Drawing an ace, part 3: Who’s next?

My last two articles explored MLB’s current aces and their origins, as well as the outcomes for first-round pitchers, the starting point for essentially every top pitcher in baseball. In this final installment, we’ll look at some pitchers who might be the next to step into that stratosphere and how they got to where they are today.

On the verge

These young pitchers are established big leaguers with trajectories that suggest they could be among the best pitchers in baseball for years to come.

Madison Bumgarner: Bumgarner’s already amassed nearly 550 major league innings, so it’s easy to forget the North Carolina native is only 23. With a 3.16 ERA (3.24 FIP) in a little over three seasons of big league action, Bumgarner is the heir apparent to the dual ace role Tim Lincecum shared with Matt Cain before his 2012 struggles.

The left-handed Bumgarner slings the ball from well behind the head of left-handed batters, making him an extremely tough assignment for opposing lefties, and his change-up allows him to get righties out as well. After two straight seasons of 191 strikeouts, Bumgarner could soon be racking up 200 Ks on an annual basis and helping Giants fans forget about their diminutive former ace. Drafted 10th overall out of high school in 2007, Bumgarner has tremendous pedigree, as he made two appearances on Baseball Amnerica’s top-100 list as a top 15 prospect in baseball between his 2008 professional debut and 2009 rise to the majors.

Chris Sale: Another lanky lefty whose extreme release point makes him essentially unhittable for left-handed batters, Sale made the transition from the bullpen to the rotation last season and performed better than the White Sox could have possibly imagined. After Sale’s 192 innings at exactly a strikeout per, a 3.05 ERA and 3.27 FIP, rookie GM Rick Hahn deemed his performance worthy of a five-year, $32.5 million deal that will keep the 24-year-old on the South Side through 2017 with team options for two additional seasons.

Sale spurned the Rockies after they selected him in the 21st round and headed just for college, where he pitched for the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles back when baseball was the sport of choice for the now basketball-crazed university. Sale was taken 13th overall by the Sox in 2010, was named BA’s No, 20 prospect for that year, and just months later was the first 2010 draftee to make his debut with 21 effective innings of relief work.

Well on their way

These hurlers have some major league experience and strong results, with the potential for much more.

Matt Harvey: The 6-foot-4 Connecticut native parlayed a dominant junior season at the University of North Carolina into a seventh overall selection by the Mets in 2010, He had picked the Tar Heels over the Angels, who chose him in the third round three years earlier. Harvey, 24, hasn’t skipped a beat since, ascending the organizational ladder quickly enough to make 10 big league starts last season.

He’s off to a fast start in 2013, with only one earned run allowed and 19 strikeouts in 14 innings over his first two starts, and with Johan Santana out, could easily be the Mets’ best starter this season.

Harvey complements a dominant fastball-slider combo with a developing curve and change that could be weapons for him eventually as well. While the Nationals and Braves look primed to battle for NL East dominance for years to come, if the Mets are to enter the thick of that battle Harvey and top prospect Zack Wheeler will be the ones to lead them there.

Matt Moore: Moore has a chance to become the first late-pick ace since Cliff Lee. The Rays found him at Moriarty High School in New Mexico and made him their eighth round (245th overall) selection in 2007. After signing for $115,000, the 6-foot-4 lefty promptly began making the Rays look like geniuses. Moore spent 2008 in rookie ball, then led the minors in strikeouts in back-to-back seasons in 2009 and 2010 before making his way from Double-A to the majors in 2011, all while climbing BA’s top 100 list from 35 to 15 to second behind only Bryce Harper after 2011.

While Moore’s control left something to be desired in his first full season, he maintained him impressive strikeout numbers and the Rays are hoping another step forward from the 23-year-old will soften the blow from the departure of James Shields.

Getting their feet wet

These starters are just seeing their first big league action after earning spots in their respective rotations during spring training, and face huge expectations both from fans and the organizations that hope they will one day take the bump on Opening Day.

