Perhaps my favorite players to stumble upon betwixt my scouting escapades are the “Conversion Guys”, players who are undergoing a positional change because shortcomings in their skill set force them to find a new path to the Majors if they hope to achieve that dream at all. Most often this occurs when a position player with superlative arm strength struggles to hit so mightily that his employer abandons all hope in his ability ever to learn how and moves him to the mound.
These conversions happen at various stages of development and have any number of useful results. Jacob deGrom moved off of shortstop between his sophomore and junior year of college and is a budding rotational mainstay. Kenley Jansen spent four years catching as a pro before moving to the mound in 2009 and exploding to the majors as a reliever. Tony Pena Jr. moved to the mound at 28 and became a minor league depth arm who ate innings at upper levels for a few years and made Veteran Minor Leaguer Money for a little while longer than he would have if he would’ve been a stubborn, punchless shortstop.
Plenty of these developmental journeys begin in the Rookie-level Arizona League (AZL), where I was lucky enough to observe a handful of them this summer.
Heath Filmyer, RHP, Oakland Athletics
After spending most of his freshman year at Mercer County Community College (NJ) as a shortstop, Fillmyer moved to the mound and threw just 7 innings that freshman year. The Rockies area scout must’ve caught an outing or two and Colorado popped Fillmyer in the 28th round of the 2013 draft. He didn’t sign, came back for his sophomore season, was up to 97 mph this spring and saw his stock rise. Oakland popped him in the fifth round and gave him just north of $300,000 to sign. I was fortunate enough to catch Fillmyer back east before the draft as well as here in AZL ball and the findings were mostly the same.
Fillmyer’s shortstop pedigree shows in his athleticism on the mound. The arm accelerates well and comes from a nearly over-the-top arm angle because of spinal tilt in the delivery. He uses his lower half fairly well, even if he’s a bit of a short strider, because he generates a good amount of torque with his hips. Fillmyer wasn’t repeating his delivery with the same consistency I saw back east this spring but based on how athletic he is and how new he is to pitching, I think it’s something he’ll be able to do in time. Scouts will tell you that the more athletic players are the ones who can make mechanical adjustments and it’s possible some are on the horizon for Fillmyer.
He doesn’t get over his front side very well and he was struggling to get on top of the ball as a result. Pitches were sailing. I understand the desire to manufacture downhill plane from smallish pitchers (Fillmyer is 6-foot-1) and shortening the stride so the pitcher remains more upright during the delivery is one way do to it, but if it’s going to cost Fillmyer his ability to pitch in the bottom of the zone (or in the zone at all), then I’ll pass. I’d like to see Fillmyer with a more aggressive, athletic stride toward home and see how that suits him. Besides, he creates enough downward angle on his pitches because of that vertical arm angle.
The status quo makes it hard for me to see Fillmyer throwing strikes at an average clip. He’s got 40 control and command right now and the future for both looks especially volatile. Athletes like this who are new to pitching can sometimes have meteoric growth in their skill set, for others the cement is already dry on the muscle memory side of things and they can’t get things together. Fillmyer is pretty limber, and I think he’ll end up throwing an acceptable number of strikes with fringe average to average control and command.
Stuff wise, Fillmyer sat 91-94 and touched 95 with the fastball and shows more horizontal movement than you’d expect from someone with such a north-south arm action. It’s plus pitch and projects to stay there as Fillmyer doesn’t have the physical projection to add velo. It wouldn’t surprise me if the heater backed up a half grade due to natural wear and tear.
The secondaries are understandably raw. Fillmyer’s breaking ball (which he calls a curveball but has more of a slider movement to it) is a short but sharp offering in the low 80s. It’s a 45 pitch now but flashes above average and it’s reasonable to think it solidifies there. The changeup is way behind, a grade 30 offering that Fillmyer often overthrows or casts. The arm action is there to dream on improvement and changeups, perhaps more than any other pitch, can be improved with reps. I think it can get to fringe average, maybe not good enough to miss many bats but be good enough to induce some weak pull-side contact from lefties.
The range of potential outcomes here is extensive. The likely positive ones for me are somewhere between set-up man type (if the control doesn’t come) and solid 4th starter (if it and the changeup both do) which is an average FV grade that needs to be hedged a bit due to the risk associated with players so far away from the Majors.
Longenhagen’s Grades: Fastball: 55/60, Breaking Ball: 45/55, Changeup: 30/45, Command: 40/45+, FV: 45
Kiley’s Grades: Fastball: 55/60, Curveball: 45/55, Changeup: 35/45, Command: 40/45+, FV: 40
Ramon Morla, RHP, Seattle Mariners
Morla started his pro career getting reps in center field, at shortstop, second base, all over really, before his weight started to become tough to manage. By his age 20 season he was shuttling back and forth between first base (where his poor footwork and hands belonged) and third base (because the Mariners desperately wanted to avoid wasting the plus-plus arm strength if they could) and settled in as a power-before-hit guy who probably wouldn’t have enough bat to ever profile as a big leaguer.
Morla spent seven years crawling up the minor league ladder, reaching but never passing Double-A, before the Mariners decided to stick him on the mound in 2014 at age 24. He threw all of six innings this year all the way back down in rookie ball and I was fortunate enough to catch a few of those electric frames. I was also present, sadly, for the moment he blew out his elbow. He’ll miss a year as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but if things get back to where they were before he broke, this is what you’ll see.
Morla sat 97-99 mph with plenty of arm side movement on the fastball, a bonafide 80-grade pitch. It was backed by a below average changeup, 87-90mph, and an average slider in the mid 80s that was more cutterish when thrown in the 85-87mph range but had more vertical drop when it was bending in at 83. It flashed plus once or twice but Morla’s feel for pitching is so fetal at this point that the secondaries are all projection.
If he can develop one of those two pitches into something that is truly plus and can miss bats, he can be a high-leverage bullpen arm. Both pitches show some promise, the changeup displaying precocious tumble at times and fairly consistent arm speed. He’ll have to throw enough strikes, too. The control and command are both 35s on the scale right now and obviously that will have to improve and I think it’s likely to jump a half grade in time. For Morla to hit his late-inning ceiling, he’ll have to surpass my expectations in this regard.
Assuming he can reclaim his pre-injury arm strength, Morla’s most likely outcome is that of a low end set-up type who teases and frustrates evaluators with flashes of brilliance and rashes of wildness.
Longenhagen’s Grades: Fastball: 80/80, Slider: 50/60, Changeup: 40/50, Command: 35/40, FV: 40
Kiley’s Grades: Fastball: 70/80, Slider: 50/55, Changeup: 40/50, Command: 30/40, FV: 40
Yoiber Marquina, RHP, Cleveland Indians
Unlike Morla, Marquina only spent one year of pro ball with a bat in his hands, collecting just six hits in fifty-four DSL plate appearances as a 17-year-old, before the Indians moved him out from behind the plate and onto the pitching rubber. The results are encouraging. Marquina sits 94-97 mph with the fastball and while the slider is blunt and wispy (which is my way of saying it moves a decent amount but not in a way that is sharp or violent), he shows a proclivity for spinning it and I think it will one day be above average. Despite his age he has no physical projection and he lacks the athleticism to project anymore than fringe-average control. He, like Morla, is just a faint dream. A lottery ticket bullpen arm, but someone whose pure arm strength is far too explosive not to notify your bosses about.
Longenhagen’s Grades: Fastball: 65/70, Slider: 40/55, Command: 35/40, FV: 40
Kiley’s Grades: Fastball 65/70, Slider: 45/55, Command: 30/40, FV: 40
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.