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Future Reliever? The Case of Jharel Cotton

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing saps a prospect junkie's enthusiasm for a young pitcher as much as a scouting report that includes the phrase "future reliever." Likewise, unless he projects as a Major-League closer--a profile for which only 30 jobs exist in the world--a young pitcher ticketed for the bullpen loses relevance in nearly all fantasy leagues. Thus the task of sifting through dozens of scouting reports on pitchers who could become relievers and finding those who nonetheless have a good chance of starting in the Majors can be both interesting and relevant.

Several factors dictate whether scouts might label a young pitcher "future reliever." One is size, which relates to durability. A larger and more physically mature pitcher should be able to handle a starter's workload, which is why pitchers 6'0" and shorter often find themselves in the bullpen. Another is repertoire. How many quality pitches does he have? It's good to throw 98 MPH, but an elite fastball alone does not make for a successful starter.

The Dodgers' Jharel Cotton, a 24-year-old RHP and former 20th-round pick from East Carolina, makes for both an interesting profile and a useful case study. As a prospect, Cotton burst onto the scene in the summer of 2014 and ever since has posted one dominant performance after another. At 5'11", however, he lacks the size of a prototypical starter. He works off a plus fastball and a plus changeup that flashes double-plus, with secondary offerings that grade fringe-average, so it would appear that he also lacks the repertoire of an ideal starting pitcher. Yet the Dodgers continue to develop him as a starter. To date, both the results and the profile suggest that they are wise to do so.

It's not often that one can identify the precise moment at which the proverbial light went on inside a player's head, but in Cotton's case there is no doubt that the switch flipped on July 22, 2014. Pitching for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, LA's High-A affiliate in the hitter-friendly California League, Cotton took the mound that night in Bakersfield in the midst of a long stretch of mediocrity. He had surrendered 4 ER or more in 6 of his last 12 starts, including a 10 ER implosion in 2.1 innings at Lancaster on June 11, and his ERA stood at 5.88. Then, with the help of scouts who noticed a flaw in his delivery, Cotton suddenly turned around his season and his career. That night he smothered Bakersfield's lineup (7 IP, 1 H, 3 BB, 9 K). A week later at Lake Elsinore he twirled a complete-game gem (9 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 11 K). In his last seven starts of 2014 he pitched a combined 48.2 innings and allowed a total of 6 ER, with 12 BB and 55 K. With one tweak, a 20th-round pick began pitching like a frontline starter, and he hasn't stopped.

In 2015, an injury delayed Cotton's debut until late May. Following a brief stint at Rancho Cucamonga, he received a well-deserved promotion to Double-A Tulsa, where he continued to dominate. A 6-run "blowup" at San Antonio in July stands as the only blemish on an otherwise sparkling stat sheet: 5-2, 2.30 ERA, 62.2 IP, 21 BB, 71 K. A late-season promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he served as a reliever, raised speculation that the Dodgers might add him to their September roster. Instead, prospect evaluators added him to their offseason Top-10 lists: Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus rate him the #10 prospect in LA's deep and talented farm system, while has him 9th.

So why the lingering questions about his future role? For one, despite his prolonged success, Cotton remains 5'11", and the prejudice against smaller pitchers also remains. Although his fastball-changeup combo has gotten nastier (as this video shows), his curveball remains a work-in-progress.

Evidence, however, suggests that the Dodgers should continue to develop Cotton as a starter, for the payoff could be enormous.

As his career walk-to-strikeout ratio of 91:344 suggests, Cotton is a strike-throwing machine. His fastball is actually three pitches: four-seam, two-seam, and cutter, which means he can vary movement, induce sink, and change velocity on this "one" pitch, which he commands to both sides of the plate.

Of the 150 starters currently projected to fill Major-League rotation spots, 26 stand 6'0" or shorter. (This particular prejudice needs to disappear, BTW. Greg Maddux stood 6'0", and Pedro Martinez was 5'11".) Of those 26 starters, 13 are both right-handed and threw a high enough volume of pitches in 2015, including changeups, to draw meaningful comparisons with Cotton.

It's an impressive list of comps: players whose success bodes well for others of their comparatively diminutive ilk.

Did any of them succeed in 2015 with a diversified fastball repertoire, a dominant changeup, and a show-me secondary offering?

Carlos Martinez boasts a plus changeup and throws both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, but he combines these with a wipeout slider. Ian Kennedy throws a good changeup but lacks the quality and diversity on his fastball. Edinson Volquez might have the best sinker-changeup combo, but his four-seam fastball rates average at best.

In the end, based on size and repertoire, the closest match to Cotton is San Francisco's Johnny Cueto.

Like Cotton, Cueto stands 5'11". The Giants' new $130 million man also features four-seam, two-seam, and cut fastballs, which he throws for strikes (his 2.60 career BB/9 ratio in the Majors compares to Cotton's 2.63 career minor-league ratio). Cueto's changeup is a swing-and-miss offering, and his slider, like Cotton's secondary stuff, is unremarkable. No doubt the Dodgers would be thrilled if Cotton someday were to match Cueto's success.

The words "future reliever" on a scouting report, therefore, need not disqualify a prospect from serious consideration, either inside his organization or in fantasy circles.