Shelby Miller: All right, so Miller did debut (quite effectively) at the end of last season, but seven of his nine appearances (including two in the playoffs) came out of the bullpen, so it’s his first time in the rotation. With Kyle Lohse departed for division rival Milwaukee and Chris Carpenter out for the season, if not for his career, the Cardinals need Miller to step up big.

Only 22, Miller was taken out of Brownwood High School in Texas in 2009 with the 19th pick by former Cards scouting director (now Astros GM) Jeff Luhnow. Miller has ascended BA’s top-100 list as he’s neared the majors, ranking 50 in 2009, then moving up to 13, eight, and his current six in the subsequent three years. St. Louis has gaps in its rotation, but with the best minor league system of any organization, also has the talent to fill them from within.

Jose Fernandez: Perhaps the most surprising member of any team’s Opening Day roster, the Cuban defector proved he has the stuff to succeed with his first major league start on Sunday. He went five innings, allowing a run on three hits and striking out eight Mets.

The 14th pick in 2011, Fernandez was taken out of a Tampa’s Braulio Alonso High School. He pitches with a maturity well beyond his 20 years. The story of his escape to the United States might offer some answers as to how he’s so calm and collected on the mound despite being three months short of his first legal beer. Seriously, go read it. While the Marlins are something of a pariah, Fernandez provides another point of interest in addition to Giancarlo Stanton, and with a story like his it’s hard not to root for the kid.

On the farm

Minor league starters in the top 20 of Baseball America’s most recent prospect rankings, pitchers who have incredible potential but in many cases a long way to go to reach it.

Dylan Bundy: The Orioles took Bundy fourth overall in 2011, out of Oklahoma’s Owasso High School. The dominant 20-year-old made the climb from Low-A Delmarva to a 1.2 inning major league debut, earning the second spot on BA’s rankings behind only Jurickson Profar. While he’s currently on the DL with elbow troubles, it won’t be long before Bundy is shutting down major league hitters once again.

Gerrit Cole: Cole turned down the Yankees when they took him 28th overall out of his southern California high school in 2008. That turned out to be an excellent decision, as he spent a dominant three years at UCLA before Pittsburgh took him with the first selection in 2011 and gave him an $8 million bonus. The right-hander, ranked seventh by BA, features a high-90s fastball that can touch triple digits, a nasty slider, and a developing change, and could see the Steel City sometime in 2013.

Zack Wheeler: The Giants took Wheeler with the sixth selection of 2009 out of his Georgia high school. He’s had an astronomical rise since being flipped for Carlos Beltran in 2011; he’s now with the Mets’ top affiliate and ranked 11th by BA after sitting in the middle of the top 100 during his time with the Giants. He’s likely to join Harvey in the big league rotation once service time is no longer a consideration, and the two will form a devastating combination for at least the next half-decade.

Tyler Skaggs: The Angels made Skaggs the 40th pick in 2009 out of Santa Monica High School in California. They, like the Giants, will likely regret dealing their developing ace, as Skaggs was a key piece in the deal that sent Dan Haren from Arizona to Los Angeles. He was unranked on BA’s 2010 list, and moved up to 82nd the year he was dealt. Skaggs dominated at each step of the organizational ladder, earning the 13th and then 12th spots on BA’s last two top 100 lists. The lefty’s strong fastball, hammer curve, and impressive command will likely make him a fixture in the Diamondbacks’ rotation before long.

Trevor Bauer: Bauer got a taste of the majors last season with the Diamondbacks, before he was dealt to Cleveland in the Shin-Soo Choo trade that brought Didi Gregorius to Arizona. While he did get another chance in the majors on Saturday because of an injury to Scott Kazmir, he was optioned back down after a start in which he issued seven free passes in five innings.

He’ll be back, however, as his stuff is simply too good to keep him down for long. Bauer was taken third overall in 2011, after winning the Golden Spikes Award as the best college player in the country. While he dominated for UCLA, his rotation-mate, Cole, was selected first because of his immense projectability. Bauer marches to the beat of his own drummer, as his long-toss routine is the stuff of legend and he’s known for a particularly strong understanding of sabermetric principles. He ranked ninth on BA’s list after 2011 and currently is 14th. While he will have to iron out his command issues, Bauer is just 22 and still has immense upside and a chance to be a dominant pitcher at the highest level.

