Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

What is the “ceiling” of the various Nats pitching prospects?

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Will Matt Purke fulfil his former Ace-starter promise? Photo AP/Nati Harnik

Its nearly impossible to project high-end pitching prospects, the further they are from the minors.  Think of someone like Colten Willems, our #1 draft pick in 2006 who retired before ever getting out of high-A.  Or perhaps Josh Smoker, a supplemental 1st rounder in 2007 who struggled with injury and is now a situational lefty in the high-A bullpen, four-plus years into his pro career.

But, it is fun to think about the upper-end, best case scenario and what it would mean for this team.  I’m sure that this post will garner a ton of disagreement; feel free to make your case in the comments pro or against what i’ve posted.  I know that some people are already drinking the kool-aid on September call-ups Peacock and Milone, but I’m not (read below for more).  I’ve included all our current starters and most of the upper-end draftees over the past few years.

(post-publishing note: a commenter asked what I “meant” by a #1 or a #5 starter.  Here’s text pulled from the comments as to how i’m defining each of these level of starters:)

  • #1 starter is one of the best 15-20 pitchers in the league, someone who you’re genuinely surprised if he performs badly on a given day, mentioned in Cy Young conversations.  Verlander, Lincecum, Halladay.
  • #2 starter: a slight step down from your elite, but still a reliable starter.  The “robin” to the ace’s “batman.”  I’m thinking Matt Cain, Chad Billingsly, Cole Hamels, Clay Buchholz as examples.  Not the best guy on their rotation but a great #2 guy.
  • #3: better than your league average pitcher, someone who is solid, consistent innings eater and who routinely gives you quality starts but not much more than that.  I’m thinking someone like a Jonathan Sanchez, Derek Holland, Edwin Jackson, someone like that.
  • #4: is basically someone defined as someone who’s a slight step above the back-of-the-rotation guy, a mlb veteran guy who knows how to pitch but doesn’t have the best stuff to really go much beyond.  John Lannan is a great example of a #4 starter.  Freddie Garcia, John Lackey, Jon Garland, Jason Marquis are other examples.
  • #5: just good enough to fill out your rotation.  Starters at the back end who all you’re hoping for is 6 innings and keeping your team in the game.  On our team, Livan Hernandez, Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen in past years.

Nationals Starter prospect Ceilings (per scouting reports, personal observations)

#1: Strasburg
#2: Zimmermann, Cole
#3: Purke
#4: Lannan, Ray
#5: Detwiler, Turnbull, Solis
4-A starter: Milone, Meyers, Rosenbaum
MLB bullpen: Meyer, Peacock, Stammen
Minors starter: Maya, Martis, McGeary, Jordan, Grace
Minors bullpen: Holder, Smoker

Discussion.

#1 Starters: Stephen Strasburg, in my mind, is already an “Ace” starter in this league, ranking up among the 15-20 best arms out there.  When he’s healthy.  In 2010 he posted MLB-best k/9 rates and would have clearly led the league in some sabremetric measures of pitching in his debut season had he qualified.  But health is the big question mark; is he going to become the next Justin Verlander or the next Mark Prior?  Only time will tell.

#2 Starters: Jordan Zimmermann has achieved Robin to Strasburg’s Batman in this rotation, and seems set to be a pretty good rotational guy for the next few years.  AJ Cole pitched well in his first full season, is a big kid who was touching 96 in HS.  He could be a big arm who slides into the rotation as a dominant arm.  Some think his ceiling is even higher than a #2 starter.

#3 Starters: Matt Purke was a 1-1 talent (1st round, 1st overall draft pick) before suffering shoulder bursitis, and the Nats took a gamble on him.  But its a great gamble; he has Ace material, throwing mid 90s from the left hand side with completely dominating stuff.  He was rated BA’s #14 prospect coming out of high school and had a $4M signing bonus deal turned down by MLB.  He allowed the Nats medical staff to do a dye-injection MRI and were satisfied with the results.  His deal could be remembered as a steal of the 2011 draft if he pans out.  However recent scouting reports have listed his stuff as “ordinary,” so a #3 starter seems like a good middle ground for now.  If his arm is really ok, he’ll start to show it next spring (hopefully at high-A) and he’ll rocket up the prospect lists soon enough.

