Daily Prospect Notes: AL Postseason Pitching On the Way

Whether it’s because they’re only just getting healthy or someone ahead of them has gotten hurt or their talent is kicking down the doors of roster manipulation made brittle by actual competitive spirit, some potentially important participants in postseason play are currently in the minors as we speak. This is especially likely when it comes to pitching, where health and effectiveness are tenuous, and team behavior surrounding promotion tends to be more opportunistic and aggressive.

For both leagues, I’m providing a scouting-centric update on pitching currently in the minors, either because the players are prospects who could conceivably play a September role or make a postseason roster, or because the player in question is a rehabbing big leaguer. Pitching can be streaky and fragile, so any of these guys could be in the big leagues at the drop of a hat, or they may simply convince their front office, like several rookies did last year, that they’re one of the best 26 guys in the org and need to be put on the playoff roster. The level of impact could range from Hunter Greene or Shane Baz dominating like Francisco Rodriguez in 2002, to Connor Seabold or Thomas Hatch humbly eating innings in a blowout loss in effort to save the rest of the bullpen for the series’ next game like J.A. Happ in 2008.

I’ll touch first on the American League this week, then provide some National League options next week. If any prospects moved on The Board due to info or opinions brought to light from this piece, I’ll note that below.

AL East

The Rays have dealt with a litany of pitching injuries for the second consecutive year but have found a way to weather the storm. Chris Archer was the first of the rehabbing cavalry to return, though his start on Sunday was shortened by hip tightness. He sat about 90 mph with a slider that is still hard but is short and one-planed and displayed a new emphasis on a changeup. To me, he seems like a spot start option, not someone likely to seize hold of a playoff roster spot on a true contender.

Nick Anderson was a tragic but apt example last postseason of how precarious relief pitcher effectiveness can be. Forearm issues last summer carried over into 2021, when he was diagnosed with a partial ligament tear and put on the 60-day IL. He’s now made five single-inning appearances on one or two days rest at Triple-A in the last two weeks, but his stuff isn’t in peak form; his fastball is sitting 92–93, and he’s lost a few hundred rpm off his already gravity-dependent curveball. It’s possible he’ll throw harder as he continues to work, but he has been rehabbing in games for about a month now and is still a few ticks below his average 2020 fastball velocity, which was already below his ’19 velo.

In more bad news for Tampa Bay, Brendan McKay (on a long road back from shoulder surgery, then a setback during rehab) has been topping out around 89. He has slid on the Rays list, with the question of “what would this player’s trade value be right now?” driving his new lower placement.

Brent Honeywell Jr., sitting mostly 92–93 but up to 96, had worked in one- and two-inning stints until the end of July, when the Rays started to stretch him out; he’s now pitched five innings in each of his last three games. He still throws the kitchen sink at opposing hitters, but while his changeup and screwball have bat-missing action and his slider command makes that pitch an effective way to finish hitters, his heater is now a 40 after all his injuries and a loss of velocity. He could junkball his way through four adventurous innings right now, give or take a few outs. Returning to starting has allowed his repertoire to air out a little bit, as he had basically been a single-inning reliever with a 40 fastball until all his pitches were coaxed out when he was put in Durham’s rotation. That’s enough to get him back on the Rays list valued as a spot starter.

Two Olympians also sit in the Rays’ periphery right now, as Baz and wily veteran David Robertson, who signed with the Rays on August 16 and has made three Triple-A appearances, both won silver medals in Tokyo. The latter put up a decade of durability but threw just 6.2 innings for Philadelphia in 2019 before Tommy John surgery, a rehab setback, and the pandemic interrupted the final act of his career. Scouts watched him during Olympic qualifiers, tune-ups versus Collegiate Team USA, and during the Games themselves, where he sat 91–94 and incorporated several secondary pitches. He can make his fastball cut a little more from time to time to go with a slider in the 84–86 mph range, and his trademark upper-70s curveball still has plus spin, registering 2,800 rpm in his outings with Durham. He also threw a couple of changeups against the college kids during a pre-Olympics exhibition. He might be an upgrade to the motley crew of replacements currently in the Rays’ bullpen.

