Diamondback Future Expectations: David Holmberg, LHP

As most of you recall LHP David Holmberg was the other player in the Daniel Hudson-Edwin Jackson trade. He was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2009 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, interestingly the same round and draft year as Patrick Corbin who shows up as one of Holmberg's comps later in this article. Holmberg has a good pitcher's body (6-4, 220) and an easy, repeatable delivery that scouts love for its endurance-projecting qualities. The knock on Holmberg early on was his "doughy" body and less-than-90 MPH fastball. He has added a a couple of ticks to his fastball and now regularly hits 88-93, which just makes his other pitches that much better.

He has a nice assortment of secondary pitches, especially a plus change-up and an effective cutter. He also has a developing 12-6 curveball and the workings of a slider. Some lefties get projected to be converted to relievers but that's not likely Holmberg's fate with such a nice array of pitches and anticipated durability. Scouting reports tend to vary quite a bit on Holmberg. Some love his solid command and project added velocity for his large frame, while others are leery of control lefties who dominate lower levels with a plus change-up. One scout worried if Holmberg was already as good as he's going to get. Another ranked him the #31 overall prospect in baseball. The truth is probably somewhere in between (isn't it always?) but the fact is Holmberg has size, control, a quality arsenal of pitches, left-handedness, solid mechanics and durability. That's an awful lot of pluses to build a pitching career around.

After the jump we'll investigate more of Holmberg's background, how he's progressing through the minors, and who he reminds us of going forward. There's a lot to like here and these next 12 months are going to be crucial in determining his future. If he keeps progressing he's a possible 2, 3, 4 starter, but if he regresses it's not impossible yet that he doesn't fully make it. There's more evidence to suggest the former, but we'll continue to worry about the latter.

Background
David Holmberg was one of the top-rated high school pitchers in Florida and had a scholarship waiting at the University of Florida heading into the draft (along with fellow Dback farmhand Patrick Schuster). Holmberg lasted until the 2nd round of the 2009 draft when the White Sox selected him 71st overall. Scouts attributed the lack of a first-round grade to a fastball that was still in the mid- to upper-80s. Similarly, he was thought to be a difficult sign as the White Sox might not be willing to pony up the bucks to buy him out of the Florida scholarship. But sign he eventually did and headed off to rookie ball.

He spent his first two seasons at the Rookie level, first with the White Sox organization and then with Missoula after being traded. None of those stints were anything special but he did post really solid K/BB ratios in the 3s and 4s portending of some possible good things to come. WHIP numbers in the 1.4 to 1.5 range did create enough concern and thus wasn't getting any real notice yet, and rightfully so. In 2011 he started the year in South Bend in the Midwest League and really broke onto the prospect scene in a big way, especially when he ran off a scoreless streak of 35 innings. In 14 starts in South Bend he posted a 2.39 ERA and a huge 6.23 K/BB ratio officially stamping Holmberg a legitimate prospect.

That promising half season earned him a promotion to Visalia at the ripe young age of 19. Not surprisingly he scuffled a little dealing with some of the advanced hitters and friendly ballparks of the California League. His walk numbers jumped alarmingly to 4.4 per nine innings, but his strikeout numbers also jumped from 8.8 per nine in South Bend to 9.6 per nine in Visalia. Overall, it was a very good Minor League season for the 19-year-old and he made his way onto many prospect lists.

In 2012 he started where he finished in 2011 at Visalia and he clearly figured it out. His half a season there was one of the better half seasons recorded in High A ball in recent years, especially in terms of walks and strikeouts. His BB rate was an astoundingly low 1.6 per nine innings and his K/BB ratio of 6.14 was off the charts. That earned him a promotion to AA a full month before his 21st birthday.

And again, not surprisingly and just as he did a year before, he has scuffled a little since landing in Mobile. Not disastrously so, but enough that he's not being tabbed an elite prospect yet. His hits per nine have jumped by half, his walks per nine have jumped by a third, and his K rate has dropped by half through seven starts. Granted it's a small sample size and he showed in the past that he can adapt in due course to a higher level. But it does give credence to those scouts who claim Holmberg's "stuff" isn't quite "plus enough" to succeed at higher levels and on into the majors. Whether he can overcome it again at yet a higher level is what remains to be seen.

