We are now through the quarter pole of the 2017 season and many of the hot starts that have been sustained could now be considered legit. This week we move up to the Triple A ranks and take a look at a few guys that have a very good chance to make an impact at the Major League level this season.
Before we jump into the International League, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on an interesting development in the Nationals organization this week. The team has announced top pitching prospect, Erick Fedde, has
been moved to the bullpen for the remainder of the season. I wrote on him three weeks ago as a pitcher that looks to have made huge strides in his development as a starter. Now comes the news that he will be moved to the ‘pen. So why do the Nats make this move with their top pitching prospect? Are they worried about his injury history and looking to limit his innings after 121 in 2016? Have they seen something that have made them lose confidence in his development into a top tier starting pitching? Could it be they are looking for a savior for their bullpen issues at the MLB level?
First let us tackle the injury theory. It is true that he had Tommy John surgery in 2014 and as a result is only starting his 3rd season of pro ball. At the time of this decision, he had only pitched 42.2 innings this season so it is a little early to move him to the ‘pen for an innings count. By remaining a reliever for the rest of of the season, he likely won’t break 100 innings for the season and lowering his innings by 20% doesn’t make much sense for a projected future starter.
So are the Nationals concerned he won’t develop into the starter they expected when they drafted him #14 overall in 2014? Looking at his season so far he has had two rough starts on April 26th and May 1st where he gave up 10 earned runs in 10.2 innings over those two starts. However, in the three starts prior he gave up only one earned run in 18 innings with only 12 hits, 6 walks, no home runs allowed and 17 strikeouts over that span. Since the two hiccups, he threw two quality starts of 7 innings and 2 earned runs on May 6th and May 11th respectively. There hasn’t been any report of a decline in velocity and the two game rebound shows that he has made some adjustments to get back on track. I don’t believe this change is permanent and we will see Fedde as a starter again.
This brings us to the 3rd options, the team is desperate for help in their MLB bullpen to avoid another postseason collapse. The team would likely have to give up Fedde in any deadline deal for a quality reliever so perhaps they are being proactive and creating their own solution. Fedde has four pitches but his changeup and curve are at or below MLB average. His best pitches are his fastball and slider which seem to be the hallmark of successful high-leverage relievers. Add in the command he has already shown, he could be ready for the bullpen in Washington in a matter of months. Breaking the rotation would not likely come this year and perhaps not even next year depending on what they do with Gio. The team has already shown that top pitching prospects are expendable by trading them (Giolito and Lopez) for Adam Eaton. The only thing that makes sense is that they want to team him up with Koda Glover to make a young, nasty back end of the bullpen down the stretch this season as opposed to relying on guys in their mid-30s like Shawn Kelley and Matt Albers. This strategy has been used with increased frequency in recent years with top prospects eventually being stretched back out for the rotation after getting accustomed to pitching in the Majors. Sometimes they make such an impact that they become closers and never go back to starting. Either way it is just odd that they make the move in mid-May instead of July. This is certainly a development that needs to be monitored in all fantasy formats. The potential of being a dominant reliever this season should put redraft leagues on the waiver radar. Dynasty owners need to figure out what they think he will be and whether this is the time to sell or hold.
Now that we have gotten that out of the way, it’s time to head to the AAA – International League. This article was supposed to lead off with how Jose Berrios has been the most dominant pitcher in AAA and is ready any day for his next shot at the Majors with Minnesota somehow leading the AL Central. Well his International League leading 1.13 ERA, incredible 0.81 WHIP and 39:8 K/BB ratio in 39.2 innings has earned him that promotion prior to this article publishing so I had to make some tweaks. Of course, I couldn’t ignore his development and his debut in the Majors this season continued to show his growth with 7.2 innings of one run ball, 1 hit, 1 walk and 4 strikeouts. He may have just sewed up his rotation spot going forward in Minnesota and arguably slots in as the #2 starter behind Ervin Santana.
