Next year’s playoff stars

This year’s playoffs, only one round deep (two, I guess, if you count the Wild Card game as a “round”), have seen some incredible performances by rookies, most notably from starting pitchers.

Michael Wacha‘s gem against the Pirates on Monday afternoon was the most recent example of a rookie starter making short work of a playoff-caliber offense this October, a trend put into motion by Sonny Gray against the Tigers and Gerrit Cole mowing down Wacha’s Cardinals earlier in the series. Fans will get another chance to see Cole, who is to pitching what Kate Upton is to women and has been named the Pirates’ Game 5 starter for Wednesday instead of veteran A.J. Burnett. That’s a move that likely pleases everyone in Pittsburgh except Burnett.

This may be the best collection of performances we’ve seen from rookie pitchers in the postseason, or perhaps it’s just the immediacy that makes it seem that way, but certainly it’s not going to be the last time this happens.

Prospects are getting to the majors more prepared for success than ever before. What used to be taught only in the major leagues has trickled down to the minors, colleges, and prep academies for teenagers to better prepare them for the spotlight from the minute they enter it. Not only are these rookies succeeding in postseason baseball, but they appear to be unfazed by the experience. Velocity may be increasing, but in the case of Gray, Cole and Wacha, it was the refinement of their off-speed pitches that allowed them to baffle lineups of hitters who had driven their teams to the postseason.

Maybe it won’t be to this extent, but no one should be surprised if we get a few such gems from rookies next October. But which rookie pitchers might we see?

This type of prognosticating is done mostly for fun. There are so many variables in play that it’s impossible to really make this kind of prediction, but we do know a few things. Which pitchers are likely going to see significant action in the majors next season for the first time? Will they be on competitive teams? We don’t know all the answers, but we have an idea.

For instance, I’d love to say that Taijuan Walker could do something like this to dazzle us next October, because he certainly is capable of it. But at this point, there’s little reason to believe he and his Mariners will be anywhere near the 2014 postseason. The same applies to Andrew Heaney, who is fantastic, but unfortunately is a member of the Marlins organization. We’ll have to enjoy his exploits from June to September.

But there are some impressive prospects on good teams who could do what this year’s trio is doing. There is little reason to believe the Pirates won’t be competitive again next year with most of their impact payers returning, and by next summer, fellow top prospect Jameson Taillon should be taking a spot in their starting rotation alongside Cole. Taillon doesn’t have Cole’s polish, but that’s why he’s still in the minors. He pitched in a big spotlight game in the World Baseball Classic against the USA this past spring and held his own despite not having pitched above Double-A. He’s not Cole, but compared to human pitching prospects, he stacks up quite well.

The prospect who may be most capable of dominating good hitters like this is Archie Bradley, and while his Diamondbacks aren’t in the playoffs this year, it’s not a stretch to see them getting back there next season. They were competitive for most of this season and the addition of Bradley will certainly help. Bradley dominated Double-A after a midseason call-up and could begin the season in Triple-A and be in the majors by June. He’s the best candidate to replicate the season Cole had in 2013.

Another prospect who could be the difference between golf and baseball in October for his team is Yordano Ventura.

We got a glimpse of him down the stretch this year. The Royals’ diminutive right-hander has a power arm, but the small package to which it’s attached has may wondering whether he’ll be able to remain a starter. That’s a long-term problem, however. Ventura is going to get a chance to start in the majors until he proves his body can’t handle it, and for any one game, he has the ability to dominate along the lines of any of these guys. For any one game, Ventura can be un-hittable. He may end up being a reliever, but it probably won’t be by this time next year. The bigger question is whether the Royals can get to the playoffs.

And there could be many more. No one would have predicted a year ago that Danny Salazar would be starting a playoff game for the Indians, but it happened. That’s why we love prospects, baseball and the postseason. But sometimes we see these things coming, and Taillon, Bradley and Ventura could all be doing the same things next October that their predecessors have done this past week.

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