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Of Prospects and Rosters, Part IV: Pitching (lower minors)

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This is why Arizona’s farm system is rated as highly as it is.

We begin this segment with a cautionary tale. Over the course of the first three segments I have continually made note about how the jump from A (or A+) to AA is often the most difficult jump to make. It is the jump that can deflate batting averages and also inflate earned run averages at the same time. For those watching the Arizona farm system with interest, this can be readily be seen in one of the more heralded pitching prospects from the system, Levi Kelly.

Now, let me be perfectly clear. This is not me claiming that Kelly is a bust, or even bordering on it. For one thing, in a normal season, not one coming off of a pandemic delay, Kelly would not only be young for his level, but young by over a full year compared to other “important prospects”. This year, despite losing an entire season to the pandemic, Kelly is pitching in AA in his age 22 season. This is after he was slated to debut there in his age 21 season. In other words, there is plenty of time for him to get back to right and to still make an impact down the road. However, getting back to right is what will have to happen.

Since making the transition from A ball to AA, Kelly has moved from starter to the bullpen. In 2019, Kelly mastered A ball. He sported a 2.15 ERA against a 3.01 xFIP. He struck out 126 batters in 100.1 IP across 22 starts. He only walked 39. The future looked bright for Kelly. This season, Kelly has made eight appearances out of the bullpen accounting for 14 IP. In those 14 IP, he has walked 21 batters while striking out only 18. That’s right, he has posted a negative BB-K%. He’s also allowed eight hits, for one per appearance, which is hardly ideal for a short reliever. The ugly result has been a gaudy 7.09 xFIP. Other indicators point to the notion that he has actually been lucky to not have the resulting numbers be even worse. All of this comes with no decrease in velocity or some sort of nagging injury. It is simply a matter of Levi Kelly learning the hard way how difficult the talent jump can be.

Still, this is one of the benefits to being young for his level of competition. It provides him with more time to get his mojo back to to make his way to the majors. He has his work cut out for him, but he also most certainly has the raw tools to make a go of this pitching thing.

*** This is an update to the article entry based on new information***

Levi Kelly has been pitching through injury during his time in AA. This is the reason for limiting him to one inning outings. The team and Kelly have determined that he is able to pitch through the injury in order to continue building up to the stresses of full-season ball and the number of innings that entails. This certainly helps explain the gaudy numbers from a prospect who so dominated his previous level.

This will continue to be monitored and I will provide updates if/when they become available for release.

10 May 2021:
Kelly’s season has been delayed by a shoulder injury sustained during the late stages of minor-league training camp, Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reports.

Kelly underwent an MRI that came back clean and will be held back for a couple of weeks. The eighth-round draft in 2018 pitched at the Diamondbacks’ alternate summer camp last year but hasn’t thrown in a competitive game since 2019.

25 May 2021:
Kelly (shoulder) is healthy following his shoulder injury and has been assigned to Double-A Amarillo, Zach Buchanan of The Athletic reports.

Kelly figures to make his Double-A debut in the coming days after pitching in the lower levels of minors during the 2018 and 2019 campaigns. The right-hander, who was a member of the Diamondbacks’ 60-man summer camp in 2020, will look to continue his ascent through the organization.

***End of update***

Clearly, the following is by no means an exhaustive list of Arizona’s up-and-coming pitching talent. It is merely a snapshot of those in the best position right now to be impact pitchers at the top level. Some of these names will make it and make a difference for some lucky team (hopefully the Diamondbacks). Others will eventually hit a wall and fizzle out as prospects, maybe eventually making it all the way, maybe eventually just washing out entirely. That’s the nature of any baseball prospect. These listed here though, show great promise moving forward, the sort of promise worth getting a t least a little bit excited for if you are an Arizona Diamondbacks fan.

Brandon Pfaadt (A+)
Brandon Pfaadt (pronounced Faught) is the newest addition to the Diamondbacks’ farm. He was taken with Arizona’s final selection in the abbreviated 2020 draft. Such a short time span would generally seem to indicate a problem of small sample size. This is less so the case for Pfaadt. He started the season in A ball and took it by storm during his seven starts, earning him a quick promotion to A+ ball. His time there has been brief, only two starts so far, but he is still performing well. So far, he has 53.1 IP across the two levels. A+ ball has been a bit of a struggle, but nothing concerning. Given where Pfaadt was selected in the draft, he does not yet appear on Arizona’s top-30 prospects list. Expect that to change when updated lists come out in about a month. While there is still some question about whether or not the big-bodied hurler will stick in the rotation, he is so far showing every indication that the workload will not be an issue. He has the upside of a #3 starter with a 95 mph fastball and a plus curve. He also has the bonus of having a high floor, with few expecting anything less than a quality bullpen arm that could be pitching in the majors by late 2022 or mid-2023.