Baz is an obvious candidate to make an impact down the stretch. After his start on Saturday, he now has 91 strikeouts and 10 walks in 62.2 innings split between Double- and Triple-A, including a month-long Olympics interruption. His simplified delivery (exclusively from the stretch now) seems to have helped him find a more consistent release point and overcome the command-related relief projection that’s hung around his profile since high school. He’s been sitting 95–98 and touching 100 with rise and tail, and his changeup has become his most consistent secondary pitch, though it isn’t yet his most-used. His slider doesn’t have quite as consistent finish to his glove side and it lacks great back-foot angle against lefties, but its length and his arm slot enable it to play against right-handed hitters, and his tailing changeup, which he executes consistently, is a real weapon versus lefties.

All three of Baz’s pitches have generated plus-or-better swinging strike rates at Triple-A; per Synergy, he’s at 15% on his fastball, 16% on his slider, and 27% on changeups, but with only 60 thrown on tape, for a 17% overall rate. Those won’t map to the big leagues exactly, but for the sake of comparison, they are close to the rates on Luis Castillo’s slider and changeup (Castillo’s fastball is closer to 6% but is more sinker-y than Baz’s, and he gets more groundballs). He could be a dominant plug-and-play, five-and-dive starter, or he could provide the late-inning option the Rays will need if Anderson’s stuff continues to be diluted.

There are still some long-term questions with Baz. Is the improvement in strike-throwing a real progression, or will he regress to his career norms? Will his slider’s lack of utility against lefties limit his role? These keep Baz in the 50 FV tier for now, but this year is offering the start of an answer.

Chasing the Rays in the AL East are the Yankees, who have survived injuries to Clarke Schmidt, Domingo Germán, Corey Kluber and Luis Severino thanks to unexpected contributions from the likes of former Orioles Rule 5 pick Nestor Cortes and Luis Gil (who I still think is a long-term, high-leverage relief fit). Those injured pitchers are now on their way back. Schmidt has made five rehab appearances climbing the minor league ladder, his latest coming August 18 at Triple-A Scranton, and he’s progressed from facing about 10 hitters to closer to 15 in each of his last two outings. His fastball has been in the 92–95 range and his curveball 82–84, both a shade below what he averaged last year. His last start came on the same day Andrew Heaney pitched; teams advancing the Yankees should pay attention to whether or how they shuffle their upper-level rotations coming out of the day off created by last weekend’s hurricane to match up potential replacements with their big league rotation.

Severino made two Double-A rehab starts in early August before he was shut down because of pain in his shoulder, then got two opinions on an MRI. Two doctors later, he’s headed to California for an in-person visit with Dr. Neal ElAttrache. In his healthy outings, his fastball has been in the 94–96 range — a touch below his previous healthy big league velos but still excellent. His slider was at 86–88 and his changeup was 88–90, which are both more typical velo bands for him. The frequent recurrence of injury here and the dwindling time between now and the postseason puts Severino in the “hope for but don’t expect” bucket.

Kluber sat about 88–90 in his August 12 rehab outing, which is about where he was before rotator cuff soreness sidelined him in late-May, and faced 11 hitters in 1.1 innings, walking four. It’s early in his rehab process, and maybe this is a wily old vet who knows himself and is out there just shaking off rust (he managed to throw all four of his pitches in just an inning and a third) with zero focus on results. But based on the observed stuff, I’d currently slot him behind Cortes on the starter pecking order, though I think the two would make interesting piggyback partners (though the variety of looks that Cortes presents makes that true of him and just about anyone else).

