Although it took nearly a year-and-a-half to materialize, the Washington Nationals finally landed a leadoff-hitting center fielder on Thursday evening when they acquired Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins. However, landing the 28-year-old came at a fairly steep price, as the Nationals were forced to part with their top pitching prospect, right-hander Alex Meyer.
While Span will have an immediate impact next season as the Nats' everyday center fielder, the trade also addressed the Twins' longstanding need for a high-ceiling pitching prospect.
Since the beginning of the 2008 season, the Twins have gradually pieced together a mediocre farm system through international signings and the MLB First-Year Player Draft. In fact, prior to Thursday’s trade, it was highlighted by a host of high-risk, high-reward position players who, despite possessing immense upside, are all still at least a year away from contributing in the major leagues.
Third baseman Miguel Sano, the organization’s top prospect in each of the last two seasons, will advance to High-A for the first time next season, as will outfielder-turned-second-baseman Eddie Rosario.
Similarly, the team’s No. 1 draft pick last June (the second-overall selection), outfielder Byron Buxton, will presumably spend a majority of the 2013 season at a short-season level. And although outfielders Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia turned in strong seasons, respectively, last year at Double-A, they are both fairly raw prospects with considerable room for improvement.
Noticeably absent from the Twins’ system is a genuine, front-of-the-rotation pitching prospect. Right-hander Kyle Gibson, their first-round draft pick in 2009, was still regarded as the organization’s top pitching prospect despite missing most of the 2011 and 2012 seasons following Tommy John surgery—which in itself speaks volumes about their dearth of projectable young arms.
Even though he ultimately reached Triple-A late last season and recently pitched well in the Arizona Fall League, Gibson, 25, is more of a high-floor, Nos. 3 or 4 starter-type with an above-average arsenal
But in the wake of today’s trade there's a new sheriff in town, as Alex Meyer, 22, now ranks as the Twins’ top pitching prospect.
Selected by the Nationals in the first round (No. 23 overall) of the 2011 draft out of the University of Kentucky, the 6’9” (yes, he’s really that tall), 220-pound right-hander was highly impressive this past season in his professional debut.
Beginning the year at Low-A Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League, Meyer registered a 3.10 ERA (2.63 FIP) and .210 BAA over 90 innings spanning 18 starts. His peripherals were equally impressive, as he posted rates of 6.8 H/9, 0.4 HR/9, 10.7 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9. The strong early-season performance also earned him a spot on the USA roster for the XM Future’s Game, as well as a ranking in my midseason top-50 prospects update.
Meyer was promoted to High-A Potomac of the Carolina League shortly thereafter where he continued to thrive until reaching his team-imposed innings limit. Over his seven starts with the P-Nats, the lanky right-hander registered a 2.31 ERA (3.23 FIP) and .213 BAA in 39 innings. Despite the jump to a more advanced level, his command actually improved (2.5 BB/9) as he continued to induce weak contact (6.7 H/9) and miss bats (7.4 K/9).
Headed into the 2012 season, there was concern regarding Meyer’s delivery and mechanics, though nothing out of the ordinary for such a tall, long-limbed pitcher. However, he quieted skeptics throughout his pro debut by repeating his delivery and release point with far more consistency than was expected. In turn, his command was vastly improved and made his electric arsenal all the more effective.
Throwing from a three-quarters arm slot, Meyer’s fastball sits 93-97 mph with considerable weight thanks to a downward plane. Early in games and in short stints, he’ll occasionally flirt with triple-digits.
His slider gives him a second plus offering—flashing plus-plus at times—and is a true swing-and-miss pitch in mid-to-high-80s with late, diving break. The right-hander also made noticeable progress with his changeup last season, and it could be an above-average offering with ongoing refinement.
While it's doubtful that Meyer will ever possess the command or deep arsenal associated with a No. 1 starter, his two present plus offerings and the makings of a solid third pitch suggest an attainable ceiling of a Nos. 2 or 3 starter.
He’s not as close to the big leagues as Kyle Gibson and likely will need another year-and-a-half of experience and refinement in the minor leagues, but a mid-to-late-2014 debut seems realistic at this point. Then again, with his plus fastball-slider combination, a few late-season appearances out of the Twins’ bullpen next season may not be a bad idea.