WTNYJune 14, 2006
Tier Promotion
By Bryan Smith

There is no such thing as a pitching prospect. With the recent graduation of one of the minors' top classes of phenoms in recent memory, a phrase normally left for hyperbole is becoming all-but-too literal.

This winter, prospect pundits made cases for their annual pick of baseball's best pitching prospect, selecting from a group of four: Francisco Liriano, Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley and Justin Verlander. All had very good arguments; any choice was defensible.

In my rankings, which were in the very order listed above, I had four other pitchers joining the elite group to comprise a top tier: Jon Lester, Scott Olsen, Jon Papelbon and Joel Zumaya. Even the biggest skeptic could agree that there was such thing as a baseball prospect: there were eight of them.

When the season started, it became quickly obvious the list was missing one name, Cole Hamels. The lefthander proved healthy and dominant in the early going, erasing any previous concern and flying up prospect lists. Hamels' meteoric rise was capped with a call-up to the big leagues, gone before we could properly rank him.

If reports are correct, as of this Thursday, baseball's entire first tier of pitching prospects will have gone the way of Hamels. Jon Lester's Red Sox debut came last Saturday; Chad Billingsley is set to start tomorrow. Baseball may have never had such an accomplished group of graduated pitching prospects.

Unsurprisingly, as a whole, the 8-some is achieving huge Major League success. Jon Papelbon is the American League's best reliever, and Francisco Liriano its hottest starter. Joel Zumaya hit 102 mph on the gun this weekend, while teammate Justin Verlander has been in that velocity's neighborhood late into plenty of games.

This weekend, I received an e-mail with a simple question that, now, I can no longer answer. "Who is the best pitching prospect in the minors?" A week ago, I would have mindlessly answered Billingsley, who had been pitching well in one of the minor leagues' toughest parks for pitchers. Lester, I would have noted, a close second, bouncing back exceptionally from his third slow start in as many years.

Not only is it near impossible to peg a top arm name right now, it's quite difficult to even find a top tier. Players in this group should profile as All-Stars, top of the rotation arms or ace relievers. Scanning through the minor leagues, players that fit this category are few and far between.

So while I do believe a pitching-laden draft in 2006, and next year's loaded class will bring the minor league pitching back to its glory, there is no time to complain like the present. With that said, here is a list of the names that floated in my head for top dog, creating by default a (pitiful) top tier. In absolutely no particular order:

  • Philip Hughes - If you had told me in mid-April that I would be writing this article, I would have guessed this list might very well begin and end with Hughes. By then Hughes was flexing his young muscle in the Florida State League, which he would live with a ridiculous 30-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Pitchers his age, 20, aren't supposed to be capable of that. However, since a move to AA, Hughes has started to seem far more human. However, not one peripheral number is frightening, thus the righthander's presence on this list. Hughes will not be ready for New York for another year, at the earliest, but Hughes will quickly remind Yankees fans how useful homegrown blue-chippers can be.

  • Anthony Reyes - The rap on Reyes goes unchanged through the season's first two months, yet Reyes finds himself in a new tier. The Cardinal righthander continues to be ignored in AAA, despite slowly getting better and better as this season has gone on. Reyes really belonged in yesterday's article; he deserves a spot in the big league rotation, or to be dealt for a bat soon. A limited ceiling holds Reyes back as a prospect some, but he is as good a bet to be a productive leader as you'll find among this tier.

  • Mike Pelfrey - The favorite for leading this tier, but it isn't as if he's made it clear cut. Like Hughes, Pelfrey coasted through the Florida State League, posting his own 26-2 K/BB ratio. His move to AAA has gone better than the Yankee prospect, but he hasn't been consistent. At times, in his last start, Pelfrey has been dominant, and looks like a future ace in the making ... a guy who could have fit in last year's top tier. However, players of that caliber don't get hit as hard as Pelfrey has in some outings, leaving some room open for doubt. With a little consistency, Pelfrey would definitively rise atop this group.

