Well, we're a month into the minor league season, which means that we have a big enough sample size to draw definitive conclusions about every player*. So let's take a look at how the top 15 pitching prospects (plus three more) have performed so far, and what we should look for going forward with them. As an aside, the Montgomery Biscuits have an 11:35 AM eastern game today with Matt Moore on the mound, so we can talk about that.
*Not intended to be a factual statement.
1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP - Not going to spend as much time with Hellickson as he's graduated as a prospect and other writers here cover major-leaguers better than I do. But as of this writing, Hellickson has pitched the exact same number of innings in 2011 that he had in his cameo appearance last season (36.1). His ERA, hits, and runs are closely in line both years, but his rate stats have slipped noticeably. He struck out 33 and walked 8 last season, but is down to 27 strikeouts and 17 walks this year. He gave a glimpse of his great potential on opening day with ten of his strikeouts, but he's also had two starts where he walked five hitters. For some perspective, Hellickson didn't walk as many as four in a start until 2010, when he walked five twice with Durham. So it's uncharacteristic but not unprecedented.
At this point it's reasonable to expect Hellickson to make the necessary adjustments and become the solid #2 or #3 starter we thought. For that to happen, he has to do a better job at getting ahead in the count with his fastball to set up his swing-and-miss changeup. David Price (2009), Jeff Niemann (2009), and Wade Davis (2010) were each better in the second half of their first full-ish season in the majors. Hellickson came more polished than those three, though, so his struggles with control and command come as a bit more of a surprise. Expect reasonable improvement.
2. Matt Moore, LHP - When Moore's ERA sat at 6.75 through three starts, the general feeling was that, well, it's just another April for him, he always struggles early. That wasn't entirely the case though. With Bowling Green in 2009 and Charlotte with 2010, his early-season struggles were control-related, with the BABIP luck dragon playing a supporting role. Through six starts each season, Moore had walked 20 and 19 hitters respectively, "good" for BB/9s of 7.10 and 6.49. Through six starts with the Biscuits in 2011, Moore has walked just six in 29.1 innings, a BB/9 of 1.8.What's hurt Moore has been the home run ball. He's still striking guys out like it's going out of style (41 so far, a 12.6 K/9), but he's surrendered six long balls. Given that he allowed that same number for all of 2009, and just one more in 2010, I'm guessing that's due to regress. FirstInning.com has his groundball percentage at 50%, higher than both of the past two seasons. Meanwhile, his GO/AO is 0.88, the lowest of his career. What this tells me is that batters are hitting balls on the ground, but they aren't being turned into outs as often has they have been. In turn, he's faced more hitters, naturally leading to more home runs. Oh, and his HR/Ball in Air is 19%, which is roughly 15% higher than his career norm.
Moore remains one of the game's top pitching prospect, and if his home run rate regresses while he maintains most of his gains in control (perhaps a 2.5 BB/9) as well as his strikeout rate, he could stake a serious claim to the top spot.
3. Chris Archer, RHP - Expected to team with Moore to give the Biscuits two aces, Archer hasn't been able to build on a breakout 2010 campaign. He showed better control with high-A Dayton at the beginning of last year (3.2 BB/9), but it was back near his career norm in the Southern League, and a change of organizations in the off-season didn't solve that. He's made it through five innings in just one of his six starts and has walked 16 in 27.1 innings. A .420 BABIP hasn't helped (reports are it's made his statistics 69% worse), but it's not all luck. Undoubtedly, a lack of command has led to some hittable pitches and the resulting .327 batting average against.
His career strikeout rate is exactly a hitter per inning. He's come in slightly below that so far in 2011, but it's nothing to be overly concerned about. The story on Archer has always started with his control, and that's not going to change anytime soon. He's been pitching professionally since 2006 but he's still only 22 years old. He's only shown a half-season of decent control, but there's every reason to be patient (I love advocating moving pitchers to the bullpen, but I'm not even close to that point with Archer yet). Obviously he needs to limit the walks and pitch more efficiently. Entering the season. a promotion to Durham around mid-season seemed likely, but now I'd guess he spends the whole year in Montgomery.
