Let's say that you were given a list of all the starting pitching prospects in the Rays organization with no knowledge of their hype, draft position, or any other subjective info. All you would have is their current and career stats, as well as their ages. Who would you focus on as the best pitching prospect?
Would it be #1 draft pick Jeff Niemann? No, he pitched well but not spectacularly at Visalia for his brief time there and is currently hurt.
Would it be #1 draft pick Wade Townsend? Nope, he hasn't pitched professionally yet.
Would it be well thought of lefty Chris Seddon? He's at Durham but hasn't been dominant at all either in Montgomery or his brief time with the Bulls.
Would it be the dominant Andy Sonnanstine? It's no fault of his own but he hasn't pitched above Low-A yet.
Would it be Jarrod Matthews, who was looking good in 2004? Can't be, he hasn't pitched yet in 2005 due to injury.
How about James Houser, a young lefty who has flashed dominance? We like him but he has had injury trouble already and is still in the low minors.
No, it would be none other than Jason Hammel.
Outside of some avid minor league watchers he received very little notice before this season and even now doesn't get much attention. People should start recognizing him for what he has done though, out of the intriguing group of young starters in the organization he may be in the majors first.
Two writeups on him, first from his BA scouting report where he was rated the organization's 4th best prospect:
Weaknesses: His changeup is an average pitch at times, but Hammel needs to show more consistency with it as well as his curveball. While he has good coordination and body control for his size, he must maintain his mechanics in order to reach his potential.
Now from Baseball Prospectus 2005:
Both reports are in agreement that his future lies in the middle of a rotation, not the front. That's what we should expect from him, though he is only 22 and you never know what can happen as pitchers mature and develop (this goes for bad things as well as good).
2002 - Age 19
Princeton (Rk): 5.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 7 H, 0 R, 5 K, 0 BB, 0 HR, 8.44 K/9, 0.00 BB/9, infinite K/BB, 1.31 WHIP
Hudson Valley (SS A+): 51.2 IP, 5.23 ERA, 71 H, 41 R, 38 K, 14 BB, 0 HR, 6.62 K/9, 2.44 BB/9, 2.71 K/BB, 1.65 WHIP
Nothing much worth noting except for a solid K/BB ratio and no home runs allowed.
2003 - Age 20
Charleston (A-): 76.2 IP, 3.40 ERA, 70 H, 32 R, 50 K, 27 BB, 2 HR, 5.87 K/9, 3.17 BB/9, 1.85 K/BB, 1.27 WHIP
His ERA looks a lot better because his hit rate normalized, possibly simply because of far superior defense behind him than he had in the short season league. It's good news that he's holding his own in low A at only 20 though his K/BB regressed some this year. He had a short season because of a non-pitching related wrist injury.
2004 - Age 21
Charleston (A-): 94.2 IP, 3.23 ERA, 94 H, 54 R, 88 K, 27 BB, 7 HR, 8.37 K/9, 2.57 BB/9, 3.26 K/BB, 1.28 WHIP
Bakersfield (A+): 72.1, 1.87 ERA, 52 H, 18 R, 66 K, 21 BB, 4 HR, 8.21 K/9, 2.61 BB/9, 3.15 K/BB, 1.01 WHIP
That is a very good year for a 21 year old in his third year pitching professionally and the first time he was pitched the whole season. Good numbers across the board and the best thing is that his peripherals didn't slide at all really with the promotion to the next level. The one concern is him throwing 167 innings after only 133.2 the past two years combined.
2005 - Age 22
Montgomery (AA): 48 IP, 3.19 ERA, 40 H, 17 R, 42 K, 8 BB, 4 HR, 7.88 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 5.25 K/BB, 1.00 WHIP
Wow, look at that K/BB ratio. The strikeout rate dipped a bit with the promotion but his control has been superb. The best news, in a weird way, was that he was hurt and couldn't pitch for the Biscuits until mid-May. You don't want to see anyone hurt but the extra rest probably did him good after last season's workload and will keep his innings at a reasonable level for 2005.
So there you go, the progression from interesting high school draftee to excellent prospect. I'm not saying that he's actually the best pitching prospect in the organization but as Jay mentioned if he keeps doing what he's doing then we'll have to start giving him real consideration. Niemann is obviously the top prospect and has the status of the #1 pick and the hype that goes with it but Dewon Brazelton had the same status and hype but never performed. Hammel lacks that but he has the performance which in the end is the only thing that will matter. Niemann should be back soon and I expect him to put some distance between himself and Hammel once he gets into a groove but the gap may not be as much as some would think.
Does Hammel have a shot at being a true ace? It's pretty unlikely but I wouldn't label him a future middle of the rotation guy yet either. He's still young and has the chance to become a very suitable #2 starter if things continue to go well, though he'll probably only be the third best starter in the rotation, behind Kazmir and Niemann.