Wednesday Dish: Pitching Crop Headlines SAL Best Tools

Continuing our theme of taking a more in-depth look at some of our Best Tools Surveys, today we’ll examine the most intriguing race from the low Class A South Atlantic League: Best Pitching Prospect.

Pitching has been the league’s strength in 2009. While last season’s SAL featured a deep crop of hitters led by Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton, Jesus Montero and Freddie Freeman, this year, Hagerstown catcher Derek Norris was the only hitter to truly separate himself from the pack.

On the other hand, the league’s pool of quality pitchers has been significantly deeper. Only five pitchers appeared in our SAL Top 20 Prospect rankings last year, and only two of those (Madison Bumgarner and Jhoulys Chacin) made the Top 10. You should expect to see a lot more hurlers in those rankings this time around. A total of nine different pitchers received votes for Best Pitching Prospect, with the final outcome coming down to a last minute vote breaking a tie between West Virginia’s Rudy Owens and Lake County’s Jason Knapp.

The clash between Owens and Knapp is certainly interesting, given that the two are just about polar opposites as pitchers. Knapp is the power righthander who can throw in the mid 90s and Owens is the lefty who relies on fastball command and an outstanding changeup. Knapp, of course, was one of the pieces the Phillies used to land Cliff Lee from the Indians. The 18-year-old spent the first three months of the season with Lakewood, going 2-7, 4.01, before being shut down in mid July with shoulder fatigue. He made his Indians debut last night with Lake County, pitching two innings against Augusta and allowing two runs (one earned) on one hit.

"(Knapp is) another young guy who has great work ethic," said Dusty Wathan, Knapp’s former manager with Lakewood. "Our scouts have done a tremendous job of getting not only highly-talented guys, but high-quality individuals, and he’s another one. He works as hard, if not harder than anybody that we had, and I think he’ll take that to the Indians organization and hopefully he’ll make it to the big leagues with them."

Owens, who we’ve profiled on a previous Daily Dish, was recently promoted to high Class A Lynchburg after going 10-1, 1.70 in 100 2/3 innings for West Virginia, leaving the SAL as its leader in both ERA and wins. Owens, 21, impressed managers with his feel for pitching, an asset that helped separate him from his younger competition.

"He’s a pitcher," Kannapolis manager Ernie Young said of Owens. "He has mound presence. He doesn’t seem to get rattled. Those are all qualities of a good starting pitcher.

"He pitches to both sides of the plate, and when you’re able to pitch to both sides of the plate and you also have a good changeup, it makes your fastball just that much better. He throws his changeup behind in the count. He pitches to contact and he’s able to get you out with the changeup as well."

Young would know as well as anyone, having seen Owens post his best start of the season June 16 against his Intimidators squad. In that outing, Owens fired eight one-hit, shutout innings, striking out nine. That start was part of a 32-inning scoreless streak for Owens, spanning six starts from June 11 to July 13. He wound up allowing only two runs over his last 46 innings with the Power before being promoted, news that was probably a relief to Sally League managers everywhere.

Among the others to receive votes were Hickory’s Venezuelan duo of lefthander Martin Perez, who’s just been promoted to Double-A, and righthander Wilmer Font. Greenville righthander Casey Kelly, who’s now back in the league as a shortstop, also received some support, though his limited time in the league (nine starts) hurt his chances of winning any categories. Bowling Green leftander Matt Moore, who’s been perhaps the league’s most dominant pitcher in the second half, going 4-1, 1.69 with 55 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings, garnered support thanks to a power fastball and improving command.

"I think (Moore’s) made tremendous progress, both mentally and physically," Bowling Green manager Matt Quatraro said. "He has three plus pitches, and being lefthanded, you don’t see guys like that frequently with that kind of upside who are lefthanded, so he really stands out for those reasons."

Other names to recieve votes were Lexington righthander Jordan Lyles, Asheville lefty Christian Friedrich and Charleston lefty Manny Banuelos.

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