Taijuan Walker: A 2010 supplemental rounder (43rd overall), the immensely athletic righty out of a Yucaipa, Calif., High School has tremendous upside and is the standout pitcher in an impressive Mariners system. On draft day, the 17-year-old was the definition of projectability, with a 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame and a 95mph fastball. Since then, he’s looked like one of the rare prospects with a chance to reach his immense ceiling, adding muscle, becoming more consistent with his delivery, and jumping onto the BA list at 20 after 2011 and moving up to 18th in the most recent edition. When the Mariners were attempting to deal for Justin Upton in January, Walker was reportedly the centerpiece of a package that was accepted by Arizona before Upton invoked his no-trade clause.

Jameson Taillon: The menacing 6-foot-6 righty was taken second overall by the Pirates in 2010 out of The Woodlands (Texas) High School, one of the top high school baseball programs in the country. Since then, he’s been ranked in the top 20 of BA’s list each year, moving from 11 to 15 to 19 this season. He’s a Canadian-American dual citizen (both parents are Canadian but Taillon was born in Florida) who was the ace for the Canadian WBC team. He started the game in which the U.S. knocked his team out, pitching four strong innings and allowing only two runs (one earned).

Taillon’s high-90s fastball and hammer curve are both dominant pitches, and his main charge with Pittsburgh’s Double-A affiliate is to develop his change-up. When he does, he will be ready to form a one-two punch with Cole that could help lead the Pirates to their first postseason berth since 1992.

Overall, of the four established major league starters, two were college draftees while the other two hail from high school. Among those who are hoping to make their mark on the majors in the near future, however, seven were high school picks while collegiate draftees are represented only by the UCLA pair from the 2011 draft.

While some of these younger starters may not hit their immense upsides, I believe this pattern shows why teams are still willing to take the risk of a high school draftee. While we’ll have to wait and see which of these hurlers do eventually become aces, there’s no shame in picking a potential star over a higher-probability role player, and there may be no player in baseball more fun to watch than a dominant young starter with jaw-dropping stuff.

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Comments

  1. Doug Wachter said...

    Darvish, to me, is probably already an ace. The stuff is already there, it’s really just the command that prevented him from a true ace performance last year, and he seems to be ironing that out in the early going here, assuming the blister problem doesn’t continue to bug him over the course of the season.

    I think it’s interesting that two of you bring up Sale and feel very differently about him. I’ve heard a lot of people who think his arm action is just unsustainable and could mean he’ll face injury problems but I’ve kind of come around to a point Joe Sheehan’s been making on his podcast, which is that pitcher injuries are essentially functionally random. I’ve seen studies where people put together samples of pitchers with “violent deliveries” and there wasn’t a higher injury rate than the population. It seems like, for now, the only strong predictor of whether a pitcher will get injured is if he already has. Plus, if I trust anybody to keep the kid on track, it’s certainly Don Cooper, who has led White Sox pitchers to the best health of any staff over a course of time far too long to call it a fluke.

    Samardzija’s an interesting case. Maybe it’s my anti-ND bias as a Wolverine (Go Blue!) but I feel like I need to see a little more from him, especially in preventing the free pass, before I put him in this category. The fact that he’s already 28 certainly doesn’t help.

    Cueto and Latos, for me, are both pretty good two’s, but not in the ace category. As for Gausman, he might get there but I limited the minor leaguers to BA’s top 20, meaning Zimmer, Bradley, and he were the first three out. Each of those could certainly be a stud but BA isn’t quite as confident in them as they are in guys like Bundy, Cole, and Wheeler, and when it comes to prospect evaluation I tend to trust their opinion much more than my own.

    Thanks for reading!

  2. terencem said...

    I don’t think Samardzija has the command/control to be an ace but he has turned into a very good pitcher.

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