Welcome back to Minor League Mondays, our weekly look at prospects and minor-happenings around the league!
Which AL Prospects Could Be In An Opening Day Rotation?
Last Monday, we covered five NL prospects that could emerge as starters on their respective MLB clubs on Opening Day or quite early in the season, and today we'll be doing the same in the AL. I'll admit that the NL didn't exactly have too many exciting guys that fit the description, but their AL counterparts should tickle your toes a bit more. Although only two rookie pitchers qualified for the ERA title in the AL this season, Brian Matusz and Wade Davis, we also got a sneak peek at some other young pitchers that could hit center stage in 2011, like Jeremy Hellickson and Chris Sale.
RHP Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay
You can expect to see this guy's name a lot, because he's going to be at or near the top of practically every top prospect list there is. The right-hander took a big step forward in 2009, and after this season he's established himself as arguably the best pitching prospect in the game going into the 2011 season. His year-by-year ERA marks do a decent job of explaining why people like him: 2.43, 2.67, 2.96, 2.45, 2.72. Even with a fastball that sits around 91 MPH, he's used an array of above-average offspeed pitches and impressive command to dominate hitters at every level. After a strong 36-inning stint with the Rays this year, he's essentially a lock to be in Tampa's rotation next season. The Rays might miss Carl Crawford, but they're going to love having Hellickson in their rotation all year.
LHP Zach Britton, Baltimore
A personal favorite of mine. Ranked by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in Baltimore's system behind 2010 No. 3 overall pick Manny Machado, Britton may not be able to match the young shortstop's upside but he's far more likely to cash in on his potential. Armed with arguably the best power sinker in the minors, the lefty thrived in both Double-A and Triple-A in 2010, while impressing the masses at the Future's Game in July. Britton doesn't miss a ton of bats, he struck up 7.3 per 9 in 2010, but he misses enough for someone that's so good at keeping the ball on the ground. He's put up a 2.70 ERA across three levels in the past two years, and he has No. 2 upside if he can refine his offspeed pitches and improve his command. Between Matusz and Britton, the Orioles have one of the best young lefty combos in the game.
LHP Chris Sale, Chicago
Sale may have been absolutely dominant in a 23-inning bullpen stint with the White Sox this year, but the plan all along has been to give Sale a shot at making the club's rotation out of Spring Training in 2011. His fastball likely won't average 96.4 MPH as a starter like it did during his relief work, but he'll still be bringing some nice velocity from a lefty. Some wonder whether his offspeed stuff, slender build and delivery lend themselves better to relieving than starting, but the White Sox appear to be committed to seeing if Sale is the fifth-best starter in their organization going into next season. After getting a quick impact from 2008 first-round pick Gordon Beckham, the Pale Hose appear to be hoping for something similar from Sale, 2010's No. 13 overall pick.
RHP Kyle Drabek, Toronto
As you can see here, we're covering some far more interesting names than the likes of Vance Worley and Brandon Beachy (although Beachy is a pretty interesting name, I suppose). Drabek was arguably the centerpiece of Toronto's return from the Roy Halladay deal, and it's hard not to like what you see in Doug's son. Using primarily a mid-90's fastball and a hard curve, Drabek has established himself as Toronto's top prospect and a potential replacement for Halladay atop the rotation (although some could argue that Romero is already there). While discussing the right-handers fastball and curve, Keith Law mentioned that, "Those two pitches do give him ace potential that I hadn't seen from him, although the lack of a solid third offering and the minor delivery issues probably give him a realistic ceiling just below that." His change-up is still clearly a work-in-progress, but as Law noted, this guy still has tremendous upside simply based on the strength of his best two pitches and a good approach. He might not make it into Toronto's 2011 rotation given the competition, but he's going to be a huge part of their future regardless.
LHP Andy Oliver, Detroit
Known for being aggressive in promoting players (see Porcello, Rick), the Tigers followed suit by calling up Oliver in late June of his first professional season- the lefty had just 14 Double-A starts under his belt at the time. He struggled in four big league starts (7.36 ERA in 22 innings) before getting sent down to Triple-A, where he continued to put up solid numbers. After clearly being over matched in his first go-around in Detroit, the Tigers may call upon him again if they opt not to spend big on the rotation. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Porcello already have spots lined up for next season, and Oliver will have to compete with Armando Galarraga, Phil Coke and presumably some outside acquisitions to land a rotation spot. He's not likely to be in Detroit on Opening Day, but given his solid performance in the upper minors, the organization's aggressive nature in promoting pitchers, and the weakness of his competition, there's a decent possibility.
Some other guys to watch: RHP Blake Beavan, Seattle; RHP Junichi Tazawa, Boston; LHP Felix Doubront, Boston; RHP Ivan Nova, New York; RHP Zach McAllister, Cleveland; RHP Corey Kluber, Cleveland;