The prospect industry is definitely a tricky one, as MLB front offices, fans, and media pundits attempt to project how teenagers and younger adults develop into Major League Baseball players. There are plenty of high profile misses when toolsy players are unable to progress, but also players that slip under the cracks because of where they came from or something clicks later than usual. MLB organizations will have their fair share of each in a given year, the key is to minimize the amount of misses and try to see if they can get more of the latter. Two examples of the latter demographic are a pair of arms currently suiting for the Diamondbacks’ AAA affiliate, Justin Lewis and Blake Workman.
Lewis was a 12th round selection in the 2018 Draft out of the University of Kentucky. The most notable physical trait was his long arms and 6’7” height, which would suggest he gets good extension off the mound. In their 2019 and 2021 reports of the Diamondbacks system, Fangraphs wrote a one-sentence blurb about Lewis, describing him as built like a construction crane with that allowing him to create a weird angle on his pitches. Early in his career, Lewis was hitting 90-91 with the 4-seamer and used his change-up as his primary put-away pitch.
We flash forward to 2022, where Lewis has worked his way up to AAA Reno after a run of successful outings in Amarillo. In 12 appearances, Lewis pitched to a 2.89 ERA, struck out 21 and walked 7 over 18 2⁄3 innings for the D-backs AA affiliate. He had previously spent 24 appearances at the level and struggled to a 9.53 ERA in perhaps the most homer-happy environment in the minor leagues. With the promotion to Reno, we now are able to see what kind of stuff Lewis currently possesses. In his first appearance with Reno, Lewis was hitting 95-96 on the 4-seamer with extremely high spin rates in the 2400-2700 RPM range. While only a sample size of 14 pitches, seeing that his current fastball is putting up those measurements is an encouraging sign that he has the stuff to be an effective MLB reliever.
Blake Workman was also a member of the Diamondbacks 2018 Draft class, taken 10 rounds after Lewis out of Cal State Fullerton. CSF isn’t one of the elite programs in the NCAA, but they have a history of developing future big leaguers including the D-backs own Noe Ramirez. Workman wasn’t consider a prospect by any publications, although he produced good numbers for Kane County in 2019. For the team’s Low A affiliate at the time, Workman pitched to a 1.72 ERA with a 67/6 K/BB ratio and opponents hit .249 against him. It was easy to write that performance off as a 22 year old reliever exploiting younger and more inexperienced competition, so an encore performance was going to be necessary to catch the attention of the organization.
Going into 2022, Workman had worked his way to AA the previous year but like Lewis struggled with the hitter-friendly park his home games were in. Workman had decent, but not eye-popping numbers with Hillsboro earlier in the year. In his first trial in Amarillo, Workman struggled with the long ball as he coughed up 10 homers in 31 innings despite an outstanding 43/8 strikeout to walk ratio. In 2022, Workman was assigned to Amarillo once again, but there were much better performances. Save for one meltdown game in which he served up 4 home runs in the span of 5 batters in a blown save and loss, Workman had actually pitched well. Those 4 home runs accounted for most of his AA total of 6 on the year, but had a strikeout to walk ratio of 20/3 in his 13 appearances with the Sod Poodles before his promotion to Reno.
In his first appearance with Reno on Thursday, Workman showed an impressive ability to get swings and misses at the top of the strike zone with his 4-seamer. The pitch clocked in around 92-94 with near MLB-average spin rates of 2100-2300. The pitch itself seems to get more carry than the spin rate would suggest although how it translates to MLB is my guess. He also paired it up with a sinker used to get early in the count contact, a curveball that is his main secondary offering with a fairly decent spin rate around 2600 RPM. I don’t think he has the same ceiling as Lewis, who could be a back-end arm under the right tutelage, with Workman likely to end up being a middle reliever with mostly MLB-average stuff.
Both players have had similar paths through the minors, entering the organization in the 2018 Draft before slowly working their way up the ladder. The Diamondbacks haven’t had much of a chance to build up bullpen depth over the years from the farm, but these two should be the first under this front office to successfully climb the ladder and make an impact in the MLB bullpen. Let’s hope that Mike Hazen’s front office is better at developing relievers than he is at scouting free agents in that demographic.