Zack Wheeler could be one of the first pitching prospects to reach the majors this season.
While Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran both won a spot in their teams' starting rotation, the majority of the game’s top pitching prospects are set to open the 2013 season back in the minor leagues.
That being said, the presence of so many great young arms in the upper levels also means that the upcoming season will feature countless major league debuts. However, just because a top pitching prospect seems ready for the majors doesn’t mean he’ll receive a promotion.
The last thing any organization wants to do is impede the player’s development, so it’s unlikely for a prospect to be called up unless he's guaranteed the necessary innings. Furthermore, a player may be held in the minor leagues for a specific amount of time so as to retain an additional year of team control over his contract.
This year’s prospect class is absolutely loaded with talent. Here’s a look at 10 pitching prospects who should be among the first to arrive in the major leagues during the 2013 season.
Traded twice before settling in with the Rays, Chris Archer has struggled with both his command and control in the high minors. However, the right-hander’s ability to miss bats with three above-average-to-plus pitches earned him a promotion to the major leagues on two separate occasions last season.
Appearing in six games including four starts, Archer registered a 4.60 ERA with 36 strikeouts in 29.1 innings. His shining moment came on September 8 against the Rangers, when the 24-year-old allowed two runs over seven innings while fanning 11 batters.
Archer was arguably the most impressive pitcher in the Rays’ big league camp this spring, and pitched well enough to open the season as the fifth starter. However, the right-hander was an early cut from camp as to ensure he received the necessary innings.
If the Rays need an additional arm for whatever reason, Archer is more than ready to step in. At the same time, though, they’ll retain an extra year of control on his contract (through 2019) if he’s kept in the minor leagues until late May.
After missing portions of the last two seasons following Tommy John surgery, Kyle Gibson, the Twins' first-round draft pick in 2009, logged only 28.1 innings last year. However, the 6’6” right-hander did make his final two starts of the season at Triple-A, and he made up for lost time with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.
Expected to compete for a spot in the Opening Day starting rotation, Gibson struggled this spring in major league camp, registering a 9.00 ERA and .368 BAA with 14 hits allowed in eight innings. As a result, the 25-year-old was optioned to Triple-A to begin the 2013 season, where the Twins will allow him to gain some momentum before ultimately promoting him to the major leagues.
It could happen sooner rather than later, too, as Gibson is free of service-time issues by late April.
The second overall selection in the 2011 draft, Danny Hultzen made quick work of Double-A in his professional debut last season, registering a 1.19 ERA with 79/32 K/BB in 75.1 innings before receiving a bump to Triple-A.
Seemingly on pace for a September debut in the major leagues, the left-hander’s command deteriorated at the more advanced level, as his ERA ballooned to 5.92 and he walked 43 batters in 48.2 innings.
Hultzen stood an outside chance of making the Mariners’ Opening Day rotation with a strong spring, but a mild hip strain ultimately limited him to three appearances. Still, he looked significantly sharper compared to the end of the 2012 season, allowing two hits and 6/2 K/BB over four scoreless frames.
The organization will presumably keep the 24-year-old in Triple-A for at least the first month of the season in order to retain an extra year of team control. However, if the Mariners' current fifth starter, Brandon Maurer, scuffles out of the gate, expect Hultzen to be first in line for a promotion.
The fourth overall selection in the 2011 draft, Dylan Bundy enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Orioles’ ranks last season, which marked his first full season as a professional. After dominating at Low-A Delmarva to open the year, the right-hander also made stops at High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie before ultimately reaching the major leagues in late September.
Across all three minor-league levels, Bundy registered a 2.08 ERA with a 119/28 K/BB in 103.2 innings.
Although he battled tightness in his groin early in spring training, the 20-year-old still threw eight innings in major league camp, posting a 1.13 ERA and an uncharacteristic 5/6 K/BB. But following his outing on March 14th, in which he walked two batters over three innings, the Orioles optioned Bundy to Double-A Bowie.
Since then, he has been shelved with mild elbow tightness, which may potentially delay the start of his highly anticipated follow-up campaign, not to his mention return to the major leagues. Either way, the right-hander will remain under team control through the 2019 season if the Orioles delay his promotion until early May.
Acquired in 2011 from the Giants in exchange for the late-season rental of Carlos Beltran, Zack Wheeler blossomed into one of the game’s top pitching prospects in his first full year with the Mets. Opening the season at Double-A, the right-hander registered a 3.26 ERA with 117/43 K/BB in 116 innings.
And when Matt Harvey was called up to the major leagues, the Mets promoted Wheeler to fill his spot in the Triple-A starting rotation. The 23-year-old ultimately made six starts and registered a 3.27 ERA with 31/16 K/BB before reaching his innings limit.