Blake Walston (A+)
Blake Walston is a borderline top-100 prospect in all of baseball. The biggest thing holding him back from firmly vaulting into that class of player is that he has not yet shown the sort of endurance one wants out of starters on that class of player. When he was drafted in 2019, Walston threw 89-92. The athletic left-hander has started to put on muscle weight and still has room to add more. The result has been that he now comes out throwing as high as 96 mph. He starts to show a slight decline in velocity as he gets stretched out though. Adding a bit more muscle should help with that. This is the sort of thing that is usually addressed simply by putting in the work. He has never before had the sort of workload he has now, so it will take a bit of conditioning. Walston is a four-pitch pitcher with an average but improving fastball, an average slider, a plus present-grade change-up, and a plus-plus curveball, likely the best curve in the entire Arizona system. Walston also has great command of his pitches, especially for a hurler his age. Walston has the ceiling of a left-handed #1/2 starter. Assuming he is able to continue putting on muscle (which his frame has room to support), his floor is very high as a back-of-the-rotation starter at the MLB level. Walston was only just promoted to A+ ball. His first outing was absolutely ugly, but it was, as stated, his first outing. He will be one to watch closely for the rest of the season. He likely makes the jump to AA between seasons, putting him on pace to hit the Majors as soon as 2023. He is quite young for his level. If not for the pandemic, he would be nearly 4.5 years below the average age for his level. As it is, he is still 3.5 years ahead. He has time to develop if the team needs him to fill out a bit more. With his upside, there is every reason to give him everything he needs, even if he needs a bit more time down the road to get his stamina up.

Blake Workman (A+/AA)
Workman actually qualifies for the upper minors list now. That was not the case when this series began. Workman is one of Arizona’s lesser heralded pitching prospects. You certainly won’t find him on any lists of top Arizona prospects, even when going 40 deep. Some of that has to do with draft pedigree. After all, Workman was selected in the 22nd round of the 2018 draft. That is unbelievably low in the draft to be finding any sort of talent with the stuff to eventually make the Majors. Yet Workman is showing every indication that the Majors are not far off for him, where he should be a crafty high leverage reliever with a strong track record of avoiding wildness. Unlike many short relievers, Workman keeps the free passes down to a mark well below league average. Over 21.2 IP in A+ ball this season, he is posting a sparkling 2.08 BB/9. This is coming off posting a sub-2.00 mark in A ball. None of his pitches rate as anything special by themselves, with his fastball clocking in at only 93 mph. He has a slurvey curveball that he is actually able to throw for strikes to either side of the plate and a great feel for his change, which has significant separation from his fastball and tunnels well off the harder offering. The result of all this is that, Workman piles up strikeouts in bunches. When opponents do make contact, Workman benefits from being a groundball pitcher. Workman’s ability to avoid free passes and to avoid dangerous contact makes him a great candidate to be a stopper at the highest level, in vein of Brad Ziegler. Though Workman’s groundball tendencies are not extreme as Ziggy’s were, his ability to get the swing and miss when he needs it is much better than Zielger’s was.

It isn’t sexy to hype up a bullpen arm, especially one that is not the next Brad Hand in waiting. If 2021 teaches Arizona fans anything, it is that strong bullpen options are not to be sneezed at. At his current pace, Workman could make a second jump all the way to AAA-Reno before this minor league season comes to a close. If not, expect him to begin the year in Nevada to open next season. Workman, along with Bukauskas, are in a position to usher in a new era for Arizona bullpens, one similar to the 2011 bullpen of Ziegler, Hernandez, and Putz.

Ryne Nelson (A+/AA)
Nelson has been a project pitcher since the day he was drafted out of Oregon. He has not disappointed. Nelson has arguably the best fastball in the Arizona system, a 70-grade offering that lives 95-97 mph and has ridiculous movement. That movement makes Nelson’s fastball unusually difficult to make solid contact with. Of course, that extreme movement is also the root of Nelson’s biggest issue, which is his command. Nelson’s achilles heel is that when he loses the slot, he can rack up walks as quickly as he racks up strikeouts. This is an issue he has started to make adjustments for. His slider is a plus pitch with great late action. His curveball is borderline plus-plus, with deep, downward action. He has also mixed in a splitter and a change-up. This mix of pitches has helped him to start pitching deeper into game while starting to limit the free passes. He managed to adjust those all the way down to 3.20 BB/9 through eight starts and 39.1 IP in A+ ball. Now, he is having to learn to make the adjustments yet again.

When Nelson first arrived, there was a great deal of speculation that he would eventually need to slide into the bullpen. Nelson has worked hard to dispel that notion, developing into a pitcher with #2/3 upside, depending on his continued ability to find fastball control. Nelson has also established that his floor is much higher than previously thought, with Nelson now playing as though being a #4/5 starter or long reliever are his baseline for expectations. An elite strikeout pitcher, Nelson’s future will be entirely defined by his ability to consistently find the functional slot for throwing his high movement fastball. When he does that, his splitter is an almost unfair pitch to throw.

