The Next Wave: 11 AAA Pitching Prospects

Just over a week ago, I wrote up a bunch of AAA hitting prospects who we could see make an impact throughout the summer and now it is time to take a look at a group of pitchers who could do the same.  As with the hitters we have already seen a large group of pitchers come up such as Danny Duffy, Rubby de la Rosa, Juan Nicasio, Brad Hand, Andrew Oliver, Charlie Furbush, Alex Cobb and Alex White.

We have also seen Randall Delgado, Mike Minor & Julio Teheran from the Atlanta Braves, but they have bounced back and forth from minors to majors.  All three are currently down right now, but since they have already been up, you won’t see them on this list.

This list is thinner than the 21 hitters that were discussed, but that actually works out just fine given how plentiful pitching has been this year in the dramatic new pitcher’s era that has carried over (and accelerated) from 2010.

Todd Redmond (ATL) – It is just ridiculous how much major league-ready pitching this organization has right now.  How often does a 26 year old in AAA with a 2.52 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 6.9 K/9 and 3.1 K/BB have almost no chance at making it to the majors with his current team?  Not very often, but when your parent club runs five deep on their rotation followed by three blue-chip prospects ahead of you, it is tough sledding for big league playing time.  Perhaps they will consider moving Redmond in a trade and he will get a shot with a new team.

Felix Doubront (BOS) – The backend of the Red Sox rotation is very much unsettled and there is no certainty that recent call-up Andrew Miller will be the savior which could open a chance for Doubront and his strike-per-inning arm.  He has a sub-3.00 ERA over his last 117 minor league innings (2.89) combining this year and last with 112 strikeouts.  I hope he does get a chance to prove himself as a starter because he can miss bats and induce groundballs at a strong rate; keep the southpaw on your radar.

Kyle Weiland (BOS) – Another hard thrower, Weiland also has a strong sinker and has put together a strong debut in AAA striking out nearly 10 per game though control is a bit of an issue (4 BB/9).  He has induced a lot of groundballs at every stop including at a 48% clip this year.  He profiles a little more like a reliever than Doubront for me mainly because of the control, but there is no denying that Weiland has been one of Pawtucket’s best starters.

Duane Below (DET) – The Toledo Mud Hens has a strong rotation earlier this between Below, Furbush and Oliver.  Furbush has come up and stabilized the bullpen at the big league level and Oliver got a quick two-start look before returning meaning perhaps Below is next?  Phil Coke has hardly been special in his conversion from reliever to starter and while I much prefer Oliver long-term, Below could get a look and perhaps contribute for the rest of 2011 while Oliver continues to work at AAA.

Below (25) is two years older than Oliver, but it has been a deliberate ascension through the minors for the lefty.  Coming off of 2009 Tommy John Surgery, his strikeouts have tumbled from strikeout-per-inning stuff to a craftier 6.6 K/9 level, but he has improved his control significantly to compensate.  I don’t see star potential, but he could come up and be a deep mixed league or AL-Only league asset thanks to a solid, though unspectacular skill set.

Mike Montgomery (KC) – The 2011 season has delivered the first bit of real adversity in Montgomery’s career as a pro as he pummeled every level up until AAA with ERAs of 2.61 or better at every level save a 3.47 at AA.  He had shown impeccable control and command at every level up until AA, too, when his walk rate pushed 4.0 per game (3.9 in 60 IP) giving him his first sub-2.0 K/BB.  Those struggles have amplified and continued at AAA as he has a 5.3 BB/9 and 1.4 K/BB leading to a very ugly 5.83 ERA and 1.55 WHIP.  He could turn it around, go on a stretch and be in the majors in a flash which is why he is included on this list, but things haven’t gone exactly according to plan for Montgomery.

He looked pretty sharp when I saw him back in April, but that was also his best month by far (2.67 ERA) and yet he wasn’t as crisp as he looked in Arizona Fall League.  Pitcher growing pains are nothing new so just be patient if you own him in a league with minor league rosters and prepare for the very real possibility that he doesn’t hit the majors in 2011 or only gets a cup of coffee in September.

Kyle Gibson (MIN) – Hey, a groundball-heavy strikethrower, how original Minnesota.  Gibson pounds the zone as those in the Twins organization are wont to do and his slider and changeup not only induce plenty of weak on the ground contact (55% GB rate this year; 54%+ at all four stops as a pro), but also generate a lot of swings & misses allowing him to pile up enough strikeouts for a 9.4 K/9 in 76 innings at AAA.  He might be what I wish Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey were all these years which is a combination of the best parts of themselves (pinpoint control, above average strikeout rates) and Carl Pavano essentially trading their fatal flaw of a flyball lean (which leads to gopheritis) for Pavano’s primary asset: a near-50% groundball rate.