The Arsenal
Holmberg definitely has a starter's arsenal of pitches. This is no "fastball-slider" kind of lefty who is destined for the bullpen. He's a command and control pitcher that is still in the process of developing five usable pitches. His fastball has never been rated a plus pitch, but he does have good control of it and it's said to have good sink. In the last couple of seasons he has added a tick or two to it so that it's now considered to be in the 88-93 MPH range. That's plenty good for a left-handed control pitcher who has other pitches to work with.

His change-up has always been considered his best pitch and he throws it to righties and lefties. It was the quality of his change-up that always made some scouts love him and some scouts not. There are those scouts who love the advanced change-up at an early age because they know he'll need it to stick as a starter, so having it now keeps him in the conversation from the get-go. Then there are those who aren't fond of it early because they want to see pitchers who can get hitters out with their fastball first. They suggest lower-level hitters can be dominated by a plus change-up and it doesn't show what that pitcher's natural stuff is capable of. However you feel about it, it is a plus pitch and one that will serve him well as he heads into the upper levels.

There have been varying opinions about Holmberg's breaking pitch. One scout I read raved about his 12-6 curve with great downward bite that he suggested could continue to develop into a plus pitch. Another scout thinks his slider actually has more promise and suggests Holmberg should work to develop it further. In any case, he has the makings of some quality breaking pitches to work with and they are still getting better.

Last but not least is a cutter that he has developed in the last year-and-a-half that bores in on right handers. One scout was particularly enamored with the potential for this pitch and called it a real "bat-breaker" that could be another plus pitch he'll really need at the big league level.

So that's five pitches he has to work with and he's still developing all of them. What we know if that he can throw them all for strikes because he's always managed really low walk totals throughout his Minor League career, except for that partial season in Visalia.

Comps
Nailing down comps for Holmberg is not the easiest for a number of reasons. One, he's a big-bodied left hander and there's just not that many of them to compare him to. The other challenge is that he keeps getting promoted halfway through his good seasons. So we have to build comps off a couple of half seasons rather than full seasons, which is never quite as reliable in my opinion. And to top that off, he always struggles after his promotions. That's a lot of variables to work around.

To build a list of comps I worked primarily off of Holmberg's 2012 first half with Visalia at the age of 20. I pulled all those starters who pitched at least 50 innings at High A at the age of 20 with an ERA below 4.00, a WHIP below 1.2, and a K-rate of 8.8 per 9 or better. This is for all seasons since 2006 and here's the list that comes out.

Robbie Erlin, Texas
Drew Hutchinson, Toronto
Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee
Will Inman, Milwaukee
Shelby Miller, St. Louis
Randall Delgado, Atlanta
Jake McGee, Tampa
Homer Bailey, Cincinnati
Patrick Corbin, Arizona
Juan Oramas, San Diego
Hector Rondon, Cleveland
Trevor Cahill, Arizona
Julio Rodriguez, Philadelphia
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati

That's a pretty good list of comps if you ask me. The trick now is matching up some of those guys to Holmberg. It's a better comp obviously if they are left handed. It would also be nice if we could find someone that struggled a little following promotions, followed by the ability to adapt and succeed at that level. Let's look at each of these guys individually and see if any of them remind us of Holmberg.

Robbie Erlin, Texas
Now in San Diego as part of the Mike Adams trade. Lefty control pitcher, but with great control, even better than Holmberg. Led all the minors in K/BB in 2010 at an astounding 9.6. Ridiculous K/BB ratios throughout minors. Drafted in 3rd round of 2009 20 picks after Holmberg. Lefty, but much smaller than Holmberg. Same repertoire as Holmberg but throws absolutely everything for strikes. Should be arriving in San Diego soon. Great at the lower levels. He is struggling a little at the higher levels. Hasn't arrived yet so hard to project him at the next level. A lot of similarities to Holmberg but he's at the same age so it's not a very usable comp yet.

Drew Hutchinson, Toronto
6-2 right hander that flew through the minors straight from high school. Now pitching for Toronto but currently sidelined with an elbow issue, though is scheduled to begin throwing again next week. This kid never experienced any of the struggles Holmberg did but has a very similar repertoire and Holmberg's best spurts in the minors are similar to if not better than Hutchinson's. Not overpowering stuff (like Holmberg), 88-93 FB (like Holmberg), good feel for pitching and good control (like Holmberg), good change-up (like Holmberg). 15th rounder in 2009, projects as a middle of the rotation guy. Not a bad comp at all. Just not left-handed.

