Triple-A Pitchers To Watch

Despite generally favorable conditions for pitchers, most organizations opt not to send their elite arms to the International League. Or if they do, they don’t keep them there long enough to qualify for our post-season Top 20 Prospects list.

Aside from Francisco Liriano in 2005, the IL hasn’t seen a whole lot of projected No. 1 or 2 types pass through. Consider the three top-ranked pitchers in the circuit over the past few years–and this is not meant as an indictment of their abilities: Tom Gorzelanny, Jeremy Sowers and Hayden Penn in 2006; Liriano, Zach Duke and Kyle Davies in 2005; Ben Hendrickson, Dan Meyer and Jesse Crain in 2004; and Brandon Claussen, Cliff Lee and Jeremy Guthrie in 2003.

One could certainly make a fine rotation with these pitchers, but calling any of them even a No. 2 would be generous.

The set up may be long, so I’ll get to the point now: The 2007 International League features a handful of the very best pitching prospects in the game. In order of their rankings in the Top 100 Prospects:

Phil Hughes, rhp, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees). He entered the season as the top-ranked pitching prospect in the minors and one nearly ready for the majors. But Hughes might get called up sooner than expected if the Yankees’ starters continue to allow anything close to their present 9.53 ERA. For his part, Hughes struck out six in five innings but allowed two runs in his first Triple-A start. Innings needed to qualify for Top 20: 43.

Homer Bailey, rhp, Louisville (Reds). Right behind Hughes on the Top 100, Bailey’s poor spring training took him out of the running for big league rotation spot early in camp. The Reds toyed with the idea of calling him up last September, so if Bailey continues to pitch like he did Sunday (four strikeouts and one hit in 5 1/3 innings) they might not show the same restraint. Innings needed to qualify for Top 20: 42 2/3.

Matt Garza, rhp, Rochester (Twins). The Twins’ decision to farm him out this spring–and keep Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz–seemed puzzling at first, but Garza’s spotty changeup command is probably the only thing holding him back at this point. Garza fared poorly in his 2007 debut Saturday, walking five in 3 1/3 innings, but could not have been helped by a game-time temperature of 32 degrees in Rochester.

Adam Miller, rhp, Buffalo (Indians). Miller didn’t allow a run in 14 spring innings and is line to be the first pitcher recalled from Triple-A. He was named the Bisons’ Opening Day starter, but the team has yet to play a game because of inclement weather.

Jeff Niemann, rhp, Durham (Devil Rays). Niemann was solid in his Triple-A debut, going five, striking out seven and giving up two runs–one of them on a solo shot to dead center by Blue Jays outfielder Adam Lind. If he continues to pitch well, Niemann is a shoo-in to see major league time this season.

Glen Perkins, lhp, and Kevin Slowey, rhp, Rochester (Twins). Both pitchers were in the Red Wings’ playoff rotation last year and both could reach Minnesota this season.

While headed by two top pitching prospects, the Pacific Coast League begins 2007 with a fewer-than-usual number of elite pitchers. After all, this is the league that has featured Jered Weaver, Chad Billingsley, Jason Hirsh, Felix Hernandez and Matt Cain in recent years.

Tim Lincecum, rhp, Fresno (Giants). The much talked-about Lincecum, who was drafted 10th overall last June, begins his first full season in Triple-A–though you wouldn’t know it by his eight-strikeout game Saturday.

Yovani Gallardo, rhp, Nashville (Brewers). The Minor League Preview cover boy emerged last season and pitched as effectively as Hughes and Bailey. Gallardo could get his big league chance this season if Milwaukee’s back-end starters falter.

Philip Humber, rhp, New Orleans (Mets). Humber made just 14 starts last year as he built arm strength after Tommy John surgery, but he could force his way into the big league picture if he performs in New Orleans.

Ubaldo Jimenez, rhp, Colorado Springs (Rockies). Jimenez struggled at Triple-A last season after dominating Double-A. His big-time fastball should get him an extended look in the bigs at some point this season.

Matt Albers, rhp, Round Rock (Astros). As one of the Astros’ final spring training cuts, Albers could help solidify Houston’s rotation later this season.