Top 10 Triple-A Pitchers Poised To Break Through





You might remember the Triple-A International League as the last stop prior to graduation for Tommy Hanson, Wade Davis and Jon Niese last year; for J.A. Happ and Jeff Niemann in 2008; and for Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey in '07.

Those seven pitchers put the finishing touches on their minor league development in places like Durham, Gwinnett and Rochester before moving to bigger and better things.

In our recent Best Tools survey, Durham righthander Jeremy Hellickson and Fresno lefty Madison Bumgarner locked up best pitching prospect honors in the IL and Pacific Coast League, respectively. But they're far from the only young pitchers worth monitoring at Triple-A.

While amateur pitchers who signed pro contracts at the draft signing deadline got all the ink yesterday, keep in mind that most of them are anywhere from two to four years away from contributing at the big league level. Here we present 10 pitchers to get excited about, and they're all coming soon to a big league park near you—if they're not there already.

The Big Five

The following five pitchers have quality fastballs and two average-to-above secondary pitches. They have average-or-better control. In other words, they project as starters in the big leagues. Tying them all together, all five received at least one vote in Best Tools balloting.

RHP Jeremy Hellickson, 23
Durham (Rays): 12-3, 2.45, 21 GS, 117 2/3 IP, 9.4 SO/9, 2.7 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9

Hellickson has yielded three runs in three big league starts (1.35 ERA) for the Rays this season, showcasing the awesome power of his 79-81 mph changeup, the IL's best. The change is a real equalizer when Hellickson is throwing strikes with his 89-92 mph fastball and mid-70s curve.

"He's got that plus changeup he can go to whenever trouble arises," Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage said. "Guys know it's coming and they still can't hit it. I haven't seen a changeup that good in quite some time."

What Hellickson lacks in pure velocity, he makes up for with fine command and pitchability. And don't discount that breaking ball, warned Columbus manager Mike Sarbaugh.

"A couple of our hitters felt strongly that Hellickson had a really good breaking ball," he said. "It's pretty firm, and with good depth."

LHP Madison Bumgarner, 21
Fresno (Giants): 7-1, 3.16, 14 GS, 82 2/3 IP, 6.4 SO/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9

The Giants must have been relieved when the Bumgarner who threw 87-89 mph in spring training gave way to the current version, the 90-93 mph, low-three-quarters lefty we've grown accustomed to seeing. He's found a home in the San Francisco rotation, carrying a 3.27 ERA through 10 starts for the National League wild card leaders.

Bumgarner has been more effective in the big leagues this year than he had at any stop since compiling video game numbers during his '08 campaign in low Class A. He's doing so with fine command of a fastball, low- to mid-70s breaking ball and low-80s change.

"He throws hard and has a good breaking ball," Nashville manager Don Money said. "You look at a young kid like that with those pitches, and he's one of the young guys who stood out (in the PCL). He has good velocity, good poise on the mound and he's polished. He's still young and learning."

LHP Aroldis Chapman, 22
Louisville (Reds): 8-6, 3.74, 34 G, 13 GS, 91 1/3 IP, 11.4 SO/9, 5.1 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9

At the risk of Chapman burnout, we turn to the flame-throwing Cuban lefty once more. But this time we have new dirt. Honest.

You probably already know the following: Chapman's fastball (usually ranging from 94-100 mph) and slider (84-86 mph) swept the IL Best Tools balloting. You know that he's been pitching out of the bullpen since June 23, anticipating his role when he gets the call to Cincinnati, probably this summer. You can see by his 5.1 walk per nine that he's "effectively wild," as one IL manager put it.

But then there's this: In 14 second-half relief appearances, Chapman has gone 3-0, 1.10 with six saves in six chances, while striking out 26 and walking five in 16 1/3 innings. Opponents have gone 8-for-58 (.138) with one home run, which was struck by Norfolk's Michael Aubrey.

Besides occasional lapses in control, Chapman struggles most with a deliberate delivery that affords basestealers ample time to run. Baseball America Tigers correspondent John Wagner saw Chapman in Toledo on Aug. 10-11 and reports that the lefty's times to the plate averaged 1.85 seconds.

Wagner writes: "(He) also gave up four stolen bases, (two on) a double steal (that) was ruled defensive indifference, but it put the tying run on third and the game-winning run on second in the ninth, so I disagree with the call."

Basestealers have been caught six of 16 times (38 percent) against Chapman and his catcher. One opposing manager noted that Chapman had incorporated a slide step in his delivery since moving to the bullpen. At any rate, he's inherited six runners while working as a reliever, but none has crossed the plate.

RHP Carlos Carrasco, 23
Columbus (Indians): 9-5, 3.92, 22 GS, 128 2/3 IP, 7.9 SO/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9

Carrasco has accomplished his prime objective this season by showing a tight slider in the low 80s more often than he had in the past. According to Sarbaugh, his manager, Carrasco has gone to his fringy curve more frequently, as well, and the pitch has shown improved depth at times. Coupled with 91-94 mph heat and a plus 84-86 changeup, Carrasco has the arsenal to succeed.

"When he's on, he's got four pitches," Sarbaugh said, "and he can throw them all four strikes."

