As Bret alluded to in the state of the position, Craig and I will be taking a bit of a different look at relief pitching prospects. Rather than providing a top prospects list that would be rather ugly after the first couple, we will be taking a look at each of the leagues, and looking for pitchers who might be in line for saves in the long-term. In some cases, this will be current major leaguers who don't have access to the role, but we believe would be well suited for the job down the line. In others, they are minor leaguers who may or may not already be relieving, but could turn to that role down the line.
For all practical purposes, relief pitching and top prospects generally do not go together. With the notable exceptions of Huston Street, Drew Storen, and Rex Brothers, the best relievers in the Majors don't tend to come into the professional ranks as relievers. Rather, we find that many relief pitchers started out as starting pitchers, but were converted for any number of reasons to the pen. As a result, searching for relief pitching prospects is almost always a fool's errand. That said, there are a few things that I look for in a pitching prospect that may end up better suited for the bullpen in the long term. None of these are necessarily deal breakers, but more of a general idea of what we tend to see from high level relief pitchers:
- A repertoire that leads us to see the potential for strikeouts in short bursts (good to great fastball, good to great second pitch, usually a curveball or slider)
- Usually the lack of an average changeup, or a third pitch in general.
- A tendency toward groundballs, or at least a tendency away from fly balls (and home runs as a result)
Brian Matusz (BAL) - This is completely speculation on my part, but if the Orioles truly believe that Matusz cannot start, the improvements he has shown in the bullpen could translate into the closer's role as well. As a reliever in 2012, he had 19 K/3 BB with a 1.35 ERA and 1 home run allowed in 13.1 innings pitched. If the Orioles are looking to get some of the value that Matusz had as a top draft pick, this could be the way to accomplish that.
Rubby de la Rosa (BOS) - Baseball America plugged in de la Rosa as their closer for the Sox for 2017 when they released their top 10 prospect rankings, and it's an interesting choice. He missed the majority of the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery, and if he cannot return to form as a starting pitcher, he could be very interesting as a bullpen power arm.
Mark Montgomery (NYY) - Montgomery has already shown quite a bit as a power reliever in High-A and AA, notching 99 strikeouts against 22 walks in 64 innings in 2012. He throws an absolutely filthy slider to go with his fastball, and our own Bret Sayre even speculated that he could arrive in the Majors this year.
Chris Archer (TAM) - We talked about Archer in our starting pitcher prospect rankings, and you could see him potentially moved to the bullpen if the Rays don't believe he will be one of their five best starting pitchers long term. I don't know if I think this is particularly likely, but it is possible given his history of control issues.
Marcus Stroman (TOR) - I'll have a more in-depth profile of Stroman on Wednesday, but he was already pegged as a potential fast mover out of the 2012 draft until he was suspended for 50 games for stimulant use.
Simon Castro (CHW) - This is another purely speculative pick, as Castro has pitched better in his time at AAA in 2012. That said, with Addison Reed already a very young pitcher locking down the closer's job, it's hard to see another pitcher taking the job from him at this time.
Cody Allen (CLE) - Allen reached the Majors last year, throwing 29 innings, striking out 27 and walking 15. The big question about him as a closer seems to come down to how much his command will improve. He has already had Tommy John surgery, and could be third in line for saves behind Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano this year.
Bruce Rondon (DET) - There has been a ton of speculation that Rondon could be handed the closer's job in Detroit after blasting through three levels last season. He has already been added to the 40-man roster, so he could be a nice speculative play if the Tigers don't end up signing another closer.
Donnie Joseph (KC) - Acquired by the Royals in the Jonathan Broxton trade, Joseph worked exclusively as a reliever between AA and AAA in 2012, striking out 87 and walking 30 in 69+ innings pitched. The Royals already have a ton of power arms in the back end of their bullpen, so it becomes a bit difficult to see his path clear with Greg Holland locked in as the closer there.
Luke Bard/J.T. Chargois/Zack Jones (MIN) - The Twins drafted a trio of college relievers starting in the supplemental first round last year, with the hopes of turning as many of them as possible into starting pitchers. I would have to imagine that at least one of these three ends up at the back end of the bullpen for the Twins in the future.
Josh Fields/Jarred Cosart (HOU) - Craig has a profile on Cosart coming out later today, so I won't write too much about him. Instead, the most interesting relief prospect in Houson to me is Josh Fields. The team selected him in the rule 5 draft, so they'll have to keep him on the Major League roster all year. With the Astros not expected to compete, that should be easy enough, and Fields had 78 strikeouts with 18 walks in 58 innings between AA and AAA for the Red Sox. This is still a player who was a first round pick not that long ago.
R.J. Alvarez (LAA) - The top draft pick of the Angels had last year after losing picks for signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, Alvarez had a 38/11 K/BB rate in 27 innings pitched at Low-A last year. He is one of the system's top prospects right now, and could move quickly in his first full season as a professional.
Sean Doolittle (OAK) - Doolittle emerged last year after converting to pitching from first base, and finished up the season on the playoff roster for the A's. With Grant Balfour under contract for 2013 and Ryan Cook still not even eligible for arbitration, we may not see Doolittle in the role for a few years.
Carter Capps/Stephen Pryor (SEA) - We have talked a bit about both Capps and Pryor as potential answers in Seattle. Both have shown elite strikeout levels and the scouting reports seem to match up with that performance, and it really comes down to how much of a shot they will get to close out games with Tom Wilhelmsen locked in as the closer.
Lisalverto Bonilla (TEX) - Acquired from the Phillies for Michael Young, Bonilla split time between High-A and AA, posting 64 strikeouts in 46 innings pitched. He was converted to relief last year by the Phillies, and could be in the Majors by season's end if the Rangers leave him in the pen.