FSL Trio Forces Tough Choices For Pro Scouts
Righthander Gerrit Cole was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft. Righthander Jameson Taillon went No. 2 overall in 2010. Righthander Jose Fernandez had to wait a little longer to hear his name called, as he went 14th overall last year.
But among scouts who saw all three pitch in the Florida State League, the general consensus is that if there was a re-draft, they'd follow in the footsteps of the Marlins and take Fernandez first.
Just a little over a year after he waited until 13 other players were selected, Fernandez heads into the offseason with a good chance to be ranked among the top 10 prospects in baseball when the new Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list debuts in February.
But why did he end up ranking ahead of Pirates' farmhands Cole and Taillon? It was a very close call, one that can be debated. Here are the cases for and against each of the three, as gathered from conversations with managers, pitching coaches and scouts who saw all three in the Florida State League.
The Case For Him No. 1:
Cole arguably has best pure stuff in the minors with a four-seam fastball that sits 95-98 mph and touches 100 mph. He also can throw a two-seamer, and his hard 87-91 mph slider plays well off of the two-seamer. But he also throws a bigger-breaking curveball that he can pair with his four-seamer, although he usually only throws three or four of them a game.
Cole's changeup is firm at 86-88 mph, but he throws hard enough that it still has the necessary separation. If his pitches continue to develop, Cole could end up with four above-average pitches. His fastball is at least a 70 pitch (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale) already and generates some 80 grades.
"Cole can play four different games with his fastball," Bradenton pitching coach Mike Steele said. "He can throw it by you. He's working on getting down and away to righthanded hitters. He throws a two-seamer at 95 miles an hour you can't see. He can tell you his two-seamer is coming and you can't do anything about it. He can throw it in, backdoor it, frontdoor it to a lefty."
Managers who saw Justin Verlander as a minor leaguer years ago can't help but see some similarities in Cole's easy power approach.
"It's a lot to worry about," St. Lucie manager Ryan Ellis said. "I told my staff after we faced him the first time, he might be in the big leagues by the end of the year, by next year for sure."
The Case Against Him:
Opposing managers and scouts worry that Cole's stuff doesn't force hitters to speed up and slow down their bats. If you're facing Cole, you gear up for the fastball and hard slider, while his changeup is hard enough that hitters can sometimes foul it off while looking fastball.
More disconcerting is the fact that hitters seem to catch up to his fastball more often than they should. Scouts said they too often saw bottom-of-the-order hitters square up Cole's fastball, when logic would say they would simply be blown away by Cole's 100 mph heat.
Some scouts described it as a function of Cole's delivery. Hitters see the ball for a long time before his release point.
The Case For Him:
Taillon's fastball can't equal Cole's for pure velocity, but some managers said they believed it was more effective pitch because his delivery has a little deception to it. One manager described it as having "a little funk to it."
The Pirates let Taillon begin throwing his two-seam fastball again this year, which gives him the ability to generate weak contact with his fastball in addition to trying to blow hitters away high in the zone with the four-seamer. Taillon can get hitters to go up the ladder, as his fastball sits at 93-96 mph, often touching 98.
Taillon junked his spike curveball during the season and replaced it with a slurvier pitch. While it won't generate as many swings and misses at the Class A level, the new pitch will be more effective at the big league level. His old spike curve required him to change his arm slot, and he struggled to throw it for strikes. The slurve lets him keep the same arm slot for all of his pitches, and he can both bury it and throw it for strikes early in the count.
Teams who saw him early and late were were impressed by how he turned his curveball from a pitch that could be recognized and disregarded into a useful weapon both early and late in the count.
Most impressively, he came to the decision to junk the spike curve on his own, which is a good sign that he's developing a feel for pitching to go along with the high-octane heat that would allow him to survive as a thrower.
The Case Against Him:
Like Cole, there are times that Taillon's impressive stuff doesn't match up with the results he's generating. One scout was surprised to see how few swings and misses he was getting from a fastball that was often in the upper 90s.
"He didn't miss many bats, scattered pitches all over," the scout said. "That being said, he was throwing 97-mph sinkers with a good secondary pitch. So he's still pretty good."
Taillon is the furthest from the majors of the three with more refinement needed than the much more experienced Cole or the relatively polished Fernandez. He flashes an excellent changeup with late fade, but he doesn't appear to fully trust it yet.
The Case For Him:
Most pitchers a year out of high school rely on raring back and throwing their fastball by hitters. Fernandez is the rare young power pitcher who believes in his offspeed stuff as much as his fastball.
Fernandez showed the ability to throw his curveball, slider and changeup for strikes and he was willing to throw them early in the count, so hitters couldn't just sit on his 93-97 mph fastball. He also knew how to work hitters throughout a game. He'd mow through the lineup the first time using just his fastball and changeup, or his fastball and curve, then break out his slider in the fourth inning to make the game even more unfair.
A thick-legged righthander, Fernandez carried his velocity deep into games. As a Cuban native who pitched high school ball in Florida, the humidity of the Florida State League didn't faze him. He touched 99 mph in his last start of the season and didn't throw a fastball under 95 mph in that final outing.
"He's a tremendous teammate. The team is important to him. Winning is very important to him. He's not just getting his work in," Jupiter manager Andy Haines said. "Winning the game for his team is very important for him. He has the mentality of a true No. 1 pitcher."
The Case Against Him:
Fernandez shows a tendency to overthrow his fastball, although he often can diagnose and fix the problem himself between pitches. He's up in the zone more often than some observers would like. Most liked his ability to pitch backwards at times, but some saw that as a sign his stuff won't work as well at upper levels.
While many rave about him as a teammate, other observers think his demonstrative nature on the mound goes beyond confidence and into the realm of unnecessary cockiness. At least one opposing pitching coach felt his fastball was too flat and won't generate swings and misses in the zone. The same pitching coach said he worried that Fernandez's tendency to overthrow could lead to arm problems down the road.
The other concern with Fernandez is his body. He's already a little soft. If he doesn't watch his weight, he could balloon as he matures, although his athleticism and feel for pitching seems to indicate that he can be effective even if he's carrying a few extra pounds.