#4 Starters: Perhaps one could argue that John Lannan is a #3 starter but I don’t believe so; I think he’s a solid, underrated #4 starter on a decent rotation.  If you compare Lannan to the #4 starters on a number of teams, he compares favorably, and you’d clearly take Lannan if given the choice.  The problem is; he’s just not flashy.  We’ll never get appropriate trade value for him because his W/L numbers are mediocre and his K/9 rate isn’t that impressive.  I’d guess that he sticks in our rotation until he reaches free agency, at which point its likely that some of our developing power arms will be ready to take over.   Robbie Ray had a fantastic debut season and may even be better than a #4 ceiling; certainly he put up as good of numbers as his 2010 draft classmate AJ Cole, but his stuff doesn’t project as highly.

Here’s where a number of arguments are probably to be had, starting at the #5 ceiling.

#5 Starters: Ross Detwiler really has yet to fully show his full capabilities, but lefties that throw mid 90s don’t grow on trees.  2012 is a make or break year for him with this organization, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him moved in the off-season so that the team doesn’t have to deal with his option status when constructing the rotation next spring.  I put him with slightly better stuff than the 4-A guys below.  I’m still not sold on him as a MLB starter, but saw a lot out of him this season that shows improvement over where he was in the organization in 2010.   2011 draftee Kylin Turnbull was overshadowed by the high-end talents drafted ahead of him, but he’s lefty, throws well and is projectionable.  Thanks to Sean Hogan‘s excellent draft research, some scouting reports are here.  Right now it sounds to me like Turnbull has a bit more power than someone like Milone and perhaps can get more missed bats.  For now i’m listing him as a #5 starter ceiling; if he was a righty he’d probably be in the MLB bullpen category.  Lastly Sammy Solis projects thus far as somewhere between a a #3 range starter, a mid rotation guy who has 3 plus pitches and can be a lefty work horse out of the rotation and a back-of-the bullpen guy with mediocre stuff but good constitution.  He may not have the best stuff, but being lefty and being a solid, Mark Buehrle build could mean he’s a slightly better version of John Lannan for this team.  We’ll see how he does in AA in 2012.

4-A starters: (for those that don’t know what is meant by “4-A or AAAA,” it means someone who is better than a AAA pitcher but not quite good enough to get out major league hitters on a consistent basis).  Tommy Milone had a great September debut and has impeccable control in the minors, but I don’t see him having good enough stuff to consistently get major league hitters out.  Now, I could be wrong and he could have Greg Maddux-esque control, at which point he doesn’t need mid-90s heat.  But from what I saw in his September starts, I don’t think he’s got what it takes to stick in the majors.  Brad Meyers could end up in the same position as Milone; a guy who dominates in the minors but who can’t cut in the majors.  It doesn’t look like he’ll even get a shot at the 2012 rotation with the crowded 40-man roster.  Lastly Denny Rosenbaum seems cut from the same cloth as Milone; a softer-tossing lefty without great K/9 rates in the low minors but who is effective enough at getting guys out.

Bound for the bullpen (but good enough to stick in the majors): 2011 draftee Alex Meyer is going to go one way or the other: he’s either going to be a wild man out of the bullpen or a near #1 starter.  Scouts seem to be pretty split as to which way he’s going to go.  Right now, based on the struggles he had early in his college career, I’m guessing he struggles to maintain his forward momentum and ends up a Cole Kimball-esque hard throwing option out of the pen.  Meanwhile, what to make of Brad Peacock?  I know he just finished off a fantastic minor league season and had two effective September starts (giving up just one run in 12 innings over two starts).  But to me I see a guy with good life and heavy reliance on one pitch (a 4-seam fastball), a good 2nd pitch (change-up) no confidence in his third pitch (loopy curveball) and no fourth pitch.  To me, that says bullpen.  Lastly i’m clumping in Craig Stammen here, who couldn’t really cut it as a full time starter in 2010 and spent the entire 2011 season starting in AAA.  I think he can be an effective guy out of the MLB bullpen if he’s given the shot.  I like Stammen and perhaps this is a bit high of a ceiling for him; i wouldn’t be surprised a bit if he misses out on the 2012 bullpen and slips into minor league free agency frankly.

