A couple of weeks ago, we commenced our annual search for overlooked players in affiliated baseball - the “Ken Phelps All-Star Team,” named for the Bill James exercise in his 1986 Baseball Abstract. The hardest part of this search for free talent is always the pitching staff; in this pitching-starved era, it’s a fair bet that most big-league caliber arms are already in the majors or on 40-man rosters. Still, let’s see if we can scrounge up any arms big league teams might have overlooked.
Starting Pitcher: Mickey Jannis, RHP
The 32-year-old Jannis belongs on a major league roster. He’s a one-trick pony, but that one trick - a hard knuckleball a la R.A. Dickey - has proven effective at every level of the minor leagues. The problem is that Jannis didn’t start throwing his “butterfly” knuckleball until several years into his career when he was no longer considered a bona fide prospect. That’s a shame, because his knuckleball moves all over the place.
The New York Metropolitans have kept Jannis at Double-A for the last four years (!). After struggling in his first go-round in 2016 (4.99 FIP in 121 innings), Jannis has dominated the level since, flashing elite home run suppression and solid strikeout and walk ratios, especially for a knuckleballer. In 2019, he posted his best numbers yet, with a 2.54 FIP and microscopic 1.7% HR/FB rate across 119 innings. You can read about his journey in his own words here.
Jannis is simply too good for the minor leagues and deserves a chance to start. Best case, a team winds up with another Dickey, a true top-of-the-rotation horse. Even a worst case scenario is Tim Wakefield, an innings-eating backend starter who flashes more. In either event, unless you’re the Dodgers, there’s a good bet Jannis is better than your fifth starter.
Starting Pitcher: Matt Tomshaw, LHP
Tomshaw, like Jannis, throws a knuckleball. Unlike Jannis, he’s left-handed and throws other pitches as well - a fastball around 90 miles per hour and a decent breaking ball. And uniquely for a knuckleballer, Tomshaw seldom walks anybody. His 7.2% BB% at AAA in a small sample size (just 36 innings) was the highest of his career, and the first time he’d eclipsed 7% at any level of the minors. Tomshaw also seldom surrenders home runs, and that’s a good combination.
Tomshaw has, on occasion, flashed high-end bat missing ability in the upper minors (2016 in the Marlins’ system and 2019 with the White Sox’ highest affiliates), but has yet to receive even a cup of coffee at the game’s highest level. He might not be starting pitcher material, and at 32 is past his prime, but teams looking for a left-handed specialist could do a lot worse.
Starting Pitcher: Rob Zastryzny, LHP
The juiced ball proved disastrous for erstwhile Chicago Cubs farmhand Rob Zastryzny in 2019, who posted a 6.49 ERA and 5.41 FIP with the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate whilst surrendering 17 home runs in just 94 innings. On the surface, this seemed to continue a parade of putrid performances for Zastryzny at the highest level of the minor leagues; he hasn’t posted a FIP below 4.50 there since 2016.
The Orioles snapped the lefty up on a minor league deal this offseason, and may well have been smart to do so. Zastryzny’s time at Triple-A has been marked by bizarrely low baserunner strand rates; he hasn’t left more than 69% of baserunners stranded since 2014. League average at the big league level is around 73%, and Zastryzny has had years where he just hasn’t come anywhere close; he stranded just 62% of runners at Triple-A in 2019, and a shockingly low 59% (!) at Triple-A in 2019.
In other words, Zastryzny has struggled mightily from the stretch. That said, he’s also played in front of some poor minor league defenses that doubtlessly contributed to his woes. And in an admittedly tiny 34-inning sample, Zastryzny has posted a promising 3.76 FIP - and a somewhat more promising 69.5% LOB%. If the Orioles can figure out what plagues Zastryzny with runners on base, they could well be rewarded with a mid-rotation starter.
Starting Pitcher: Kyle Hart, LHP
By now, you’ve probably figured out that I have a weakness for crafty southpaws. Hart, a former nineteenth-round draft choice, fits that mold to a tee; he’s a cerebral left-hander in the Jeff Francis mold, a soft-tossing deception artist who thrives on soft contact. He never did make a FanGraphs top prospect list, or an organizational prospect list, or a KATOH list. In fact, he’s the very definition of an unheralded prospect. But with all of the injuries to the Red Sox’ rotation, Hart may well be one of the five best starters in the organization right now.
