3 Pitchers Excelling in Winter Leagues Who Could Shine in 2014 MLB Season
Although the Arizona Fall League has ended, the offseason Caribbean winter leagues are over a month into their respective regular seasons and filled with prospects doing exciting things.
Many of baseball’s top young players once again are represented in the Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan winter leagues this year, as they look to get a head start on the 2014 season and improve their chances of cracking a big league Opening Day roster. But as is usually the case given this time of year, the prospects pool between the four leagues is comprised primarily of hitters.
As we continue to shift our focus from the Arizona Fall League to those leagues south of the border, I thought I’d offer a look at several notable winter-league pitching prospects who will make an impact in the major leagues next season.
Sean Nolin, LHP, Toronto Blue Jays
2013 Dominican Winter League: 26.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, .253 BAA, 24/10 K/BB (6 GS)
Selected by the Blue Jays in the sixth round of the 2010 draft out of San Jacinto Junior College (Texas), Sean Nolin showed promise the following year in his first full season. Pitching for Low-A Lansing, the left-hander posted a 3.49 ERA and 113-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 108.1 innings.
Nolin appeared on the major league radar in 2012 with a breakout campaign across two advanced levels. After opening the season at 9-0, with a 2.19 ERA and 90-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 86.1 innings at High-A Dunedin, the southpaw was promoted to Double-A New Hampshire for the final month of the regular season. In three starts there, Nolin registered a 1.20 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 15 innings.
Nollin returned to New Hampshire for this past season and made three impressive starts before getting the call to join the Blue Jays for a spot start.
Unfortunately, the 23-year-old’s big league debut against Baltimore on May 24 was one to forget. Nolin was chased from his first start after only 1.1 innings and 35 pitches. Before departing, he allowed six earned runs on seven hits and a walk.
Nolin was sent back to Double-A following the start and ultimately posted a 3.01 ERA and 103-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92.2 innings (17 starts). As he did in 2012, Nolin was successful after moving up a level to Triple-A Buffalo for the final month of the regular season.
Even though he lacks a true plus-offering, Nolin has a solid four-pitch mix and the feel on the mound needed to start in the majors. As he learned in his brief audition last season, his 88-92 mph will be hit hard if he doesn't locate it down in the zone. Even though Nolin features good control of his secondary offerings, he needs to be more aggressive with them and force opposing hitters to expand their strike zones.
Expect Nolin to return to the major leagues next season. He could make a case for a spot in the rotation during spring training and, if he pitches well, carve out a role as a back-end starter.
Allen Webster, RHP, Boston Red Sox
2013 Dominican Winter League: 17.2 IP, 6.11 ERA, .319 BAA, 15/10 K/BB (5 GS)
Acquired by the Red Sox in the 2012 blockbuster deal that sent half of the team’s starting lineup to the Dodgers, Allen Webster was outstanding over the first two months of the season at Triple-A. In his eight starts during that span, the 23-year-old registered a 2.39 ERA and a 46-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 37.2 innings.
As a result of his success in the minor leagues, the Red Sox called Webster up to start the back end of a double-dip on April 21. After that, he bounced between the minors and the majors three more times, but struggled in each of his opportunities with the Red Sox.
Overall, the 23-year-old registered an 8.60 ERA with 37 hits allowed (seven home runs) and a 23/18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30.1 innings (seven starts) with Boston.
The 6’3” right-hander works from a three-quarters arm slot and repeats his delivery well with excellent drive from his back side and good balance throughout. However, he does pull off on his front side and jerks his head at times.
His fastball is most effective in the range of 91-96 mph with some sink and arm-side life. He’ll occasionally scrape 97-98 mph in shorter bursts. It has heavy sinking action when located down in the zone and yields a high number of ground-ball outs.
Webster also features a mid- to upper-80s slider that flashes plus potential with tight spin and late break, and it’s a highly effective offering when he can drop it off the table. The right-hander’s changeup improved significantly this past season, as he throws it with deceptive arm speed in low-80s with a heavy fade.
When he’s on, Webster is still flat-out nasty, with three pitches capable of missing bats at the highest level. However, the fringe command that he showcased this past season with the Red Sox didn’t help his chances of cracking the rotation in 2014.
If Boston chooses to deploy him in the major league bullpen, Webster has the potential to be a force in the seventh or eighth innings.
Wilmer Font, RHP, Texas Rangers
2013 Venezuelan Winter League: 7.2 IP, 2.35 ERA, .192 BAA, 8/8 K/BB (9 G)
After proving that he could throw strikes, Wilmer Font was converted to a full-time reliever in the middle of the 2012 season following a promotion to Double-A Frisco in late July. He enjoyed immediate success in his new role and ultimately appeared in three games out of the Rangers bullpen.
The 23-year-old right-hander was outstanding this past season in his first full-time role as a reliever. He even added two scoreless appearances out of the Rangers bullpen shortly before the All-Star break. Font received a promotion to Triple-A Round Rock in late June, notching four saves there with a 0.45 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 20 innings.
Considering that he dominated in the minors this past season and performed well in his two brief stints with the Rangers over the last two years, expect Font to get his first extended look in the majors in 2014, probably as an arm in the sixth or seventh inning.