Reviewing the Progress of the 2009 Prep Pitchers

My process for evaluating players out of high school is simple. I don’t really start grading players heavily until what would have been their junior year of college. There are exceptions to this rule, such as the obvious highly touted Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell type players. But for the most part, I don’t like penalizing a player because he turned pro out of high school and struggled his first two years, rather than going to college where people would only focus on year three, when he became draft eligible.

Take Robbie Grossman, as a prime example to this rule. Grossman struggled a lot in his first two years as a pro. His strikeout rates were out of control, his averages were low, and he didn’t hit for much power. Then, in 2011, in what would have been his junior year at the University of Texas, Grossman had a breakout season in high-A, hitting for average, adding power, and showing drastically improved plate patience.

If Grossman would have gone to college, no one would have cared about his first two years. They would have only focused on year three. And if he would have had his 2011 season at Texas, he probably would have been a high first round pick. Instead, people were down on him after years one and two as a pro, rather than giving the young player time to go through the normal progression of a young player.

Progression isn’t guaranteed for every player out of high school, even if they get a high bonus. It’s also not a guarantee that year three is the year to watch. A player could have a good year in year two. A player could have a good year in year four, five, or six. But why grade prep players for their first two years when the approach for college players is to start focusing on them during their junior year? Thus, I start grading in year three, and this year the 2009 prep pitchers are on the clock.

The Pirates took an unconventional approach with the 2009 draft. There were several top prep pitchers in the first round of the 2009 draft. All of them had big bonus demands, and no one really stood out. You could play hindsight and pick out the players who are highly rated now, but the truth is that there wasn’t a big perceived difference between Shelby Miller and Tyler Matzek on draft day, even though Miller is now a top prospect and Matzek has struggled. At the time of the draft you could ask five different people who the Pirates should have taken, and you would have gotten five different answers.

Rather than spending big money on one talented prep pitcher in the first round when no one from the group stood out above the rest, the Pirates took catcher Tony Sanchez, signed him for slot, and went over-slot on several prep pitchers in the middle rounds. Sanchez will heavily dictate the grade that the 2009 draft will receive. However, since the focus of the draft was working to sign the over-slot guys, the draft will be heavily graded by their progress. And since all the prep pitchers would have been juniors this year, this is when I start grading them.

The Pirates took Brooks Pounders in the second round, Zack Dodson in the fourth round, and Zack Von Rosenberg, Trent Stevenson, and Colton Cain in the sixth through eighth rounds, respectively. They traded Pounders over the off-season, sending him to Kansas City for Yamaico Navarro, but the other four pitchers remain in the organization. Here is a rundown of all four pitchers, and what they need to work on to have a Robbie Grossman-like breakout season in 2012.

Zack Von Rosenberg

The Pirates signed Von Rosenberg for $1.2 M as a sixth round pick, buying him out of a strong commitment to LSU. The right-hander also played shortstop in high school, and would have been a two-way player at LSU. He was highly ranked, being listed as the 41st best prospect in the draft by Baseball America, but fell due to the strong commitment.

Von Rosenberg was hit hard last year in West Virginia during the first half of the season. He was elevating his fastball, which led to 18 home runs and 105 hits in 94.1 innings in the first half of the year. In the second half he started pitching more off his curveball, setting up some favorable counts to add confidence to his fastball. He did much better, only allowing 28 hits and one homer in his final 31.1 innings.

The problem with the right-hander is that he doesn’t pitch with conviction. He doesn’t throw his fastball with confidence, trying to place the pitch rather than driving the pitch where he wants to throw it. That was a big reason for the second half change in 2011. His curveball is a much better pitch, and he can throw it for strikes. By throwing off the curveball, it put him in favorable situations, which added confidence with his fastball. But that’s not a long-term solution, as a pitcher needs a good fastball, and working off a curveball might not work in the upper levels.

Von Rosenberg has been focusing on pitching off of his fastball more often this spring, but the results have been poor, with a lot of home runs, including four in five innings on Wednesday.

“He made some real good [strides] in the instructional league, and he’s not quite there right now,” Pirates’ farm director Larry Broadway said. “But we’re hoping that’s just one of those things, just belief in your stuff, belief in your pitches. And it’s a process to get him back to that.”