But alas, the top performing pitchers currently in the International League…
Jacob Faria RHP, Durham Bulls (TB)
Jacob is the 4th rated pitching prospect in the Tampa organization and was only projected as a #4 type starter in the Majors. All he has done this year is lead the league in strikeouts with 62 (10 better than #2) in 41.1
innings this year and has won 4 out of 5 decisions. His ERA and WHIP are respectable but not great. His BABIP of .340 indicates he has had some bad luck, but his HR/9 is at 1.12 and hasn’t been that high in five seasons. Although he does feature four pitches, his fastball down in the zone and his changeup are his best pitches and generally help him keep the ball in the park. I’m not sure his slider or curve ball ever reach MLB average and his suspect command limits his ceiling. That being said his 3.47 FIP and 2.51 xFIP suggests that he has pitched better than his overall statistics may indicate. Entering his 7th season of pro ball, Faria has a chance to get promoted to Tampa this season. However, it may only be in a spot start situation or even out of the bullpen if they have him focus on his two projected plus pitches. Durham’s rotation is pretty stacked which gives the Rays a ton of options. He is joined by Blake Snell, Brent Honeywell, Jose DeLeon and Chih-Wei Hu in that rotation. I expect to see Snell and DeLeon to finish the year in the rotation. Ryan Yarborough makes more sense to spot start before Faria as well, but as in the case of Fedde, the Rays bullpen has been pretty brutal after Colome and Faria could make an impact there later this season. Only way this changes is if the Rays unload their current starters in mid-season trades as any of them could be dealt. They have an entire rotation of prospects waiting in the wings for their chance.
Hector Velazquez RHP, Pawtucket Red Sox (BOS)
Now that Berrios is in the Majors, who leads the International League in ERA? That would be Red Sox farmhand, Hector Velazquez. Not only does he lead the league with his 1.55 ERA but he is #1 in WHIP with 0.79. The
28-year-old is not listed on any prospect lists (didn’t even crack the top 50 at prospects1500.com) this year and is relatively unknown after being purchased from the Mexican League where he competed for the last seven seasons. He was just an average pitcher during his career there until he turned the corner in 2016 with a 2.47 ERA, 1.00 WHIP. 2.76 FIP and 20.3% K-BB%. He has continued this excellence in 2017 for AAA Pawtucket including 6 perfect innings against Gwinnett on April 30th. He isn’t likely to strike out a ton but his Mexican League track record indicates that he is primarily a ground ball pitcher which bodes well for Fenway Park. He has a three pitch mix with an average fastball and changeup. His pitch to watch is his splitter which he can throw for strikes and forces hitters to top off the ball and drive it into the ground. As a result, he gives up a lot of singles but limits home runs and walks. With the Red Sox rotation in limbo, we could see him make an appearance in Boston sooner rather than later. I would imagine the Sox would give first crack to Henry Owens or Brian Johnson who are legit prospects, but it might be better to send out someone that no one has any real scouting on and perhaps catch lightning in a bottle for a few starts. Redraft leagues should keep an eye out for this guy as a spot starter/rotation depth in deep leagues. Dynasty leagues can probably pass.
*** Update – Rotowire reports that Velazquez is being called up TODAY to pitch against Oakland tonight, Thursday May 18th. ***
Lucas Sims RHP, Gwinnett Braves (ATL)
Our final stop in the International League is in Gwinnett with the Atlanta Braves AAA affiliate. With two 40-year-old pitchers in the Atlanta rotation and a likely below .500 season, it may be time to see what the future holds. The truth of the matter is most of the future rotation is sitting in Mississippi on their AA club with five of their Top 10 organizational prospects. They still have some talent in AAA lead by highly touted LHP prospect, Sean Newcomb who features a 70 grade fastball and a potential plus curveball. The best pitcher, however, at this level in 2017 has by far been Lucas Sims. Now his sixth season of pro ball, the former highly regarded prospect has not developed they way the team had hoped and barely makes the organization’s Top 20 prospect list. That being said, he is only 23-years-old and has shown a huge improvement in his command lowering his double digit walk rate over the last two season to 5.7% so far in 2017. If this command carries over to the next level, he will have two plus pitches at the Major League level. The Braves still see him as a starter, but if he doesn’t develop his changeup or his command reverts, he could be a nasty arm out of the bullpen. His outstanding 2.16 ERA and 0.82 WHIP will only continue as long as his command does. Sims has a bright future in the Majors and it could be as a back of the rotation or a high-level reliever. Either way, keep an eye out for him because there is a good chance he debuts this later this season. He’s no longer a hot dynasty target but has value in deeper leagues.