In possession of arguably the best pure stuff in the Mets’ system, Wheeler has an explosive four-pitch mix highlighted by a mid-90s fastball and sharp, downer curveball. Had he not strained an oblique prior to his second spring-training start, he may have pitched his way into the Opening Day rotation.
Wheeler will begin the 2013 season back in Triple-A, but he could reach the majors in a hurry with a strong start. He’ll be free of any service-time concerns by late April, though the organization will want to ensure he’s fully healthy before any talk of a call-up.
Tyler Skaggs breezed through the upper levels of the Diamondbacks’ system in 2012, registering a 2.87 ERA with 116/37 K/BB over 122.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.
The 6’3” left-hander was ultimately promoted to the major leagues in late August, where his command was significantly challenged for the first time in his young career. In his six big league starts, Skaggs posted a 5.83 ERA with 21/13 K/BB and six home runs allowed over 29.1 innings.
The 21-year-old entered spring training as one of several candidates for the final spot in the team’s starting rotation. However, he pitched his way out of consideration with a 9.00 ERA and 14 hits allowed over nine innings.
Considering the service-time accumulated last season, the Diamondbacks will need to keep him in the minor leagues until early June so as to retain team control through the 2019 season. And honestly, Skaggs needs at least another half season in Triple-A.
2012 was an eventful year for Trevor Bauer. After dominating in both Double-A and Triple-A, the Diamondbacks promoted him to the major leagues in late June, where the domination ceased. Over four starts—three of which were really bad—the 2011 first-round pick registered a 6.06 ERA with 17/13 K/BB over 16.1 innings.
More significantly, Bauer picked at the strike zone and tried to out-think opposing hitters with an array of inconsistent pitches, ignoring the requests of the coaching staff in the process.
The Diamondbacks ultimately cut ties with Bauer during the offseason, dealing him to the Indians (receiving Didi Gregorius in return) as part of a three-team, nine-player deal with the Reds. Granted a fresh start with the Tribe, the 22-year-old worked this spring on simplifying certain aspects of his delivery, so don’t read too far into his 4.50 ERA over 14 innings.
Bauer needs more seasoning in the minor leagues to establish the consistency that was noticeably absent in his four starts last season. It actually works out well for the Indians, who will retain team control through 2019 if they delay his arrival until early May.
The first overall pick in the 2011 draft, Gerrit Cole registered a 2.80 ERA with 136/45 K/BB in 132 innings last season—his professional debut—across three levels.
At 6’4”, 240 pounds, the right-hander is the definition of a power pitcher. He has an elite fastball that reaches triple digits, as well as a devastating, wipeout slider and late-fading changeup; he’s the type of pitcher you build a staff around.
The Pirates had Cole train with their veteran starters this spring in major league camp as they continued to groom him for an imminent debut in 2013.
Because he lacks consistency in his approach and can struggle to execute his pitches, the 22-year-old will benefit from more time in Triple-A to open the season. And since the organization will still retain team control through the 2019 season by holding him in the minors until late April, there’s certainly no need to rush his development.
That said, a big league debut sometime around the All-Star break seems realistic, as it also allows the organization to manage his workload.
Selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Louisiana State, Kevin Gausman registered a 3.60 ERA with 13/1 K/BB over 15 innings in his professional debut last summer. Boasting a mid- to high-90s fastball and legitimate plus-plus changeup, the hard-throwing right-hander asserted his proximity to the major leagues this spring with an impressive showing in big league camp.
Set to make his full-season debut alongside Bundy in the Double-A starting rotation, the organization took an extended look at Gausman this spring. The 22-year-old posted a 3.94 ERA with 17/6 K/BB in 16 innings spanning seven appearances.
Depending on Bundy’s health, Gausman could be the first to arrive in the majors this season. However, given his lack of experience, it’s doubtful that the Orioles will promote him until late July.
Although Julio Teheran commands all the attention as the Braves’ top prospect, there’s no question that J.R. Graham boasts the best arm in their system. A fourth-round draft pick in 2011, the right-hander turned in a monster full-season debut last year, registering a 2.80 ERA with 110/34 K/BB in 148 innings between High-A and Double-A.
Although he’s undersized at 6’0", 185 pounds, Graham’s fastball sits in the mid- to high-90s with heavy sinking action that generates excessive ground-ball outs.
The 23-year-old made a strong impression this spring in big league camp, fanning five batters over nine scoreless frames. More significantly, the Braves experimented with Graham at the back end of games—he recorded two saves as a result—suggesting that he may be utilized as a reliever later this season (think Trevor Rosenthal in 2012).
Regardless of his role during the upcoming season, Graham will exempt from any service-time issues by late April. However, the Braves will likely give him another half season in the high minors before discussing a promotion.