“It’s still just a mentality change,” Von Rosenberg said. “As opposed to ‘I hope I get it in there’ or ‘I hope I make a pitch’, it’s ‘I need to make this pitch’ or ‘I have to’. No real thought process. Just do it. That’s what I need to get to.”

The right-hander has a good change-up, which draws a lot of ground balls. He also has a good curveball, which he throws for strikes, and could be a strikeout pitch. But until he gets command of his fastball and keeps the ball down on a consistent basis, he’s not going to become the pitcher the Pirates envisioned he would become when they gave him a $1.2 M bonus in 2009.

He’s still a candidate for a velocity increase down the road. He’s got a tall, lean frame, and an easy delivery, which gives him a good chance for a velocity increase in the future. He has been throwing his fastball in the 88-91 MPH rage for the last year, which only makes his elevated fastball easier to hit.

Von Rosenberg is expected to return to West Virginia, rather than moving up to Bradenton.

Colton Cain

Ever since they both signed, Cain and Von Rosenberg have been rated close together. They both received similar bonuses, with Cain getting $1.15 M to break his commitment to Texas. They’re much different pitchers, with Von Rosenberg being a projectable right-hander, while Cain profiles more as a workhorse left-hander.

Last year Cain had the better season in West Virginia, with a 3.64 ERA in 106.1 innings, along with a 6.9 K/9 and a 2.6 BB/9 ratio. He started the year throwing in the low-to-mid 90s, but finished the year working in the mid-to-upper 80s. He’s been in that range during Spring Training.

Cain has been working on his off-speed pitches, focusing on his change-up, and switching from a curveball to a slider. He started throwing the slider at the end of last year, and the pitch has become more natural and comfortable for him. He is also throwing the change-up more often.

“It’s coming along. Feels good,” Cain said of the pitch. “Just starting to trust it more and more.”

“Physically he’s in better shape than he has been in a while,” Broadway said. “Pitch-wise, his command has been pretty good. From the left side he’s throwing with some angles. I’m looking forward to seeing him a little more in this Bradenton rotation, and as we stretch him out, just seeing how he goes through a five, six inning stint.”

Cain will start the year in Bradenton, and might be the only 2009 prep pitcher to make that jump at the start of the year. A big focus this year will be his increase in innings. He has the build to eventually become a 200 inning a year workhorse, but the Pirates will take a steady approach as they increase his innings from year to year. How many innings he receives will depend on how his stuff looks throughout the year, with a focus on his stuff, command, control, and his ability to repeat his delivery as he gets stretched out in August. Last year Cain moved to the bullpen in August as he surpassed his career high in innings.

The Pirates are strict on innings limits with prep pitchers, and that could hold Cain back from moving up to Altoona later in the year. If he’s running out of innings, the Pirates won’t send him to Double-A for a reduced workload, as they wouldn’t want to run the risk of blowing up the bullpen with added innings. That’s not to say that Double-A isn’t a possibility for Cain, but if he looks ready for the jump late in the year, it probably won’t come.

Cain looks like the safest bet of all the 2009 prep pitchers to reach the majors. He’s got good stuff, with good movement on his fastball, sitting around 88-91 MPH in Spring Training. His fastball is better when it’s in the 90-94 range, but it remains to be seen if he can get the pitch back up to that range. His off-speed pitches look good, with good movement on his slider, and a good feel for a change-up. He has the potential to be a strong number three starter who can throw 200 innings a year if he reaches his potential. Of all the 2009 prep pitchers, Cain has the least to work on in 2012, with less of a need for a “Grossman” year, since his numbers were strong in 2011.

Zack Dodson

Dodson didn’t come in to the draft with the same profile as Von Rosenberg, Cain, or Stevenson. All three ranked in Baseball America’s top 200 draft prospects, but Dodson was left off the list. The left-hander had a strong commitment to Baylor, but the Pirates bought the fourth round pick out for $600 K.

