With the Minor League Baseball season now underway, prospect hounds will finally have a chance to observe the game’s top pitching prospects on a regular basis.
At the top of everyone’s “get” list is Dylan Bundy, and with good reason. After opening the 2013 season at Low-A Delmarva, the now-20-year-old right-hander enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Orioles’ system, which concluded with two appearances out of the major league bullpen in September.
While a strong case can be made that Bundy’s mature arsenal is the most advanced among his peers, it may come as a surprise that none of his individual pitches rank atop their respective category.
So, as means of identifying the top pitches—fastball, curveball, slider, changeup and other—in the minor leagues, I decided to design an ideal pitching prospect based upon my personal preferences.
Here’s the breakdown:
Fastball: Yordano Ventura (Royals)
At 5’11”, 180 pounds, Ventura doesn’t fit the mold of power pitcher. Size can be deceiving, though, as the right-hander owns arguably the best heater in the minor leagues. While flame-throwers such as Gerrit Cole may scrape triple-digits at times during the first few innings, Ventura is able to do it with relative ease deep into his starts.
In spring training, there were reports of the 21-year-old’s fastball reaching 102 MPH, which isn’t surprising considering he’s tacked on nearly 40 pounds since the beginning of the 2012 season. Beyond the velocity, Ventura’s long arms and extension toward the plate make the pitch play even hotter, as evidenced by the amount of defensive swings from opposing hitters.
Other Honorable Mentions: Bruce Rondon (Tigers), Zack Wheeler (Mets), Jose Fernandez (Marlins), Lucas Giolito (Nationals), Taijuan Walker (Mariners), Lance McCullers (Astros), Alex Meyer (Twins), Carlos Martinez (Cardinals) and Robert Stephenson (Reds)
Curveball: Jameson Taillon (Pirates) (GIF)
This one was tough because, well, there are a lot of excellent curveballs in the minor leagues. But after watching Taillon this spring, especially in his very impressive start for Team Canada against the United States, his hammer has now shot to the top of my list.
With a 6’6” frame, the long-limbed right-hander gets serious extension toward the plate, and snaps his curveball from a nearly identical release point as his fastball. However, it’s Taillon’s confidence in throwing it to both right- and left-handed hitters that makes it special; the pitch’s shape and late, downer bite seem to generate as many takes as whiffs.
Among fellow right-handers, both Archie Bradley and Zack Wheeler’s curveballs received consideration, as they are both 12-to-6 breakers thrown with a quick arm and tight spin. Meanwhile, Tyler Skaggs’ gets the nod among left-handers, though his lack of a consistent release point and shaky command leave something to be desired.
Other Honorable Mentions: Lucas Giolito (Nationals), Jose Fernandez (Marlins), Aaron Sanchez (Blue Jays), Carlos Martinez (Cardinals), Taylor Guerrieri (Rays) and Arodys Vizcaino (Cubs)
Slider: Gerrit Cole (Pirates) (GIF)
I understand that I may catch some heat for this one, but Gerrit Cole’s slider simply does it for me. With a fastball that frequently reaches triple-digits, the 6’4” right-hander throws his slider in the mid-to-high 80s with late, wipeout break, and does so from the same arm slot as his fastball.
It’s worth noting that the 22-year-old can get around it at times and eliminate some of the vertical bite. However, even when it moves on a more lateral plane, the pitch is still a highly effective offering that dives off the plate and draws countless whiffs.
Chris Archer’s slider has always been regarded as one of the best in the minors thanks to his lightning-quick arm, consistent release point and borderline-unhittable, two-plane break. Among relievers, Yankees’ right-hander Mark Montgomery’s is essentially major league ready with tight, slider-like spin and the drop of a splitter. It’s nasty. Meanwhile, Diamondbacks’ left-hander Andrew Chafin’s impresses me more with each look, and could get him to the majors in a hurry as a reliever.
Other Honorable Mentions: Allen Webster (Red Sox), Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays) and Erik Johnson (White Sox)
Changeup: Kevin Gausman (Orioles) (GIF)
An outstanding changeup is a rarity these days. While there are plenty in the above-average-to-plus range, it’s not as though there are any worthy of Pedro Martinez comparisons. That said, after taking a long look at Kevin Gausman this spring in major league camp, I’m convinced that the right-hander’s plus-plus changeup is the best in the minor leagues.
With anywhere from a 12-15 MPH speed differential relative to his fastball, Gausman throws the offering with convincing arm action, while his delivery creates additional deception and makes it difficult for the hitter to recognize out of the hand.
I’m still a huge fan of Julio Teheran’s, though a portion of his effectiveness with the pitch stems from his fastball command to both sides of the plate. Similarly, Carlos Martinez’s changeup at worst grades as a present plus, and developing a more consistent feel for the offering could help him overtake Gausman in the near future.
Other Honorable Mentions: Justin Nicolino (Marlins), Michael Wacha (Cardinals) and Gerrit Cole (Pirates)
Other (Cutter): Taijuan Walker (Mariners)
Regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in the game, Taijuan Walker boasts an explosive fastball that works in the 93-96 MPH range, and will scrape 97-98 MPH early in starts. In turn, the premium velocity has allowed the right-hander’s cutter to emerge as a legitimate weapon.
Having thrown a slider in high school, the Mariners made Walker scrap the pitch upon turning pro. And even though he wanted to resuscitate it for the upcoming season, the organization instead introduced a cutter to his arsenal over the winter.
The 20-year-old showcased his new pitch this spring, as it sat in the 88-92 MPH range and played well off his fastball. As his feel for the offering improves, so should its late movement. And by the time he settles in at the major league level, Walker’s cutter should rank as one of the best among all starting pitchers.
Command: Justin Nicolino (Marlins)
Another tough call. While there’s no single pitching prospect who wows me with his command, the first name that comes to mind is the Marlins’ Justin Nicolino. A second-round draft pick out of high school in 2010, the left-hander has walked only 35 batters in 190.1 since turning pro.
Although he’s entering his age-21 season, Nicolino is polished beyond his years. With simple, repeatable mechanics, the southpaw confidently attacks the entire strike zone with his three-pitch mix. More importantly, his feel for sequencing is as mature as any pitching prospect in the game.
Other Honorable Mentions: Dylan Bundy (Orioles), Jose Fernandez (Marlins), Michael Wacha (Cardinals) and Kyle Zimmer (Royals)