Sean Nolin is pitching well in the Dominican Winter League.
With the trades that have already taken place this week, as well as those expected to go down next week during MLB’s Winter Meetings, it’s easy to forget there’s actually meaningful baseball still being played.
Many of baseball’s top prospects once again are represented in the various international winter leagues this year as they look to get a head start on the 2014 season. But given the time of year and obvious concerns about pitchers’ workloads, a majority of the big-name prospects playing winter ball are hitters. At the same time, it’s not as though the leagues are completely devoid of promising arms.
So, here’s a look at five pitching prospects tearing it up in the offseason winter leagues.
2013 Venezuelan Winter League Stats: 9.2 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 9 BB, 9 K (11 G)
Wilmer Font was converted to a full-time reliever during the 2012 season following a promotion to Double-A Frisco in late July. The right-hander enjoyed immediate success in his new role and ultimately earned a call-up with the Texas Rangers and appeared in three games.
The 23-year-old right-hander was outstanding this past season in his first full-time role as a reliever, logging two more scoreless appearances out of the Rangers’ bullpen shortly before the All-Star break.
Overall, Font recorded 14 saves to go with 1.04 ERA, .127 opponent batting average and 71 strikeouts in 52 innings between Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock.
Considering 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 see significant time in the major leagues in 2014. He’s probably not a closer at the highest level, but the right-hander at least has a chance to be a quality sixth- or seventh-inning guy.
2013 Venezuelan Winter League Stats: 3.2 IP, 4 H, ER, BB, 7 K (3 G)
Adys Portillo took a huge step in the right direction in 2012, when he posted a 3.34 ERA and .193 opponent batting average with 107 strikeouts in 126.2 innings between Low-A Fort Wayne and Double-A Texas. However, his 70 walks during that span left considerable room for improvement.
At 6’2”, 235 pounds, Portillo is loaded with arm strength, boasting a fastball that consistently sits in the mid- to upper-90s and bumps triple digits. He complements the impressive heater with a curveball that has a big break and flashes above-average potential, as well as an inconsistent changeup for which he lacks a feel but shows good arm speed.
This past season, 21-year-old right-hander logged only 9.1 innings back at Fort Wayne and spent most of the year on the disabled list with a strained right triceps.
To make up for the lost time during the regular season, Portillo was assigned to the Arizona Fall League and, as expected, was rusty. Appearing in nine games out of the bullpen, he registered an 8.74 ERA with more walks (13) than strikeouts (9) in 11.1 innings.
Portillo has fared much better since starting up in the Venezuelan Winter League last week, allowing one earned run with seven strikeouts in 3.2 innings.
2013 Dominican Winter League Stats: 26.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, .253 BAA, 24/10 K/BB (6 GS)
Selected by the Toronto 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 jumped on the major league radar in 2012 with a breakout campaign across two advanced levels. After opening the season with a 2.19 ERA and a 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 the 2013 season and made three impressive starts before getting the call to join the Blue Jays for a spot start.
However, the 23-year-old’s big-league debut against Baltimore on May 24 was memorable for all the wrong reasons, as Nolin was chased from the 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 after the start and went on to post a 3.01 ERA and 103-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92.2 innings (17 starts). And 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 the deep arsenal and pitchability needed to be a starter in the majors. As he learned in his brief audition last season, his 88-92 mph pitch will be hit hard if its not located down in the zone.
Even though the southpaw features good control of his secondary offerings, he needs to be more aggressive with them and force opposing hitters to expand their strike zones.
2013 Dominican Winter League Stats: 17.2 IP, 6.11 ERA, .319 BAA, 15/10 K/BB (5 GS)
Acquired by the Boston Red Sox in the 2012 blockbuster deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Allen Webster was outstanding this year over the first two months of the season at Triple-A Pawtucket. 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 and a 23-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30.1 innings (seven starts) with Boston.
The 6’3” right-hander works from a three-quarter arm slot and repeats his delivery well with excellent drive from his backside and good balance throughout. However, he does pull off on his frontside 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 the low-80s with a heavy fade.
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. However, don't expect the Red Sox to give up on him as a starter any time soon.
2013 Australian Baseball League Stats: 8.2 IP, 13 H, 7 R (3 ER), 4 BB, 5 K (2 GS)
Signed by the Minnesota Twins out of Australia as a 16-year-old in July 2012, left-hander Lewis Thorpe opened eyes during his stateside debut this past season.
Assigned to the team’s affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, Thorpe, 17 at the time, posted a 2.05 ERA and .203 opponent batting average, with a stellar 64-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44 innings.
At 6’1”, 160 pounds, the left-hander has a projectable build and likely to add strength as he matures physically. The left-hander’s delivery is both effortless and repeatable, which in turn allows for smooth arm action.
In terms of stuff, Thorpe’s fastball will sit in the 89-93 mph range with arm-side life, and he can even run it as high as 94-95 mph. His curveball is a second potential plus offering, thrown with depth and tight spin, for which he already demonstrates advanced command. The left-hander’s changeup should give him yet another plus pitch at maturity
Besides Thorpe’s potential for three outstanding pitches, the 18-year-old’s pitchability and plus command profile give him a chance to be something special. But temper expectations; he’s still three-to-four years away from the major leagues.