Minors starter: This list of guys looks like they’re destined to be “organization guys” for this team.  Yuniesky Maya was clearly not the pitcher the team thought he was when he got his 4-year contract; he’s gotten a couple shots at the majors over the past two seasons and has not capitalized.  I think he’s going to be ensconced in the AAA rotation for the near future, unless someone can figure out how to trade him.  He certainly isn’t a better MLB starting option than any of the guys listed above him.  Shairon Martis mostly earned this fate when he successfully passed through waivers and off our 40-man roster.  His worth ethic and conditioning came into question in the organization, and he went from a 22yr old starter in 2009 to a AA starter in 2011.  He had pretty good numbers in AA, but that doesn’t really prove much for a guy who was in a MLB rotation two years prior.  Jack McGeary is finally back from two years of mediocracy and Tommy John surgery, but faces a pretty steep climb back into future rotational pictures.  For now, i’m guessing he struggles to ever make it, topping out as a minor league starter once he hits his free agency period.  For now, i’m also classifying both Taylor Jordan and Matthew Grace as org guys, continuing to rise up as 4th or 5th starters but never really making an impact.

Minors bullpen: Lastly, i’m listing both high-end draft picks of the past few years Trevor Holder and Josh Smoker as topped out as minor league bullpen guys.  Smoker seems like he’s already there, having come back from an arm injury but still only having risen to high-A in his fourth pro season.  He put up good numbers as a loogy/bullpen guy this year, and perhaps his real ceiling is the MLB bullpen, but getting a loogy out of a first round draft pick is still a major disappointment.  Holder was clearly an over-draft in the Strasburg year, getting picked up in the 3rd round when he wasn’t even in some team’s top 10, and has done nothing to earn his draft position.  He posted a 5.77 era in high-A this year, repeating the level and leaving the team clearly in a conundrum as to what to do with him.  I think he is destined for a bullpen role in 2012, perhaps in high-A again, and may be short-lived for the franchise.

Is there someone I’m missing?  Agree, Disagree?  Discuss in the comments section.

10 Responses to 'What is the “ceiling” of the various Nats pitching prospects?'

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  1. First of all, thanks for the shoutout about my draft research this year!

    I do disagree a bit with your rankings here. I think that once you got past the ML guys for now, you mixed the ceiling ranking with the likelihood that a player would reach that ceiling.

    If we’re talking true ceiling, Meyer and Peacock both have at least #3 starter potential and Detwiler is probably a 4. All 3 have major assets and flaws, but if Meyer gains consistency, Peacock adds a third pitch and/or Detwiler starts throwing 92 or 93 MPH rather than 89, they could be 3′s, 3′s and 4′s, respectively. I’m personally not confident that any of the 3 will happen, but in terms of what these players COULD amount to, I think you’re selling them a bit short.

    Sean Hogan

    18 Oct 11 at 8:02 pm

  2. Did you exclude Wang from your analysis because he is technically not a Nat at the moment? Assuming he does re-up with DC, where would you place him?

    Steven J. Berke

    18 Oct 11 at 8:16 pm

  3. Your draft research was fantastic … i was going to do something similar as the draft went on, found your pages and said “no sense reinventing the wheel there.”

    Yeah, I was trying to think out where I thought these guys would really end up. Perhaps using the word ‘ceiling’ was a misnomer. good clarification. I wanted to post these thoughts especially in respect to Milone and Peacock, who both had great septembers but neither of whom I think is going to be as great as some people think. Not trying to denigrate them, but as you say they have flaws that need to be addressed. Peacock; if he developed (say) a forkball or a split-fingered fastball to go with his good four seamer and excellent change up, suddenly i think his likelihood of being more than a bullpen guy increases.

    Todd Boss

    18 Oct 11 at 8:19 pm

  4. Yeah, excluded both Livan and Wang since they’re FAs and i’m not entirely convinced they’ll be resigned (guess: Livan goes to Florida and Wang does re-sign, which will push Milone back to the minors to start 2012).

    Wang’s a tough one; i think he was clearly a #2 starter strength at his peak w/ New York. I wouldn’t have put his period of dominance in the “ace” plateau since it was short lived and since he wasn’t a danger to pitch a no-hitter or strike out 14 guys every time he took the ball. Now? I’d probably say he’s slightly better than a #5 pitcher … If he signed here he’d be our #4 starter which makes sense for a weaker rotation. If he signed for a team with better arms, he’d be the #5.

