Even though he didn’t generate the buzz of Dylan Bundy or Jose Fernandez this past season in the low-minors, the San Francisco Giants’ Clayton Blackburn quietly had one of the better seasons among all minor league pitchers.
He won’t rank as the organization’s top pitching prospect—that title is currently held by Kyle Crick—headed into the 2013 season, but the right-hander has the potential to be the team’s next fast-rising, homegrown prospect.
Despite an excellent prep career in Oklahoma, Blackburn was continually overshadowed by fellow in-state prospects Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley, Michael Fulmer and Adrian Houser. And with a presumably high asking price given his strong commitment to the University of Oklahoma, he slipped to the Giants in the 16th round (No. 507 overall) of the 2011 draft. However, Blackburn was eager to launch his career and surprisingly signed for $150,000.
Shortly thereafter, the 6’3”, 220-pounder enjoyed a superb professional debut for the organization’s rookie-level affiliate in the Arizona League. Appearing in 12 games including six starts, the right-hander was 3-1 with a 1.08 ERA, 0.570 WHIP and 30/3 K/BB in 33.1 innings. Not only was the 18-year-old’s command more advanced than expected, but he showcased the ability to consistently miss bats and induce weak groundouts.
Jumping a level to Low-A Augusta for his full-season debut in 2012, Blackburn picked up exactly where he left off the previous year. Pitching in his age-19 season, the right-hander was 8-4 with a 2.54 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 143/18 K/BB and a 2.32 GB/FB.
Blackburn was promoted to High-A San Jose in time for the start of the California League playoffs, where he started the team’s opening game against Modesto. Just as he was over the course of the regular season, the 19-year-old was exceptional, as he allowed one run on three hits and a walk and tallied nine strikeouts.
The stocky right-hander has everything one looks for in a pitching prospect—a durable frame built for innings, command of four pitches, a high strikeout rate, a low walk rate and a favorable groundball rate.
The one drawback is that at 6’3”, 220 pounds, he’s at capacity physically and involves little projection. However, given his velocity, arsenal and minor-league track record, it’s less concerning than it would be with other pitching prospects.
Working from a high three-quarters arm slot, Blackburn’s fastball sits 91-93 mph with late, arm-side action, and he’s able to maintain the velocity deep into starts. He almost exclusively throws a two-seamer, commanding it effectively to both sides of the plate while inducing loads of groundball outs.
The right-hander’s secondary arsenal is highlighted by a solid-average curveball that still has room for improvement. Much like his fastball, his ability to both throw the pitch for a strike and use it to generate swing-and-misses improves the overall grade. Blackburn is also adept to mixing in a slider and changeup, the latter of which features nice fade and could be a third (at least) average offering in the major leagues.
Blackburn will presumably open the 2013 season at High-A, but if he furthers what he showcased in 2012, there’s a strong chance that he’ll reach Double-A by midseason. In general, he has a chance to move quickly through the Giants’ system given his overall stuff and command, not to mention a mound presence that’s highly advanced for his age.
Still, with his lack of remaining physical projection and the absence of at least one true plus pitch, Blackburn profiles as a mid-rotation starter for the Giants; essentially, he has a high floor as a prospect. While that may seem like a knock on the right-hander, it’s actually pretty flattering, as not every pitching prospect can posses No. 1 or No. 2 starter upside.
Blackburn could conceivably reach the major leagues at some point during the 2014 season, but if he performs as well as he has over the last two seasons, I wouldn’t be surprised if his debut comes ahead of schedule.