Tony Cingrani has taken the path less followed to attain his prospect status. He began his college career by breaking records at South Suburban Junior College, followed by a transfer to the
arm abusing prestigious baseball program at Rice where he was nothing short of awful as a starter in his junior year. As a senior he reinvented himself as a shut down reliever, getting himself drafted in the third round by the Cincinnati Reds. Already on an usual path, the Reds put another fork in Cingrani's road, asking him to resume his career as a starter in the rookie level Pioneer League. Research didn't indicate whether the Reds asked him to start as a way took work on his secondary pitches and increase his options as a future reliever (a la Jon Broxton) or because they actually believed he could start, but Cingrani hasn't given them the chance to question their decision yet.
Once assigned to the Pioneer League, Cingrani took to starting like a fish to water, throwing 51.1 innings and striking out an astonishing 80 batters while walking six. A K/9 of 14 will make anyone stand up and take notice, but a 22 year old college pitcher in rookie ball should dominate, so it was tough to gauge exactly where Cingrani stood compared to other prospects. That could explain why he was hardly more than a name to deep leaguers and draft junkies, ranking a mere 15th in the Reds system per Baseball America. Cingrani has proved his for real in 2012, skipping Lo-A entirely and dominating Hi-A to the point that he was promoted to Double-A. Seen as the real test for a pitcher with his profile, Double-A has hardly phased him, dropping his K/9 from 11.28 in Hi-A to a still studly 9.33 in Double-A. He has seen his BB/9 escalate from 2.06 to 3.53 respectively in that time, but a 3:1 K/BB is still plenty healthy, and he's posted an ERA under 2.00 at every level thus far in his career. Despite his impressive numbers, Cingrani has a Left on Base percentage of 83.9% in Double-A, to go with a .252 BABIP, so his 1.98 ERA might be a bit of a mirage. There's no doubt that Cingrani is an interesting talent, but he might also be posting numbers that overstate his ability.
An intriguing story from a numbers and narrative standpoint, Cingrani is an interesting case from a scouting perspective as well. Baseball Prospect Nation's head scout Mark Anderson explains:
He's an absolutely fascinating case. He has the size and fastball scouts look for in a pitching prospect, and his performance has been nothing short of spectacular since turning pro. Where things get crazy is when you start looking at his slider and change-up, both of which rate as below-average pitches. He has shown little feel for either pitch throughout his career and there isn't much projection in either pitch. He makes up for some of that with outstanding control and command, helping even his below-average pitches play up a little bit. He has passed his first big hurdle by continuing to succeed against more advanced hitters in Double-A, but scouts aren't completely buying him as a long term starter, and likely won't until he proves it at every level.
Scouting reports echo Mark's sentiments, lauding Cingrani for his command and control but saying he lacks much beyond his fastball. At 6'5/205 lbs, Cingrani uses the impressive extension his height affords him to get good plane on his pitches. His fastball arrives faster than hitters anticipate a low- to mid-90s fastball would due to the deception and extension involved in his delivery. While his change up lags well behind his fastball, he has shown a willingness to use it, which can't hurt his chances of developing it into a usable pitch. His breaking ball might be what eventually relegates him to the bullpen, as we have seen pitchers with better pedigrees suffer setbacks due to lack of an average breaking ball *cough* Teheran *cough*.
While his numbers suggest that he could operate at the front end of a rotation, his stuff suggests something a bit more modest. That's the fun in following Cingrani right now, as he has a chance to prove he's more than his stuff (or lack there of) says he is. I'm skeptical that he can keep his current pace up, but I'm optimistic that he can contribute 200 innings per year as a 4th starter. The fallback plan with Cingrani is still a positive one for prospective fantasy owners, as he could return to being a dominant reliever. He's likely to contribute only modestly in strikeouts at the upper levels, but should still put forth a phenomenal WHIP.
A big thank you to Mark who took the time to respond and provide that valuable quote. If you like prospects, he's a worthy follow.
Baseball Prospect Nation/Mark Anderson