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Five Pitching "Performance Prospects" Worth Keeping An Eye On

You don’t have to be a prospect hound to have heard of some of the big names in pitching prospectdom. Top 2011 draft picks Dylan Bundy, Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Archie Bradley, and Trevor Bauer have made huge waves, while players like Taijuan Walker, Jameson Taillon, Shelby Miller, and Manny Banuelos are also frequently discussed in even mainstream baseball discourse.

However, there are always a few pitchers who put up huge numbers in the minors despite being somewhat off the radar and not being favorites in the scouting world. Certainly, there are plenty of pitchers who fit that "performance prospect" description in 2012. So today, I’m going to discuss a quintet of arms who weren’t on many Top 100’s in the past offseason, but who have posted some eye-popping stats this year.

None of these guys are guaranteed to even make the majors, let alone find tremendous success, but as guys like Brandon Beachy, Cory Luebke, and Doug Fister show, you don’t have to be a scouting favorite to end up posting big numbers in the big leagues.

While these pitchers may be unlikely to reach those heights, I believe they all have a reasonable chance at attaining high levels of success. But the thing with performance prospects is that they’re only prospects while they’re performing, so it’s anyone’s guess if and when they’ll hit rough spots.

Anyway, though, they’re definitely names to keep in mind for the future, as the higher they get with tremendous production, the more likely it is that they will turn into quality MLB hurlers.

Dan Straily

When the 2011 season ended, Dan Straily was perhaps the second-best pitching prospect in the Oakland system. That said a lot more about the system than it did about Straily, who embodied the prototype of the late-round college pitcher with good size who posted solid numbers in A-ball. Every system has one, and many have several; moreover, that kind of pitcher is usually the eighth or ninth best pitching prospect in an organization, if that. But for the A’s, it was Sonny Gray, and then either Straily, fellow former late-round pick (and 2012 breakout guy, at that) A.J. Griffin, or Blake Treinen, a 2011 college draftee.

Straily, a 2009 24th-round pick out of Marshall, methodically has moved one level at a time through the system, pitching in short-season ball in his draft year, Low-A in 2010, High-A last season, and Double-A this year. Prior to this season, he was very consistently solid—his ERAs were between 3.87 and 4.26, while his FIPs always fell between 3.10 and 3.71. He shed strikeouts slightly each year—from 25.8% in short-season to 23.9% in Low-A to 22.6% in High-A—but seemed to do a good job of missing bats.

Baseball America wasn’t impressed, leaving Straily off their Top 30 A’s prospects even before the Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey deals (though after the Trevor Cahill trade). Those trades replenished the A’s pitching prospect haul, adding the since-graduated Tom Milone as well as A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Raul Alcantara, Jarrod Parker, and Ryan Cook, pushing Straily into the second tier of A’s pitching prospects, where he belonged.

But then a funny thing happened. Straily hit Double-A this year—the level where a lot of these old-for-the-level college products get exposed—and he’s totally shut everyone down. He had a 15-strikeout game in seven innings a couple of weeks ago, and overall, he’s struck out 75 batters while walking just 20 in 58 1/3 innings. He has a 3.86 ERA, but a 2.43 FIP. At 23 1/2, he’s not young for Double-A, but he’s not really beating up on younger competition either.

This has finally forced some of the spotlight onto Straily; prior to this season, there wasn’t a single readily available scouting report on him on the Internet. Kevin Goldstein has mentioned him a few times now, stating that he throws in the low 90s and flashes an above-average slider and changeup. The video on him that exists reveals Straily to have a physical build and easy motion as well.

That said, there are some concerns here. First, Straily is a flyball pitcher, with a groundball rate around 35% this year. He might be able to survive with that if he’s punching out a batter per inning and pitching in the Oakland Coliseum, but it’s still a red flag of sorts. His overhand arm slot makes his fastball come out pretty straight, and a lot of Double-A batters will swing through that 94-mph letter-high heat, while a lot of major leaguers will turn it around and send it flying.

Second, Straily has been moved very methodically through the system, which means he’s had plenty of time to adapt to each new challenge and he moves to the next level almost overqualified to take it on. As he gets closer to the majors and closer to his peak years, he’ll have to make adjustments more quickly, and it remains to be seen how well he’ll be able to do that. Chances are, he’ll get to the majors and show enough to have some electric outings. But how many? If you have 25 great games in 33, you’re Justin Verlander. If you have 18, you’re Brandon Morrow. If you have seven, you’re Luke Hochevar. Where Straily falls on that continuum—it won’t be higher than Morrow, I’m sure—will depend on how consistent he can be; how often he can put together the high-K games and how much he goes to pieces when he doesn’t.

Cody Buckel

If you never read a scouting report of any pitcher, but looked at just numbers and age, you’d be forgiven for thinking Cody Buckel was the best pitching prospect opening 2012 in High-A. After all, in 2011, he turned just 19 midseason, yet posted a 2.61 ERA, 2.53 FIP, and 120/27 K/BB ratio in 96 2/3 innings in Low-A. That’s domination.

The scouting reports on Buckel, however, were more middling. He’s an undersized righthanded pitcher who uses a high-effort delivery that evokes Tim Lincecum and Trevor Bauer (the latter of whom he works out with) and fantastic pitchability, but his stuff is considered to be more average-across-the-board, with an 88-92 mph fastball to go with a good changeup and two breaking pitches.