4. Alex Torres, LHP - His ERA (1.44), H/9 (6.3), and K/9 (11.8) all look great, but like Archer, it's a matter of control. While the two sport near-identical BB/9s (5.2 for Torres, 5.3 for Archer), the news is better for Torres. One start where he walked seven in 4.1 innings has knocked his walk rate out of whack a bit. He's ranged from good to dominant in his other starts, including three where he didn't allow a run. If you remove Torres' clunker start, he would have a 39/11 K/BB. If you remove Archer's six walk start, he would only be at 23/10.
According to FirstInning, Torres' groundball percentage is at a career low (though 48% still isn't bad). At the same time, he hasn't allowed a home run. Expect each of these to regress toward career averages. The home runs, when they come, will of course dent his ERA, but won't wreck it. Torres' walk rate may never be better than average, but his stuff is good enough to succeed with that. It's only been a month, but I think I'd slot him above Archer if doing this list today,
5. Jake McGee, LHP - Durham is the right place for McGee, at least until someone finds his velocity and turns it in for the $25,000 reward (which I believe has been put up by Steve Slowinski. By reading this you agree not to hold me responsible if reward is paid in Monopoly money). My lasting image of McGee's stint in the big leagues is him grooving a 91 mph fastball to Brian Roberts (who smacked it for a tiebreaking home run), and then striking out the next batter, Nick Markakis, with a 97 mph heater. That sort of weird velocity fluctuation, whether it's mechanical or due to issues warming up, needs to be sorted out before he returns.
McGee's fastball needs to be 95+, it's really as simple as that for me. His lack of strikeouts, just two in seven innings, was bizarre. To channel my inner Joe Morgan, he needs to learn to be more consistent. What I mean by that is that he needs to show with the Bulls that he can bring the heat every time, whether he's been warming up for an inning for a few minutes and whether he's being used regularly or not (ideally, of course, he'll be able to get regular work). My guess is he spends about a half-season with the Bulls and returns to the majors in late July or August.
6. Alex Colome, RHP - Colome's ERA is going to be jacked up for a while thanks to a disastrous first start where he allowed seven earned runs in 1.2 innings. He's been better since, including a 10-strikeout performance in 7 shutout innings on April 29th. There are some kinks to work out, of course, but he's striking out a hitter per inning and the ship seems relatively rightsized.
Now for some unfounded conjecture: I think Colome is a future reliever. That's not really a huge knock on him, because he has the stuff to be a lockdown closer. He pitches very aggressively, and I theorize that he's not as adept as pacing himself as other pitches. This is a skill that can be developed of course, and I'm not saying move him to the bullpen tomorrow. Colome's stuff often flashes plus but never seems to stay there. I think pitching in shorter spurts, his stuff would be sharp all the time. The first guy that popped into my mind was Daniel Bard, though Bard had (much) bigger control problems to solve.
7. Alex Cobb, RHP - I took a closer look at Cobb, and we all saw him in the majors, so I won't spend too much time here. His fastball is average, his split-change can be plus, and his curveball is probably a tick above-average. It really does come down to fastball command, something that Cobb didn't totally have his first major-league start. On the larger scale (if you want to call 28.1 innings at Durham large), it's promising that Cobb's walk rate is right in line with the past few years while his strikeouts are up yet again. His K/9 has gone up each year since 2008, largely due to the development of the split-change, and sits at 10.5. He'll work on his fastball command (and not tipping his pitches, though I didn't see as much of it in AAA) with Durham.
8. Nick Barnese, RHP - He's only made four starts spanning 15.2, so we're dealing with an even smaller sample size than the other pitches. He's been out since April 28th with a minor back injury, but he should be back in a week or two. In the very early going, the worrying thing about Barnese's statline were the eight walks. While his secondary stuff hadn't developed to help him post a great K/9, he seemed to be turning himself into a command/control guy, and that just wasn't there in his first few starts with the Biscuits. He did strike out 16, which was nice, but a bigger sample is definitely required.
9. Joseph Cruz, RHP - While Archer and Barnese have perhaps underwhelmed, Cruz has outright fizzled as the last member of Montgomery's "big four." In 25 innings over six starts, Cruz has allowed 31 (!) earned runs on 40 hits. He's struck out 17 and walked 13 while allowing 7 home runs. Opponents are hitting .374 against him and his groundball percentage is nearly 20% less than it was his past two seasons. There just ain't much to get excited about here, even in a "silver lining" kind of way.
