One of the things that I’ve always found the most difficult about prospect coverage is explaining the line between a prospects future upside, and their current level. Even with a clear explanation of what a player needs to work on, there’s always the idea that he can easily work on that at a higher level, or in the case of a Triple-A player, that the team could just promote him to the majors.
The typical assumption is that the player is ready, and this determination is either based on minor league numbers alone, or his future potential, or a bit of both. Unfortunately, a team has two options here. They can leave the guy down and let him work on his issues a bit longer, or call him up, at which point it would be revealed if he was actually ready.
The other night, I reviewed the 2015 depth in Indianapolis, noting that the Pirates don’t have a need for many minor league free agents. One of the needs would be a starting pitcher for early season depth. There were a few responses saying that the prospects could come up for a spot start, or for a role early in the season. But I got the feeling that those opinions were based on what a player is projected to become one day, and not what he is right now.
Take Tyler Glasnow, for example. He put up great numbers in Altoona, and a great ERA in Indianapolis. He is projected to be a top of the rotation starter one day. There will be a lot of calls for him to make the majors out of Spring Training, and a lot of anger on the inevitable day that he is sent to minor league camp. Every time a starter has a poor outing in the majors, there will be comments that the team would have won if Glasnow would have started. It’s an unrealistic scenario for any prospect, and when those prospects don’t immediately turn into stars, the pendulum swings to the other extreme. You’re starting to see this with Gregory Polanco, all because he’s not a star player after his first full season in baseball at the age of 23.
It’s easy to see that a player doesn’t belong in the majors if you’re actually watching the player. It’s more difficult to hear about the potential and see the stats. So I wanted to give a rundown of each of the potential Triple-A pitching prospects, along with the key things they need to work on before arriving in the majors next year.
Tyler Glasnow – Glasnow has an amazing fastball, although it lacks control at times. He showed improvements with that control in Altoona, but that didn’t carry over to Indianapolis. His control issues stem from his mechanics and repeating his delivery, which he’s been slower to develop due to his tall, skinny frame. Aside from the control, he also needs to continue improving his secondary stuff. The curveball is an out pitch, but he needs to command it better and throw it for strikes. Otherwise, MLB hitters can sit on the fastball and lay off the curve, as it wouldn’t post a threat to them. He also needs to work on improving the changeup, which saw improvements last year in Altoona.
Jameson Taillon – He hasn’t pitched in an official game the last two years, but Taillon looked the best he’s ever looked this year during his rehab work. Assuming that carries over to his 2016 season, he wouldn’t be far off from the majors. He’s got the best curveball in the system, and his fastball now features easy downhill movement, making that mid-to-upper 90s velocity harder to hit. He’ll need continued work on his changeup, which was showing improvements before his injuries. Most importantly, he will need to get readjusted to upper level hitting before making the jump to the majors.
Chad Kuhl – Kuhl was impressive in the second half in Altoona. He primarily relies on a pitch-to-contact approach and a sinker, but he flashed a nice four-seam fastball that was sitting mid-90s, touching 97 on frequent occasions. He lacked a strong secondary pitch, but worked a lot last year on improving his slider. That pitch showed improvements by the end of the year, but he’s still going to need more work in order to make it past Triple-A and to the majors.
Trevor Williams – The Pirates acquired Williams to provide some pitching depth throughout the year. He’s got a chance to be a starter in the majors one day, although his likely upside with the team seems to be a reliever. He is in the process of trying to find a good breaking pitch, with both his slider and curveball needing work. The Pirates seem to prefer the slider, so that’s the pitch you can expect him to focus on going forward. Until he shows improvements, he’s a sinkerball guy with deception and no out pitch.
Steven Brault – Brault is in a similar situation as Williams. He has a good sinker, and is also working this off-season to add some more power to his four-seam fastball. He’s been working on improving his changeup, and has settled on the slider for his off-speed pitch, after having a need to find a good out pitch. Just like Williams, he’s a guy with a good fastball who gets a lot of ground balls and has deception, but needs improvement on his secondary stuff.
The last three guys show a common trend in that they all have good fastballs, but need work on their secondary stuff. You can get away with that in Double-A and still put up really strong numbers. It’s a lot more difficult getting those same results in the majors with below average off-speed stuff. Glasnow also needs to improve his stuff, although in his case, he has a plus breaking ball that he needs to learn how to command.
These guys can all improve, and the improvements won’t take a long time. You’ll probably see Glasnow and/or Taillon up by mid-season, not because their improvements magically came right after the Super Two deadline. Instead, that will be the first time it would make sense to jump them to the majors and see them continue their work at the next level. They won’t be close to finished products yet, but the hope would be that they’d be upgrades in the rotation, reaching that number one upside in the next few years.
This is exactly what happened with Gerrit Cole. He was promoted to Triple-A at the end of the 2012 season, despite poor command of his fastball and breaking stuff in Double-A. His stuff was so good that he got away with it in Double-A. The command issues continued in Triple-A in 2013, although he quickly fixed them and put up numbers good enough to make the jump to the majors. He was far from a number one starter in 2013, mostly due to the lack of command of his plus slider. He improved that pitch over the last two years, and in 2015 he was one of the best pitchers in the game.
Cole’s situation is the optimistic timeline for these pitchers. None of them are ready for the majors at the start of the 2016 season. You hope that they can resolve each of their issues early in the year, getting to the point where it would make sense to call them up by mid-season. At that point they still won’t be ready, but the hope would be that they’re good enough to provide some value out of the rotation. From there, they would continue improving their stuff in the majors, and within a year or two, would reach their upsides.
Unfortunately, you can’t fast forward to that point, and calling a guy up before he’s ready could lead to a lot of damage to his career, with a player compensating for his weaknesses by altering other parts of his game, which is how mechanics can be thrown off for good. Even if the Pirates lean to a more conservative approach, they’d be better off than this overly aggressive result, as they’d do much less damage by holding a guy down a bit too long.