Thrusting Themselves Forward

What pitchers have done the most to help themselves so far in 2005? So much can happen in 12 starts, and in the right situation, a good pitcher can seize the bit between his teeth and thrust himself forward. I thought I’d look for those pitchers moving up the fastest.

The basic criteria are as follows. I am picking only one pitcher per minor league, and the rule is I’m only picking a pitcher who’s in that league right now – so promoted players are judged against the pitchers in their current league. I’m interested in guys who are moving forward – so pitchers who were picked at the top of the first round, or guys who were on everyone’s Top 50 list before the season started, are mostly not considered.

You all already know about those guys. Adam Loewen, Jeremy Sowers, and Anibal Sanchez are really pitching well in the Carolina League – is that a surprise? I’m looking for some guys you might not have heard as much about.

I took a look at the eight of the ten minor leagues currently operating, skipping both the AAA clubs and all the short-season teams.

MIDWEST LEAGUE

Sean Gallagher, Peoria Chiefs (Chicago Cubs)

6-1, 1.17 ERA, 5.6 H/9, 0.1 HR/9, 2.9 BB/9, 9.8 K/9 in 12 starts

Sean Gallagher was the most dominant starting pitcher in the minor leagues this April, at just 19 years of age. Gallagher is a 12th-round pick out of a Fort Lauderdale high school who pitched well in the Arizona Rookie League last season. A big-bodied righthander with a fastball/curveball combo who’s still learning how to pitch in the pros, Gallagher’s turning out to be better than anyone thought as his numbers suggest. He’s already had a streak of 40 1/3 scoreless innings. He got knocked around a bit by the Lansing Lugnuts (Toronto) in his last start, and the league is catching up to him somewhat, but Gallagher’s well ahead of most of the MWL at this point. He doesn’t turn 20 until December 30, so I doubt the Cubs will be rushing him very fast.

SOUTH ATLANTIC LEAGUE

Troy Patton, Lexington Legends (Houston Astros)

3-0, 1.09 ERA, 6.4 H/9, 0.2 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, 10.9 K/9 in 11 starts

The Astros have been taking it easy on young Troy Patton, making sure that the young lefty (who won’t turn 20 until September 3rd) doesn’t throw too many pitches. Last year’s 9th-round draft choice out of Tomball High School in Texas, Patton has been lights-out in class A ball so far, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 4:1 the most notable number among his many impressive credentials. Patton’s not overly big, but has a strong upper body and throws hard, topping out in the mid-90s but consistently at 90 and above. The Astros don’t for a second regret paying Patton second-round money to skip a scholarship offer from the Texas Longhorns; after all, hard-throwing lefties are a rare commodity.

CALIFORNIA LEAGUE

Jesse Floyd, San Jose Giants (San Francisco Giants)

6-2, 2.97 ERA, 8.2 H/9, 1.0 HR/9, 3.5 BB/9, 8.5 K/9, 12 starts

Most of the California League’s best pitchers in the early going (J.P. Howell, Jason Windsor, Dallas Braden, Edison Volquez, John Danks) have already been bumped ahead to AA ball. Floyd, on the other hand, is just finding traction in high A after pitching last season with Hagerstown in the Sally League. Floyd is a tall, thin righthander who played collegiately at Lamar University in Texas, then had a very fine year in short-season ball in 2003. Unlike guys like Gallagher and Patton, Floyd was so lightly regarded that he wasn’t drafted; he signed as a free agent with the Giants and has been a very pleasant surprise. The numbers above don’t look that impressive, but the California League is a hitter’s paradise and other than highly-rated stud Thomas Diamond, no one’s been better than Floyd.

CAROLINA LEAGUE

James Johnson, Frederick Keys (Baltimore Orioles)

5-2, 2.91 ERA, 7.3 H/9, 0.6 HR/9, 3.5 BB/9, 10.0 K/9, 13 starts

A tall righthander with a good pitcher’s body, James Johnson has taken a move up in class in stride this year. For all but one start last season, Johnson was pitching well in the low-A Sally League, but has moved further forward this year. Drafted in the fifth round in 2001 out of a New York high school, it’s taken some time for Johnson’s career to gain traction, perhaps because of the steep competition adjustment. He’s got tons of talent, though, and a fine fastball/slider combination.