Bryce Jarvis (A+/AA)
Gifted with three plus pitches and an above average fourth pitch, the curve, Jarvis uses all four of his pitches liberally, unafraid to throw each of them in just about any count. He is able to do this because of his solid command to both sides of the plate. Jarvis is another one with a recent promotion to AA. He has already had a pair of truly impressive starts there. Overall, things have been a mixed bag, but the pluses are outweighing the minuses by a great deal. The big development issue for Jarvis is going to be building up his stamina. Jarvis has recently added two ticks to his fastball, bringin it up to the mid 90s with reach-back of 97. The recent promotion to AA ball should do the trick there, though he may find himself still in AA ball to open 2022 in order to really help him work on that strength and stamina.

Jarvis is another high floor pitcher with an upper-rotation ceiling. The more he pitches, the more he convinces onlookers that he is a future starter in the making.

Luis Frias (A+/AA)
Luis Frias worked his way off this list and into position to be on the upper minors list since this article was started. Frias, after his promotion, has learned about the difficulties of AA ball. Frias is a fireballer, throwing 94-97 with 98 on his reach-back. Frias has put to rest most critics claiming he should be converted to a reliever. As it is, being a reliever is now his expected floor. Currently, there is simply no reason to put the stop on his rise as a hard-throwing starter. Frias will likely be another pitcher to debut in 2023. His dominance of A+ ball has started to whet plenty of appetites to see him establish himself as one of Arizona’s future rotation stalwarts, representing a look long missing from the Arizona rotation, that of a hard-thrower that is able to bully opposing hitters with heat whenever he chooses.

Matt Tabor (A+/AA)
Sadly, Tabor has not trended in the right direction. At the same time, he continues to have enough success in his outings to earn himself a promotion to AA ball. The good new is, despite this lack of dominance, Tabor has slid down to still being an expected #4/5 starter with an expected ETA of early 2023. If the team decides to try and cash in on his upside abit more, they might pivot to settling in with Tabor as a reliever, a role in which his tools all play up. If Tabor is going to remain a starter, he is going to have to learn to control the long ball better than he currently does. He tends to give them up more than he should because his fastball does not move as much as it likely should.

Drey Jameson (A+)
The Diamondbacks continue to develop Jameson as a starter, despite his unorthodox delivery. So far, he has not failed to impress. Throwing as hard as 98 mph, Jameson is able to maintain his velocity deep into contests. While his delivery is the cause of some of his control issues, it is also the secret to some of his success, as hitters have a hard time tracking the ball through his atypical delivery. With two above average breaking balls and a high velocity fastball, Lameson projects as a #3/4 starter already. If he can refine his command over time, that ceiling could actually elevate.

Slade Cecconi (A+)
Slade Cecconi is looking like one of the steals of the 2020 draft as the #34 pick. During his time at Miami, Cecconi flirted with dominance, but never showed enough control or stamina to wow scouts. Since being drafted, Cecconi has added velocity and stamina both. He has also refined both of his breaking pitches so that they now both possess unique shapes that work in different ways for him. What’s more important is, he has started to consistently throw these pitches for strikes. With a fastball that now lives in the mid-to-upper 90s with late life, Cecconi profiles as a dangerous starter at the top level. His slider has wicked break in two planes, allowing him to throw it for back foot strikes when he needs to. Even his developing change-up is already an average offering. Obviously, he needs to find the next level and see how he performs there before there is too much excitement generated about him, but he has the potential to pitch at the top of the rotation if things continue to progress in the fashion that they have started out. Cecconi is making all the adjustments one asks for when a player transitions to professional ball. His coachability is making it easy for the organization to not only help him get the most out of his tools but it is making it so his tools are playing up beyond previous evaluations. This is a pitcher with TOR stuff that could be pitching for the Diamondbacks in 2024.


How They Stack Up

The way that each franchise goes about developing pitchers makes it much more difficult to size up the pitching in the lower minors for each farm. However, there is one thing that stands out immediately. That is this; no team in the NL West has nearly the depth in future starters that the Diamondbacks do. While there are some pitchers mixed in across the systemes for the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres (nope, Colorado has no prospects worth much here either), the strongest performers in this tier are those who have been performing primarily as relievers. Those pitchers projected to be future starters worth anything, for the most part, live in the upper minors for those organizations. This bodes well for the Diamondbacks. Starters who don’t make it often still turn into solid relievers with long and distinguished careers. Those other clubs are beginning with the pitchers already in the bullpen. Within two or three seasons, the Diamondbacks should have the pieces to move forward with a pre-arbitration rotation from their own system, helping them to compete in a division with deep-pocketed teams like the Dodgers and Giants.

This is the sort of thing that is important to the future of this franchise’s chances of digging themselves out of the place they find themselves now, competing for the first overall pick in the 2022 draft. It also plays directly into the next segment.

Up next: The 40-man roster