Dodson had good numbers last year in West Virginia, with a 2.56 ERA in 66.2 innings, along with a 6.2 K/9 and a 2.0 BB/9 ratio. He missed a lot of time with a broken hand, which limited his innings, and could result in him returning to West Virginia to start the 2012 season. His main focus will be working on his command.

“I gotta get down a little bit better,” Dodson said of his command. “Been working on some mechanic things with [West Virginia pitching coach] Willie Glen, who has been helping me out a lot. So it’s nice to see that, but I still gotta get the curveball better, get a little bit better with the change-up.”

Dodson has been focused on staying strong on his back side during his delivery, and taking the work with Glen from flat ground to the mound. In the past he’s struggled with his control, with a 4.2 BB/9 ratio in 2010 at State College. He improved on that last year, with a 2.0 BB/9 ratio in 66.2 innings at West Virginia, although there were times when his command was inconsistent.

“I’m happy with the progression I’ve made, but with that said I’ve still got a long way to go,” Dodson said. “Like I said, I’ve still gotta work on my command. I’ve still gotta get the ball down, and the most important thing I’ve got to get ready for the season and give my team everything I’ve got.”

“There’s still room for improvement, but he has made significant strides,” Broadway said. “He’s gotten stronger, which has helped that. Just physically maintaining his delivery. He’s gotten better. He’s not where he wants to be yet, but he’s getting closer.”

Dodson’s upside isn’t clear. He can touch 93 MPH with his fastball, and has good movement on the pitch at times. He also has a nice curveball, which sits in the mid-70s and has a big break. The big focus will be continuing to command the fastball, curveball, and change-up. He put up strong numbers in his limited time in West Virginia last year, but also struggled in various starts throughout the season. If he can follow up his 2011 season with another year that features good control and improved command on his pitches, he could move up the prospect ranks.

Trent Stevenson

Stevenson was a seventh round pick, getting $350 K to break his commitment to Arizona. The right-hander hasn’t put up impressive numbers so far in his pro career. In 2010 he had a 4.43 ERA in 40.2 innings at State College, along with a 5.1 K/9 and a 3.3 BB/9 ratio.

He was hit hard last year in West Virginia, giving up a 6.93 ERA in 49.1 innings, along with a 4.6 K/9 and a 2.4 BB/9. He was demoted to State College where he was hit hard again with a 5.80 ERA in 35.2 innings, along with a 3.0 K/9 and an 0.8 BB/9 ratio.

Stevenson has a highly projectable frame at 6′ 6″, 175 pounds, and an easy delivery. He only throws his fastball in the upper 80s, and worked on developing his slider in 2011. When his slider was working, he threw opposing hitters off-balance. When it wasn’t working, he was hit hard.

“My slider’s developed a lot over the off-season,” Stevenson said. “I just started throwing it more, and I’ve been throwing it more in the games here. I’ve just felt more comfortable with it. And I feel like I can throw it for the most part every day consistently, with good break and with pretty good command.”

Stevenson has looked good this Spring, showing better movement on his fastball, with a more consistent slider being used as an out pitch.

“The Spring’s been really good, really encouraging,” Stevenson said. “I feel like I’ve improved mentally, more than anything. Attacking hitters, pitching in, and just really having fun out there.”

The right-hander has been putting a good angle on his fastball, keeping it down in the zone, and getting a lot of ground balls. His command is a lot better than it was last year, partly due to adding confidence to his delivery. He’s also continuing to work on a change-up which he started throwing last year.

“He’s been getting pretty good angle on the ball. Pitching down in the zone,” Broadway said. “He can put the ball on the ground, so that’s what we look for him to do. That’s what we expect out of him. Just be consistently pounding the zone, throw strikes with angle down in the zone, and let guys hit the ball on the ground.

Stevenson is more of the long-shot of the group, just because of his previous struggles. He has some deception with his delivery, due to his tall, lanky frame, a compact delivery, and a quick movement to the plate. He could probably use some added velocity, which could come due to his frame and easy throwing motion. His improved slider is a positive, and will only help him further if he can continue his improvements with his fastball command. He’ll return to West Virginia this year where he will probably pitch in the same long-relief role he had last year, going 3-4 innings each outing.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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