  • Nick Adenhart - How in the world can I have the nerve to start an article with TINSTAPP and put this guy on my list? Trust me, Adenhart belongs. Having already been through the injury process, Adenhart is one step of the game, pitching with a repaired elbow. On the mound he has been dominant in the Midwest League, pitching well in all-but-one outing on the season. While his strikeout numbers pale in comparison to others in low-A, like Wade Davis or Brandon Erbe, Adenhart shows more pitchability than both. The Angels have no need to rush him, so I just don't see the negatives here. Big stuff, a healthy right arm, a coddled future and a bunch of pitchability. He belongs.

  • Matt Garza - The final pitcher on our list who is helped by an early season run through the Florida State League. While last year's first round pick lasted the longest in the FSL, he certainly earned his promotion, allowing just 27 hits in 44.1 innings. And of the three, Garza has been the best upon a move to Double-A, in perhaps the most difficult ballpark. The Twins knew they were drafting a right arm with a lot of stuff last June, but I doubt they thought the player might be ready to contribute by September, 2006. Expect the Twins to develop a solid long-term plan this winter, and when they do so, expect Garza to be featured prominently.

  • Jeremy Sowers - From a stuff and ceiling standpoint, Sowers does not belong on this list. He's bad in neither category, but a fastball in the 80s usually isn't associated with top 6. In this instance it should be, as Sowers makes up for any lack of stuff with the extraordinary ability to keep the ball down. Sowers has been consistently dominant in the IL this season, and despite problems in the back end of the rotation, the Indians have not backed down. They will be patient with Sowers -- and their seven figure free agents -- even if it detracts from the 2006 win-loss record. So, for now, Sowers is one of the minors' top 6 pitching prospects, but perhaps the closest to Major League success.

    Certainly, other names can make arguments for this list. I considered dozens of other pitchers, and when asked, I'll explain my reasoning for not including every one in the comments. It won't be long before this list is useless, before the 2006 draft starts to make it obsolete. Because, for all we know, at this point next year the best argument might be made for someone like Kyle Drabek. Such is the uncertainty with the great mystery of the pitching prospect.

  • Comments

    I'd throw Craig Hansen's name up on that list for consideration...

    Peter, Hansen is truly No. 7. He just missed this list, and he is the one player who I might regret not writing up. However, I haven't gotten a good feel for his ability as a prospect quite yet, as he's seemingly been jerked between roles. He has the stuff to belong at any level, I just need to see a little more before I throw him too high.

    Personally, I wouldn't consider Hansen but that's because I'm terribly biased against relievers. They're just not exciting prospects most of the time to me. But that also means I've never been caught up in the unfulfilled hype traps either. 2 years ago it was all "Jose Capellan/Brandon League/Santiago Casilla-Jairo Garcia are the next K-Rods." They've all disappointed. I heard the same thing about Fernando Cabrera on the Indians.

    I leave relief prospects way down when I think of coveted pitching prospects. Even if they succeed, you're talking about an 7th/8th inning guy, a role that's often filled ably by guys you wouldn't think would do it (Chad Qualls, Rafael Betancourt, etc.). Guys not on the prospect radars. There's a much better chance you can dig a good 8th or 9th inning guy out of the trash bin cheaply than a #1-3 starter.

    Loewen has graduated as well, with poor results thus far, but his numbers haven't really lived up to the hype in the minors so far. Jered Weaver's graduation has gone well.

    Gallardo should make the list. No other omissions though. Gorzelanny is okay. And for the "A for Effort" list West Tennessee starter Randy Wells has an 0.99 ERA. Carlos Marmol was leading the Southern League in strikeouts when he was promoted. Gio Gonzalez has faded a little and Troy Patton has picked it up some.

    As disgusting as it is to talk this way about someone in the Yankees' farm system, Phil Hughes has my vote for best pitching prospect in baseball. Here's my test: I look over the list and say "Which guy would I most like to have in my team's farm system?" The answer - Hughes.

    Gio Gonzalez still gets no respect I see.

    Career minor league numbers before this season as a 18yr old in Rookie, 19yr old in A/A+:

    2.79 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 187.2 IP, 226/68 K/BB, 10.87 K/9, 6.92 H/9, 3.27 BB/9

    This season as a 20yr old in AA:

    3.35 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 78 IP, 91/38 K/BB, 10.5 K/9, 6.57 H/9, 4.38 BB/9

    Compare to everyone's favorite new #1 prospect Chad Billingsley:

    Career numbers as a 18/19yr old in Rookie, 19/20 in A+, 20/21yr old in AA:

    3.02 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 334.1 IP, 382/136 K/BB, 10.29 K/9, 7.14 H/9, 3.66 BB/9

    So basically, Gonzalez has a better ERA, WHIP, K/9, H/9, BB/9 and is a lefty... but doesn't merit the same prospect status?