    Todd Boss

    18 Oct 11 at 8:32 pm

  5. So, i’m not really sure how you define the attributes of a #1 through #5. What i’m looking for in #1 and #2 is “5 innings on a bad day, 8-9 on a good one, 5ip/3er on a bad day, 8ip/1er on a good one” As for the rest of them, as long as they can get through the order 3 times and give me 6 or 7 innings every day with 2-4 earned runs, i’m delighted.

    Anonymous

    19 Oct 11 at 12:30 am

  6. Fair comment; perhaps I should have clarified. For me: #1 starter is one of the best 15-20 pitchers in the league, someone who you’re genuinely surprised if he performs badly on a given day, mentioned in Cy Young conversations. Verlander, Lincecum, Halladay.

    #2 starter: a slight step down from your elite, but still a reliable starter. The “robin” to the ace’s “batman.” I’m thinking Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Clay Buchholz as examples. Not the best guy on their rotation but a great #2 guy.

    #3: better than your league average pitcher, someone who is solid, consistent innings eater and who routinely gives you quality starts but not much more than that. I’m thinking someone like a Jonathan Sanchez, Derek Holland, Edwin Jackson, someone like that.

    #4: is basically someone defined as someone who’s a slight step above the back-of-the-rotation guy, a mlb veteran guy who knows how to pitch but doesn’t have the best stuff to really go much beyond. John Lannan is a great example of a #4 starter. Freddie Garcia, John Lackey, examples.

    #5: just good enough to fill out your rotation. Starters at the back end who all you’re hoping for is 6 innings and keeping your team in the game. On our team, Livan Hernandez, Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen in past years.

    how’s that?

    Todd Boss

    19 Oct 11 at 1:21 am

  7. Great stuff, Todd, I’m glad the prodigal son returns to our guys on the farm.

    Mark L

    19 Oct 11 at 10:50 am

  8. I think I agree with Sean – I think you’re talking about “ceiling” but tempering expectations based on what you’re seeing now. Two different concepts, i think. By “ceiling” I think I’d mean the absolute highest point the pitcher could reach – the apex of what that guy could be, if everything breaks right, if he stays healthy, if he develops that third pitch, etc. Not every pitcher is likely to reach their ceiling – maybe even most pitchers are likely NOT to reach their ceiling. But if you’re talking absolute apex, I think you’ve underrated most folks.

    I think the reason for that, though is that you’re unrealistic in your definitions of what a #2 vs. a #3 starter is. I’m not seeing much meaningful distinction between “#2 starter = a reliable starter,” and “#3 = better than league average … who routinely gives quality starts.” That sounds the same to me – and then you define #2 by guys who would be clear #1s except for the fact that they happen to pitch on a staff that has somebody who’s even better. Cain is viewed as a “#2″ because he pitches behind Lincecum. Put him on a team with a weaker rotation, and he’s the clear #1 – and he’s also a top-20 guy. Same with Hamels and Bucholz – if they pitch for Pittsburgh or the White Sox, they are the clear #1, because nobody’s talking about Halladay, Lee, Lester or Beckett. So I think that’s a weakness in the definition – by defining guys who should be #1s as #2s, you push the rest of the lot lower and force your assessment of our guys lower, too. For me, a #2 guy is a squishy definition – I know a #1 when I see one, and #2s are really guys who I think are better than 3s, but it’s harder to define. This year, I’d go with a grouping of Anibal Sanchez, Mat Latos, James Shields, that sort. I think that over-reach for #2s impacts your assessment of Zimmermann.

    On ZNN, I think we need to stop talking and judging ZNN only in comparison to Stras. If Riggleman/McLaren had lead the Mariners to lose a couple more games that year such that Stras was a Mariner, we’d be talking about whether or not ZNN could be a legit ace. I still think he can be, and I think it’s possible we could in 2013 have two of the top 20 pitchers in teh league. Stras clearly has a “best in the game” kind of ceiling, and I think ZNN has potential to be top 20. In fact, he was already top 10 in the NL in ERA, FIP and WAR among starters this year. He’s clearly got a “#1″ ceiling. Maybe not a “top 5 in the league” ceiling, but clearly a “poor man’s ace” kind of ceiling – the kind of guy you’d be happy to run out as your opening day starter for the next 10 years. Get three guys like ZNN in your rotation and you’ve got a real playoff shot.

