More often than not, Double-A is where most minor league players make a case for long-term big league success. When an organization sees a young pitcher as a viable option in a Double-A rotation, it speaks volumes to the projectable and executable abilities of said pitcher. With that in mind, here’s a list of the best young (under 23 years old) starting pitchers who have made at least three starts at the Double-A level this year.
Jon Gray (22, RHP, Colorado Rockies)
Selected by the Colorado Rockies in the first round of the 2013 draft (third overall), Gray is on the fast track to the major leagues. The 6’4”, 235-pound righty throws three plus pitches from a high release point. His fastball sits in the mid-to-high 90s with late sink, and he has reach-back velocity of up to 100 mph. His slider (which sometimes looks more like a curveball) is equally nasty, exhibiting sharp downward break and plus-plus potential. His changeup still needs polish, but it’s close to being a consistently above-average pitch. If he puts it all together, he’ll quickly become the ace of the Rockies staff, likely in 2015.
Robert Stephenson (21, RHP, Cincinnati Reds)
Stephenson is a classic projectable pitcher: tall, strong and full of flashy potential. He sits at 95 mph with his fastball and can hump up to 98. He has a powerful frame and uses his legs well to gain leverage. His fastball exhibits late sink and plays well with his changeup, although that pitch is still a work in progress. His curveball is his best offering, and he’s confident enough to throw it in any count. The pitch has sharp 12-to-6 movement, and he will flop it in to get ahead equally as often as use it to put away hitters in two-strike counts. Like many pitchers his age, his changeup needs polish, and he needs to develop more confidence in the pitch. If and when he does, he will slot in well behind Johnny Cueto and (perhaps before) Tony Cingrani in Cincinnati.
Matt Wisler (21, RHP, San Diego Padres)
A seventh-round selection in the 2011 draft, Wisler is already proving himself a huge steal. The 6’3”, 195-pound right-hander has three pitches that can garner swingthroughs and he is not afraid to throw them in any count. His fastball, which he throws from a high three-quarters release point, sits between 93-96 mph and exhibits nasty tail movement. His top-to-bottom curveball is equally nasty, often disappearing down in the zone and making hitters look foolish. His changeup plays well because of his consistent arm action, though he needs to find more consistency with the pitch. If he does, he could supplant Robbie Erlin in the rotation this year and find himself as a No. 2 starter behind Andrew Cashner in 2015.
Andrew Heaney (22, LHP, Miami Marlins)
Heaney is a classic, throwback lefty. He has a smooth, effortless delivery with a low three-quarters release point. His fastball is deceptively fast (sits in low 90s, touches 95), and he locates it with ease. He throws a slurvy, sleeping slider that drops out of the zone, although he has no problem throwing it over the plate for called strikes. His changeup is already above average, and he’s not afraid to throw the pitch to right handed batters. Although Heaney’s stuff will limit him to the role of a No. 2 or 3 starter, his likelihood of reaching that potential is high. Expect to see him in Miami this year.
Henry Owens (21, LHP, Boston Red Sox)
Owens, the 36th pick in the 2011 draft, has seen his stock rise drastically over the past year. Although his fastball velocity (90-93 mph) doesn’t impress, his poise and command are far beyond that of most pitchers his age. Combine that with a plus changeup and a sharp curveball, and Owens is easily projectable as a solid No. 3 starter with the chance of becoming a No. 2. He mixes speeds well and can locate all three of his pitches, keeping batters off balance and constantly guessing. He’ll get hit hard occasionally when he’s not locating, but those performances will likely be outliers. He hides the ball well, adding a few mph to his average fastball. Owens will definitely be in contention for a rotation spot next spring.
Aaron Sanchez (21, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays)
A big, powerful righty, Sanchez causes scouts to salivate with his front-line potential. He’s a quick worker who relies on his fastball, which sits between 93-96 mph and can touch 99. His lower half is long and powerful, although he uses mostly his upper body in his delivery, which could lead to potential shoulder issues. His curveball flashes plus potential, and he’s more than capable of mixing speed and break with the pitch. His changeup is still a work in progress, although at times it’s easy to see it being above major league average. Besides the fact that his fastball has little movement and he struggles with command at times, his delivery gives pause for concern. That being said, Sanchez has the stuff to become a top-of-the-rotation starter for the Blue Jays.
C.J. Edwards (22, RHP, Chicago Cubs)
Seemingly a throw-in in the Matt Garza trade, Edwards has skyrocketed up prospect lists in the past year. Lanky and athletic, the 6’2”, 155-pound righty displays an impressive three-pitch arsenal that could see him in Chicago this season. His fastball, thrown on a downhill plane, sits in the low-to-mid 90s, and he can touch 97. He throws an impressive curveball with sharp downward break, and he has no trouble garnering swingthroughs with the pitch. His changeup has good movement and deceptive arm action, although he needs to develop more confidence and willingness to throw it. As long as his shoulder fatigue proves minor, expect to see Edwards in Chicago by or before September.
Jesse Biddle (22, LHP, Philadelphia Phillies)
Biddle is essentially the second coming of young Barry Zito. His fastball doesn’t blow hitters away (it sits 90-92, although he can touch 94), but his 12-to-6 curveball is about as good as it gets, both freezing hitters and garnering swingthroughs. He also throws an average-to-plus changeup, completing a three-pitch arsenal that project him easily as a No. 4 starter in the major leagues. Some detractors doubt Biddle’s ability to translate his minor league numbers into success at the big league level. But, barring a complete loss of velocity (which is unlikely at his age) and command, Biddle has the floor of a No. 4 starter and the ceiling of a No. 2, and I like his chances of reaching the latter.
