It's not very common for a 25-year old pitching in the Arizona Fall League to still be a very real prospect, but that's exactly what Kyle Gibson will be next week. I say next week, because this coming Tuesday is his 25th birthday. So how did Gibson get to the point where, more than three years after being drafted out of the University of Missouri, he's not only yet to debut for the Twins, but still owns a career ERA at AAA of over 5.00? And what's a realistic expectation for him going forward?
Long a favorite of Baseball America's Jim Callis coming out of the 2009 draft, Gibson profiled as a safe, college arm without the upside of a frontline starter. That profile took a bit of a hit in the weeks leading up to the draft, as it was discovered that Gibson had a stress fracture in his forearm. This caused the once potential top-10 pick to slide all the way to the Twins' selection at #22. Due to both the late signing deadline and the injury, Gibson did not make his professional debut until April 2010, where he dominated the Florida State League for six weeks before being moved up to Double-A. Ninety-three solid innings later, Gibson was given a late-season promotion to Triple-A and his future was looking bright. He was ranked 34th on Baseball America's Top 100 prospect list, and even Kevin Goldstein at BP (who tends to give more weight to velocity and upside) ranked him 55th.
However, the portended successes of 2011 were not meant to be. Gibson struggled much of the season at Triple-A, posting a 4.81 ERA and allowing 109 hits and 11 HR in 95 1/3 IP (after allowing 136 hits and 7 HR in 152 IP during 2010). On top of that, scouting reports circulated that his velocity was down and his command was wavering. The icing on the cake was when it was discovered that Gibson had been pitching with a torn ligament in his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. He had the surgery on September 7, 2011 and was reasonably expected to miss all of the 2012 season. However, Gibson had other plans.
Just over ten months removed from his surgery, Gibson was back on the mound for the Gulf Coast League Twins in July. In August, he returned to the sight of his biggest success as a prospect, the Florida State League, for two starts before jumping back up to Triple-A to finish the season. Across those three stops, Gibson struck out 33 batters and walked only 6 in 28 1/3 innings. The Twins then assigned him to the Arizona Fall League to continue to build his arm back up post-surgery - which brings us to the present.
Through his first two starts of the AFL, Gibson has a 0.90 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 16 K and 0 BB in 10 IP. And on top of that, the reports have been glowing. The location and velocity on his sinker is better than it's been at any point in his professional career, sitting 92-94 and touching 95 (averaging 93.5 MPH per PitchFX). Also, to say it's been doing what it's supposed to do is a huge understatement, as Gibson has a 77.3% ground ball rate in those 10 innings. On top of that, his slider (which he scrapped his curveball in favor of) has been very much looking like an out pitch - he's thrown it 34 times in those two starts and he's gotten 17 swinging strikes.
These results are enough to reinvigorate the dynasty league owners who kept the patience with Gibson, though it's important to keep expectations in check. As one of those Gibson owners, I'm starting to wonder whether the crispness of his stuff is here to stay - and if it is, does that raise his fantasy outlook? Before the injury, my expectation for Gibson was that he would maintain decent to good ratios with around a 6.0 K/9 and be able to log enough innings to win 12-14 games a year. If he can, instead, put up a 7.0 K/9 or higher, he becomes a potential #holytrinity candidate and top-40 starting pitcher. Essentially, his upside would become statistically similar to a solid Jaime Garcia season - an ERA around 3.50, WHIP around 1.25, 55% GB rate and 160 K.
Of all the pitchers in the AFL, Gibson is the one most worth paying close attention to; and next to James Paxton, he's likely the league's best pitching prospect. A very strong Fall League would go a long way towards getting Gibson a shot at a rotation spot during Spring Training. And as unlikely as this may have seemed 13 months ago, Gibson could potentially be the Twins' best starting pitcher in 2013. Just as it should have been all along.