For those of us who expected Buckel to keep dominating in High-A this year, he hasn’t disappointed. He’s struck out even more batters (30.6% in 2011; 31.4% in 2012) and has dramatically increased his groundball percentage (44.7% in 2011; 57.9% in 2012). He has walked a few more (9.3%, up from 6.9%), but his ERA (1.33) and FIP (2.37) have actually improved with the step up. Clearly, he’s so advanced that he won’t be even remotely challenged until he hits the upper minors, even though he has yet to turn 20.

Time will tell exactly how hard he gets hit there, but if any righthanded pitcher is going to become a #1/#2 starter despite not averaging much over 90 mph, this just might be the guy. The groundball rate increase is huge, especially for somebody who’s going to be pitching in Texas—it insulates him from the potential home run swell that often undoes minor league finesse studs (looking at you, Yusmeiro Petit, Kevin Slowey, and Ruben Quevedo). I could see Buckel becoming an Ian Kennedy sort of pitcher, though it’s far too early for that to be his mean projection, since he has yet to escape A-ball.

David Holmberg

Between 2005 and 2011, only seven teenage starting pitchers threw 30+ innings in High-A and struck out over a batter per inning. The list: Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, Julio Teheran, John Lamb, Tyler Skaggs, and David Holmberg. All but Holmberg were considered Top 50 prospects at the time of that performance, yet he tended to rank in the 101-200 range for most.

Holmberg is a big, physical lefthander at 6’4" and 225 or so pounds. He was acquired in the Edwin Jackson trade between Chicago and Arizona, along with Dan Hudson, before he was even out of rookie ball. He made 15 excellent starts in Advanced Rookie in 2010, notably posting a 47/7 K/BB ratio in seven starts after the trade, before really making his mark in 2011. He struck out 81 and walked just 13 in 83 innings in Low-A, and proceeded to strike out 76 and walk 35 in 71 1/3 innings in the high-offense California League, managing a 4.67 ERA that’s a lot better than it looks.

Given the spike in his walk rate and his youth (he doesn’t turn 21 until late July), Holmberg was sent back to High-A to start 2012. He’s continued to rack up the strikeouts, with a career-best 27% K rate, while returning his walks to a great 5.4%.

Like Buckel, Holmberg delivers a collection of four pitches, and while the changeup is his only standout pitch, all four can play solidly. He touches the low 90s at times and works in a curve and slider. His build lends itself to durability, and it’s telling that he worked over 150 innings as a 19-year-old with no problems.

As with Buckel, we shouldn’t go too nuts about projecting Holmberg until we see how much his control of the strike zone is tested by the advanced bats of Double-A hitters. However, it seems quite possible that he could become a durable mid-rotation lefty, like Ted Lilly without the extreme flyball tendencies. That’s a heck of a pitcher, and it’s downright scary that he might not be able to crack Arizona’s future rotation even with that ability.

Garrett Gould

I love me a pretty curveball, so when I read that Gould had one of the best ones in the 2009 draft, I got a bit irrationally excited. Still, it wasn’t like he was some off-the-map prospect, as he was picked in the second round that year. It took Gould two years to escape rookie ball, but I always remained intrigued by his stuff, which included the big curve and a low-90s fastball.

Things began to look up for Gould last season, where he put up a 2.33 ERA in the Midwest League at age 20. He struck out 20.4% of batters while walking just 7.3%, so even though his FIP was nearly a run higher than his ERA, he showed some potential. Still, like Holmberg, Gould largely got the "big innings-eating fourth starter" tag.

This year, however, Gould has kicked the strikeouts up to 25.8% in High-A. The high offense of the California League has tagged him for a 4.80 ERA, but that number should be ignored. The key is that the strikeout increase means he may have the ability to punch out enough guys with the curveball to be more of a second or third starter than a back-of-the-rotation guy. He’s apparently impressed enough of Jason Parks’ sources for the BP prospect guru to rank Gould as the top prospect in the Dodgers system, a quick and dramatic turn of events for a guy who usually was thought of as somewhere in the 8-10 range just two months ago.

With a solid low 90s fastball, the big curve, and a changeup that could be a useful third pitch, Gould has a nice package of offerings. He also has a deceptive delivery with a pronounced back arch and hip turn; while it is somewhat complicated, it’s clean and repeatable and should not affect his command or health. Again, caution is warranted until he reaches Double-A, but Gould’s performance and his projection seem to be on the rise.

Miguel Pena

Probably the most anonymous member of this quintet is Pena. That’s mostly because he’s the least experienced, still being in Low-A ball after being a sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft. He was actually drafted three times, in the fifth round of 2009 by the Nationals and the thirteenth round of 2010 by the Padres, yet didn’t sign until the Red Sox picked him last year.

It’s easy to see why Pena was thrice drafted so highly: he’s a projectable lefty with a smooth three-quarters motion who can touch 90 mph and snap off a nice breaking ball.

He dominated in 15 2/3 innings in short-season ball last year, with a neat 0.92 FIP, and this year, he’s showing that the South Atlantic League doesn’t challenge him much either. He’s struck out 53 batters while walking just seven in 47 1/3 innings, good for a 2.09 ERA and 1.95 FIP overall.

When you have a pitcher that has both present production and potential projection, it’s hard not to be intrigued. As a guy who pitched in juco ball for two years, Pena’s not exactly young for Low-A, so perhaps High-A will be a better test, but like Straily, he should certainly make next year’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook after being left off the Red Sox top 30 this past season.