FLORIDA STATE LEAGUE

Errol Simonitsch, Fort Myers Miracle (Minnesota Twins)

6-2, 2.76 ERA, 7.7 H/9, 0.4 HR/9, 1.2 BB/9, 8.4 K/9, 11 starts

Errol Simonitsch is a big, burly lefty who relies on good control of his high-80s fastball and good breaking stuff. His walk ratios are outstanding, indicating that he has the strike zone command that he needs to move up further. After three years at Gonzaga University, Simonitsch was picked in the 6th round in 2003 by the Twins and has been moved ahead steadily though not aggressively since then. This year, his numbers are once again approaching the terrific ratios he put up in his first professional year in the Appy league, showing that he still has the stuff to put away hitters.

TEXAS LEAGUE

Dallas Braden, Midland Rock Hounds (Oakland A’s)

10-1, 2.27 ERA, 6.7 H/9, 0.6 HR/9, 2.6 BB/9, 10.4 K/9, 12 starts at two levels

Promoted from Stockton to Midland due to a severe case of domination over A-ball hitters, Dallas Braden has suffered the same condition in the Texas League so far. Braden was not highly regarded coming out of Texas Tech; a 24th-round selection by the A’s last summer, he had a good but unspectacular debut over two levels. However, he pitched quite well statistically, nearly cracking the top 100 of my adjusted NCAA pitching statistics. This season, though, he has shot forward with a vengeance. Another lefty, Braden’s not a big guy and he has the high 80s fastball typical of lefties, but with one difference – Braden throws a screwball, giving him a weapon to baffle and frustrate right-handed batters. Braden has generated as much good press in his first two years of pro ball as any 24th round draft pick I have ever seen, and while the screwball is a big flashing DANGER sign for his future, if he can stay healthy he would seem to have a bright one.

SOUTHERN LEAGUE

Chuck James, Mississippi Braves (Atlanta Braves)

5-3, 1.66 ERA, 5.2 H/9, 0.5 HR/9, 2.2 BB/9, 11.9 K/9, 12 starts at two levels

OK, I’m probably stretching my criteria a little bit by including last season’s Pitcher of the Year in the Sally League. But Braves lefty Chuck James is awfully special, and has moved himself even further forward than he did in his impressive 2004 campaign in Rome. Moving him ahead one stop to Myrtle Beach proved not enough of a challenge, and he has responded well to AA ball since his promotion, going 2-0 in his five starts and still striking out more than ten per nine innings. James was a 20th-round draft pick in 2002 out of an Alabama junior college; the Braves thought had third-round talent but he broke both wrists while diving off a roof (and yes, missing the pool below). James isn’t big, but that’s not an obstacle for a lefty, and he dominates lefties with a slider/change combo that work off what’s described as a mediocre fastball. He’s got the bit between his teeth so far – hopefully he can avoid too many missed pools from here on in!

EASTERN LEAGUE

Matt DeSalvo, Trenton Thunder (New York Yankees)

4-1, 3.42 ERA, 6.3 H/9, 0.3 HR/9, 5.3 BB/9, 10.1 K/9, 10 starts

The EL has one of the more difficult groups of pitchers to pick from. Hayden Penn has already departed for the Show with Baltimore. Everyone and his dog knows all about Yusmeiro Petit by now. Josh Banks and Jon Lester were both well-regarded 2nd round picks; hard to say their success is unexpected. Joel Zumaya’s been the best strikeout pitcher in the league, but is still walking a lot of guys. J.D. Martin has only had six starts. So screw it, I’m writing about the guy I think is most interesting, despite his flaws.

Matt DeSalvo has struck out more collegiate hitters than any other pitcher in history. Which, together with a dollar, can get him a cup of coffee. DeSalvo went undrafted out of Division III Marietta College. Oddly enough for a strikeout king, DeSalvo’s stuff isn’t overpowering, and although his strength is supposedly control on a mediocre fastball, his statistical profile this season is of an out-of-control fireballer, with low hit totals and very high walks and strikeouts.

DeSalvo’s a little righty, and he will be 25 this September. The chances aren’t very good that he’ll get a legitimate shot at the majors. But he’s had a heck of a year so far, it’s hard not to cheer for an undrafted free agent, and this isn’t his first flush of success, as he had very good years in 2003 and 2004.

WORTH MENTIONING

Since I only picked one player per league, I wasn’t able to mention everyone worthy of attention so I thought I’d throw some names in here at the end.

Chi-Hung Cheng      Lansing         Midwest     Toronto
Armando Galarraga   Potomac         Carolina    Washington
Tyler Clippard      Tampa           Florida St  NY Yankees
Fernando Nieve      Corpus Christi  Texas       Houston
Wilfredo Rodriguez  Frisco          Texas       Texas
Francisco Liriano   New Britain     Eastern     Minnesota
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