    Gio Gonzalez is the most underrated prospect in baseball right now.

    As for other names on the top tier:

    Wade Davis and Brandon Erbe should be on that list by the end of the year once they get innings in A+ ball. Davis hits the mid-90's with a power curve and reportedly his changeup is getting better. Once his changeup is consistently a plus pitch, he will be a top 5-10 pitching prospect. Erbe's fastball is unhittable right now and seems to be ahead of where Philip Hughes was a year ago.

    Though he hasn't moved up yet, I'm curious about Kevin Slowey, also in the Twins and also in the FSL, and whether or not he'd join "the list" once some of those guys got called up. He's put up Garza like numbers, but hasn't gotten the call yet to AA.

    Bryan, Humberto Sanchez and Homer Bailey both have to be close. Sanchez is getting real close to the majors, after having another good outing in AAA Toledo. His numbers and overall stuff is quite impressive.

    Bailey still needs development with some of his pitches (like Hughes), but he has pitched pretty well in the FSL.

    I'm glad you guys are mentioning these names, I had the same list last night.

    Gonzalez is No. 8 on the list that I have created for myself. He's definitely a top 40 prospect, so underrated I question. Billingsley gets love because he has better stuff, but Gonzalez is no slouch in the category. I really like him, and I think he will be a very good Major Leaguer, I just think the six in this article are narrowly ahead of him.

    Humberto Sanchez is one of my favorite prospects, and I have him pretty highly rated, I think. His start at Triple-A last night indicated that he's very close to making a contribution in the big leagues. While Joel Zumaya has likely found a home in the bullpen, I hope the Tigers let Sanchez prove he should be a reliever before making the switch. This guy is ready to start in the bigs now.

    Gallardo and Erbe are two that I think could be in the top tier by season's end. I just want to see more of Gallardo before throwing him that high; in two months, I wouldn't be all that surprised if he wasn't the top ranked pitcher in the system. Erbe needs to pitch for a full season before getting really high accolades, but he has never shown weakness as a pro. Both of those guys are up there.

    Bailey is pretty firmly in the second tier for me. Maybe it's based off frustration, since I predicted him to breakout and thought the idea of him becoming a top 10 prospect wasn't far-fetched. I was wrong, and it looks like Bailey's ascent is going to demand more patience. He has awesome stuff and pretty good pitchability, but he needs to show consistent dominance before his ranking reflects that.

    One thing about Erbe is he's increadibly young. He was born in Dec 1987, which means he should have been in this years draft class. I don't know if he skipped a grade or started early, but either way, he's really young. The way he's performed this year in Low-A is amazing. He would have been the best rated player availible in this years draft IMO based on what he's done.

    I'm really impressed by what he's done. If he keeps this up, he may very well be the best pitching prospect in base ball by the end of the year.

    Hughes is incredibly young in his own right, Tyler. He doesn't turn 20 for another week or so, which means he's established himself as a solid AA performer at the age of 19.

    I know, but if Erbe continues at this pace, he'll be into high-A by the end of the year at 18. I really like Hughes (well, as much as I can like a Yankee :)) but Erbe will be playing this entire season at 18, he won't be 19 until December.

    Hughes is my #1 at this point too, but if Erbe continues at this pace, he'll be an 18 year old, in High-A, with a fastball that reaches close to 100mph. That is an uber prospect in my book, and IMO, based on ceiling/performane/age, would be my #1 prospect.

    Yeah, I love Brandon Erbe, and I think the Orioles deserve mention for doing a great job coddling him - no more than 5 IP allowed per start. Given the organization has a history that rivals the Mariners or Reds, that's a very good place to start.

    Kind of surprised to see Jason Hirsh's name unmentioned in the article or the comments. He was regarded as a top-notch prospect coming into the season, and he's done little to disappoint at AAA Round Rock this season: 3.02 ERA, 65K in 83 IP, only 69 HA. His walk rate is a bit high (37 BB), but he keeps the ball in the park as well (only 4 HR allowed).