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee
2nd round pick in 2004 now Milwaukee front liner. Very good Low A season like Holmberg only a year younger. Then went to High A, dominated, AA, dominated. He's a notch above Holmberg.

Will Inman, Milwaukee
3rd round pick in 2005. Dominated at Low A and High A. Promoted to AA and scuffled like Holmberg is now. Traded to San Diego and hasn't been able to get above AAA. Now with the Red Sox organization. Right hander. This is what could happen to Holmberg if he can't adapt to the higher levels.

Shelby Miller, St. Louis
1st round pick. Dominated at every level except now at AAA. Big K totals along the way. AAA hitters giving him trouble and a little of the shine is coming off him. Big fastball and strikeout pitcher trying to develop secondaries. Right hander. Not Holmberg.

Randall Delgado, Atlanta
Latino free agent from Panama in 2006. Now in back end of Braves rotation. Similar progression to Holmberg. His 20-year-old season at High A and AA a lot like Holmberg's and made it into end-of-season Atlanta rotation last year out of necessity. Not a lefty but not unlike Holmberg with an average fastball and some good secondary pitches. Pretty good compand looks to be a decent back of the rotation guy.

Jake McGee, Tampa
Built a lot like Holmberg at 6-3, 230. Had TJ surgery in 2008. More of a power pitcher than a control guy though and has made it to Tampa as a back end reliever. Potential future closer. Not Holmberg even though he's built like him. he's one of those big hard-throwing lefties lacking an array of secondary pitches.

Homer Bailey, Cincinnati
High pick in 2004. Scuffled in early minors. Put it together at age 20 in High A and AA. Similar season at age 20 but Holmberg was even better. Made it to majors in 2007 and has barely been hanging onto back-of-rotation job but not excelling at big league level. Minor League K rates similar to Holmberg's but walk rates vastly inferior. Holmberg's best minor league work has been better than Bailey's, but not ridiculously so. A reasonable comp but not perfect.

Patrick Corbin, Arizona
Drafted by Angels 11 picks after Holmberg in 2009. A little more advanced coming out as he went to Community College. Age 20 work for Corbin was very good but all at one level below Holmberg. Corbin's AA year an awful lot like how Holmberg has started at the level. Corbin has taken a major step forward this year at all levels. This is what we're wondering if Holmberg can do. Similar size but not as bulky a frame as Holmberg but very similar repertoire, though Holmberg's command/control looks a notch above when he's at his best. A very good comp for Holmberg and there are signs that Holmberg could exceed him.

Juan Oramas, San Diego
Short left-hander out of Mexico. 20-year-old season at High A a lot like Holmberg's, minus the great control. Advanced to AA the following season and held up better than Holmberg has so far at AA. Now struggling somewhat at AAA and it's questionable whether he can get to the next level. This is a downside comp for Holmberg but Oramas is not at the end of the road yet. he still has a chance.

Hector Rondon, Cleveland
2006 free agent right-hander from Venezuela. First two years at lower levels very similar to Holmberg. Took a big step forward as 20-year-old at High A, a year later than Holmberg did, and not quite the same quality. Was a Top 10 Indian prospect following 2009 season where he took another step forward at AA. Got to AAA that year and next year he was holding his own at AAA then blew out his elbow. Might have turned out to be a good comp for Holmberg but injury derailed him.

Trevor Cahill, Arizona
Drafted in the 2nd round in 2006, signed late so didn't pitch much as an 18 year old. Holmberg pitched most of the summer as both a 17- and 18-year-old. Cahill went to Low A for his first professional season and excelled immediately. That season as a 19-year-old was an awful lot like Holmberg's at South Bend, but again without the same level of control. As a 20-year-old Cahill went to High A where he continued to excel and then to AA where he just kept it going. As a 21-year-old he was making 32 starts for Oakland with fair success. Holmberg is just about to turn 21 and he's not headed to the majors yet. Very similar build as Holmberg, the biggest difference is he's a right hander. Cahill didn't hit any bump in the road at AA and that separates him from Holmberg. Not the best comp but not the worst.

