 with injury, but also struck out 44 in 40 innings before the AFL. While his strikeout numbers might have been lacking in the AFL, Komine had great success in his five appearances.
Komine has a career 3.85 ERA in the minors, and pitched well in the Texas League in 2005. If a 5-8 pitcher is going to succeed anywhere, it might be the Oakland A's, who are thought to love the type of players that scouts hate. And make no mistake about it, Komine is just that. However, his numbers continue to be great, and if he can keep the ball in the park, there is no reason Shane can't pitch some with the Oakland A's.
One organization that has never valued height is the Houston Astros, as Roy Oswalt would be happy to tell you. And while Taylor Buchholz might actually fit the frame that scouts love, his fastball isn't great. However, a good curveball has led to success in the minors up until the Pacific Coast League, in which he has struggled each of the last two seasons. Buchholz has been unable to turn the corner in the K/9 department, striking out just 119 in 174.2 AAA innings. I don't see Buchholz succeeding in the Majors unless some of the velocity he once showed in the Philly system magically returns.
While these ten might not have been the best ten pitching prospects in the AFL, they are the ten stat lines that stood out the most. But in the end, there was no Huston Street. And there will be no Rookie of the Year coming from the 2005 AFL mound, that much I can guarantee you.