There are two possibilities here, with the first maybe relating to the second. He could be hurt. That would reasonably explain why everything across the board has gotten so much worse. Last year, the reports on Cruz were that his stuff would fluctuate wildly from start to start and even inning to inning. The second possibility is that he can't reach the upper range of that fluctuation. When his fastball was 94-96 mph, he could get by with below-average secondary stuff. Not so much when his heater is a mundane 91-92. Easily my biggest concern from this list.
10. Jake Thompson, RHP - Pretty much an identical situation to Nick Barnese, in that he's only made four starts and pitched about 15 innings. He's currently on the disabled list with what's being called an "irritated" right elbow (not an ACL tear as had been originally been posted on milb.com - and reposted by me). Elbow injuries are never good, obviously, but for now we're in a wait-and-see holding patters. Thompson had one nice start with six strikeouts in four innings and two okay ones before being removed in the fourth with the injury. Who knows how injuries were affecting him (he was skipped over in the rotation after his first start), so it's not worth reading into his numbers too much.
11. Enny Romero, LHP - I'm pretty sure Romero is turning into a personal cheeseball. He's been really good, with eight strikeouts and one walk in five shutout innings on opening night, but also really bad, allowing nine earned runs in 1+ inning on April 23rd. For the season, he's got 30 punchouts in 21.1 innings and a very healthy 2.00 GO/AO. On the flip side, he's walked 16 hitters, though I'd like the jury to note that his defense hasn't done him many favors, often extending innings to hurt his hit and walk numbers.
His stuff has been very crisp for a 20-year-old with a fastball that's touched 96 from the left side to go along with a tight curveball. He hasn't always commanded it well, obviously, but he was painting on opening day and showed very good control last season in Princeton. The Rays historically don't promote players out of low-A, and Romero won't be the exception to that rule. I'm expecting a strong season from here on out.
12. Wilking Rodriguez, RHP - He was placed on the DL in the spring with a shoulder injury and has yet to pitch in 2011. He's officially on the Bowling Green disabled list but when he does debut, I'd think it would be at Charlotte.
13. Scott Shuman, RHP - One of my picks to click in 2011, Shuman has struck out 24 in 14 innings out of the Charlotte bullpen. Unfotunately, his control has taken a step backwards as he's walked a hitter per inning. He has trouble throwing strikes at Auburn, and even last season his BB/9 was just a hair under 5.0. His fastball and slider are both plus pitches, though, and he can thrive as an effectively wild reliever. Unfortunately there's nothing effective about 14 walks in 14 innings, and his ERA has justly suffered. His stuff is good enough for a bump to Montgomery if he can find the strike zone with more regularity, but that's been a big if so far.
14. Jesse Hahn, RHP - Recovering from Tommy John surgery. Nothing new to report, he'll pitch with the GCL Rays when he completes his rehab.
15. Albert Suarez, RHP - Took a batted ball off the knee in spring training and hasn't pitched yet in 2011. Will report to the Stone Crabs when healthy.
Best of the rest:
Alex Koronis, RHP - Pressed into starting duty because of the myriad of injuries, Koronis has surprisingly been able to maintain a strong strikeout rate after whiffing 100 in 85 innings in relief with Bowling Green last season. This year he's struck out 32 and walked 11 in 31 innings for Charlotte. He's an extreme flyball pitcher and 31 innings don't make him a legit SP prospect yet, but he's made sure that he'll be a name to keep an eye on the rest of the season, whether that comes in the rotation or the bullpen.
C.J. Riefenhauser, LHP - The Rays' 20th round pick last season, Riefenhauser's been a nice surprise at Bowling Green. He opened up some eyes with an 11-strikeout, 6-inning start on April 29th. Like Koronis, we're not yet talking about a real SP prospect. But if nothing else, Riefenhauser would appear to have future value as a LOOGY. So far this season, he's sporting an 18/0 K/BB against lefties while they've managed just a .118 batting average against him.
Marquis Fleming, RHP - Fleming has by far the most innings of any reliever in the system so far, emerging as Billy Gardner's go-to guy in the Biscuits bullpen. He's used a very good changeup to strike out 28 in 21 innings. I still like Shuman and Matt Bush better as prospects, but Montgomery is where we've seen guys like Ryan Reid and Matt Gorgen hit the wall, and Fleming has been able to climb over it so far.