Julio Rodriguez, Philadelphia
Good sized right hander out of Puerto Rico. Simply doesn't have the kind of control Holmberg does. Pitched at High A as a 20-year-old and had a season not unlike Holmberg's, but a lot more walks. He's at AA now and pitching a hair better than Holmberg with more walks but fewer hits. He's a year or two away. Not a usable comp as he's the same age.

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati
Rocketed through the minors arriving in Cincinnati as a 22-year-old and has gotten progressively better. Posted some really good K/BB ratios in the minors a lot like Holmberg. Just never hit any bumps in the road and that is what separates a name like his from Holmberg's. If you take Holmberg at his best in the minors he stacks up really well with Cueto. When you toss in his bumps, Cueto looks superior.But has shown he has Cueto's ability so not the worst comp.

Comp Conclusion
As you can see, there isn't any one guy on the list that matches up perfectly with Holmberg. The best comp is probably Patrick Corbin, which isn't so bad. As I mentioned in the comp intro, it's tough to gauge Holmberg's bumps after his promotions to High A and AA because they both happened mid-season. Now, that didn't bother some of the other names on this list, but most got to advance with an off-season of preparation, which probably makes a difference. How big? Your guess is good as mine.

There's plenty of nice names on this list that we'd like to see Holmberg become. One of the other big differences is that other than the stretch at High A after he was first promoted to Visalia, Holmberg's low walk totals (translation, good command) is/was better than almost everyone on the list. Also, most of these guys are right handers. Holmberg is a big, beefy left hander. And those guys don't grow on trees. It's just hard to compare him to any of these guys.

The comp analysis really didn't get me any closer to predicting what Holmberg will become. Holmberg at his best was as good as almost anyone on this list. Now that he's at AA, the huge question is if/when he'll take another step forward as he has at each level so far. The bit of struggling at AA doesn't bother me that much if it's just a growing phase. But one has to respect those scouts who don't think he can go a lot farther, because if you stop the analysis at this point in time, one would have to say they are more right than wrong.

The conclusion is that Holmberg's story isn't finished being written. He's shown enough at Low A and High A at such a young age that you have to give him the benefit of the doubt and allow him the time to work through things at AA. He has an awful lot of positives to think he's at the end of the line. He's big, he's left-handed, he has great command/control for his age, he's still young, his fastball is getting better, he has an assortment of quality secondary pitches, he has a plus change-up, he is built for stamina and durability.

I don't think he's done by a long shot. Guys with good control tend to give up more hits as they run into more advanced hitters and it shouldn't be unusual for them to take time to figure out how to pitch to them. He's never going to blow hitters away with the killer fastball. But what he is is a pitcher that knows how to pitch. I fully expect him to finish the year at AA and then start next year there as well. If he figures it out then he'll get bumped up to AAA where he'll probably have another adjustment period before he learns to use his assorted arsenal to get professional hitters out.

I honestly don't see how he won't work his way to the major leagues in either 2014 or 2015. Who will he be when he gets there? At worst he should a number 4 or 5 innings eater with a chance to improve year to year if he can pitch well enough to stay there. There's an outside chance he could flame out at AAA if his secondary offerings don't continue to improve and remain at average or worst.

But I just don't think that's his fate. With all that's going for him, he has a reasonable chance to develop into a pretty good 2 or 3 starter who becomes one those staff anchors that can be counted on to go out and get you 7-8 innings every night and keep his team in the game. There's a lot to be said for pitchers with good command and they generally succeed more than they fail.

If I look back a little ways, he kind of reminds me of David Wells. David Wells was one of those big left handers who didn't blow you away with fastballs, but he had a good assortment of pitches and had really good control. He was rarely a staff ace throughout his career but he was always a solid 2, 3, 4 innings eater that every staff needs. Now, I'm not saying he's the next David Wells, I'm just saying he reminds me of him.

But if I have to make a prediction right now based on what I've seen, I predict Holmberg will in the 2014 rotation where he might struggle a little at first, but eventually develop into a solid middle of the rotation guy. Whether he develops enough to end up as a 2 or a 4 is anybody's guess.

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