    I think that actually impats your thinking on others too. If you think ZNN has the ceiling of a #2, then it’s easy to call Lannan a #4. Except I think Lannan is pretty much the dictionary definition of a #3. He goes out, every game, puts up 6-ish innings, gives you league-average or better ERA, and puts you in a position to win most of the games he pitches. It’s not sexy, it’s not flashy, but it’s getting the job done. Lannan’s already a 3 by ERA and FIP and WAR and he’s pretty much at his apex. The question for him is can he maintain it, or will he slip into being more of a #4 guy.

    For me, a #4 guy is a guy who looks like he should be a #3, but he just doesn’t get the results. Guys who you’ve listed as #5s to me are #4s – good enough to make the rotation, good enough to make their regular turn, but either just at or just below league average. Livo, Gorzo, Marquis, etc. these guys are #4. Lannan’s been a bit better than them, which makes him a fringy 3.

    So sorry for the long-winded setup, but with that reframed context, I think our pitching prospects look considerably better. Detwiler was basically a 4 this year, and his career numbers to this point say “#4,” but he’s 25 – he has #3 potential for sure, and maybe even a tick higher than that. Too soon to tell on Peacock, but if he can develop a useful third pitch to go along with the two he’s got, I’d say he’s got #3 potential. Milone’s going to have to prove it start-in and start-out like Lannan does, but he could be a #3 guy too, if he can maintain control like Lannan.

    The most recent draftees all have pretty high ceilings in my views – there’s the “could be #1′s or 2′s” group of Purke, Cole, Ray and Solis. Too soon to tell on Meyer, but if we’re talking ceiling, then he may fit in that group too. Obviously, not all five will become top-20 in the league, nor even top-50, but if we’re talking ceiling, there’s some room to hope. I think the other key thing is that a lot of the younger guys, the Rizzo draftees, have plus plus stuff and big frames, which always takes a while to get together – there’s a lot of 6-5″ 6-7″ and 6-9″ in the system now. Not all of them will become front-end, but some will. And hopefully there will be other Milones and Peacocks and Meyerses who come from off the pace draft-wise to become actual prospects.

    Anyway, sorry for the long-winded post. Yours is a really interesting take. It’s an interesting question, too, and I think it’s critical for the Nats to assess clearly what they might have going forward, because it defines priorities for now – like, how badly do they really need to pursue a CJ Wilson this year as opposed to purusing a bat?

    Marc

    19 Oct 11 at 12:26 pm

  9. Wow. That’s the longest comment I’ve ever seen here :-)

    Its pretty standard terminology in the scouting world to rate prospects by their starter number potential. Perhaps I should just have said that a #1 starter was one of the top 20% starters in the league, #2 starter 20-40%, etc. Except that to me a #1/Ace starter is much more rare than that and the 1-5 rankings are more like a pyramid (wide at the base … lots of #5 starters out there and narrow at the top). If you look around scouting reports you see lots of phrases like “back-of-the-rotation guy” (aka #5 starter) or “mid-rotation guy” (aka #3 starter).

    The team a pitcher pitches on doesn’t matter to his “number:” clearly the Phillies had three aces this year and a former ace in Oswalt. I probably sold Hamels a bit short by calling him a #2. By this definition I stand by calling someone like Matt Cain a step down from Lincecum, therefore a #2. Zimmermann, to me, is not (yet) an elite, in the discussion for Cy Young type pitcher. But he’s really good, and he’s clearly better than just another mid-rotation guy. Sounds like #2 to me. I stand by my discussion.

    There’s no way that someone who loses his rotational job because of lack of production can be anything more than a #5 guy. Gorzelanny? #5. Livan? #5. What job is Livan going to get next year? He’s not in the discussion to resign here because the team knows that guys like Milone and Detwiler are better than Livan. He’ll be lucky to get a minor league FA/invite to spring training contract.

    The CJ Wilson point is a valid one; i’m deathly afraid of this team going after him and giving him a 5yr $80M contract. He’s fallen apart in the post season and I don’t think he’s as good as he’s being made out to be. He’s the ugly girl at an all boys dance; there’s so little FA pitching out there this year that guys like Wilson and Jackson are going to get a ton more money than they’re worth.

    Todd Boss

    20 Oct 11 at 2:05 am

  10. [...] have no issues turning him into another player.  Its the pitchers we have to worry about.  In my Prospect Ceiling post I thought that Cole was a future #2, Peacock a future reliever and Milone a 4-A guy, somewhat [...]

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