But as evidenced by his 3.92 ERA, Carrasco too often falls victim to the big inning, a hex he can't seem to shake. Despite a nifty 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 54 Triple-A starts, his ERA registers at a bloated 4.02, making him more No. 3 or 4 starter material than potential ace.

RHP Michael Pineda, 21
Tacoma (Mariners): 3-2, 3.67, 9 GS, 49 IP, 10.8 SO/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9

Few prospects have seen their stocks soar quite like Pineda, who tamed the Double-A Southern League (8-1, 2.22 with 4.6 SO/BB) on his way to Triple-A. Improved velocity has keyed the breakout.

Where he sat in the low 90s in the past, Pineda arrived at Mariners camp this spring sitting in the mid-90s and topping out at 98 mph. His low-80s slider and high-80s change are average offerings, but his entire arsenal plays up because of impeccable control. At the two highest levels of the minors this season, Pineda has walked just 2.1 batters per nine innings while striking out 9.8. He's allowed six homers in 22 starts.

Cooking With Fire

Whereas the pitchers listed above complement a quality fastball with two secondary pitches, the following five combine incredible velocity with a plus breaking ball. Their control is below-average, which coupled with a shallower repertoire makes them probable relievers—but potentially high-leverage ones in the majors.

Fastballs that grade lower than 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale need not apply. What follows is five of the hardest throwers to pitch in Triple-A this season. As with the five pitchers above, this quintet of potential eighth- or ninth-inning guys all received mentions in Best Tools balloting.

RHP Tanner Scheppers, 23
Oklahoma City (Rangers): 1-1, 3.97, 4-for-4 SV, 24 G, 6 GS, 59 IP, 9.5 SO/9, 3.4 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9

While he has a better chance to start in the big leagues than the other hard-throwers collected here, Scheppers' control is just shaky enough that he might be better suited to the bullpen. Regardless, he sits at 95 mph and up with boring life on his fastball, and he throws a power curveball in the mid-80s that could force the Rangers to make a tough call next season. Who fits better at closer for the long term, Scheppers or incumbent Neftali Feliz?

RHP Henry Rodriguez, 23
Sacramento (Athletics): 0-2, 1.69, 11-for-13 SV, 20 G, 21 1/3 IP, 13.1 SO/9, 3.8 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9

Rodriguez throws as hard as anybody at 96-99 mph, but his control has undermined him in the big leagues, where he's walked an even five batters per nine innings in two trials in '09 and '10.

Those 13.1 whiffs per nine with the River Cats this season represent Rodriguez's lowest minor league mark since he first reached Double-A in '08. That's how overpowering he can be. Rodriguez has tightened a mid-80s slider with tilt to often give him a plus second pitch.

"I've seen him a couple years and he's been up and down," Salt Lake manager Bobby Mitchell said. "He rears back and fires. When he's on, he's unhittable, down in the zone. It's awfully tough to hit.

"We saw him hit 100 (mph) this year at our park. The only drawback is he's somewhat erratic. He has made vast improvement in his slider. It's a special arm, a very quick arm. There's not too many guys throwing 100."

LHP Mike Dunn, 25
Gwinnett (Braves): 2-0, 1.05, 7-for-9 SV, 33 G, 42 2/3 IP, 11.8 SO/9, 4.6 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9

The Braves have gotten 10 scoreless appearances from Dunn since calling him up following the Triple-A all-star game—but it's been a tightrope walk. He has nearly twice as many walks (10) as strikeouts (six) for Atlanta. That ratio ought to stabilize as Dunn gets his bearing. He's been a full-time pitcher only since '07. When he's around the plate, Dunn is nearly unhittable because he ranges from 92-96 mph from the left side and throws a wicked mid-80s slider.

RHP Scott Mathieson, 26
Lehigh Valley (Phillies): 3-5, 2.77, 21-for-25 SV, 48 G, 55 1/3 IP, 11.5 SO/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9

Mathieson reached the big leagues as a starter in '06, but this season marks his first fully healthy campaign since then. He had Tommy John surgery that wiped out his '08 season (on the heels of tossing just eight innings in '07), and then he had follow-up elbow reconstruction surgery that limited him to 32 innings last year. But through it all, Mathieson has retained a killer fastball that sits at 94-98 mph, with sinking life, and a hard, mid-80s slider that has helped limit righthanded batters to a meager 17-for-103 (.165) showing this season.

RHP Craig Kimbrel, 22
Gwinnett (Braves): 2-1, 1.53, 19-for-20 SV, 39 G, 47 IP, 12.4 SO/9, 5.4 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9

The only reason Mike Dunn wasn't closing games for Gwinnett this season was because of the presence of Kimbrel. And much like his bullpen-mate, Kimbrel in the big leagues has tended to either strike out or walk opposing batters. With 15 whiffs and 10 walks, that's been the case in 61 percent showdowns in Atlanta.

Kimbrel goes right after batters with a low- to mid-90s sinker that can touch the high 90s. He throws a hard slider in the mid- to high-80s and the occasional fringe changeup. Righthanded batters have particular trouble, going 10-for-87 (.115) in Triple-A and 1-for-14 (.071) in the big leagues.