I couldn’t believe he didn’t get a call up when they were floundering, but now their resurgence has been starting pitcher driven which could keep him down until late July, if not later.  I continue to have zero confidence in Nick Blackburn though there isn’t a shortage of smoke or mirrors in the United States so he might be fine, but Brian Duensing is better as a reliever and Gibson really should already have his spot at this point.  I would keep a close eye on Gibson’s progress and Minnesota’s transaction log because I think he could make an instant impact.

David Phelps (NYY) – Phelps has 156 strong innings at AAA the last two years yielding a 3.7 K/BB so I’m not sure why they even wasted their time with Brian Gordon, who had the impressive debut, but got obliterated on Wednesday in Cincinnati.  He is a 32-year old journeyman reliever and they are in the midst of a pennant race so Phelps or the next guy on this list, both college arms, probably should have gotten the nod there.  But that has passed.

The fact is that the 60% of their rotation is a question mark and you could make a case for as much as 80% given how unreliable AJ Burnett is start to start.  How much can Bartolo Colon deliver when he gets back from injury?  They can’t patchwork the entire rotation with rookies and so they will probably make a trade or two, but Phelps should get a chance at some point this year, especially if Phil Hughes doesn’t show marked improvement when he returns after two more rehab starts.

Adam Warren (NYY) – You can essentially re-read the above and fill in Warren for Phelps while tamping down the expectations a few notches as Warren hasn’t quite been as impressive.  He has just a 5.7 K/9 and 1.6 K/BB so don’t let his better ERA (3.07 to 3.38) fool you.  Still, Warren is a higher rated prospect within the org and minor league numbers don’t always tell the whole story so you will need to keep a close eye on the situation to know who is leading if/when another chance for promotion comes up.

Neil Ramirez (TEX) – How unexpected is Ramirez’s season?  He came in as the 27th ranked prospect in the org according to Baseball America and he was slated to start the season at High-A.  He did and in his only start there he struck out nine in 4.7 innings allowing just a hit and zero runs.  The AAA club needed an arm five days later so he got what was supposed to be a spot start.  After throwing six shutout innings against the blue chip-laden Kansas City Royals AAA affiliate allowing just three hits with five strikeouts and zero walks, the decision was made to keep him at AAA.

He hasn’t disappointed at all striking out 10 batters per game in his 62 innings and maintaining a strong 2.4 K/BB (the walk rate is a little high at 4.1) en route to a 3.65 ERA and 1.33 WHIP.  He has unquestionably been the best starter for the AAA team, but whether that means he will get the call at some point this year remains to be seen.  He isn’t without flaws.

Though he can pile up the strikeouts, the walks are an issue as I mentioned and he has a heavy flyball lean (never more than 40% GB at any level including 38% this year) which could be problematic in Arlington during the middle of the summer.  The way he has responded to being thrust into AAA this year makes me like his long-term prospects, but in the short-term he could be Derek Holland-esque with some tantalizing starts as well as some flameouts.  He is far from the Rangers’ best pitching prospect, too, which tells you how well they are set up going forward.

Brad Mills (TOR) – He was in the midst of a great season showing that perhaps it wasn’t so hard to pitch in the PCL with a 2.86 ERA in 85 innings halfway through June.  He has hit one helluva rough patch the last two outings combining for just 11 innings allowing 13 runs (11 earned) thanks in large part to four home runs pushing his season ERA to 3.57 in an 11 day span.  His skills still remain quite strong though with an 8.1 strikeout rate, 2.3 walk rate and 3.6 K/BB rate in 96 innings of work.

Yet somehow Zach Stewart leapfrogged him from AA to replace Kyle Drabek in the rotation.  With only Ricky Romero pitching anywhere near expectations, Mills should get another shot (he has 30 MLB IP over the last two years) at some point this summer.  He picked a nice time to finally have a breakout season in the minors and tame AAA hitters after two unsuccessful tries in 2009 and 2010.

Tom Milone (WAS) – Speaking of breakout seasons, this mid-tier organizational prospect has exploded at the AAA level enhancing his already brilliant control while amping up his strikeouts a bit to post a Cliff Leeian 16.4 K/BB rate in 76 innings (Lee was at 16.3 after 139 innings last year, but a late summer swoon pushed him all the way down to 10.3, 2nd-best in MLB history).  Milone was quite impressive last year at AA, but he has taken it to another level this year allowing as many homeruns as he has walks (5 apiece).

He doesn’t have overpowering swing & miss stuff so it would be a minor miracle for him to post anything near a strikeout per inning at the big league level, but he can no doubt be a backend of the rotation asset as a control artist who spins a gem every once in a while.  We have seen several guys with this kind of profile do some good things in the majors, especially this year with offense down so much.  I think he can be a John Lannan-plus trading some of Lannan’s big groundball rate for a strikeout rate better than Lannan’s nearly unusable sub-5.0 marks of the last three years.  I hope Milone gets a call soon as I am eager to see what he can do in the majors and how much of his gaudy statistical profile will come with him.  They are really putting something together in Washington.  It’s not always *only* about the blue-chippers as you need glue guys like Milone.


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