    IMHO, if you're going to put guys like Reyes and Sowers on a list like this, you have to include Tom Gorzellany as well. I also disagree with putting guys with zero AA or higher experience up there unless they have A++ reputations and stuff; there is just too much that can happen in between the Midwest league and the big leagues.

    Adam Miller threw 100mph once.

    Ubaldo Jimenez?? Lately, he has been the best pitcher in the minors, and he is finally healthy and has his mechanics worked out. So far today he has thrown another 3 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 6 K.

    Yeah, Hughes' AA #'s weren't looking too good after his 5IP 6R start three starts ago but in his last two he's been excellent. 13IP 6H 1R 4BB 12K - including seven innings of one hit ball last night. But, no doubt he's been inconsisent so far through eight starts but he won't even turn 20 until the 24th of this month. Not bad. I think the biggest thing that all Yankee fans want to see out of Hughes is staying healthy, at least hold his own at AA - doesn't have to dominate though it'll be nice, and most importantly, still be a Yankee once August 1st rolls around.

    Nice list Brian. I think the Erbe vs Hughes debate has merit, however, I'm confused by the relevance of Erbe's age in the discussion. (I think a better debate would be Erbe vs Adenhart since both are performing at the same level, Low A.) Studies have shown that hitters tend to peak through the late 20's, with most breakthrough seasons recorded at the age of 27. Do pitchers have a "peak age"? I realize Erbe's very young, but how/why does that increase his prospect status?

    I'm not the Hirsh guy that others are - I think at best he works as a middle-of-the-rotation guy, and he's not the sure thing (to me) that Sowers and Reyes are. I understand that he and Reyes really aren't that far apart on the prospect scale, but Reyes has a longer history of success, so I lean towards him.

    Ubaldo Jimenez is definitely the flavor of the week, but let's not get too caught up yet. In the hard-throwing, come after you all the time category, I'd prefer Humberto Sanchez. Jimenez is capable of some awesome performances, but before I rank him too high, let's see it happen consistently.

    CG, the answer is a little easier than it seems, but I appreciate the question. Think about it in terms of win shares. If prospect A reaches the Majors at 20, a high school phenom who bolted through the minors, he has a better chance at topping the career win shares of your guy that debuts at 24, simply because he has a headstart. I hope that makes sense.

    CG - I would like to try to answer your question a couple of different ways. Being young is important to being a prospect - and there are a number of reasons for that. First, if you are considerably younger than the rest of the players in your age group, and dominating them, this shows superior talent to most players. As an example, consider how Carmello Anthony was the best player in College Basketball during his freshman year at Syracuse. His ability to not only play with but outperform older players was evidence of his far superior talent. Secondly, you must consider the natural development process of the human body. If you are old enough, think of how developed your body was at 18 and then compare it to 23. If you are like most people, you added a pretty significant amount of weight, muscle, and possibly height during those years. A guy like Erbe who is 18 is 6'4 (a good height for pitchers) but only 180 pounds (a bit thin considering his height). During the next few years it is my guess he will be able to add some pounds of muscle which can give him more velocity (as was mentioned above he already has a FB that reaches 98) and stamina. Finally, as Bryan mentioned, it is also important when considering the development curve. Guys who reach the majors by 20-21 are given more chances to succeed and often turn into stars. To illustrate, consider two guys with equivalent ability but one makes the major as a 20 year-old and one as a 26 year-old. Assuming that it takes both guys 3-4 years to figure out the nuances of being a big leaguer, you are still left with around 10 years of his prime athletic ability for the 20 year-old. The 26 year-old, on the other hand, may only have a couple of seasons where he is physically in his prime - and probably wont be a star...

    I hope that helps with why it's important for a prospect to be young...

    agree with most of your points about age, dfarth, but I do think youth is more important in baseball for hitters than pitchers. BP had something about this distinction in this year's March previews. And in an article that begins with a nod to TINSTAAPP, I believe this should be worked out.

    Is Gio Gonzalez anywhere close?

