Ah, minor league baseball. Another season began last week and thousands continued their journeys towards a potential major league career. Today, we discuss the debuts of several high profile National League pitching prospects and then unlikely story of Tommy John survivor attempting to overcome a three year layoff. Of course, .gifs are included for you viewing pleasure.
Robert Stephenson - Cincinnati Reds Right-Handed Starter
Apparently high upside pitchers grow on trees in California. Stephenson, a native of Martinez, California located outside of San Francisco, is drop and drive power pitcher who flashes a filthy overhand curve. His debut culminated with a 5.40 ERA, but he pitched far better than the box score indicated. To get ahead of a weak White Caps lineup, Stephenson featured a heavy 96-99 mph fastball (velocity reported by RedsMinorLeagues.com owner Doug Gray). Currently, his curveball is an inconsistent offering in need of seasoning. At times, he fails to finish the pitch and it lacks enough rotation to bring it into the strike zone. But, when Stephenson snaps off a good one, it’s nasty. While his ability to generate enough rotation wanes, he demonstrates his dedication to improving his consistency by throwing the pitch frequently.
Stephenson’s changeup isn’t a mere third offering. He maintains his arm speed and the pitch features downward action and arm-side fade. Its consistency may allow it surpass his curveball as his featured secondary pitch. This winter I argued Stephenson should be included among a highly touted trio of right-handed starters; Archie Bradley, Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard and that he was a better prospect than Billy Hamilton, but I may have undersold him. He could surpasses them all and end up on many mid season Top 10 lists.
Joe Ross – San Diego Padres Right-Handed Starter
Ross got the Opening Day nod for the Fort Wayne Tincaps, the Padres’ Single-A affiliate in the Midwest League. Like his brother Tyson Ross, he’s an athletic right-handed starter with a lean frame. His arm action is deceptive, he brings the ball from well behind his back before delivering it from a high three quarter arm slot. Ross dominated the punchless Great Lakes Loons by getting ahead of hitters with a fastball that touched 94 mph. Once ahead, he mixed in his developing changeup and slider. He threw the changeup with similar arm speed to his fastball but its movement varied.
At times, the change fluttered with nominal fade, at others it displayed an impressive straight drop. His slider showed flashes of becoming an above average offering, but it was sparingly used and erratic when deployed. His best sliders, demonstrated below, featured two plane break. On this day, his success was due to strong command of an above average fastball. Once he was ahead, the Dodgers’ farmhands were helpless against his arsenal. He doesn’t need his slider against poor competition, but it will need to become more consistent if he is to have success at higher levels. Ross has the potential to be electric arm but the length road to San Diego will depend on the consistency of his secondary offerings and the command of his fastball.
Max Fried – San Diego Padres Left-Handed Starter
Fried is rated higher than Ross, but was handed the ball for the Tincap’s second game. His debut got off to a rocky start when he, who is known for his polish and projection, walked the opening batter on four pitches. The next few Loons weren’t easily dispatched either: single off an 0-2 fastball, walk, fielder’s choice, four pitch walk, full count strikeout, full count strikeout. Amidst his struggle, there were positives. With two runners on, Fried threw a 3-1 curveball to Dodgers’ prospect Corey Seager and then doubled up on the pitch. The decision demonstrated both Fried’s confidence in his plus-plus curveball and his realization he had no control of his fastball. His inability to find his release point was surprising.
Fried is a good athlete with excellent body control despite his long levers. After the first inning, Fried settled in and did not allow another hit over the next three frames. Fried also mixed two underdeveloped pitches, a changeup and either a cutter or slider. On this day, his arm speed was noticeably slower for his changeup and its movement was unexceptional. Adding a quality third offering would bolster Fried’s arsenal, but due to his impressive command of his curveball and his above average fastball make neither pitch a requirement.
Steven Matz – New York Mets Left-Handed Starter
Thousands of prospects have flamed out without reaching the Major Leagues and Steven Matz was almost just another name who never had a chance to throw a professional pitch. Injuries prevented Matz, a second round selection of the New York Mets in 2009, from pitching until he debuted last season. Prior to his debut in Kingsport, Matz lost two seasons rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and was seemingly destined for failure. However, his debut was accompanied by loads of strikeouts and optimism. My Bullpen Banter colleague Chris Blessing was at the lefty’s full-season debut and found the 22-year-old impressive. Matz featured a tailing fastball which Blessing reported sat at 91-93 mph.
Throughout his tour with Kingsport Matz was wild. Very wild. His control did not disappoint in Savannah as he airmailed a fastball to the backstop against the first batter and it was erratic throughout the start. It’s impossible to say whether the absence of his control was due to his surgery or general lack of ability, but its development will be worth watching as he logs innings. According to a source Blessing spoke with Matz threw a very good curveball last season, but it wasn’t on display on Saturday. It’s hard to say when or if it will return but it’s likely he was asked by the Mets to shelve it while he develops his other offerings and works on his fastball command.
If the quality of Matz’s curve was accurately depicted by Chris’ source, Matz will complement two good offerings with an intriguing changeup. The fade on this pitch mimics the tail on his fastball and they could make a deceptive pairing. Matz has lost a lot of time due to injury, but it’ll be intriguing to watch his development.