Let’s start with what Hart does well. Despite the juiced ball, Hart didn’t give up home runs last year at an increased rate, showing the same home run prevention skills he’d flashed throughout the minors - he’s never allowed more than 0.9 HR per nine innings. He’s an innings sponge, throwing 116 innings across two levels in 2017, and 138.2 innings at Double-A in 2018. His 156 innings in 2019 across Double- and Triple-A were third in the upper minors. He also doesn’t walk many hitters, throwing a lot of strikes and challenging batters in the zone.
In the American League East, against lineups like the Yankees, Rays, and Blue Jays, Hart will probably struggle. Still, ZiPS sees Hart as posting 0.7 fWAR across 125 innings and 22 starts, and Hart has the skills to beat the projected 3.87 BB/9 and 1.43 HR/9 rates. The total package is similar to Kyle Freeland, who posted four wins in 2018; Hart is already 27 and probably won’t ever duplicate Freeland’s career year, but Jeff Francis posted three straight two-win seasons at the front of Colorado’s rotation with less stuff than Hart has right now. There’s intriguing potential here, if the Red Sox let him pitch.
Setup Reliever: Aaron Barrett
Once upon a time, Barrett was a well-regarded pitching prospect with the Washington Nationals. In 2015, Barrett flashed a 2.21 FIP with the varsity squad whilst striking out better than 10 batters per nine innings. It looked like Barrett, who totaled 70 innings with Washington between 2014 and 2015, would become a fixture in the nation’s capital. Then, this happened.
On July 23, 2016, while rehabbing at the Nationals’ minor league complex in Viera, Florida, Barrett fractured the humerus bone in his right arm while pitching. Witnesses to the incident likened the sound of the bone breaking to a gunshot. Teammate Mat Latos reportedly vomited in the dugout, and Nationals manager Dusty Baker sequestered the only video of the injury on a locked hard drive so that no one could watch it. Barrett underwent surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews, which left two plates and sixteen screws embedded in the bone of his arm. Andrews later compared the fracture to the kind of traumatic injury he would expect to see from a car crash victim.
It took until 2018 for Barrett to pitch again, and by then he was essentially forgotten. He dominated Low-A as a 30-year-old, but that was to be expected, injury or no injury. Then, in 2019 at Double-A, Barrett flashed some of his old form: 28.4% K%, 7.3% BB%, 21.1% K-BB%, and 31 saves in 52 innings as Harrisburg’s full-time closer. Barrett got a three-appearance, 2.1 inning cup of coffee with the eventual World Champions in September.
The Nationals sent Barrett to Triple-A early in Spring Training. That’s understandable - Barrett’s velocity in September was in the low-90s, a far cry from the upper-90s heat he hurled before his injury - but it may well have been misguided anyway. Though Barrett is 32, his velocity could well have declined due to fatigue from his first full season in over four years. Barrett still touched 92 with a sinker that showed almost two feet of vertical drop in the majors; that’s a power sinker that could definitely get big league hitters out. Sending Barrett to the Pacific Coast League and its homer-happy stadia isn’t what he needs; his arm could help a Major League bullpen today.
Closer: Parker Markel, RHP
Markel threw the ball everywhere but home plate in a 22-inning cup of coffee between Seattle and Pittsburgh in 2019, walking almost seven batters per nine. He still struck out better than a batter per inning, but that’s cold comfort when you throw almost as many balls (191) as strikes (269). In fact, less than half of Markel’s MLB pitches were in the strike zone in 2019, which is, well, bad.
Markel had better luck in the upper minors, with a 1.74 ERA and 75 strikeouts in just 41.1 innings. The problem is that he was still walking too many hitters, with 26 bases on balls in those 41 innings. It’s a problem that’s plagued Markel throughout his career; it’s why he flamed out of the Rays’ system in 2016 and bounced between Korea and independent baseball before last year.
Markel is slated for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate to start 2020, and given his command problems, that’s probably wise. Still, Markel is simply too good for the minors; as he showed last year, he can walk every third batter he faces and still finish with a WHIP under one in the minors. That’s what happens when you have upper-nineties gas, a nasty slider, and high-end spin rates. His slider generated whiffs 37% of thetime in the majors in 2019, with a spin rate of better than 2700 RPMs. There’s real potential here if he can ever cut down on the walks.