If there’s reason for optimism surrounding Kluber’s velocity, it can be found by observing Carl Edwards Jr.‘s rehab, as we move on to the Blue Jays. He sat 91–93 during an A-ball rehab outing earlier this month — a couple ticks lower than his big league fastball velos prior to injury this year, but that was early in the rehab process, just his second outing back. He was up to 93–95 on August 14 for Triple-A Buffalo. I only have data from A.J. Cole’s Low-A rehab appearance on August 11 in which he was also sitting 91–93, which is a few ticks below his healthy velo. The same “early stages” caveat applies to him.

Toronto could use dominant bullpen reinforcements for their playoff push, and Edwards may not be a lights out option, but he is an upgrade to some of the injury replacements currently on the active roster. Unfortunately, that won’t be the case for Julian Merryweather, who does have late-inning stuff but suffered a setback in his rehab from a strained oblique. He made one 17-pitch appearance on August 18 and sat 94–96.

The big shark here is Nate Pearson, who is dealing with a sports hernia that he’ll play through while pitching in relief. He has been 98–100 with two plus breaking balls and rusty control in two single-inning rehab appearances. He’s the Jays’ best shot to add an elite bullpen weapon to their group between now and October. Hatch and Anthony Kay (both 92–95 at Triple-A) are in the long relief/spot start realm.

In stark contrast to the Yankees and Rays, the Red Sox are remarkably healthy, especially now that Chris Sale is back in the fold, with only three pitchers currently on the IL. Tanner Houck, who has been on and off the roster because he’s one of the few pitchers Boston has that can be optioned, has been dominant when up, and he’s a lock to make the playoff roster. He’s had a velo uptick and meaningfully altered the shape of his sinker, which now has more drop and movement separation from his fastball.

Seabold and Kutter Crawford (the former is on the Red Sox 40-man, the latter is not) are both upper-level options who got the Daily Prospect Notes treatment earlier in the month. Three of Seabold’s last four starts have been quite dominant, but Crawford’s last two have been rocky.

AL Central

Only the White Sox are in postseason contention in this division, and their bullpen is as deep and scary as anyone’s in baseball. Jonathan Stiever had been sitting 94–97 before a back strain put him on the IL about a week ago. Jimmy Lambert, who was on the 60-day IL in 2020, has displayed a drop in spin rates down in Triple-A. Lefty Jace Fry has not, and he’s generating spin in excess of 2,500 rpm on a fastball that’s only sitting 88–90. But again, Chicago’s bullpen is so relentless that it’d probably take a slew of injuries for any of these names to factor in.

AL West

The Athletics‘ deadline addition of lefty Andrew Chafin, as well as A.J. Puk’s velo surge, leave fellow southpaws Adam Kolarek and Sam Moll currently in the minors and on the postseason roster bubble. Moll’s fastball velo has bumped two ticks this year, and he’s throwing more sliders, which has tortured lefty batters. He’s a long-term “second lefty” sort. I’d have to think Kolarek would be first in the pecking order here, though, because of his postseason experience.

Like the Red Sox, the Mariners don’t have much rehab work going on in the minors. Justus Sheffield has made two rehab appearances for Triple-A Tacoma, the most recent coming on August 20, when he threw four innings and sat 90–92.

There are a few names worth noting for the Astros. First and foremost is José Urquidy, who has been on the IL since the end of June with shoulder discomfort and made one rehab start on the Complex, pitching three innings on August 18. He was peaking in the 94–95 mph range there, so he appears on the verge of return. Josh James has been sitting 94–96 since returning from hip surgery in late-June, working single innings in relief for about a month.

I’ll also throw Ronel Blanco’s name out there; he’s the closer at Triple-A Sugar Land and has generated the highest swinging-strike rate among upper-level Astros pitchers, including touted prospects Enoli Paredes (who’s still struggling with walks and an unlikely factor at the moment), Peter Solomon (91–93, kitchen sink long man-type right now), and Shawn Dubin. Blanco bullies hitters with a fastball in the 94–97 range and gets most of his swings and misses on well-located sliders, though his in-zone sliders are punishable.

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.

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1 year ago

I think Fitz Stadler can help the Blue Jays