Eduardo Rodriguez (20, LHP, Baltimore Orioles)
The youngest pitcher on this list, Rodriguez throws three pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup) that project as at least major league average, if not better. His fastball, which is a four-seamer, sits 91-94 mph and offers decent cut movement. His slider is slurvy with quick, late movement. Combined with a changeup that exhibits decent tail and good arm movement, Rodriguez has the floor of a No. 4 starter and the ceiling of a No. 2. Still young, Rodriguez needs to get better at putting hitters away once he gets ahead. His changeup is his best put-away pitch, but he doesn’t throw it enough. Once he gains more experience and confidence in his abilities, Rodriguez will find himself as a prominent member of the Orioles rotation.
Nick Kingham (22, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates)
Kingham, 6’5” and 220, is a big body that some scouts project as a long-term bullpen arm. His three-pitch arsenal, however, makes it easy to see him as a No. 4 innings-eater type starter. He sits in the mid 90s with his fastball, which has heavy sinking movement and late tailing action. His motion is smooth and repeatable, especially considering his large body. His off-speed pitches (changeup and curveball) both project as at least major league average. The worst-case scenario is Kingham becoming a seventh- or eighth-inning type set-up man.
A.J. Cole (22, RHP, Washington Nationals)
Cole battles a funky delivery while displaying impressive stuff. He’s tall and wiry, with an electric fastball and a dropout changeup. His curveball has tight, sharp break. Yet his delivery doesn’t inspire confidence in his ability to command his pitches. His shoulder often flies open, and he struggles to get on top of his pitches. He displays a nasty changeup, but he might not be able to command his arsenal well enough to become an effective big league starter.
Justin Nicolino (22, LHP, Miami Marlins)
Nicolino is essentially a poor man’s Andrew Heaney. He pitches to contact, exhibiting plus command and poise on the mound. He throws a low 90s fastball, hiding it well with a coil in his delivery. He throws a sweeping, slurvy curveball and an average changeup. I don’t see any plus pitches from him, but I can see him becoming a solid No. 4 or 5 starter in the big leagues.
Kyle Crick (21, RHP, San Francisco Giants)
Despite being the consensus top prospect for the Giants, Crick’s star is quickly falling as he continues to struggle with control in his first Double-A season. He sits 94-96 with his fastball and throws a power curve (that looks more like a slurve) while flashing an average changeup, but his inability to command any one pitch hints at a long-term role as a reliever. In short inning situations, Crick will sit at 98 mph with his fastball and his ability to command secondary pitches will become less essential. He looks so lost mechanically right now that I can’t imagine him ever reaching his ceiling of a No. 1 starter.
Severino Gonzalez (21, RHP, Philadelphi Phillies)
Gonzalez exhibits command and ability beyond his years, making him an intriguing prospect in a system that lacks overall potential. He sits at 91-93 mph with his two-seam fastball while flashing plus with a tight-breaking curve. His changeup still needs polish, although that’s not a surprise with a 21-year-old. He throws strikes and mixes speeds, confident enough to throw any pitch at any count. He’s a touch too emotional on the mound, but I don’t see that as a long-term issue. He could be a solid No. 3 starter in Philly by the end of 2015.
Clayton Blackburn (21, RHP, San Francisco Giants)
Despite not flashing any above-average pitches, I still like Blackburn as a long-term No. 4 starter in the big leagues. His big body (6’2”, 260) projects him as an innings eater with the ability to show more. His fastball sits in the low 90s with impressive sink, and he complements it with a changeup that dives low out of the zone. His curveball is more of a frisbee pitch, but it is effective when hitters are sitting on his other pitches.
Adalberto Mejia (20, LHP, San Francisco Giants)
The second-youngest starting pitcher in Double-A, Mejia shows the type of poise and ability that could see him in San Francisco in 2015. A 6’3”, 195-pound left-hander, Mejia is fearless in his ability to challenge the zone with all of his pitches. His fastball, thrown from a low three-quarters release point, sits in the low 90s with good tail action. He also throws a slurvy slider at 82 mph, which combines with an average changeup to keep hitters honest. I like him as a solid No. 4 starter, possibly in 2015.
Ivan Pineyro (22, RHP, Chicago Cubs)
Considered a non-prospect, Pineyro throws one of the better changeups I’ve seen this year in minor league ball. Combine that with a 92-94 mph fastball with sink and a curveball that’s at least major league average, and you have a prime sleeper prospect. When Pineyro’s on, he makes hitters look foolish, throwing all of his pitches in all counts. I expect him to shoot up prospect lists by the end of this year.
Stephen Landazuri (22, RHP, Seattle Mariners)
Where did this guy come from? A 22nd round pick in the 2010 draft, Landazuri has posted freakish numbers thus far in Double-A. The 6’0”, 175-pound righty has carved up hitters to the tune of a 30/3 K/BB ratio, flashing plus potential with both his curveball and changeup. His fastball sits 91-92 mph, and he can hump up to 94 when he wants to. I like him as a No. 4 guy, and his floor is about as high as any minor leaguer I’ve seen this year.