    Sorry, I meant anywhere close to a promotion with Randy Wolf still hurt and Madson probably better suited to a relief role. I assume they probably want to keep Gio in the minors for more seasoning but they are 7 games out and a fresh arm could help.

    Phil Hughes is so much better than the rest of these bums. Don't be jealous.

    CG, I think the other guys did a great job of describing why age is important. As for comparing Erbe to Adenhart, well, Erbe has a better k/9 their walk rates are almost identical, Erbe's hit IP is better, so is his ERA and WHIP.

    And again, he's also a year younger, although Adenhart lost a year to TJ, so as far as experience it's a wash, but Erbe still has the advantage in projectablitiy. I'd take Erbe over the more highly touted Adenhart, although I think Adenhart is a stud.

    what about Kevin Slowey? Does his 92:7 K:BB ratio this year mean nothing?

    Ubaldo Jimenez had ANOTHER scoreless outing today. He's has the talent, and now he's pitching much, much smarter than last year.

    Age means something for sure, but I'm not a fan of guys who keep getting promotions with average numbers and people crow about them because they're young for their level. That is, I'm not a fan until I see them put up the numbers people are promising.

    The examples that come to mind right now are Asdrubel Cabrera, Joaquin Arias, etc.

    I don't know if he's been mentioned but Lofgren's been pretty good.


    Gammons mentioned that Scott Mathieson might get the call on Saturday, IIRC.

    Thanks for the responses. And while I understand the general idea behind age relevance, I'm still trying to determine if pitchers who are considered young for their league, such as Erbe, succeed at a higher rate once they reach the major league level. I understand the Carmelo Anthony example above, but I see flaws in the argument. In a sport like basketball, players are expected to improve as they mature and gain skill. Whereas in baseball, it seems more likely that an injury will derail a pitchers development through his late teens, early 20's.

    As for the Erbe vs Adenhart comparison. I agree that if you only evaluate numbers, Erbe would be ranked ahead of Adenhart. However, I think the way the O's are handling Erbe has given him an advantage over Adenhart. Adenhart has consistently been pitching deep into games, 7 innings at a time, while facing some hitters 3 times. Erbe on the other hand has the advantage of only going through the lineup twice at the most. I like them both, so don't take this as an Erbe assault.

    I'm pretty sure that prospects who do well despite being young for their age do succeed at a higher rate than average, but I have no statistics to back it up....

    I will say that your question seems to be on the issue of polish. At times you will get a guy who succeeds in the minors despite being young for his age because he has control of three pitches and he keeps hitters off balance. These pitchers are considered "polished," or in other words, there is not much more they can do to improve their craft. A guy like Erbe, on the other hand, his scouting reports indicate that he is not "polished." According to Baseball America, "Erbes secondary pitches need work. His breaking ball is above-average at times and is usually in the zone, but its inconsistent. He shows a feel for a changeup but never has had to use it much." The fact that he is dominating, at a young age, despite lacking that polish is remarkable...and means that his ceiling is incredibly high. Put another way, his fastball is so dominant that it doesn't matter that his other pitches aren't very advanced. But, given time, one would assume that he will be able to further develop those other pitches giving him at least 2 and maybe 3 dominant pitches. Then you have Felix Hernandez, Francisco Liriano, Mark Prior, or any other pitcher with great velocity and multiple plus pitches...

    Well I think this Erbe lovefest has gotten somewhat out of control. It's not uncommon for guys with iffy secondary offerings to dominate Low A, I don't read that as "That makes him even better of a prospect." Will Inman is somewhat in the same boat. Let's take a few deep breaths here.

    What makes him so exicting to me is his combination of a great fastball and extremely young age. Most players his age are in rookie ball. So he's three levels above where the average 18 year old is, if you count advanced rookie league, and SS-A ball. He's not only holding his own, he's dominating. I understand, his innings are being limited, but if he continues this, he'll be one of, if no the top pitching prospet in baseball.

    Hughes starting to come on at AA with 20IP 12H 3R 6BB 23K in his last three outings. Including his 7IP 6H 2R 2BB 11K 2HR performance today against the Mets AA club. Had to settle for the ND, though. Still 3-3 with Trenton and 5-6 on the year. Perfect reason why W-L is a useless stat in the minors.